A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson

I posted this review of A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists in 2015, my first year as a blogger. I had the sense to link to both Sue/WG’s and Lisa/ANZLL’s reviews, so that made two comments and Jane, then a fellow blogger, made three.

Jane Rawson has written a couple of quirky novellas since, though I think that Formaldehyde (2015) got very little attention. A shame, as it is very funny. Her latest, A History of Dreams has apparently hit the shelves already, though not at Crow Books in Perth where I am still waiting for my order to be filled. A review will follow as soon as I have a copy in my hands.

The reason for this repost is that once again I find myself too busy to write. But Milly has finished moving, and in fact has already sold her old house, accepting an offer the first day it was shown. So that’s the end of that distraction. I’ve caught up with at least some of my bookkeeping; and though I’m still doing one trip a week to make up for the time I took off in March/April I’m hoping that by filling a space with this re-posting I can have my North America read for May, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, written up later this week


Among my many uni first years I luckily included a year of Philosophy which, for me at least, provides a way into understanding this wonderful first novel. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) sets out as pure near-future dystopian SF and morphs into something much more interesting and original.

Rawson makes clear from the beginning that our heroine, Caddy, is in a state of despair at the loss of her home “down by the dirty river, their neighbours a cluster of gigantic, carefully-lettered oil holding tanks”, her cat and her husband Harry. One day when Caddy has ridden her bike into town, a fire breaks out near the tanks, the power supply and therefore the water pressure fail and “[s]he felt the whole earth shake when the tanks went up. She thought it was a terrorist bomb down at the train station, though there’d been nothing like that since 2014.” Caddy heads back towards the fire, “Harry would need her” but “[t]he trees were on fire along the edge of Footscray Road, and by the time she had reached within a kilometre of home there was nothing but black”.

And so, in a couple of pages we are located in time, the near future, in space, the inner western suburbs of Melbourne, and in atmosphere, a time of failing infrastructure, of rising temperatures, and of a growing and displaced underclass.

Caddy lives in a humpy on the banks of the river near Newmarket – and it is one of the joys of reading a novel set in your own home town that the locations are so easy to visualise – supporting herself through prostitution and small scale bartering. There is only a small central cast, all friends of, or at least with Caddy, Ray who buys and sells stuff including his friends, Jason, a street kid, Peira who runs an inner city bar, Lanh, an internet entrepreneur, and Sergeant Fisk from the UN relief force (ie. Melbourne is a place which needs help). Caddy moves through the underside of the city, buying and selling and being sold, becomes ill, finds that the river has flooded and washed away her humpy, and is assisted by Fisk, to whom she finds she is strangely attracted.

Meanwhile Ray buys some heavily creased maps and finds that he is able to fall through the creases into other places, in space and eventually, in time, initially places on opposite folds of the map but increasingly a no-place which he learns is called Suspended Imaginums, the place our imaginings go when we stop thinking about them. There is a reference at this point to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I’m thinking oh no, not more post modern magic bullshit but Rawson is cleverer than that.

Ray takes that wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, within Suspended Imaginums, and finds himself in San Francisco, in 1997, and there bumps into two characters, Sarah and Simon, whose story we have been following in a sidebar so to speak. They have accepted the task of seeing the whole of the USA by dividing it into 25 foot squares and standing in each and every one, which turns out to be the same as a story imagined and partially written by Caddy. And this is where the philosophy cuts in.

Way back in 1971 my course, under the great Max Charlesworth, included Bishop Berkely (1685-1783) who posited that there is no way to confirm that the material world exists and that therefore we may well all be thoughts in the mind of God. I liked this but not being a god-botherer thought (and think) that it is more likely that the thoughts are in my mind, not God’s. A modern version of Berkely’s “immaterialism” is put forward by Nick Bostrom (1973- ) who shows that with computing power expanding exponentially, it is inevitable that at least one society, and maybe that one is ours, will exist as a simulation running on computers.

Hence, in my reading, Rawson implies a universe which depends entirely on Caddy’s imagination, an entirely believable universe but one in which perhaps the postulates, the underpinnings of the simulation, haven’t been fixed as well as they should be and ‘normality’ has begun to fray.

One last thing, don’t be misled by the prize for SF writing. I have read SF incessantly since those long ago uni days and, on the evidence of this book, Rawson is one of those writers like my favourite Williams, Burroughs and Gibson, who write on the edge of what is possible in ‘mainstream’ fiction. Unmade Lists is not Fantasy, is not Space Opera, is definitely not genre fiction. Read it and see.

 

Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Transit Lounge, 2013

See also: reviews by Whispering Gums (here) and ANZ Lit Lovers (here).

20 thoughts on “A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson

    • It is dystopian, because Rawson is serious about climate change. But the heart of the novel is the quirky approach to ‘reality’. Hope you have more luck finding a copy in England than Melanie (GTL) had recently in the US.

