December 15, 2019

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Troubled boy makes good tale turned inside out

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/8/2012 (2689 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

EMPLOYING a satirical tone as dark as you will find in fiction, Australian novelist Wayne Macauley takes the familiar tale of troubled boy makes good and turns it inside out.

In The Cook, a hit last year in Oz and newly published here, Macauley uses the world of food as commodity and pop culture and art as his ingredients to concoct an ice-cold parable of our confused time.

His protagonist, Zac, is hardly a hero, he wanders the world with a vision of the perfect meal, as Voltaire's Candide did with a vision of the best of all possible worlds.

It isn't the best of all possible worlds, but Zac will never know that. Unlike Voltaire, who came to some accommodation with the world, there is little redemption in Macauley's vision of an Australia in collapse.

It is hard going, but from the first page we have to see this journey through.

Zac is placed with a group of young losers, petty criminals and misfits into a cooking school, where Head Chef (and here you can take your pick of the current crop of pompous celebrity chefs populating the media at the moment) comes to turn the boys into star pupils, paraded on his TV show, or fanned out to his overpriced haute cuisine restaurants.

"Power through service" is Head Chef's motto, and the philosophy finds in Zac an enthusiastic convert who diligently turns himself into an artist of food, obsessed with refinement of haute cuisine, and the dream of his own restaurant, all "white crockery microherbs and petal plates."

The grim warning signs of trouble in this rarefied world, such as the suicide of Head Chef's longtime assistant, and the abandonment of the school by Zac's only friend, who goes off to the world of peasant cookery and living off the land, don't detour him. Zac finds peasant "bigness in taste" too much like his old poor life; he wants to serve the rich.

Left as Head Chef's only apostle, Zac is whisked off to become cook to a rich but emotionally dead family. The family disintegrates even as Zac realizes he is the collateral that Head Chef has given to the family's workaholic father as part of their business dealings.

This father, a commodities trader, makes nothing; he only manipulates money and lives on credit. Though he doesn't realize it at first, Zac discovers the rich never pay, really, but expect service until the moment the credit collapses.

When he understands that power through service is a fantasy, that he is one more commodity in the food chain, the grisly outcome is shocking, insidiously funny and inevitable.

The Cook is the Melbourne-based Macauley's third novel. What makes it so compelling is its wild narrative style. It's Zac's world and from the first sentence we dive into his crazed, tumbling mind, which we somehow know isn't quite right, but which in Macauley's brilliant use of stream-of-consciousness prose, like James Joyce on LSD, sucks you in relentlessly.

There is no other voice, yet we feel, however uneasily, that Zac has given us a true picture of this overfed world he wants to inhabit so badly.

As noted, Macauley doesn't make any of the story easy to swallow. This is a satiric novel of rigour, strange beauty, and impeccable, brazen style.


Rory Runnells is artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.


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