Motel by Craig McGregor

Prize-winning journalist, academic, novelist, poet and cultural critic, Craig McGregor is one of the most perceptive writers on modern Australian life. Malcolm Skilbeck reviews his latest book.

Prize-winning journalist, academic, novelist, poet and cultural critic, Craig McGregor is one of the most perceptive writers on modern Australian life. For long a serious journalist and documentary writer, Craig’s literary contributions range from books on Australian culture and surfing to novels, poetry, film scripts, collections of essays and short stories and a rock opera.

Motel is a set of essays linked into a novella by setting (north coast and hinterland NSW), characters (either transparent or enigmatic), and a flow of images: of sea, sky, beach, bush, strung together to create a sense of absorbing, tangible place.

The hippy dreamland of Byron Bay surfaces like dredged up memories of the past, lodged in the minds of the two nameless protagonists, male and female.

They don’t converse so much as gently spar, exchanging polished shafts of clipped dialogue.

The writing is often taut, even ascetic, and charged with controlled emotional energy. The interpersonal encounters are as if seen through lenses—post-modern, deconstructed, semiotic, and witty. If you don’t get all of the allusions and metaphors, no matter. You can ride them like a surfboard on a bumpy wave, or you can do your best to track them down on the web. Or, if minded to tackle a piece of literary research, you can pursue them, or as many as you can find, by delving into the products of McGregor’s half century-long (plus) career as a writer. There will be other rewards along the way.

For all its vernacular bravura, literary theorising, deep-down wit and manifest compassion for humanity and nature, McGregor’s writing has more than a touch of Puritanical austerity. Motel life, beach life—all life—is transient. Meanings, beliefs, are illusory. They may even signify nothing, unless one probes deeper. In those depths are powerful forces, which like the surf waves, are driven from distant parts by powerful force.

Motel is deceptive. Beneath its apparently simple episodes and encounters there are depths of life to plumb. Rather like a rich, dark, Aussie Shiraz, it is worth sipping, savouring and giving a gentle roll along the sensitive reaches of the tongue before it is lingeringly swallowed.

Motel by Craig McGregor. North Melbourne. Arcadia. 2015.

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