It’s two decades since the last Justine Ettler novel. In 1995 and ’96 she published her smash hit The River Ophelia (review) – reissued last year – followed by Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (review) then, nothing. If you read my interview with Justine coinciding with the re-release you might remember that she is a deliberately post-modern writer, referencing in particular Kathy Acker, and that her planned third novel which contained ‘cut-ups’ of real people was unable to be published, at least partly due to satirical renditions of the Murdochs.
The long interregnum began “because I hated being bullied and conflated with my character [‘Justine’ in TRO], I loathed my notoriety and felt the people I was dealing with didn’t really have me or my books’ best interests at heart.” (Author Interview, Justine Ettler). But she has at last resumed writing fiction and we now have her fourth (third published) novel, Bohemia Beach, due for release in May.
Ettler was famously at the heart of 1990s Australian Grunge Lit., a categorisation repudiated by all the authors in it except maybe Linda Javin who didn’t really belong there anyway, but who took advantage of the popularity of Eat Me (1995), her work of middle class women’s erotica, to pump out the grunge-ish (and amusing) Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996).
Andrew McGahan (Praise) and Christos Tsiolkas (Loaded) soon moved on to more mainstream styles, as did Javin. McGahan has been all over the place, including detective fiction (Last Drinks), and a much-lauded work of Indigenous appropriation, White Earth; while Tsiolkas progressed to literary interrogations of homosexuality, being Greek-Australian, and middle class mores.
In this novel Ettler has moved on too. Sort of. Her protagonist Cathy is a thirtyish, alcoholic, concert pianist. Ettler herself is apparently an accomplished musician, a flautist, and this shows in her writing about Cathy’s music, both listening and performance. But Ettler also has a PhD in postmodern literature and that shows too. There is a brief mention of Cathy from Wuthering Heights at the beginning although I can’t really see it in the text, but the main reference is to Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).
ULB’s principal characters are (alright, I cheated here, it’s a fair while since I read it): “Tomáš, an adulterous surgeon; his wife Tereza, a photographer anguished by her husband’s infidelities; Tomáš’s lover Sabina, a free-spirited artist; Franz, a Swiss university professor and lover of Sabina; and finally Šimon, Tomáš’s estranged son from an earlier marriage” (wiki), and the setting is Prague, in the Spring of 1968.
I said moved on/sort of (from Grunge) because the novel is in the first person and a good deal of Cathy’s alcohol-deadened sensibility is very grunge-like. Cathy drinks a lot, to the extent that I’m surprised it doesn’t kill her – remember when sailors on shore leave would die of alcoholic poisoning and ‘derros’ had the DTs (delirium tremens), neither seem to happen (or be reported) any more – but here she is, about to step onstage:
Ok, I admit it, I’ve had a couple of glasses – well, a bottle or so – since leaving the hotel, but I’m nowhere near pissed. Would bygones never be bygones? That damn Copenhagen concert and the damage it did to my reputation; the scandal that followed my tumble off the front of the stage at the end of the second encore, not a scheduled bow, mind you, a spontaneous one, and one I just slightly overdid, but still, when are they going to let me move on? Yes, it’s true, waking up in the American ambassador’s residence in bed with two guys I didn’t know – one in front, the other behind – was a very bad look but God, everyone makes mistakes – right?
The problem I have is that it’s all a bit forced. Ettler struggles, trying and failing to get back to the hectic flow of her early writing. Nikki Gemmell, the same age as Ettler, and whose second novel Cleave/Alice Springs (1998) could easily be characterised as ‘outback grunge’, provides a back cover blurb, ” This is a mesmerising story of art and addiction – the author at her provocative best.” But she’s being kind.
The story, not told sequentially, is that Cathy performs in Prague, her mother’s home town; becomes fascinated by an older man, Tomáš, who may or may not have known her mother, and adopting (intermittently) the name Tereza, goes with him to a party at his family castle out in the country when she should be on a flight to New York for a concert there. Tomáš alternately sleeps with her and plays up to his dancer friend Anna. Drunk, she’s raped by Franz (a kindly man apparently in Kundera’s work); makes her way back to Prague. A nice American boy sleeps with her and offers to fly her to New York –
Do you ever have that dream which begins with an objective you must achieve, and with every move you make, you’re never any closer? I do all the time. TMI I know. Then there’s the one where I’m in a railway yard and there’re trains coming and the more tracks I cross the more there are to cross. All right I’ll stop now (there’s another one where I’m falling from an enormous height towards water, and then I fall through the surface of the water and I’m at an enormous height in the sky falling …).
And so Cathy’s repeated attempts to leave Prague are derailed by drunkenness or betrayal until finally she is swept away in a flood and wakes up in a bed in London and has it all been a dream?
At which point I advise you to stop, I wish I had, it all goes a bit Mills & Boonish from there. Cathy goes through that standard falling for the good guy then the bad guy thing, when in contemporary Oz Lit you’d have hoped her choices were at least good guy/bad guy/no guy. But we’ll forgive her (Ettler) and look forward to the next, the third hopefully, written when she was still young and edgy.
Justine Ettler, Bohemia Beach, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2018
Author Interview, Justine Ettler (here)
Justine Ettler, The River Ophelia (review)
Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (review)
Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity (review)
Nikki Gemmell, Love Song (review)