Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Philip Salom
Puncher & Wattman
346pp, $29.95, ISBN: 9781922186836
There is something unsettlingly familiar about Big and Little, the protagonists of Philip Salom’s Waiting. These are people who exist just at the periphery of consciousness, walking together uncomfortably to the local supermarket, getting on the tram, or passing us on the street. They’re invisible in plain sight, marginalised, hurting, full of hard won wisdom, uncomfortable, and waiting. Salom has made Big and Little the heart of his novel, and they are both compelling and unsettling. They’re compelling because they’re a rich combination of the flawed and loveable. Their interdependence, “as inseparable as they are in syntax…”, and oddness is offset by a world that has allowed them to become so vulnerable. They are unsettling because we immediately recognise the suffering they endure: Little with her Lupus and anxiety that is exacerbated by her petiteness, and Big, who is big of voice and body, “huge gut and hairy Popeye forearms”, but who also dresses in tight floral dresses with matching handbags, socks and coloured flat-heels.
The incongruity of Little and Big’s partnership is mirrored by the other couple of the novel, Angus, an earthy landscape designer, and Jasmin, a semiologist professor who meets Angus at a party. The alternating and disparate plotlines link up when it turns out that Angus is Little’s cousin that he hasn’t seen in years, despite the fact that the two of them live quite close to one another. Angus sets out to find Little when his mother gives him a directive to talk her out of accepting the house that Little’s estranged mother has promised to leave her when she dies.
As you might expect in a novel by one of Australia’s most exciting poets, Waiting is full of delightful complexity. For one thing there’s the boarding house that Big and Little live in: a mini-universe for the down-and-out. I immediately thought of Audre Lorde’s poem “Rooming Houses are Old Women”. The house is both oppressive and comforting – a symbol of the inhabitant’s reduced status in society as well as a place of safety against a harsh world—a place for the world’s cast-offs to support one another. Much of the plot revolves around Little’s hopes of leaving the house and buying a proper home for her and Big to live in once her mother dies. The boarding house is an odd parallel to Little’s long escaped home in Adelaide where the grubby extended family that Big has dubbed “The Ugly Sisters” jockeys for an inheritance that has been promised to Little.
There are many kinds of homes throughout Waiting. Angus has lost his home to fire and is trying to help others keep theirs through the fire-proof houses he designs and builds. Both Angus and Little have left their oppressive families behind and created a new ‘temporary’ life that is both comfortable and stagnant. Jasmin, who meets Angus at a party, reads ‘public spaces’, something that hints at the tension between public and private spaces throughout the book – the distinction between home and not-home; inside and outside. Big’s own reluctance to move from the temporary home he’s become accustomed to is indicative of the struggle that all of the characters go through, a tension against change that the waiting represents:
The sounds he is making are no longer recognisable as speech. Not as common speech, not even uncommon speech – he is doing the kiddie thing of hoping it will all go away, trying to re-jig reality by a droning sound set up between the world and himself. It begins deep inside his diaphragm and with his eyes shut it vibrates up through his chest and into his sorry neck muscles, and rattles the inner shelves of his head. Things are bouncing on them. On and on. (241)
Much of the writing is exquisite, sliding into an abstracted dreamlike poetry that manages to progress the narrative thread while expanding the perspective outward:
It is an epiphany, as she waits there is the blue light with the windows open and he nursing home verandah bathed in the bliss of final decisions, but looking more like starlings in full tweet among the crumbs and cars, their rooves of overheating metal in the carpark. All this, expanding into a new innocence in the sunny afternoon like heaven in her thoughts. (51)
Although there are serious themes running throughout the book, Waiting is incredibly funny at times. Salom’s characterisations are Dickensian in the detail in which he describes the idiosyncratic qualities of even minor characters such as the bossy and sometimes violent Sheriff, Angus’ dreadful mother dubbed “The Wicked Witch” by Little, Tom, a former paedophile who “has been born-again so thoroughly he’d make up whole footie teams of Jesuses” (28), Tourie, a young man with Tourette’s Syndrome, or Dazza the spitter:
He is a Dazzling spitter. Leading from the front and bringin up the contents of the unconscious – this man hoiks up noisy things from his throat and propels them into the garden and onto the tree. It is done without great extension, just a slow leaning back of the head then a sudden forward slingshot – it flies above the paving stones and splats onto the trunk of the orange tree. Trees and Eden and this big Adam in the sun: he coughs and coughs to hoick and sling. (138)
Ultimately, what makes Waiting such a wonderful book is that Salom treats all of the characters in this book, even the most miserable, with a deep-seated sense of shared humanity. However dark the world that these characters inhabit, and it can be quite dark at times, this is what we all look like. Salom’s writing is always light, good humoured and non-judgemental. This is the human condition: oddly shapen, oddly matched, solitary, inter-dependent, vulnerable, and always waiting for something to change. It’s repulsive and loveable all at once. Waiting is critically important – a novel that tells little and shows much, leaving its readers full of fresh insight.