John’s Review- ‘How It Feels’ by Brendan Cowell
I have to confess I come to this review with something of a personal prejudice. This is a book written by someone who identifies as an actor albeit an actor I much admire. Brendan Cowell is an Australian actor, writer and director and perhaps best known for his role as Tom in Love My Way. He was nominated for an AFI award for his role in Noise a nomination I thought he thoroughly deserved and for a film I thought did not receive the acclaim it deserved.
However, I’m always a bit suspicious when professions cross boundaries. I mean would you employ a plumber to perform your open heart surgery? Should writers be allowed to act or actors allowed to write? Perhaps the listeners have some views on this topic.
I concede there are closer links between the skills of an actor and those of a writer than perhaps between plumbing and surgery and to be fair Cowell has written scripts for film and television.
‘How It Feels’ is basically a coming-of-age story about Neil Cronk and his girlfriend Courtney and his mates Gordon and Stuart. It’s a story of booze, drugs sex and violence told in a style that is unrelentingly gritty, coarse and very frank and perhaps comes across as trapped in an adolescent rebellious style. As a genre I suppose it could best be described as ‘grunge’ and in the Australian tradition of Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas or Praise by Andrew McGahan. The writing style is direct and unflinching and packs a real punch. It’s an unrelenting high octane story of the struggle of a young man to move beyond the self-destruction of addiction and his total focus on personal needs above those of anybody else. This is a compelling story but I do think there are some problems with the style.
For example there is some confusion about the construction of the story. The first few chapters proceed in a chronological order which is easy to follow but then in mid story there are movements back and forth in both time and location that left me confused. I’m not a rabid supporter of sticking to a strictly chronological structure and some of the best novels are flexible in playing with time and location in a narrative but here these changes were badly handled and confusing.
There are also some gaps in information and presumptions from time to time that needed more explanation, a sketchiness that the narrative doesn’t completely cover.
Despite the energy of the writing style, and there is plenty of that, at times the style fell into purple prose or felt just too overwritten. A simpler, more pruned back style could have been just as dramatic and more impactful. Take for example this statement: ‘Hell sat pregnant in my face. Something beautiful had left the building. I was a shell of a man. The scallop of my soul had been sucked out and I couldn’t help but think the cliché: I could have saved him.’ Much of the style is like this, overwritten, overdramatic, even clichéd when less might have been better.
The novel’s point of view is very definitely a strong first person main protagonist voice but it does have some limitations. We see everything through this character’s eyes and I soon wondered how reliable a narrator he really was. The other characters feel a bit like puppets or chess pieces to be moved about or given dialogue to deliver rather than living as full-blooded characters in their own right.
I’d love to hear what some female readers would make of his portrayal of the female characters and what his male characters have to say about women. I did notice that Louise Swinn in The Age on November 6th suggests that ‘we don’t get a good enough view of Courtney, who is an important character.’ One of the main revelations of the story revolves around the question of which of the 3 male characters ‘took’ Courtney’s virginity, which is a pretty sexist view.
In many ways this is a ‘blokey’ novel, not exactly from a sexist angle but more than that, concentrating on the fraught ways Australian men struggle to express affection and friendship for one another. But it should be highly commended for its attempt to portray Australian male friendship, something that has perhaps been neglected in contemporary Australian fiction.
With a first novel questions can always be asked about the quantity of autobiographical detail and this is a fair question in this case. Given that Neil Cronk’s CV has some resemblances to that of Cowell we can fairly conclude that there is some autobiographical material here. Both grew up in Cronulla and attended Drama at Bathurst University.
Despite its flaws there is an incredible energy and heart at the centre of this novel, which mostly overrides the stylistic limitations I have mentioned. This is a story told with guts and lack of pretension and armed with this sort of energy Cowell can only go on to refine his writing skills further. Perhaps after all it’s an argument for more not less intermarriage between writing books and writing for the theatre.
This Weeks Poem:
“Phar Lap in the Melbourne Museum ”- Peter Porter
This week we played the following tracks:
-‘Livin In The Seventies’ by Skyhooks
-‘War’ by Gossling