Reviewed: Audition, Pip Adam, Giramondo
In the opening pages of Pip Adam’s fourth novel, Audition, three giants talk to each other through the walls of a spacecraft that can no longer accommodate them, each massive body crammed into a different room of the ship. Their dialogue is stilted and circular. Are they talking like this because they are children? Is their manner of speech a symptom of the ‘stupidity’ for which they repeatedly berate themselves? Or are they harried and, as I begin to suspect, afraid of something?
The whole unsettling scene is rendered entirely in dialogue that I read in the flat monotone of a Beckett play. And yet the giants’ tentative phrasing (‘I feel like I want to say, This is a beautiful ship’) and the way their conversation trips, loops back and cuts itself off (‘There’s no help coming. Because there’s no help needed because everything is fine’) gives rise to an atmosphere of surveillance, as well as the sense that there is a glitch somewhere deep in the system.
The power of Audition is in Adam’s careful configuration of language and narrative. The novel is divided into three parts, each one further divided into three narrative threads. The loops of dialogue in the first scene demarcate a confined space where neither thought nor feeling is allowed to flourish. Though it is only in the second section of part one that we are given a glimpse of the structures that have reduced these giants to their present state, the severity of the physical and linguistic restrictions in place at the outset of the novel already gestures to an encompassing system bent on oppression.
As Adam writes in her acknowledgements, ‘This book is about the abolition of prisons and our present punishment-based justice system’. Yet rather than resorting to didacticism to handle such heavy subject matter, Adam organises the threads of narrative to resensitise the reader to the violence and degradation of incarceration in a way that obliges us to acknowledge that the current justice system does not work. Audition is at its most compelling in its efforts to leave behind the power structures that have shaped the justice system and consequently, to imagine other modes of justice.
It is exhilarating to travel so far from what is known, and yet for what you encounter there to feel so familiar and true. The world in which the giants eventually find themselves quivers with the kind of life that has been occluded by centuries of genocidal colonialism. When one of the giants attempts to communicate with the organisms that inhabit the planet, the reply she receives ‘bypasses all the parts of her that think and speak, that are trying to work things out’ and ‘hits her in the body’:
People talk about the heart but she feels it in her liver—the way she feels welcome. The permission she is given and at the same time the way of the place. The way she needs to be to honour the place. She steps more lightly. Notices the population around her. Expresses her gratitude and readies herself to be of use.
Sometimes I have to move slowly through Adam’s almost-prose poetry as one moves through new terrain. But this is old terrain. The way the giants relate to the new planet feels intimate and essential, calling to mind the respect First Nations people accord the land: the kind of mutual respect fundamental to a lasting relationship.
I’ve tried to write around, rather than about the plot, because while Audition is far from plot-driven, it was my desire to know that allowed me to maintain momentum through the more challenging sections of the book. And this book is a challenge—it challenged me as a reader, and it challenged me as an ethical member of an allegedly free society.