Book Review – Praise by Andrew McGahan
Praise is a fairly famous novel and I’ve been meaning to read it for years, since someone recommended it to me in 2000 or 2001. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting-some kind of gritty realistic novel about being on the dole-but Praise exceeded those expectations and bewildered me at the same time. The first thing to be said about McGahan is that he has an unusual but highly effective writing style; his book is full of short, declarative sentences and straightforward passages. Coupled with this is the personality of the protagonist, Gordon, who is extremely forthright and frank in his insights. This works very well, and I found myself gripped by the narrative.
Praise is an exhausting book, in many respects, but I found myself racing through it (in something less than 24 hours). Gordon lives in a seedy flat in Brisbane alongside some old men, and he’s just quit his job at a drive-through bottle shop. He is twenty three. In fact, his life and my own were similar at this age in some respects, but not many. Gordon is a mess. He can’t be in relationships in the normal sense because he is emotionally fucked up, full of self-loathing and hatred for everything around him. And then he gets into a relationship with Cynthia, who is even more deranged than he is.
This is a story, primarily, about that sick relationship, which is full of sex, drinking, drug taking and occasionally violence. There is no attempt to glorify these matters here, nor is there any attempt to shy away from the more degraded and degrading aspects of this lifestyle. This is a novel about hopelessness, nihilism, and self-destruction. The characters in it spend an awful amount of their time fucking themselves and each other up, both in a sexual sense and in terms of alcohol and substance abuse. This isn’t a novel for the faint of heart, and it’s revolting in places.
Gordon is an interesting character, and a fairly unique protagonist. I can’t remember a book with a character quite like Gordon. He’s friendly (but harbouring some nasty passive aggressive feelings toward those around him), ineffectual (and yet he manages to get away with doing very little indeed), and confused (and yet strangely at peace with his slovenly state). In short, he’s a paradoxical young man. This is very true to life. I think we have all known Gordons and Cynthias. This is realistic writing at its best.
There is a sickness at the heart of this novel, however. It stems from a lack of ambition, an absence of understanding for and of other people. It is about boredom and despair. McGahan is well aware of these ills, and his characters wallow in them. There’s nothing cathartic about the ending. After Gordon finally manages to get rid of Cynthia, he has an even less fulfilling relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Rachel, and manages to turn this dirty as well. He ends up in hospital, paying the price for his extravagantly self-destructive lifestyle. If this book has any sense of catharsis at all, then it is in the sense of an emetic: we are vomiting up something nasty indeed. Hopefully, afterward, we will feel better.
In my opinion, Praise deserves the accolades it received, for it does something quite unique. It describes the fucked up lifestyle of a bunch of no-hoper twenty-somethings in a way that neither valorises nor downplays it. This is a rare gift to literature, as not many writers would have the courage to write as openly and frankly about such putrid matters.
Praise won the Vogel Award in 1991.