The Perfect Novel For Our Postmodern Age

I’ve been trying to put my finger on the reason why Trent Dalton’s book Boy Swallows Universe (HarperCollins, 2018) is so popular. For the first time in the history of the Australian Book Industry of the Year (ABIA), Dalton’s work took all four major categories: Book of the Year, Literary Book of the Year, the Matt Richell Award for New Writer and Audio Book of the Year. It also won the 2019 NSW Premier’s Award as well as the 2019 MUD Literary Prize. What’s more, it’s currently being turned into an international TV series which will surely add to its popularity.

Some in America have likened it to a “foul-mouthed Tom Sawyer”. But the better analogy is that it’s an Aussie version of the classic film, The Shawshank Redemption. (Which, by the way, was originally one of four novellas written by Stephen King called, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). Dalton’s book has become so popular that Akos Balogh wrote in his review for The Gospel Coalition:

I had to tell my daughter to hide this book from me, so I’d actually get some sleep. Whenever I picked it up, I also found it hard to put down. Boy Swallows Universe by Australian journalist Trent Dalton is a book that grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go.

Dalton’s work has been lauded by everyone from Geoffrey Robertson to Richard Glover, Nikki Gemmell, Caroline Overington, David Wenham and Annabel Crabb. The Australian described it as “the best literary debut in a month of Sunday’s”. Benjamin Law went even further and proclaimed, “Call it a hunch, but I think he might’ve just written and Australian classic.” Clearly, Dalton is a gifted communicator, as one might expect of a staff writer for The Weekend Australian Magazine, formerly assistant editor of the Courier Mail and two-time winner of Walkleys for Excellence in Journalism. But what is that has made his debut novel so compelling?

At almost 500 pages it is not a short read. And while it could have done with a good edit at points, it’s a novel that reflects the zeitgeist of our age. The central plot — based largely upon real events in Dalton’s life — revolves around family breakdown, drug abuse, and domestic violence. It’s like surveying the scene of a car crash in that it’s both deeply sickening but strangely compelling. Dalton makes it very difficult to look away.

The fact that it’s also set in the Australia of the Eighties, the glory days for many in the Boomer generation, means that it’s permeated with pop-culture references relating to soft drinks, lollies, cricket celebrities, movie stars, video games, TV shows, expanding multiculturalism and, most of all, music. This was a time when the mighty Parramatta Eels were a rugby league force to be feared, and the names of Price, Kenny and Cronin household names. As such, it is a nostalgic trip down memory lane, which also explains the novel’s broad appeal to everyone from tradies to academics.

Dalton’s writing style is manic, as if he contracted a literary case of ADHD, what one reviewer from The New York Times described as “hyperactive journalese”. This might sound exhausting, but in this age of social media-created digital distraction, Dalton’s writing is compelling and reflective of the wider social discourse. It’s also saturated with profanity and laced with quintessential Aussie black humour. What’s more, his attention to detail really draws in the reader to the world he grew up in. Dalton says 60 per cent of the book is autobiographical and the other 40 per cent fiction.

In one of the book’s later scenes, the main character (Eli Bell) attempts to get a cadetship at The Courier Mail. He waits outside all day for an interview with gruff and angry editor Brian Robertson. When they finally meet in the carpark in the dark of night, Robertson challenges Eli to sum up his story in three words. In a classic illustration of art imitating life, Dalton titles every one of the twenty-three chapters with a three-word summary, the significance of which I will explain more shortly.

Without giving too much away, the story revolves around two brothers, Eli, 12, and his older brother, 14-year-old August. Due to a traumatic event in their young lives, August has stopped talking, choosing to communicate by writing with his finger in the air. But through an even more dramatic set of circumstances, Eli and his brother go from living with their drug-dealing mother and boyfriend to living with their alcoholic father. The only stable influence in their lives is a man named Slim Halliday, based on the real-life character of the same name, who is a convicted murderer.

Throughout this completely chaotic and dysfunctional situation, August and Eli believe that they have the esoteric ability to see into the future through a “moon pool” that August creates sometimes at night. But in one of the key scenes, the title of the book is made plain. Both boys are lying in bed and recount a story Slim has told them that he had read while in jail. As Eli says:

…a story about some god, or some special guy from a religion different from the wooden cross one we knew, not one where Jesus was the hero, but one that was spoken of in the kinds of places Slim said Indiana Jones liked to visit.

