The weirdest thing happened when I put down Jane Rawson’s debut novel, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists: I started imagining things! This is weird because I’m not a particularly imaginative or fanciful person, so it must have been this book that did it. Let me explain …
First though, I need to say that I’ve been keen to read this book for some time. It started with the cover. I tend not to focus a lot on covers but some do grab me. This one, with its chequerboard of maps, is both eye-catching and intriguing. Then there’s the title. As a librarian/archivist, I’m drawn to organisation and lists but don’t mind a little anarchy every now and then. Is that what’s going on here, I wondered? And finally, there’s its MUBA award win last year. So it came down to a case of three strikes and you’re out – or, more accurately, in – and I bought the book. Well, what a read, because …
A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists is a very unusual book. It traverses two places and times: Melbourne in 2030 and a sort-of imaginary San Francisco in 1997. It is, partly at least, a cli-fi* book. 2030 Melbourne is a bleak place – it’s very hot, clean water is harder to come by and more expensive than beer, soap is a luxury, and UN peacekeepers are in town. The rich survive as they do, but poverty is common, and many people live on the streets or in humpies. Bodies are regularly found in the streets. It’s a world you expect in dystopian novels, except that despite appearances, this novel is not completely dystopian.
Indeed, the novel has been described as a “genre-buster”. It is, for example, also a time-travel story, which brings me to the plot. Our protagonist is 33-year-old Caddy, who is living rough, having lost her husband and home in a heatwave-induced fire a couple of years before the novel opens. Like many in this devastated city, she survives on odd jobs – working in a bar, doing courier work, and selling her body. She has friends – an indigenous man and wheeler-dealer Ray, and bar-owner Peira. She also likes to write, and this is where San Francisco comes in because the story she is writing is set in 1997 San Francisco. It’s about two orphans-cum-childhood friends, 17-year-old Simon and 14-year old Sarah. They spend their time following a quest started by their parents in which they have to stand at least once in every 25-foot square of the USA, in order to see the whole country. With me?
At first this story of Caddy’s is told in italics within the main story, but in Part Two the narrative shifts and whole chapters are told in Sarah’s voice. Meanwhile, Caddy, with Ray who has bought some used and apparently magical maps, time-travels from Melbourne to San Francisco where they meet her creations. Still with me? Hope so, because it gets tricksier. This “travel” involves passing through a sort of netherworld called The GAP, where we find the Office of Unmade Lists, and other sections including Tupperware Lids, Partially Used Pens, and Suspended Imaginums. Suspended Ims, as we in the know call it, is where the things that people imagine but “don’t come true” end up. I think that’s where my brief imaginings have gone!
This sounds more complex than it is – or, should I say, it’s conceptually complex but not hard to follow. Indeed it’s a hoot to read, because for all the grim, grittiness of this climate-damaged world, there’s warmth, love and humour – and a delightful sense of the absurd. I loved Rawson’s exploration of the two universes, the “real” and the “imagined”, and the way she has them meet. She messes with our minds! It made me think of Marion Halligan’s comment about her main character in Fog garden. Halligan writes: ‘She isn’t me. She’s a character in fiction. And like all such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.’ Halligan’s purpose is different, but the concerns, those to do with where imagination ends and reality begins, are similar.
That said, I’m not 100% sure of what Rawson’s purpose is, but I think she’s playing with her readers, with the idea of writing fiction, and with the meaning of fiction itself. Take, for example, her character Simon responding to Caddy telling him he’s her creation:
‘You come in here and tell us we’re imaginary, and now you’re saying you’re not even a very good writer! What do you mean? Like we’re all two-dimensional and shit, not fleshed out at all? Unrealistic? Is that what you’re saying? I don’t feel unrealistic. I feel pretty pissed off actually, which is kind of a realistic response to someone telling you you’re a shithouse imaginary character.’
Caddy looked at Ray like he might somehow get her out of this. He still had his head in his hands.
‘Sorry’, she said. ‘You’re heaps more complicated than what I imagined, if that helps.’
I love the sly, tongue-in-cheek allusion here to literary theory, to EM Forster’s notion of flat and round characters. This is just one of several references in the book to the things readers and critics talk about.
A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists is a fun, absurd, clever book in which Rawson somehow marries her very real concerns about the future of our earth with a belief that human compassion and ingenuity will survive, and wraps it up in an exploration of the complex relationship of imagination to reality. Imagination, Rawson seems to be saying, is the real stuff of life.
So, my recommendation is: Don’t worry about the book making complete sense. Suspend your disbelief, enjoy the ride, and realise that here is a lively intelligence you don’t want to miss.
Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the book.
A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2013
* Jane Rawson was, and maybe still is, Editor of Energy & Environment at The Conversation