Short Bursts – Lucas Smith reviews life kills by miles vertigan, Sleepers Publishing 2011

One of the reality television shows in miles vertigan’s first novel life kills is called ‘the world’s funniest home paraplegics’? Whether this strikes you as amusing or not, in the age of The Biggest Loser we are surely not far away from gawking at the disabled for amusement. Also encountered are the even more plausible “unsightly rabbity chewing styles of the disgustingly beautiful” and the hopefully very close “celebrity snuff hour”. It is praise to say that this novel does not compromise on its humor.

life kills is not so much a novel as it is a sustained style. Martin Amis insists that style is inseparable from content and life kills at its best lives up to this dictum. Here’s an example:

“the woman on the phone thinks i’m a retard like it says ring in case of an emergency and i’m thinking that in my neck of the woods a now completely irrelevant pesco punk never has been with his head impaled in a plane window has all the basic hallmarks of a lay-down misere dog balls face slapping capitalled bolded huge imposingly times roman fonted fucking emergency”

It’s tempting, with this breakneck writing style, to let the reading experience be hypnotic, like watching a waterfall. But slow down the anarchic prose and a decent plot emerges, which saves life kills from being just funny postmodern obscurantism. A hitman, a ‘wealthy german industrialist circa 1923’, boards an airplane and assassinates various denizens of first class. He is waylaid by a series of unhelpful flight attendants, ostentatious advertising and his own neuroses. Interspersed within this main story are the personal, emotional and existential crises of pilot and co-pilot brad and chad and the vindictive rivalry between flight attendants bubbles and sparkles, which keep things moving in hilarious fashion.

To label life  kills as a work of avant-garde or ‘experimental’ fiction (indeed what fiction is not) is to miss the point. For the most part the style is remarkably easy to follow given there are no quotation marks, full stops, commas, or capital letters. (Each section does end with a perfunctory   punctuation mark) After a while the reader begins to mentally insert punctuation. In the pure dialogue chapters, vertigan cleverly has the characters saying each others names as substitutes for quotation marks. The book is written in short bursts that kindly break up the text for the reader. The shortest chapters are only one page, the longest is five (e-book) pages. The print edition runs to little over one hundred pages.

It seems that everything these days is a critique of ‘consumerism’, such that the word has lost much of its force. Yet vertigan is much cleverer than most. The satire is inventive enough to get around its heavy-handedness.

“hey brad there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you really do you really have something to ask me chad because you know there’s nothing more amazing for me than the sweet childlike interrogatives that spill and waft like little fairy blossoms from your tracheostomyphone like innocent whimsied honeydew from some mechanical freakshow…”

The modern condition of infinite, contradictory, desire has not been paraphrased better than this:

“i’m chugging down a family sized roomful of oh so delicious ‘n’ tasty quadruple battered and deepfried triple lardburgers while some loser retro amish dude uses my abs as an anvil.”

What keeps life kills from being, frankly, an irritating first year creative writing prose poem exercise is the impeccable sense of rhythm. The words might not be divided into discrete sentences or even thoughts, but they are free-flowing poetry, like a Willy Wonka production line or migrating birds. That and the wit and wordplay, turn what could be an enervating slog into a compelling narrative.

It is not without flaws. Sometimes the prose really is too dense and it’s hard to know what’s happening or who, if anyone, is talking. But getting to the point is not the point of this book. It is for readers who relish a challenge. And it is worth noting that books like this, by their nature, are difficult to critique without making a category mistake.

The novel concludes with unexpected i.e. somewhat traditional, pathos and the hitman emerges from his decadent morass as an insecure and complex human being, all the more accessible, one suspects, because of his very untraditional voice. The style carries the day. life kills is a welcome change from the ponderous and breathless and oh-so-significant middle-class social realism which dominates Australian fiction.

This is a risky book for Sleepers, the Melbourne outfit that also publishes Steven Amsterdam and its yearly Sleepers Almanac. Here’s hoping it pays off.

Lucas Smith

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