Reviewed: Where I Slept, Libby Angel, Text
The narrator of Libby Angel’s autofiction novel Where I Slept is an entropic force. A self-described poet, she dances on a razor’s edge between destitution and transcendence: busking and bin-diving, sleeping in filthy toilets on train carriages—a neo-vagabond of sorts. Moving between government subsidised flats and boarding houses, squats and brothels, she propels herself into counterculture Melbourne from a regional centre she calls Tidy Town. She doesn’t tell her artist friends she grew up there, remaining a mystery to her cohabitors as they drink and take drugs, sleep too much or not at all, paint mandalas on ceilings, put on shows in decommissioned factories. Artifice and artistry, pleasure and pain collide as we follow Angel’s protagonist through a series of evictions.
Constantly on the move, the narrator leaves behind a trail of graffiti, inscribing fuse boxes and pylons with lines purloined from Genet and Baudelaire. This is all done with an outsize grandiosity, undercut by bravado: ‘I might as well own this town, except I don’t.’ Even though the narrator is unnamed, her voice is distinct: sharp, funny and deadpan. Angel gives readers little explication; we are never told about the narrator’s past, or how she got to where she is, except for a short, disaffected summary at the beginning of the novel. While it lacks a stable rhythm and chronology, the prose is elevated by an exhilarating momentum that pulls the reader forward.
Early in the novel, the narrator goes to stay with her cousin Tati, a young mother who lives in Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs, ‘close enough to the men’s prison that the PA announcements can be heard from out the front’. Tati is similarly on the dole, which she collects at a minute past midnight to fill the car with petrol and buy cheap, frozen food. The sense of despair is palpable, and quickly left behind. Angel contrasts the squalor of Tati’s home with the sprawling, bohemian filth of an old ice cream factory in inner-city Melbourne, where a group of artists have taken over. As part of a group of people the narrator terms the ‘undeserving poor’, she lives in an eternal present where the past and future are difficult, and often impossible, to imagine: ‘As long as I have something in my mouth, the future does not exist.’ As such the narrator’s abrasiveness creates a marvellous friction: she is often on the verge of transformation, only to have it be rescinded:
In the grainy dark, my hand looks unfamiliar on the doorknob. But as I open the door, I know with certainty that this body is mine, fixed in time to this shitty place.
Here, I was reminded of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who at sixteen famously wrote in a letter: ‘Je est un autre’ (‘I is an other’).In a recent biography of Rimbaud, Edmund White observes: ‘in the act of introspection we objectify the self […] we experience our self as if it belongs to another person.’ The narrator of Where I Slept seems entirely self-possessed, with a similar air of debauchery to the enfants terribles of nineteenth-century France, only it’s Melbourne in the 1990s. We get the sense the narrator is playacting with her collaborators and friends, who Angel nicknames: Egg Man, Lolly, Mace, Zero. Everyone—from celebrated visual artists to famous musicians—is treated with characteristic irreverence, and familiar figures become strange. When the narrator approaches The Smith Familyfor money to buy sanitary pads, she fabricates a past for the charity officer: ‘I come from a good family. But I never really flourished.’
This kind of imposture keeps the reader guessing. A complex picture of vulnerability emerges as Angel’s protagonist acts out her own show, a never-ending performance that animates her life. Her movements feel cyclical by the end, with no discernible meeting point of past and future. Emotional beats play out in frustrated desires and wounds that sting and blister beneath a prickly, unyielding persona. The narrator embellishes and fractures her armour, heralding each chapter with wry, cryptic headings. Even if the opaque structure may seem a little haphazard in its construction, the mess works to untether the reader from any sense of cohesion or conventionality. Brash, lyrical and unyielding in its refusal to romanticise, I found myself wishing Angel’s one-woman act would never end.