Thursday, April 8, 2010
By David Musgrave
Glissando, David Musgrave’s comic novel, is set in Australia in the early years of the 20th Century, and belongs to that novelistic genre known as the bildungsroman, which is a fancy word that means the ‘coming of age novel’. The book is narrated by one Archibald Fleiss (pronounced ‘fleece’, which offers a hint that Archie isn’t a completely reliable narrator), a young orphan, who soon discovers that he has a rich, if unusual and enigmatic, inheritance. But to describe Glissando in these terms makes it sound far more straightforward than it is. Glissando, ultimately, is strange, and I mean this as the highest possible compliment.
Glissando takes the reader through a variety of unexpected plot twists and turns, including a kidnapping and escape, the story of an enterprising architect who unwittingly becomes one of the first explorers of the interior of Australia, a star-crossed love story, and an imaginary history of a Dadaist, avant-garde theatre in rural Australia shortly after World War One.
Formally speaking, Glissando is a pastiche – which is to say that it is a hotchpotch, a medley – of a variety of different sources and styles. But as one character in Glissando points out, Australian is an anagram of saturnalia. The novel references the content and style of many other books, including Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Patrick White’s Voss, and Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, among others. But readers who may not be familiar with such literary allusions won’t be put off. The novel is essentially an engrossing yarn that is both hysterically funny and fantastically imaginative. Furthermore, Musgrave populates Glissando with wonderful, Dickensian characters who are simultaneously flawed and loveable.
Although the novel is not without moments of both sadness and tenderness, it’s overall spirit is comic, although the humour is generally dark and laconic. In this sense, too, Glissando is a novel that could only have been written by an Australian, and both its setting and style are uniquely antipodean. It places itself squarely in the Australian literary tradition, deploying an ironic tone not unlike that in Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life.
Glissando is one of the most interesting and unique Australian novels that I have read in years, and I have no doubt that it will find readers who will embrace its magnificent oddity. I would also not be surprised to see it crop up on the shortlists of some major literary prizes before the year is out. In an alternate universe somewhere, Glissando is already an Australian classic.
Glissando launches at the Wheeler Centre for Books and Ideas on Friday, April 16th at 7 p.m.
Posted by Emmett Stinson at 9:18 AM