Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko

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Miles Franklin Award: read the list of winners and weep. Too Much Lip is not a bad book. Once it got going somewhere after the halfway mark, it even had me interested. But the year’s “novel of the highest literary merit”? What a joke. I have no doubt it was given the award by ABC-quality middle of the road, politically correct judges for exactly the same reason as they awarded The Hand that Signed the Paper, to show how cool they were. They were hip with right wing East Europeans back then – and only back-tracked when the right winger turned out to be an Anglo – and they’re hip with lippy Black women now.

Did the judges who gave Lucashenko last year’s prize even read Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth?  Of course they didn’t. They were in too much of a hurry to get back to the latest Ian McEwan and Lionel Shriver. The Miles Franklin sad to say has become a reward for story telling and mediocre writing. Look no further than 2014 when Evie Wyld’s All The Birds Singing won ahead of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book which may well be the great Australian novel of the century.

So, Melissa Lucashenko is not literary in the way that Murnane, Wright or Kim Scott are, and she’s not satirical in the way that Marie Munkara is. But she tells a story. She is a Bundjalung woman of the NSW north coast, as is her protagonist Kerry Salter, and the patois in which the book is written is presumably the usual langauge of that people, though I’m guessing Lucashenko is an educated woman, as the patois sometimes feels a bit forced.

At the beginning of the novel, Kerry Salter, a 30ish Aboriginal woman, and her partner in crime and love, Allie have robbed a bank in Qld. Kerry escaped but Allie was arrested and gaoled. Allie feels abandoned and declares the relationship over. Kerry on a stolen Harley Davidson, with a backpack full of money, heads over the border to her family’s country in the hinterland of NSW’s north coast beaches.

Revving the throttle, she looked straight in front of her, down a long gravel driveway to the house that jack shit built. It huddled beneath the spreading arms of a large leopard tree. Same old fibro walls. Same old roof with rust creeping into a few more panels each wet season,

In the house are Kerry’s mother Pretty Mary, a reformed alcoholic; her older brother Ken, once a fine athlete, now an unemployed drunk, prone to unpredictable violence; his anorexic, teenage son Donny, who lives mostly in his computer games; Pop, her grandfather, dying now, a former Golden Gloves boxer and farm worker for the Nunnes, the original white settlers; and Elvis, their old dog. Kerry has other siblings, Black Superman a gay civil servant in Sydney, and Donna who went missing aged 16 20 years earlier and who has never been found. And there are various Uncles, Aunties and cousins in the surrounding towns.

There’s a silly plot: Jim Buckley the local real estate developer and mayor, sees the backpack on the back of Kerry’s bike and takes it for himself. Kerry stays on at her mother’s but despite being stoney broke makes very little attempt to get it back. There’s the central plot: Buckley has rezoned land he owns so that a prison can be built on it. The land for the prison is adjacent to a bend in the river and an island that has always been regarded by the Salters as their own. The race is on to get the surrounding land recognised under Native Title law or to get Buckley indicted for corruption before clearing commences. And there’s a parallel plot, Martina has been transferred from Sydney to work in Buckley’s real estate office. Martina was ambitious and successful in Sydney, but there’s another reason she’s unhappy to be transferred up north.

And of course there’s a love interest plot. Steve, a former shy, skinny schoolmate of Kerry’s now has the whole six-pack thing and is back in town to open a gym. Kerry, who forgets that she prefers women, and Martina, both get the hots for him.

This all takes a while to pull together, and there’s other stuff, a friendly local cop, the bogan white family next door, Pop’s funeral, Pretty Mary’s fortune telling. The novel gathers strength in the second half as the various plots come together, and as the effects of past traumas, White on Black, Black on Black, are seen to play out.

I have no doubt that the detail of Aboriginal lives lived on the outskirts of town, and the language used to express it, is authentic, but that doesn’t make it literary. In the end, Too Much Lip is not much more than just another middle of the road small town family drama.

 

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip, UQP, Brisbane, 2018

Other (more positive) Reviews:
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)
Kim, Reading Matters (here)
Sue, Whispering Gums (here)

21 thoughts on “Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko

  1. Oh well, horses for courses as they say. I don’t think there’s a lot of point engaging in discussion because I’d just reiterate what I wrote in my review about why I thought this book memorable. But I’ll just say that the way I see it is that it’s a small town family drama that invokes more universal indigenous dramas/history.

