Brendan Cowell’s How it Feels

Picador, November 2010

Our protag, Neil, is a young ‘arty’ guy from Cronulla whose concerns oscillate between the people of home, and his burgeoning theatre career. He’s self-absorbed, which we know because it’s reiterated a million times in the book. He can’t make up his mind about which chick to f*ck and keep f*cking. He takes a lot of drugs, including the stupid ones (which he seems to fall into so easily). And lots of people from his hometown kill themselves. Neil himself grapples with this self-destructive drive (hence the sex and drugs). At the crux of it all is a long-term friendship/rivalry with his buddy Gordon, and perpetual emotion for his first love, Courtney.

Normally I love books about escape, desire, art, getting fucked-up, and definitely books about suicide, so why didn’t this hang with me? First of all I thought that perhaps some of the issues were a little too close. I lived in a beautiful place that I dreamed every day of getting out of and I understand the way the people you leave behind might think you have ‘tickets on yourself’. I went to a highschool that was full of drugs and misogynistic language, sex, violence, and sadly, kids who felt it necessary to end their lives. The character both loathes and envies ordinariness, to which many ‘creative types’ can relate.

So in the first part of the book I thought it may have been getting to me because some things were difficult to revisit, especially the way dickhead boys were – afraid of ridiculous things (like intimacy) but egging each other on to ‘manly’ acts filled with blood and semen. In awe of, and simultaneously trying to outdo each other’s masculinity. The voice is really quite spectacularly spot on.

But as the book goes on, Neil doesn’t progress, doesn’t grow – just keeps revisiting the same issues. Neil leaves Cronulla, and deals subsequently with his home town in a completely tactless manner. I wanted him, just once, to know how to behave in a situation where other people don’t see life as he does. Fine, be the superior intellect and the alpha male, but be clever about sharing your smart-arse thoughts. It is also painful to read of the destruction and unravelling of women around him. Obviously I’m talking about the character here, and not the book yet, but on this note I did not quite get why people continue to be there for him throughout the novel, including the women. People in his life continue to support him, and yet Neil has this wretched idea that he has been continually rejected. When someone does open their self to him he either chickens out and runs, or eventually f*cks them up in some way.

There are glimmers of empathy for Neil later in the book, years down the track – but he continues to f*ck up royally. Ultimately I just saw him as a little boy. A disloyal, manipulative, self-absorbed, misogynistic, annoying and confused little boy. In terms of the characterisation, I didn’t feel he was enough the product of his schooling, family, or place (as portrayed) to make you blame these entities for his outlook on life. There was nothing much to be done in solving the personality ‘issues’ – so the book meanders toward an inevitable conclusion.

The problem is, if we don’t care about Neil and are even annoyed by his relentless pettiness, the ending doesn’t seem as imbued with meaning as perhaps it was intended to be. And yet I needed to get to that point. I needed to put him to bed.

But the book itself. I felt in some ways it was a glorified coming-of-age. At other times I did think it was something more important, perhaps especially for young men – something with a social context, feelings and drives they might relate to. There is something about not only feelings of displacement in the place where you grew up, but the way that place comes with you and instigates a certain pull (often at odd or inopportune times). There is a great scene where Neil is back in Cronulla and at a barbecue – the detail of the foods and brands of food and drink displayed on the table is so recognisable. His best mate’s step-dad leans over the table and is basically suggesting to Neil that he could do some stuff at the local theatre (which Neil is of course beyond), and there’s this duality of judgement going on. Not of different classes, but of social mores – life expectations. Why wouldn’t you want to live in a beautiful place by the ocean, build a house, pop out some kids? But Neil wins in an ironic sense throughout the book (not that what he does is any better) through the proof that not all is what it seems on the surface in Cronulla: a buck’s night means actual prostitutes, there is a shitload of drug-abuse and alcoholism, people desire the wrong people, and of course, so many young people (men, specifically) take their own lives.

But in regards to suicide, which could have been the meatiest theme of the novel, I felt Cowell only skimmed the surface. The theme itself hung like a spectre over the narrative, but there was no real delving into it. The motivations are all blurry, such as a character having some internal ‘darkness’. There was no real understanding of it besides ‘bravery’ or ‘cowardice’. Of course, suicide is rarely a thing you can explain or understand but I just didn’t think the novel contained enough of the questions that are raised and the struggle that leads toward it – or even that leads toward the destructive behaviour. It seemed very cut and dry. The characters were what they were, and then sometimes they were gone. There were no lasting revelations, which is sometimes a strong thing in fiction, but there was no real development in the characters either. Every event, then, in the story felt somewhat superficial, particularly the fight in the closing scenes. As reader I asked the characters: ‘are you guys still going on about this?’ And then I may have yawned.

The writing itself is inventive, mostly strong. The voice of the character is obviously well-developed and sustained (as it annoyed me so well!). This may come from Cowell’s acting experience, where one has to inhabit a character. There are some very awkward similes, though, ie. ‘We fished quietly as the moon made its first offering to the night, appearing as a sort-of fucked-up white banana that a mouse had chewed a hole in, but on its travels managed to insert a row of forty-watt bulbs inside’. A simile should give an instant, evocative picture of something, not make you turn away from the page and try desperately to conjure the image.

In the perpetual immaturity of the main character I can’t help but, in the main, see this as a book dealing with immaturity. And I know not every book has to deal with depth and meaning – but for me there was not much left to take away from it. This is the story of continual one-upmanship, jerking off, spitting in the face of your friends and a perpetual but flippant annihilative drive. It’s a stunted-growth story. If it were really about the drive to create art and escape the inescapable past, the pull of death, and failure to create and connect – that might have been satisfying.

3 thoughts on “Brendan Cowell’s How it Feels

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Brendan Cowell’s How it Feels – LiteraryMinded --

  2. Pingback: LiteraryMinded’s fifth blog anniversary spectacular! (part five) | LiteraryMinded

  3. Pingback: How It Feels, by Brendan Cowell « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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