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Sunday, February 19, 2023

'Compulsion' by Kate Scott


This novel was gifted to me by the publisher 

From the BLURB; 

It’s the turn of the new millennium, and the bright young things are partying like it’s the end of the world. Dark glamour and debauched music reign, gigs culminating with everyone on stage – or undressed. Lucy, editor of a music magazine, is at the blazing neon centre, ecstatically seeking oblivion. But as her life (featuring a stalker, a not-quite ex-husband, and an affair with a cold, charismatic musician) veers from complicated to chaotic, she burns it all down, decamping to the remote seaside town of her childhood ­– to start again. 

In Abergele, Lucy recreates her old existence in hothouse miniature. Past friends and compulsions reappear, along with new fascinations. One of them is Robin, photographer and lonely son of a famous producer. Recognising in each other a fellow exile and a rich source of distraction, they fall into step on daily rambles across the cliffs. Their charged conversations about music and philosophy function as both high-stakes flirtation and a stealth mechanism for understanding themselves, resulting in an intense bond that disarms them both. 

Compulsion is a razor-sharp debut about the transcendence of new highs, the allure of new lows, and the relentless power of our obsessions. Music, sex, food, drugs, fashion and nature coalesce to overwhelm the senses on every page.

'Compulsion' is the debut adult-fiction novel by Australian author Kate Scott, published by Penguin Random House and released in January of 2023.

I was very kindly gifted this copy while I was attending a meeting at PRH, and getting a squiz at their new Melbourne office location. I had this one pressed into my hands as a great read if I wanted some Y2K nostalgia, given that this novel is set in 2003 and 2004 and very much speaking to my millennium young-adulthood (I also loved its purple Vox Lux vibes!)

I don't know if the way I want to describe this novel is one the author will appreciate. Because I'm going to make a very millennial reference as a teenager of the early-00s that is such a specific pop-cultural definition of "cool" because it was so far removed from my actual life and youth (and yet I think the author was an *actual* cool person of the time, so might cringe at me reaching for this). Here it goes; ... imagine if Skins continued into the character's early-adulthood and their 20s. I'd also say there's a way I'd categorise this as a millennial The Great Gatsby if the 'green light' everyone reaches for is the bygone era of the 80s which, they're all convinced had better music, drugs, and sex ... even as in the most meta-way possible they're currently toiling in a novel about nostalgia for the early-naughties (and so we all beat on). Maybe this is a Y2K Almost Famous in which some characters are trying to grasp at the new music-scene, the new way of talking, and writing about said scene.

I don't know. There's a lot in here - but if you cook it all down, that logline is pretty accurate; Set against the backdrop of the new millennium, a seductive summer read about obsession, sex, friendship and music from an exciting new talent.

It's basically a novel revolving around the characters of Lucy and Robin who find themselves in their hometown of Abergele, in Wales - Lucy is a music magazine editor trying to write her first book, and fleeing some toxic romantic entanglements, who retreats to the seaside town of her childhood. Robin is a photographer and son of a famous music producer, back in town to be by the bedside of a sick relative. They stumble and slide into each other (Robin happens to be maybe-dating one of Lucy's ex-classmates and mean girl-ish nemeses who still lives in town). They form a walking-friendship and then Lucy forms a little cohort of friends old and new who come to her dining table at least once a week for lavish dinners, deep-and-meaningfuls, drugs, booze, and rapid-fire music listacles.

A good chunk of the novel is revelling in their revelry, getting across some hyper-specific and niche music opinions that kinda feels like those intense pop-culture asides in a Tarantino movie ... but eventually the path reveals itself, and there's a love story buried in here as Robin and Lucy flit and fumble towards some semblance of connection they're both clearly craving.

Straight up; if you're not in the mood for this novel, it'll piss you off (but isn't that true of most things?) I just mean; this is a novel that is buoyed by language and nostalgia. Maybe because I was in that "this is Skins!" headspace, but reading the novel's thirst for nostalgia even as the characters are living in the moment, I was reminded of this bit by UK comedian Simons Amstell where he talks about being a teenager and running screaming through the streets with his friends and even then thinking; "this is fun, this is what being young looks like, I better remember this because this is definitely what being a teenager is all about," in this never-ending paranoia narration of remembering not to forget, and not living enough in the moment while you're trying to imprint the moment;

Robin is struck by how beautiful everyone looks in the sky's humid matt-black embrace. He mustn't forget this, he thinks; he mustn't forget how young they are tonight.

The novel is almost lackadaisical in its plotting, but manic in its language and dialogue - some of which is so *lush* and delectable. Some sentences made me gulp, they were so delicious on the page; 

The air outside crackled and rasped. Our cab pulled away from the curb, and Anika opened the windows to drink in the dissolving afternoon. It carried the perfume of jasmine, frangipanis on the edge of rot, and trace elements of promise. The sunset gathered like a flock of flamingos and broke apart with fanfare.

See, I read that as an Aussie ‘Weetzie Bat,’ some real Francesca Lia Block vibes. And I dig it!

But even as I admired and loved some of this writing, even I can admit - it gets a little overwrought (especially when the plot itself is so languid) and huge chunks of the novel do indeed read like whatever tome and ode to music that Lucy is working on for her manuscript, but I really could have just done without (the descriptions of a song could be beautiful, but rapid-fire espousals on niche and obscure musical references just made me feel deeply uncool and head-spinny).

The other part of this novel that I didn't get (but just rolled with) is ... it's set in Abergele - why? Like, the whole time I was thinking that it *sounds* Australian. I could picture this all happening in an Aussie seaside town. The characters sound Australian, to me. The early-00s being drawn is the Y2K I remember living through (and I grew up on the Mornington Peninsula) ... but then I'll be walloped over the head with "actually, this is Wales." And I'm not sure *why*? The author (I don't think?) has ever lived in Wales? (I see she's lived in Newcastle and Brisbane though, and YES! - that's what this place reads like!) Was Abergele just to settle my "this-is-an-ode-to-Skins" opinion even more? Maybe the songs and artists being referenced were mostly European (I honestly could not tell you, most of the references were over my head) so they thought that music-diet should inform location? Was it so that Lucy could more easily scoot over to Berlin to write about the concert scene over there?

The setting isn't really drawn out overly (like I said: I read most of this thinking it was Australia) and apart from Lucy casually throwing off a fisherman's jumper or the author outright saying she needed to return to Abergele, I really wasn't getting "Wales" from it? And it's a shame. I think this novel could have had a whole new life and appreciation had the author accepted and promoted it as a Gatsby does millennial Brisbane.

Overall I really liked this when I was in the mood to pick it up. On a language and syntax level some of it is overwrought, but GOSH - is it fun! The author has a real talent that I look forward to tracking. Maybe 'Compulsion' is a little navel-gazey and too focused on sounding clever (much like the characters), and some aspects sound good on blurb but read empty on the page (like the aforementioned Abergele setting - nothing against Wales! But ... you're an Aussie author, embrace it!)

But as a debut I'm pretty impressed that the author has such a voice on them. I'm also not in the least surprised to discover the Kate Scott has come from the Zeitgeist Agency stable, who I think are very voice-y literary agents and tend to nail it (brava). This one rather tickled me, but maybe I'm just a millennial chasing that nostalgia-hit that Scott blows out so prettily ... if that sells it to you, then; this is like a Skins redux for millennial adults.


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