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    • I don’t think contemporary Indigenous stories can avoid the violence of their dispossession, the Stolen Generations, or ongoing racism. These are facts they must live with and which must therefore permeate their stories. And further, these realities are not just unacknowledged but are positively disbelieved by many white Australians, so all the more reason for reiterating them. But I still don’t see that Too Much Lip is innovative in either the story it tells, nor in the way it is told and that is why I don’t think it should have won the MF.

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  2. Now tell us what you really think, Bill! 😉 In my review I described it as “fairly fickle fair, a kind of grungy chick-lit novel” but what it unusual/different was that it was subversive because the protagonist is on the run from the law. Literary merit (or otherwise) aside, I think the book is important because for many readers it will be their first foray into indigenous lit (it’s an accessible read, right?) and it will present them with a viewpoint that they may not have considered before. If the book’s prize listing and win gets it into more hands then I think that’s a good thing.

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    • It is grungy chick-lit isn’t it, and those are qualities I enjoy reading, and which I enjoy in this novel. And I agree that it is important that Black Australians get to see their own lives in print and that white Australians be forced to acknowledge that white settlement is based on two centuries plus of ongoing racist violence. Will I accept you utilitarian view? Maybe. I don’t suppose all the awards in the world would make more people read Murnane. Or Alexis Wright.

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  3. Ouch! I haven’t read this and I’m unlikely to – I think I started it and abandoned a chapter or two in (had it won the Stella, I would have probably revisited but the topic doesn’t interest me at all).

    You raise a very good point about authenticity and what is ‘literary’. I suspect that people often feel reluctant to criticise something (for any reason, be it literary merit or other) because they feel that their criticisms will be interpreted as culturally insensitive/ incorrect – a feeling of ‘what right do I have commenting on the work of someone who is of a different cultural heritage than me?’ While that may be true in terms of commenting on the authenticity of something, as you point out it, it does not hold true for commenting on style, genre, etc.

    I try to avoid this dilemma in my reviews by simply keeping it ‘personal’ – describe what a story meant to me, and highlight the themes that interest me (hence so much grief, sorry Bill!). In writing reviews this way, it stays true to my original goal when I started my blog (a ‘reading journal’) but I accept that as a result, my reviews won’t ever be in the style that would count as a serious/literary review.

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    • Of course I had to consider the question “Are you allowed to criticise Indigenous Lit?” and while I’m sure most reader would answer Yes, I’m also many would be as you say, ‘reluctant’. The truth is we do cut some writers a bit of slack when they’re telling a new, important story. But my position is that Indigenous Lit is now so well established and so important within Australian Lit that it doesn’t need any favours. Anyway, I liked Too Much Lip, I just didn’t think it had any particular literary merit.

      That’s interesting what you say about your own posts, because I could sort of see it without exactly understanding what you were doing. And please write as much about grief as I do about trucks, my only concern was that you were actually grieving. As for not counting, I think we bloggers are going to totally overwhelm the old style impersonal book review in newspapers as consumers increasingly insist on the personal touch (Though I hope there will still be a place for readable literary criticism outside of the pages of specialist journals).

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    • I didn’t mind the book. I just don’t think the MF Award judges have any idea about Australian Lit, nor have ever seen Australia beyond Fitzroy and Balmain except second hand.

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      • Well, I can’t speak for their geographical knowledge, but I bet they’ve read a lot more than we have. We only read what we like, and that is limited by what we come across. They have to work through a zillion books, diamonds ad dross, published over the eligibility period and then they have to whittle that down to a sensibly-sized long/shortlist. I’ve been very cross with them at times for the decisions they’ve made, and I think booksellers have too much skin in the game to be judges, but I think that the process itself means that they do have a good idea of what OzLit is for the year that they’re judging.

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  4. This one is solidly on my TBR thanks to, I think, Lisa’s and S’s recommendations, but I couldn’t find a circulating copy in the Toronto public library system (only a single reference-only copy eventually made it there, but it’s a long book to simply sit and read in a study carrel — and of course that’s not an option now that the libraries are shuttered). So I can’t guess where my own opinion would lie in this regard, but I do share your admiration of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. And Carpentaria. Just amazing!

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    • I (belatedly) went off and had a look at your website. It’s impressive, technically as well from a reader’s pov. I particularly admired your ‘place currently named Toronto’, especially given that our state capitals are mostly named after long forgotten English politicians or royals.

      Don’t let me put you off reading Too Much Lip when it becomes available. It’s fun and it has things to say about the Indigenous experience. I think Marie Munkara does it better, but she is even less likely to be available outside Australia.

