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A wrenching account of a damaged childhood, Jon Bauer’s debut has the literati in a swoon. He explains why sometimes it’s okay to repulse the reader.
Anne Sexton, 19 Jan 2012
Jon Bauer is in good form. It may be freezing in the northern hemisphere but the English-Australian author is enjoying the smashing weather Down Under. More importantly, his debut novel, Rocks In The Belly, is attracting the kind of critical response most aspiring authors can only dream of.
Rocks In The Belly tells the family history of a young man. Having immigrated to Canada to escape a tragedy that has shaped his life, he is forced home to care for his once-domineering mother who is dying of brain cancer. Rocks In The Belly alternates between the narrator as an adult and as a boy angry at having to share his home and parents with a series of foster brothers.
Throughout the book, we never learn who exactly the narrator is, particularly since he is given to lying about his name. Why did the author do this?
“It was an instinctual decision,” says Bauer. “I couldn’t bring myself to name him. I think that it has served to make him more – I want to say toxic – but perhaps more invasive. A certain amount of detail is necessary but omitted detail can be very powerful. It sounds silly, but by not having a name he becomes much more mutable for the reader.”
Toxic is too strong a word, but the narrator is certainly ambivalent. His emotional damage elicits sympathy, but his selfishness is repellent. This kind of characterisation requires an author to walk a fine line.
“I wanted to compel and repel the reader. One of the interesting things about this book is that it shows how people’s compassion works. It sounds a bit harsh but can almost tell what kind of person someone is by who they align themselves with in the book. It took a long time and a lot of work and I won’t have managed that for everyone, for sure.”
The possibility of repulsing a large number of readers could be seen as a risky strategy, but Bauer disagrees.
“We are so coddled these days with our characters. Often the protagonist or the narrator is likeable, and the characters are either good or bad. I don’t like patronising readers – ‘He’s the baddie, he’s the goodie.’ These days the landscape of a character can be a little bit too simple. And what’s so bad about reading about a character you don’t like? Have we become so squeamish as readers that we can’t walk in the shoes of someone who is not saccharine, simplistic and good that we can cheer on? There is something to be said for someone who is not always likeable but we understand why, because we have witnessed their childhood.”