Edward Cole was the forward-thinking, optimistic and eccentric founder of Cole’s Book Arcade – a utopian hive of 1880’s Melbourne. In the Arcade was stacked all manner of books (which were able to be perused on in-store lounges), pamphlets (including challenging, self-published explorations by Cole), and eventually, monkeys, a hall of wonders and live music – buoying the spirit of the people during the 1890s economic crisis.
Cole’s story is fascinating – from the goldfields, to meeting his wife through a newspaper advertisement, raising children (here, each brightly rendered with their own set of attributes and flaws), being involved with influential early Australians such as Alfred Deakin, fighting battles against prejudice and more personal battles of fear and desire, and all the while growing, maintaining and deciding on the future of the wondrous Arcade.
Lisa Lang has vividly captured the life of a unique and admirable man. There is much joy and celebration in her prose – so when the hard, dark times hit for Cole, it is very easy to be moved. I won’t be forgetting his young daughter Ruby, who loves strawberries, any time soon. Nor what happened to Cole on the goldfields. Nor the way his memories, and the dead, come back to him fresh and vivid in old age, like James Whale’s demons in the film Gods and Monsters.
The book is also a sensuous delight – vibrant colours, the taste and smell of exotic teas, the crunch of an apple, the skin of someone you’ve known for so many years, the intimacy of children, the tense mood of a séance. Here’s a small section, from when Cole shows guests D’Ama, Deakin and Tart his newly constructed hall of wonders – Wonderland – to give you an idea of Lang’s prose:
‘At the far end of the room they find D’Ama, in partial darkness, lighting his pipe. As they approach he steps to the side, revealing three full-length mirrors mounted onto the wall. The three men – Edward, Deakin and Quong Tart – are confronted by three grotesque alter egos. Deakin’s head is enormous, his lips like two pink eels mating on his face. Quong Tart has shriveled up into a wasted figure, a deflated balloon of a man. And Edward, holding the lamp before his body, is a brilliant circle of light, his tiny bearded head sitting at its apex.’
Lang first published a nonfiction biography of Cole (EW Cole: Chasing the Rainbow) through Arcade Publications. The novel is published by Allen & Unwin, as Lang, most deservedly, was a joint winner of the Australian/Vogel Literary Award last year (along with Kristel Thornell’s Night Street). It must have been a leap to take all that research and construct a narrative out of it – to get inside Cole’s headspace, to capture the emotional dimensions of real life – of his family and friends. But she is very successful in doing so. And what strikes me about this engrossing book, too, is its lack of pretension. Many first novels or early novels, even by very good authors, have an air of taking themselves too seriously. You frown while reading them. But Utopian Man is mature, delightful, and even something to be grateful for – now we can remember there was a man like Cole who was generous, loving, complex, fair, optimistic, adventurous; and a lover of books, funny mirrors and monkeys.
Tonight (Tuesday 14 September 2010) I have the great pleasure of helping launch Utopian Man by asking Lisa Lang a few questions at the Melbourne City Library (Flinders Lane) at 6:30pm. It would be great to see you there.