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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Imogen Dewey

Paradise Estate by Max Easton review – a layered, aching portrait of millennial malaise

Paradise Estate by Max Easton
Paradise Estate by Max Easton is out now through Giramondo. Composite: Giramondo/Nash Ferguson

Max Easton’s 2021 debut The Magpie Wing invited you to invest so much in his characters that his choice to return to them two years later in Paradise Estate feels almost like fan service. You don’t have to have read that novel to enjoy this – but it helps.

The Magpie Wing had several heroes, but ruthlessly perceptive, vulnerable Helen Coleman was a standout. She’s 37 when Paradise Estate opens, undone by a breakup, “sucked dry” by another, more enormous grief, and looking for somewhere to live. Covid’s peak has passed but Sydney’s post-pandemic malaise is still taking form. Lives have been “on hold until things were declared safe”. But safety, for Easton, is an unstable quantity. Over 2022 Helen and the group she assembles to populate her Hurlstone Park sharehouse face floods, mould, a boringly vicious rental market, the ambient distress of the climate disaster and of a lethally apathetic body politic – and each other.

It’s exhilarating to read something so close to the present and with such specific textures of place. Paradise Estate’s stomping ground overlaps with The Magpie Wing’s in western Sydney – Liverpool, Campbelltown, Leppington – but settles in closer to the city – Dulwich Hill, Ashfield, Marrickville – echoing the unsteady gentrification of its themes and characters.

And characters are the thing, for Easton. Last month the critic Merve Emre articulated the “hollow and shiftless” feeling of seeing “the right words” (about class, race, capitalism, the patriarchy) constantly regurgitated without “structural analysis that puts them in relation to one another”. But by anchoring these questions in very real, believable people, Easton is able to meaningfully test them out. His ideas can be too explicitly stated, a criticism also levelled at his debut (and not infrequently at other local fiction). But a sometimes-bald theorising is more than balanced by the layered materiality of these Sydney lives. At pubs and protests and record stores, at Henson Park or Market City Tavern, tapping off the bus at the Broadway shops, the cast of Paradise Estate continually trace this era’s relationship to capital, to labour, to politics, to human relations.

“No, it’s not a sharehouse novel,” Easton says he told friends while writing, “it just features six people cohabiting in their 30s because that’s the way it is now.”

There’s Sunny, toiling enthusiastically over a “community archive” to preserve the city’s “golden era for underground music” (and the chaotic artistic and political visions of Helen’s brother, Walt – whose obsessive preoccupation with the city’s suburban divides led, in The Magpie Wing, to a memorably misguided campaign for western Sydney to secede). There’s Beth, keeping “a lid on her fury” through dehumanising casual jobs, vaping and posting her way to temporary calm. There’s a couple slumming it after lockdown at the parental home in Woollahra: patronising, status-obsessed Nathan, who wields his “socialist research hub” for clout; and scientist Alice, desperately ignoring his chronic dishonesty, on a knife-edge between privileged efficiency and teary self-absorption. For a while, there’s jumpy, slightly sinister Dale, doing not much. And later there’s Rocco, chasing his last chance at a rugby career.

Easton jumps between them, bookmarking each section with more intimate, almost dreamlike vignettes into their various states of mind (mostly frustration and ennui). Over and over he notates the “ambience of shared housing”: the combination of isolation and overexposure, the “incidental breaches of privacy”. It’s messier than the metronomic progressions of The Magpie Wing; clumsier, even. But also fuller and richer – a dark, gossipy humour fluorescing over the sprawl. Often it’s flat-out funny; some truly weird, slapstick shit goes down in sharehouses.

The group tentatively try to turn the house into a political project. There are tensions and missteps over who and what is really radical – at art school, at DIY hardcore gigs, in the face of an “insane lurch to the far right”. From Gramsci to Black Flag, Easton wears his influences on his sleeve. A comic scene where one housemate accuses another of using their “lives as fodder for a Verso submission” brilliantly skewers both the novel’s demographic and its own pretensions to radicalism. As Rocco says to Helen: “In this country? A sharehouse that even pretends to be a commune is about as good as it gets.”

Sunny dubs it “Paradise Estate”, after a post-punk track that charts (per its YouTube page) “alienation in all of its forms and the struggle for community and love”. Easton understands the uneasy relief that sets in at rock bottom, deals with human fragility in a steady, understated way – and always punches up. He is unforgiving of his characters’ small hypocrisies but never forgets their ache to be known.

They are hungry for solidarity and lives that can’t be co-opted – some antidote to the pervasive complacency of the times. In The Magpie Wing, this manifested in the hunt for meaningful leftwing activity (through punk, politics, sport). After well-drawn disillusionment in the 2022 Albanese election, the goal is less lofty: some sort of appreciation, any reason to believe in themselves and in the people around them. Then, eventually, just a bit more stability – “no hills to die on, no hole to die in”. The difference between grown up and beaten down isn’t all that clear.

Toward the novel’s end, Sunny – sifting through Walt’s zines, collages and “frantic unpublished essays” – has an epiphany: “It hadn’t been about leaving a comprehensive statement behind, but about writing it all down before it was over.”

  • Paradise Estate by Max Easton is out now through Giramondo

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