Reviewed: Edward Berridge, The Lives of the Saints (University of Queensland Press).
Ed Berridge’s book of short stories, The Lives of the Saints, comes complete with a promotional campaign that suggests Australian fiction is recovering from the de rigueur gentility that gave us a whole series of sometimes accomplished vignettes of middle-class life. Not any more. Now, the promoters assure us, we are in for life in the raw. And, completely ignoring the fact that the term is already used to describe something quite different, they label this trend ‘dirty realism’. On the strength of this collection ‘grubby moralism’ would be more appropriate.
While it is not fair to judge any writer on the promotional hype in which his or her work comes wrapped, realism—or its absence—is a real problem with Berridge’s work. Certainly, no laws of physics are ignored and we don’t find ourselves inside anyone else’s dreams. Even on drugs Berridge’s characters stay in the real world. But there are more ways than one to ignore the real world. And if realism means the creation of a convincing representation of a particular social and physical milieu by way of the concrete particulars that make it up, then Berridge is not a realist. This matters because his stories attempt to be ‘slices of life’. Instead they are like TV dramas which get the details right but never convince us that ‘life is really like that’.
Berridge is actually a moralist. His characters and their situations are all contrived to show that the wages of sin is death and beneath the veil of sensual delusion lies nothing we can find ourselves:
Now, as the nights and the clubs and the faces and the trappings begin to blur Daisy again thinks of herself as missing some greater point. It seems as though there is more … some truth which she … which she … which she what? What is it? What is happening? Jesus, even through the walls the music is too loud. She cannot focus. There is nothing afterall. There really is nothing. Nothing.
This reminds me of the Fugs’ song ‘Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing etc.’ (with the great macaronic rhyme ‘John Stuart Mill, Nihil, Nihil’). But what they were laughing at Berridge takes very seriously. The above quotation is from ‘Winners’, the last story in the book. It shows us the rich are just as bored as the poor. And while Daisy in this story reverts to her usual studied narcissism, and the marginal types in the other stories have the delusory satisfactions of sex and drugs and violence and dreams, they are all shown to be radically lacking.
But what these characters and stories also lack is any convincing sense of why and how. Their characters tend to be overdetermined puppets, mere functions of their backgrounds and psychoses. Likewise, while the stories are mainly set in the older southern suburbs of Sydney, between the Cooks River and the Georges River, we get no real sense of place. The suburbs are just the Slough of Despond and Kings Cross the City of Dreadful Night. Berridge is aware of the religious cast to his sensibility, as the title of the collection indicates. But he seems to think that his stories portray a sort of ‘Evil Be Thou My Good’ type of inverted morality. And he duly delights in pissing off the politically correct by making all his happy characters (all male) aggressively right-wing. This is most apparent in one of the most successful pieces, ‘Questioned’—a comedy monologue by a bikie who is being grilled by police about how a very silly punk came to grief. But Berridge’s saints don’t choose evil, they are too much like case studies for that. They resemble figments from an adults-only soap opera, sponsored by that Evangelical Anglican church in Rockdale that daily urges thousands of commuters to COME TO ST JOHN’S WHERE MEN MEET GOD. Berridge’s prose style adds to the moralizing soap opera feel most of these pieces have. He always seems in a hurry to get to the Good Bits, the Sex, the Violence. And his use of the present tense reinforces this feel:
Lester hums to himself trying to lake his mind off the earlier confrontation. The register girls do think he is strange and he often catches them whispering his name. Rhonda is a stirrer though. She has been trouble as long as he has known her, fucking the security men and even Max Osborne’s brother and then not letting it rest. Lester knows all about Rhonda’s daughter being a smack addict too.
Sounds like she’s on parole from Prisoner.
Berridge does have the occasional convincing bit of observation, like a good lifestyle reporter. But, in the main, his moralism makes all the stories depressingly the same. Oddly enough, the best story in the book is the one that deals with characters from a gentler, or at least less-stressed, social class. Unlike the other stories, ‘Andy’s Ex’ doesn’t have overt designs on the reader. It portrays a chance encounter between a young derelict in the making and his former girlfriend, now ‘getting on’ in the Attorney General’s office. While I don’t think ‘real experience’ is any guarantee of quality in writing, it’s hard not to see this story as one that Berridge feels, or at least can imaginatively create. Maybe the characters are still types but the cartoon is shaded more convincingly. And while Andy truly has the Mark of Cain on him, he is less the product of sociological assumption and evangelical morality than Berridge’s other characters.
One thing The Lives of the Saints does well is show, indirectly, how wrong people get Sydney. The image of the place as a hedonistic, relaxed, semi-tropical Paradise is only part of the come-on. Sydney is in fact a moralistic place. Its presiding genii loci are Samuel Marsden and the Rum Corps; it’s not straightlaced or well-behaved but right from its beginnings debauch was always followed by repentance and or flogging. Libertarianism, at least in its moral dimension, was just the other side of the same coin. But at the same time, Sydney has always had a sense of metropolitan importance. While Ed Berridge’s stories are spoilt by their moralistic assumptions about character, it never occurs to their author that Sydney is too insignificant to be a suitable setting for Hell.