Review: Holly Childs’ No Limit & Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil

April 2014

The cult novel is a funny thing. ‘Cult’ doesn’t necessarily collapse neatly down to ‘divisive’ (if that were the case, Fifty Shades of Grey and its progenitor Twilight would surely be works of cult fiction), nor can it simply be reduced to ‘underrated’ (Hunter S. Thompson is, by almost any yardstick, a cult writer, yet Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas boasts over 150,000 glowing reviews on Goodreads). What, then, makes a piece of writing ‘cult’?

Holly Childs’ No Limit isn’t a cult novel. It’s too short for that, but it is certainly a cult novella, albeit one still accumulating followers. As with much cult fiction, the narrative itself is beside the point, as are the virtually indistinguishable characters (for the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a moment that this stuff does matter, in which case we might say that No Limit is ‘about’ a girl called Ash who gets stranded in Auckland due to an imminent volcanic eruption and ends up, semi-inexplicably, at an apocalyptic squat rave).

What makes No Limit a cult novel, perhaps, is Childs’ single-minded focus on expanding her own worldview until it blankets her fictional world in its entirety. Nobody exists outside of Childs’ hyper-connected, hyper-distracted, hyper-queer, hyper-munted, hyper-branded bubble, and when a character remarks that they watch Harmony Korine’s 1995 film Kids “Every night before I go to sleep, doesn’t everyone?”, you get the sense that we’ve been transported to a world in which, yes, that’s exactly what everybody does right before brushing their teeth.

There are moments when Childs’ world overlaps our own, and her insights into Millennial culture are incisive. One character carries an unread of copy Naomi Klein’s 1999 anti-globalisation treatise No Logo as an identity signifier, and a girl is called out for reblogging too much, building her personal brand “off of other people’s hard work”. This is, for better or worse, stuff that all of us really do think too much about. I do, at least.

Emerging writers who want to become cult authors tend to make the mistake of emulating their heroes, but that’s a trap: you don’t become a Bret Easton Ellis or a Tao Lin by aping a Bret Easton Ellis or a Tao Lin, but by turning in on yourself and pulling and pawing at your own idiosyncrasies. No Limit reads a little like Less Than Zero for the Tumblr generation, or Shoplifting from American Apparel for antipodean FAsH1ON HA¢K£Rs, but Childs’ voice doesn’t feel like the result of the usual alt-lit cribbing. Instead, it’s a voice that will, hopefully, be emulated and reworked by her MacBook Pro-toting followers. (I’m now one of them).

In the final story of Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut collection, the author herself becomes the protagonist. In a run-down Footscray flat, too close to the train line, she reads rejection notes from a publisher advising her to make make one of the “angry black kid[s]” in her collection a little more palatable. “Unfortunately,” another publisher writes, “we feel Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these.”

It’s not clear whether these rejection letters are real, but it certainly seems plausible. Foreign Soil tells stories about people of colour, Clarke moving between Sudan and Brixton, Jamaica and Mississippi, Sydney and Melbourne. Oftentimes, the stories are infused with the local dialect, and the results can be both glorious (Clarke is a slam poet and has an ear for slang and inflection) and a real challenge (“Nathanial Robinson lean out ovah de water, shake im head an look-look down past im grubby dungarees…”). Never, however, does it feel that Clarke takes us to the same place twice, and never does it feel as though she’s reusing stock voices.

There is an interesting tension at play throughout Foreign Soil, and I think this may be what made some of the more conservative publishers anxious: Clarke at once wants to demonstrate that the stories of people of colour are manifold, while also drawing non-Caucasian ethnic groups into a collective of common experience. This is ambitious: it’s virtually impossible to encapsulate a particular cultural group without resorting to stereotyping, so telling the story of just one asylum seeker (in ‘The Stilt Fisherman of Kathaluwa’) or just one Tottenham rioter (‘Harlem Jones’) leads the reader to wonder whether the part is intended to stand in for the whole. Taken as a collection, though, Clarke’s characters expand, rather than contract, our understanding of the groups they identify as a part of. In ‘Big Islan’, one of the stories in the collection, the more the protagonist reads, the larger his world becomes. That’s how I felt reading Foreign Soil.

(This review will appear in the upcoming Winter issue of CityMag. Their bewwwwdiful website will be going live next week).