Review: Shirley by Ronnie Scott

Shirley begins in the midst of a Melbourne lockdown, that time of “too much email, making a small dinner too early, and, afterwards, nothing new to stimulate … dreams”. Which one, of six as our narrator helpfully reminds us, isn’t clear, but a return to the office appears on the horizon. Like some of us, those of us with jobs that permitted working from home, who didn’t have life-threatening vulnerabilities to the virus or care for someone who did, she finds it a time of, if not peace, then at least comfortableness, in her one bedroom, first floor Richmond apartment.

The lockdown though is really just the lens, for the main action of our narrator’s tale takes place in the specific weeks between New Year’s Eve 2019 and the first lockdown in March 2020. Smoke from the Black Summer fires, at that moment sending people in towns across south east Australia fleeing into the ocean, was filling the city. It’s that night that she meets her downstairs neighbours, the pregnant Frankie and her partner Alex, “like one of those men who appeared briefly in the kitchens of certain women-led reality TV franchises”. Frankie, it turns out, is her boyfriend David’s boss, the co-owner of a vegan condiment factory a suburb over in Collingwood. Before the night is out, David will have spoken aloud his desire to explore his sexuality with men and his relationship with the narrator will be over.

But that’s only the beginning of the intrigue, because there’s also the puzzle of her mother, a famous TV food person, reaction GIF and “low-key camp icon”. She fled overseas 20 years ago when the narrator was in her early teens after a violent incident that saw her photographed outside their house, named Shirley, with her cyan-green coat covered in blood. Her daughter was left to be raised by a series of assistants, known only by their title, the Geralds.

Shirley may just be an arbitrarily assigned name for a house, but it also feels like an instruction, alluding to Charlotte Brontë’s novel of the same name, as pointed out by Sophie Cunningham at the book launch for this novel, and certainly there seem to be resonances in the plot and themes of work and power. Over the course of this Shirley the narrator delves into her history with David and, eventually, with her mother and the rift that lies between them. The novel continues Scott’s exploration of hypercontemporary Melbourne life, this time trading the early-twenty-something queer ennui of The Adversary for the complicated plays of work, parenthood, partnership and real estate of the early thirties (although we do get to catch up with the characters of The Adversary, finding out the tragi-comedic fate of one character in particular). These are the big questions of hetero life, but none of the characters in Shirley are particularly straight (the straightest they get is firmly queer-adjacent) and their answers trouble the prescribed pathways of career, marriage, baby, rinse, repeat. As in The Adversary Scott seems interested in how new-found freedoms, which his previous narrator called “the moral wilds”, can be limiting in their overwhelming possibilities and uncertainties.

From this deceptively sit-com-y set up (one of the epigraphs quotes 30 Rock), Scott wrings something scintillatingly strange. The other epigraph quotes from a major psychological study of cats, asking us to consider a reversal in the perspective of human-as-carer, and prowling through Shirley is a thrilling animalness. Not just the decrepit cat that David adopts but in the relationship between the human characters. “I realised I was myself in a cage, so full of my own zest for violence,” the narrator tells us, seeming to be trying to convince herself. Animals are unpredictable in their needs and desires, the duties of care owed them. “What I keep thinking of,” the narrator contemplates during lockdown:

is the arrogance of the very long lengths we will go to just to tell ourselves that we’re different from the other beings with whom we share this world. It discredits parts of existence that haunt and drive us but are not very much like intelligence at all.

Shirley paws at those hauntings and drivings, those animal spirits, the ones that are irrevocably bound in all the decisions we make about careers and housing, partners and offspring. Those decisions might be structured by external forces, like capitalism or patriarchy or heteronormativity, but Scott is attuned to the shadows pushing and pulling, sometimes in directions that run counter to what might be “good” for us and others.

Not quite anything is possible in Shirley, but enough is to make you consistently tense; in other words it’s a note-perfect encapsulation of the mood of the moment, reminding me of M. John Harrison’s watery conspiracies. People in Scott’s novels speak as if what they’re saying is full of hidden meaning, when it’s usually not, instead full of non-sequiturs and self-delusion. He gets endless mileage out of this; Shirley is often an eye-wateringly funny book and Scott’s comic timing is impeccable. When the narrator and David run into his boss on New Year’s Eve there’s a moment of confusion for Frankie:

“You work for me, don’t you?” she said.

He looked at her cautiously.

“And you admire me,” she said, warmly. “Thank you, Donald.”

“David,” said David.

“No,” she said. She looked at me for visual confirmation. “No,” she said.

But every now and then his characters land on something profound and poignant despite themselves, rendering this an earnest and tender depiction of what the Millennials a couple of years ago were calling “adulting”.

A pandemic is a good time to consider what we want and need and those duties of care. I’ve found it easy to misplace those long periods of insideness that characterised Melbourne’s lockdowns. Like the narrator of Shirley, I was comfortable, found things to preserve from that time, but I’ve struggled to articulate what it really felt like, and particularly the other bits of it, the frustration, dread and boredom of it all. As the days count down to the arrival of the virus in Shirley, “here at the deferred end of summer … the true Ides of March”, I found myself back there; one thing this novel offers is catharsis, not something I was looking for, but perhaps something I needed.

Gay rating: 5/5 for queer characters, sex and themes.

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