The story is of Young Krishna and the Universe in His Mouth. If, like me, you weren’t familiar with it then here is a quick summary and explanation: A young child (the Hindu god Krishna) is playing with some children who exclude him from their games. They all climb a tree but he is not allowed too join them, instead starts to eat the fruit that they pick and discard. The child, though, becomes so ravenous the fruit is not enough and he starts eating dirt as well. The other children call out to his mother to make him stop. When the child says that he has no dirt in his mouth she looks inside and, to her shock and amazement, sees the entire universe.

This story becomes the central paradigm for the book. And yet, strangely, in all the reviews I have read, not a single person picks up on this. For the point is that young Eli is discarded by the world and has to eat the scraps—literally and metaphorically—that no one else wants. But in his hunger for love and acceptance he not only eats ‘food’ but also ‘dirt’. However, because he is ‘special’ (another major sub-plot of the book) he is able to transform everything into his own universe, or maybe that should be ‘multiverse’? That’s why so many of the chapters have titles alluding to actions that only a god-like figure could achieve; e.g. drowning the sea, conquering the moon, stealing the ocean, mastering time … and in the penultimate chapter, swallowing the universe!

As can be seen on every front cover, central to the book’s plot development is a cryptic phrase, “Your end is a dead blue wren”. This is a prophecy that Eli’s brother, August, utters at the beginning of the book in one of his esoteric dream states. But there are other key moments when Eli or August receive messages from the universe as to what they should do or whom they should connect with. This proves that they are not only “special”, but in keeping with the Hindu myth, also in a divine, spiritual sense of the term.

This is first confirmed early in the book through a friend of their drug-addicted mother, a Moroccan woman named Astrid. Dalton describes her as “…beautiful and permanently young and always so bejewelled and mystical…” She pronounces August as “special”, and integral to her own path to spiritual enlightenment. The reason she knows this is because an angelic guide tells her. For anyone familiar with the Bible, what Dalton describes is more in keeping with a demon than anything else:

Spirit, we would later discover, was an all-encompassing term for the creator of all living things who visited Astrid on occasion in three manifestations: a mystical white-robed goddess spirit, Sharna; an Egyptian Pharaoh named Om Ra; and Errol, a farting, foul-mouthed representations of all the universe’s ills, who spoke like a small drunken Irishman.

This is further reinforced when they first meet the villain, a drug-pushing king pin named Tytus Broz. The following setting and dialogue is probably best quoted verbatim:

“There was a pottery figurine of an ageing man in chains on his desk. The ageing man was wearing an Ancient Greek man dress, and had oil paint blood streaks across his exposed back. He was mid-stride, favouring a led that was missing a foot and bandaged roughly.

‘What’s that,” I asked.

Tytus turned to the figurine.

‘That’s Hegesistratus,’ he said. ‘One of history’s great amputees. He was an Ancient Greek diviner capable of profound and dangerous things.’

‘What’s a diviner?’ I asked.

‘A diviner is many things,’ he said. ‘In Ancient Greece the diviners were more like seers. They could see things others could not see by interpreting signs from the gods. They could see things coming, a valuable skill in war.’

I turned to Lyle, ‘That’s like Gus,’ I said.

While August receives messages from the gods through his ‘moon pool’, Eli (as well as his enemy, Tytus Broz) receives them through a secret red telephone. It sounds clichéd, but it symbolises their very own hotline to the gods. However, being a truly postmodern book, the reader is ultimately not quite sure if this is another manifestation of psychological trauma dating back to the boy’s childhood and something which Eli at least, will grow out of.

But it’s this serious integration of mysticism which really gives the book it’s cutting edge and, ultimately, hope. For without being able to in any way ‘divine’ the future, Eli and August would simply be victims of their own horrible upbringing. In fact, as with their friend Slim’s turn in solitary confinement, it is also the mechanism by which they seek to flee their ongoing psychological suffering — by escaping into another universe. A key example as to how Eli transforms all of the “dirt” of life into a universe through his mouth is  his meteoric career rise as a journalist at The Courier Mail. Without any formal training—or even having successfully graduated high school — Eli is able to produce front-page scoops.

Another important sub-theme that runs through the book: are the men around him, even just one of them, truly “good”? In a world of drug dealers, alcoholics and murderers none seem prepared to recognise their own depravity.

But then it struck me: This is precisely why Dalton’s novel is so popular. It is a story of salvation by works.