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  1. I’m sorry that it took me so long to discover your blog, Bill. As for this book… well, dystopian is not my go-to genre – actually, it’s one I turn away from – but I do love the cover of this book and have picked it up a few times at the library on that basis, only to read the blurb and think, no, I have other reading priorities.

    Not sure where you sit politically, but a big THANK YOU to WA for the large kick up the arse they delivered last night!

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    • I’m glad it’s at the library, that’s a start. As for where I sit, it’s a fair way to the left of Labor, but anything is better than Morrison. Except the possibility of Dutton in three years time, though the Teals (your Teals in Melbourne’s leafy east) will probably get at least a couple of terms to keep the barstards honest.

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      • Interesting comment from one commentator about the independents re: the fact that those seats will be very hard to win back to the major parties, simply because the independent is focused on their electorate as opposed to the ‘party’. Anyway, I’m looking forward to what’s ahead.

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  2. Thanks for the link again. I loved this book, and often think of it. I have Formaldehyde on my TBR. I think I’m going to go get it right now and add it to my Novellas in November pile, though that pile is already looking a bit big.

    I agree that it is not “genre” science fiction but something far more interesting – and funny in places while tough in others.

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  3. As much as I do not think the writing is fantastic, Nick and I have read way too many Barsoom books by Burroughs. We recently enjoyed a foray into Conan and Red Sonja, which we both enjoyed, too. So, what is your concern with post-modern magic stuff? I don’t think I’ve asked before. I will say there was a glut of stuff coming out of MFA programs that was basically very-normal-story-oh-something-a-little-mysterious-wow-it’s-magic-the-end that I thought was truly lazy. Whatever world an author sets up, I’m here for it, but the characters have to live in that world the whole story. Even if there is some parallel craziness, that world has to be there all along in the other parts of the story, too. You can’t invent a new world at the end to be “clever” because that’s not how setting works.

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    • MR was a fashion taken up by white (literary) writers who didn’t understand it, but instead treated it as a pointless (and as you say, often random) gimmick.

      I hadn’t thought about SFF as MR, but yes, that stream of fiction posits a maybe weird universe but one whose rules are known and followed (one universe per book/series, though ideas are often reused by multiple writers. eg le Guin’s ansible communicator which works instantaneously across light years).

      Indigenous writers quite often dislike being lumped in with MR but it seems to me, a confirmed non-believer in any form of magic/gods, that that is what they are doing to represent spirit worlds, often extremely effectively.

      Rawson is in that wing of SF whose internally consistent universe has some very playful rules.

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      • I didn’t think about Indigenous writers being lumped in with magical realism. More often, I think about Stephen King using Native American folk lore (and does he even research anything, or is he making stuff up??) to explain why something truly wild is going on.

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  4. I’m going to request our library purchase this, I’ve heard of it and I enjoy dystopian fiction. I see Macquarie Uni, where I studied, now has a course on Philosophy, Technology and the Future of Humanity, that would be an interesting course – I need to do my entire Philosophy degree over again.

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    • I hope your library agrees. I hope A Wrong Turn is still in print or in stock.

      Most of us I guess do one or two units of Philosophy and that’s it for life, but like Maths, it pops up everywhere and is often useful. I was going to do an Arts Honours degree in History and Philosophy of Science but life got in the way. I still have lots of texts, but will I ever re-read them? But why don’t you do another degree – a Masters combining Philosophy and Literature maybe.

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      • I doubt I’d have the stamina now Bill. i did undergrad degree in Anthropology, then a graduate diploma in Philosophy studying four nights/week while working full time, but I was younger! I wonder if I would have the required discipline now. You did your studies while trucking I think? Or were you at Uni in Melbourne?

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  5. I too have been meaning to read Rawson’s fiction as I have only read her Handbook on climate change to date…and even that was six years ago now!

    I’m glad Millie’s move has gone smoothly, but it is such a tiring thing to do!

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    • I’d forgotten about the Handbook, though she wrote about it quite often when she was blogging (well, that’s my memory anyway). ‘Jane Rawson’ on my sidebar still connects with her website and so you – I mean readers in general – can check out all her fiction and environment writing.

      I certainly found it (moving) time consuming. But we celebrated her new home last night by walking to one of the many restaurants within a few hundred metres (a very good Italian).

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  6. I’ll get to you all, sooner rather than later I hope, depending where I pull up for the night.

    Just as I finished unloading this morning I got roped into – ok, I accepted – two more loads back to back, to mines north east of Kalgoorlie. Tying me up for the rest of the week.

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  7. Both! Three first years at Melb.; an accountancy degree with a young family and transport management jobs; my M.Litt nearly two decades ago, while driving. I thought of retiring to do a PhD but the pleasures of owner driving won out.

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    • I did have grand plans of the PhD in retirement Bill – and unlike you I don’t have the excuse of truck driving – I guess it’s the prospect of the hours & hours of essay writing… i wussed out.

      I hadn’t thought of you as an accountancy sort of guy, I don’t know why – how did you find working in that field? I can’t imagine you sitting at an office desk for too long – I tend to think of you as more of a free spirit!

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