      Alexis Wright is very nearly Australia’s best writer still writing. She wasn’t in your A-Z nor Kim Scott who is also ‘up there’ so let me recommend Benang and That Dead Man Dance, in that order.

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  5. I really enjoyed reading the comment section of this post. It’s always challenging (yet good discussion!) when we make assertions about what is literary. I’m still not sure what makes something literary other than it doesn’t fit neatly into another genre — and even then, most bloggers disagree with my assessment. I oftentimes who gets to decide what’s literary, and is that decision made within the institutions that hold certain folks back for being “too much”? On the flip side, I’m starting to see books that honest-to-goodness feel like too much being called literary because the committee in charge of an award wants the authors to be as diverse from one another as possible. It’s all very confusing to me, so I’ve been trying to back away from it just recently.

    Other than the book being a prize-winning novel, what kept you reading TO the halfway mark if it wasn’t interesting before then? I’d have tossed it and picked up something with heart.

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    • I was re-reading some old posts yesterday – do you re-read your old posts? – and ran into the comment stream last time we discussed what is ‘literary’. For the moment let’s just say literary = ‘innovative’.

      If a book’s just dragging rather than annoying me, I’ll generally finish it. And. I’d already started constructing my MF Award rant. And. It’s a much discussed, much lauded, book in Australia so I was interested to see why.

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      • There are a couple of old posts of mine that I revisit from time to time, especially whether to keep physical books and being ashamed of what your younger self read. I know that the post about the literary book tag got a lot of attention. I may reread the comments, but now I’m wondering how hostile I was.

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  6. I loved this book, and Lucashenko’s earlier novel “Mullumbimby” too. They both spoke to me in a way that was accessible but deeply moving. And both books taught me (a white, middle class woman) a thing or three. As for whether or not something is ‘literature’? I like your attempt to define it because I’m not sure I’m game to try! I think for me, literature is just high quality writing (again, whatever that means). Which means genre fiction can be literature, as can non-fiction. And I think much so-called literary fiction isn’t particularly literary – good quality – writing at all. For the record, I do know one of the Miles Franklin judges and I agree with Lisa’s summary of their knowledge. It applies even more so to the MF judges, who usually serve a three or five year term, so are necessarily across a great deal of what’s been published. And I can assure you that plenty of dross gets entered into literary prizes… This was a rip-roaring review – thanks for being game enough to give it out. It makes us all think harder.

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    • Thank you for your kind and thoughtful words. I very nearly bought Mullumbimby the first time I went shopping with Too Much Lip in mind and I wish now I had. As this lockdown goes on I guess I’m going to have to spend money on books for my kindle, which I’ve avoided in the past, but it might give me the chance to catch up my backlog of contemporary Australians (I’m currently reading a free Miles Franklin).
      It has surprised me how little Literature is discussed in our corner of the lit.blogging world, let alone how little consensus there is around its meaning. I apply the same standards as I do to painting – works either have something new to say or are just decoration. But there’s no agreement about that either!
      If I knew any judges I wouldn’t be able to be so critical of them, but really, some of their choices!
      Finally, “rip-roaring” is fun. I don’t mind taking the risk of being wrong, and I think the ensuing debate has been worthwhile. It has even spilled over into the AWWC facebook page.

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  7. What a great discussion. I’ve been involved in a few of these types of chats with the Classics Club trying to define what a classic is. I’m still amazed by what turns up on some classic lists! I’m not sure that a classic has to be literary, but it does have to be well-written and pass the test of time (to my mind). I also think it should have something important to say to the readers of its time yet, continue to speak to future generations. I often wonder about these little rules of mine when I read a contemporary award-winning novel – will it be considered a classic in 100 yrs time?

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    • I like “I’m not sure a classic has to be literary”, because then you can start thinking about the distinction. Maybe classics are timeless whereas ‘literary’ relates to movements – Realism, Modernism and so on, which gets back to what I was saying about innovation. But I suspect, though I tend not to say so outright, that I relate ‘literary’ to ‘poetic’, which is to say the writing is more about the writing than about the story. And as I say above, the MF these days seems to be all about the story.

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      • Hmm I think I also relate literary to the quality of the writing. It has to have that extra sparkle or poetry, as you say, that lifts it above the norm. I also tend to think that there is something clever (is this what you mean by innovative?) about the writing – like what you were saying with Murnane or someone like George Saunders. They explore new forms, try something new, reach for the stars. They may not always make it, but it’s a great ride watching them try.

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      • Brona, we are in total agreeance. And yes, some literary works fail – a bit like water skiing, if you don’t fall off you’re not trying hard enough.

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