Vine Leaves, 2017.
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.
Jonathan Hadwen’s sequence of vignettes, All That Wasted Heat, is elegant and edgy, experimental and experiential, and spellbindingly beautiful. It is based in an unnamed inner-city Australian suburb replete with share houses, hostels, and homeless shelters that might be New Farm in Brisbane, or Newtown in Sydney, or Newport in Melbourne but is all of these places and nowhere at the same time. The era in which the sequence is set is a kind of timeless modernity: it could be the 1990s, or yesterday, or tomorrow.
Yet, this modernity is seemingly unplugged in that there are few references to technology. This is not a realm of internet connections but a place of interconnection: Hadwen’s narrator apparently prefers to experience the world firsthand and through the artifice of his own written text rather than through the World Wide Web with its casuistic promise to connect us to one another through the social media that so often proves to be an enabler of the antisocial. He reveals his dislike for the photoshopping of images and his Luddite longing to buy a typewriter. He turns his gaze to the physical world.
Hadwen’s anonymous narrator records a series of observations of the locale and its inhabitants that renders the quotidian anything but mundane. His nuanced, subtle treatment of his subject matter, which ranges from the everyday bleakness of a favourite local coffee shop that has inexplicably closed down to the lonely final days of a stranger suffering from a fatal illness, creates a deftly-handled sense of both disjunction and interconnection as the reader is invited into the narrator’s world: but only so far and no more. Lending us his eyes but not his life story, his perceptions but not his confessions, his vision that sees what is here and now rather than longing for a future that might be, the young man offers glimpses of his world that are far from being tantalising titbits coquettishly hinting at a sensationalist saga. Rather, each vignette is a small but robust bastion against the barrage of sensations and information that threatens to overwhelm the individual mind in the modern world.
The narrator is a vulnerable, sensitive loner who describes himself as he imagines the magpies and crows see him: “big, and warm, and always watching.” Often introspective but mostly extrospective, his gaze is benevolent, compassionate, and empathetic rather than voyeuristic. Frequently, his senses alight on men who are physically and mentally deteriorating due to age, chronic ailments, accidents, or fatal illnesses. There are few female characters bar his peripherally-portrayed girlfriend but the inner city suburb itself takes on a personified presence, while the wind, rain, and grumbling thunder make pathetic-fallacy-inspired cameo appearances.
Many of the vignettes are concerned with illness, accidents, and remedies: sometimes obliquely. In the opening vignette, a man who works at the local grocery store has been left badly injured after a motorcycle accident. He “was angry before” the crash, expressing his rage through the speeding motorbike. His face used to be contorted into “a grimace” as he raced through the streets of the suburb but it is now permanently twisted: “he walks crookedly now; his face is crooked.” And yet, he is “happier” now, although we are not told why. Adding to the impressionistic nature of this first vignette, the narrator then tells us that a man who lives in a nearby apartment “is not old; he is dying.” Again, we are not privy to the cause or nature of the illness but the narrator describes, plainly and without showy sentiment, the coughing fits that “last for minutes” and sometimes end in “sobbing” and the brief, noisy nature of the visits from his children on weekends. In the third vignette, the speaker “shake[s] a dose” of sugar into his coffee from the narrow neck of a medicine bottle which a cafe uses to stave off germ-ridden licked spoons.
Later in the sequence, the narrator reckons with the finality and banality of death in an extended vignette about a doctoral student who has died in his absence. It is only through the description of the brief portion of the man’s life when the narrator knew him that we learn a few meagre facts about the narrator: he works or studies at a university and he has been overseas. If we are curious about the narrator, however, we will not be satisfied. His gaze is focused on the people around him, whose lives intrigue him, and the elements that irk him. He writes with uncommon and incisive wisdom: “I can understand that he is dead but I can’t understand those months when he was alive for me, pottering around his small house, reading, tending the plants of his vegetable garden.” Death is cognizable for the narrator but his part in someone’s life, “when he was alive for me,” is not. The “I” is rarely the centre of these vignettes and yet, for a brief moment, the self comes to the fore as the narrator is puzzled by the lack of meaning to be found in existence other than observation: the man who has died was once alive “for me.”
However, there is one vignette in which the speaker unstops the medicine bottle to pour out a revelatory exposition on himself. He talks of trying to escape “the things that had broken down back home” by moving to London for a year at the age of twenty-nine. He would drink “a measured amount of wine” and watch TV to avoid reading, poetry, and thinking about loss. He registers guilt at dwelling on the pain rather than the moments of sunshine and forgetting. As if regretting having revealed so much of his inner life, he returns to describing the weather and the dying man’s cough but, still, the revelation remains, lingering like a once-spoken declaration of unrequited love between friends.
These are vignettes, after all, and so there is no narrative arc to cling to with its comforting and singular ever-after. The sequence concludes with a shower of “hot rain” that “brings no relief.” What was the sequence about? An answer, of sorts, lies in the narrator’s description of the conversation of the birds “basking in the palms above the hostel”: they chatter “about seeds, or death, or nothing.” All that Wasted Heat is not just hot air, though. It may be about germination, or stagnation, or the not-quite-nothing of the lonely existence of the observer. It is a sequence that defies paraphrasing and pigeonholing. It simply exists and existence is enough.
There is no story here and that is what makes it so compelling: Hadwen does not try to spin you a yarn or sell you an ideal. Instead, these vignettes resist narrativization as they richly, but not lavishly, describe the microcosm of the nameless suburb. Hadwen’s touch is neither miserly nor extravagant but “measured,” like the wine, as if to spare any more than what is sufficient would be to open the floodgates and give almost all to the extent of exhausting the self.
The self may be a fragile construct but we need it and All that Wasted Heat has a similar vitality: in its tenebrous, tentative state of being as an almost-narrative that does not aim to narrativize at all, the sequence speaks of resolute courage and tenacity in the face of the griefs and lonelinesses of everyday life. Psalm-like, each vignette could stand alone but together they make a song-poem akin to the bird that never sings the same song twice: “he is like a composer trying out melodies, a perfectionist who is never satisfied with the tune.”