In this post-Christian age, Australia has not only become more secular, but increasingly more pagan. The spiritual void formerly reserved for Christ (or G_d) is instead being filled with Eastern mysticism. And sadly, no one is stopping to discern whether or not there is truth in it. But the reality is this religious myth is the oldest lie of them all. It is the original temptation of Satan back in the Garden of Eve, for Adam and Eve to become like God (see Genesis 3:5). And rather than come to Christ for forgiveness, the message of the book is about saving oneself.

For Dalton, though, redemption ultimately comes through a highly unlikely romantic relationship with an older woman. (Although, I recently found out from Dalton directly that this was also based on what happened to him in real life!) This is ultimately what saves Eli and brings him back to ‘reality’ and out of his imaginary universe. While every chapter up until this point is a three-point summary of “boy” doing something, in the final one everything is flipped on its head and it’s “Girl Saves Boy.”

So, why is Boy Swallows Universe so popular? There is obviously a lot to like about the book: love, brotherhood and unlikely friendships. There is also a rich sub-plot to be explored regarding the role of fathers, and the devastating impact upon us as individuals and society as a whole when they are missing. For, somewhat simplistically, nearly every adult male character in the book is negative, whereas every female character is positive.

But there is one aspect in particular that everyone seems to be missing. At least, in all my searching, I have yet to discover a reviewer who covers it. And that is, the aspect of religion. Which is all the more significant when one considers that at the heart of Dalton’s bestselling novel is the spiritual worldview of Hinduism. That each person is ‘special’ in that we are ourselves divine. 

What are we to make of Boy Swallows Universe? There is a lot to take away from the book: love, brotherhood and unlikely friendships. But there is one aspect in particular that warrants wariness, and that is that we are not divine. In three words, the reality is not, “Man Becomes God” but that “All Have Sinned”.

Mark Powell is associate pastor of the Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Strathfield, NSW

7 thoughts on “The Perfect Novel For Our Postmodern Age

  • pgang says:

    Yeh, nuh. Sounds awful, and the fawning of the clerisy pretty much confirms that. A story full of foul language about seedy people, paganism and heroic women. Who needs it.
    Mark I hadn’t realised that Hinduism considered everyone to be divine, but I guess it makes sense. Which makes it just another one of the many extensions of humanism.

  • Tricone says:

    I’ve enjoyed Dalton’s well written human interest pieces in The Australian, particularly the Sunny Avenue series of profiles.

    For that reason, I would give his book a go.

  • whitelaughter says:

    Thanks. I found your review far more to my taste than the samples of the book I’ve crossed!

  • Michael says:

    Elizabeth Beare (Michael’s Wife)
    Thanks for the review. I appreciated his sympathetic approach to the residents of ‘Sunny Avenue’. I might read the book sometime, but the New Age edge doesn’t particularly appeal to me; nor to the current lot of applauders. I might be more charitable about it after reading how the author manages his tale though. There are many dreadful childhoods and escapees from those. Yep. Tolstoy said it: ‘each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. And so are the kids. I always believed in happy families because as a child in the 40’s and 50’s I so much enjoyed stories about them; they helped to show me that mine was just a bad lucky dip. It worries me today that we fill children’s heads with tales of life’s train wrecks, a universe of pain. Not all children can swallow that.

  • Michael says:

    EB, Michael’s wife.
    oops – erratum: nor DO the current lot of applauders appeal to me..
    All the usual suspects are in that lot. Some of them write well enough, it’s what they say that irritates.

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    The endorsement by celebrity thinkers Geoffrey Robertson, Richard Glover, Nikki Gemmell, Caroline Overington, David Wenham and Annabel Crabb tells you all you need to know – not to waste time on this book.If they have read it, they condemn themselves, but as like as not they have just piled on to the next best thing. In literary terms it is a rambling, semi-articulate chaotic pile of outer-Brisbane filth. Descend into this sort of fly-blown drug-corrupted society if you wish, but the salvation-justification that this reviewer applauds escapes me. Living in Brisbane in another suburb across the river from the magic of Sunny Avenue, I can attest to the characterisation of the area as described; it had a bad reputation in my day, but thirty years later it has apparently become the dregs.It would never have occurred to anyone by Dalton to glorify its characters. The story requires many suspensions of judgement by the reader but the idea that a couple of kids from that environment – Inala – Goodna – Wacol – Darra could conceive mystical inspirations is simply laughable. As to waylaying a Brisbane newspaper editor at midnight to ask for a job – well, if it had been Ted Bray he would have called the police. Most of the people I know repudiated the book for its vulgarity or simply considered the storyline too fantastic to be magical and gave up. Unfortunately this book echoes the nihilism of the age – that is its New Age message.

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