Andrew McGahan’s Praise is a novel about being young, unemployed and poor in early 90s Brisbane, when copious amounts of drugs, alcohol and sex are the only things that can stave off boredom. After quitting his job, sometime poet and asthmatic chain-smoker Gordon spends most of his time negotiating with social services for unemployment benefits, drinking booze, taking drugs, and becomes involved in an intense sexual relationship with the insatiable Cynthia, ex-heroin addict and chronic eczema sufferer.
At first Gordon and Cynthia’s relationship is almost tender, and McGahan nicely expresses the awkwardness and awe of discovering another’s body and how it works with yours, especially with the added interest of disease and skin irritations on display in Praise. But Cynthia’s relentless passion for Gordon’s sex is exhausting, and through constant depictions of their sex life – and there seems to be little else to their relationship, bar heading toward the bottle shop or dealer to stock up on supplies – this quickly becomes boring. As characters, Gordon is too passive and Cynthia too excessive, for them to really work together.
I felt as much love for Cynthia in that moment as I ever had, even in the good times. It was strange and confusing. But when a woman loved you enough to want you to die, it was hard not to love her back.
Like Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, the main characters are, despite their faults, constantly drawn to each other, their bad habits and behaviour disguised as love, their dangerous or destructive tendencies as alluring, as though theirs is an impossible attraction that cannot be thwarted by logic and will-power alone. I just don’t buy into this idea of l’amour fou any more, the anhiliation of self is too complete.
Toward the end of the novel, as Gordon and Cynthia are separated, Gordon becomes involved with a girl who he has spent ten years nursing an unrequited love for. Yet, when it comes to consummating this love, he just can’t move beyond the idol worship, unable to see her as an independent being. This relationship is much more complex, more cerebral than Gordon and Cynthia. Perhaps that is the point, Gordon’s attraction to Rachel is purely based on fantasy, so much so that years of imagined intimacy discounts the possibility of it happening; Cynthia, on the other hand, is a woman that demands the physical from Gordon, yet there isn’t a connection based on emotion or understanding. It’s an updated version of the Madonna/whore complex, only this time through a distinctly Australian grunge aesthetic.
I said, ‘Speech is such a definite thing.’
I thought for a long time, staring at my drink.
I started again. ‘Maybe it’s a matter of sincerity. I’m never that certain of anything I feel about a person, and talking about it simplifies it all so brutally. It’s easier to keep quiet. To act what you feel. Actions are softer. They can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and emotions should be interpreted in lots of different ways.’
‘But people are never going to understand you.’
‘People are never going to understand you if you tell them things, either. It’d be even worse.’
I suppose others have used words like “raw” and “gritty” to describe McGahan’s Praise. The style is simple, dialogue coupled with internal monologues, but a high sex-drugs-booze content alone doesn’t make a piece of writing gritty and raw. Gordon’s conflicts and struggles with love and sex conform to expected standards, and there is no enlightenment or possibility of change. Stagnant characters and relationships make Praise a frustrating novel.