I am a re-reader of books; my favourite titles I’ve read half a dozen times or more. Even novels that don’t make my desert-island books list I still pick up again and thumb through; very rarely do I give a book away. Hence, it is significant to find a book that I know, without a doubt, that I will not read again. Emily Maguire’s first novel, Taming the Beast (2004) is one such rarity.
Thanks to an English paper I took in first year uni, I can assert that during the early-to-mid 1990s a literary genre called “grunge lit” (look! I’m not joking – here’s a Wikipedia hyperlink) that investigated “dirty realism” came to the forefront of Australian publishing. Andrew McGahan’s Praise (which we read) is often credited with beginning the movement; Christos Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded is another popular example. The world is a hard place in grunge lit, full of bleakly disillusioned young people living in decrepit houses, working shitty jobs, having dangerous sex or taking illicit to take their minds off their crappy lives. It’s the literary equivalent of Nirvana’s Nevermind album.
A decade after the grunge lit phenomenon, Emily Maguire’s Taming the Beast was published. And, my gosh, is her protagonist Sarah living the grunge lit dream: she smokes, she takes recreational drugs, she lives in a squalid flat, she works at a greasy steakhouse, she has no relationship with her educated middle-class parents, and boy oh boy does Sarah have a lot of casual sex.
I think the first big problem that Taming the Beast has (other than its seriously naff title) is that very little happens in it narratively.
I get that “nothing happening” can often be the point – just think of Waiting for Godot – but if the point of a novel is that people can be aimless and engaged only by sex and drugs, then I think you have to be very careful not to over do it; by the last third of “Taming the Beast” I was rushing through the pages, not because I was so engaged but because I was sick of the repetition and just wanted the book to end. What I’m saying is that it needed a serious edit; had it been the length of a novella, I might have found the whole thing a lot less samey.
The next flaw of Taming the Beast is that it’s a thinly-disguised polemic, which causes the already slim narrative to suffer further. Maguire is making a feminist point through Sarah’s extravagant sex life – a point about the double standards we apply to sexually experienced women (and women who enjoy sex). That is, unlike sexually experienced men, these women are typically represented as damaged sluts or portrayed as having something “wrong” with them. I fully support the point that Maguire is making – it’s an important one to bring to light. My problem is that making A Statement comes at the detriment of the plot and characterization; Maguire is so busy Making Her Point that she kind of forgets to tell a story (scarily, this interview with Maguire notes that she actually cut a huge amount of the polemical stuff out – stuff which ultimately became her very excellent non-fiction book Princesses and Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity).
My final problem with Taming the Beast is the central “romantic” (and I use that term loosely and facetiously) relationship between Sarah and Daniel, her former Year Nine English teacher, to whom she lost her virginity at 14. This is where the 50 Shades of Grey comparisons come in (a disclosure: I haven’t actually read 50 Shades but I’ve read snippets and parodies and talked to people who have read it so I think I’ve got the gist of it).
Sarah is a naïve, bookish virgin who becomes ensnared in the elaborate sexual world of an older, far more powerful and experienced man – sound at all familiar? Together they have – both when Sarah is 14, and when Daniel returns when Sarah is in her early 20s – explicit, violent, self-destructive sex. Maguire is investigating the obsessive and catastrophic power of love through these two reasonably one-note characters as she simultaneously challenges us to expand our definition of “love.” But again I found the whole thing repetitive (and off-putting). Watching Sarah repeatedly be abused in her relationship with Daniel (and, increasingly, turn abusive), all I wanted was for something else to happen, for the cycle to be broken, for the novel to end. Like I mentioned above, nothing happening, and nothing changing could well be Maguire’s whole point – about grungy life and about obsessive love. But if that’s the case, then I think she needed to make that point a whole lot faster; the drawing-out of the very slim narrative only serves to irritate readers.
I’ve read another of Maguire’s novels – Smoke in the Room – and while it is similarly grungy, and the characters similarly self-destructive, a lot more happens in it and hope and change is ultimately offered at the end. Perhaps not being a first novel helped Smoke in the Room; it’s far more nuanced than Taming the Beast; also, perhaps writing her feminist manifesto in between the two novels helped Maguire be a whole lot less polemical. In any case, The Smoke in the Room is a novel I could well read again one day, Taming the Beast not so much.