A hearty lockdown meal (Photo: Getty Images)
A hearty lockdown meal (Photo: Getty Images)

BooksFebruary 18, 2020

Review: 2000ft Above Worry Level, a sublime novel about humdrum things

A hearty lockdown meal (Photo: Getty Images)
A hearty lockdown meal (Photo: Getty Images)

Eamonn Marra’s debut novel makes a study of the mundane: sanding a fence, heating baked beans, three pizzas for $29.99 delivered. Alie Benge reckons it belongs somewhere between Sally Rooney and Elena Ferrante.

It was about page three of 2000ft Above Worry Level. A feeling burst inside me: the joy of recognising something so beautiful and complicated. Perhaps it was the weird romance of, “What are you talking about? … You’re like a big handsome dog. I’m a hairless cat” and, “To make someone like you you’re meant to tell them a secret the first day you meet them.” Or the way these lines sit alongside the efficiency of, “Do you want to see my cock or my face?”

Everything on the page is so perfect and like nothing I’ve read before. I can’t place my finger anywhere and say, “There it is. That’s where it got me.”

2000ft Above Worry Level is a fractured narrative made up of short episodes in the life of an unnamed narrator. The episodes are indiscriminate. Few seem to have any real significance in the narrator’s life, but this isn’t a book about significant moments. It’s about the boring bits, the everyday “horror of living”, as Pip Adam put it in her blurb, the kind of mental breakdowns that occur in New World.

The narrator is a young man, who we first meet as he introduces us to the sad part of the internet, “a special place that only sad people can access … Jokes that make sad people laugh, but would make not-sad people worried”. The novel itself fits comfortably into this description. We watch as the narrator navigates flat meetings, has an appointment at WINZ, and hides from mounting debts. He has intrusive thoughts about throwing his iPod into the river, he tears a wart out with his teeth, and tries not to eat three pizzas. Marra doesn’t faff about with lengthy descriptions. The prose is sharp and clean, zeroing in on incantatory lists of what the character does, eats, and packs in his bag. This meditative rhythm is never dull. It beats like a drum, but it also wraps around you and creates a sense of claustrophobia. It reminded me of a recurring dream I used to have where I was trying to see something above me, but couldn’t lift my eyes from the ground. Anyone who’s struggled with their mental health will recognise this obsessive rumination and concern about detail, the inability to escape your own constant analysis. [Ed: Eamonn wrote an essay for us the other day about mining his mental health for art, and why this’ll be the last time he does it].

Eamonn Marra, shot by Ebony Lamb.

The 12 short stories that make up the narrative are split into three parts. Part 1 deals directly with anxiety and depression, ending with a breakdown of sorts and a Forrest Gump-esque trek out of town. Part 2 swings back to a summer in the narrator’s childhood and across three stories examines family and social dynamics, in which he is a kind of Nick Carraway figure. He observes the way those around him trade in power and social competence, as he struggles to connect with people. Mental illness isn’t dealt with as directly in part 2, but it moves under the surface, vaguely visible, like the shadow of a whale in dark water. Part 3 turns towards something more hopeful, maybe something resembling recovery. The novel doesn’t worry too much about the connective tissue between the stories. We dip in and out of episodes without learning much about anyone. A girlfriend is mentioned in one story, and she’s an ex-girlfriend in the next. We aren’t told how much time has elapsed between stories. The pared back nature of the narrative shows us how much is really important. We don’t need to know what happened with the girlfriend. It’s not that kind of story.

I want to talk about how funny this book is, but I’m unsure how to explain it. I can’t tell you exactly how a scene where the narrator gets his Jobseeker allowance cut for three weeks is funny. I can only tell you that the other passengers on my train would have heard me laugh one minute and gasp the next, then sigh in agony and cover my eyes. I might have whispered, “Come on, man.” The humour is so contained in its context that it can’t be pulled out and quoted. It’s not the humour of snappy one-liners, but of misfortune, and self-sabotage, and grim observations that precisely articulate a common feeling. The book teaches you how to read its humour, partly through its description of the sad part of the internet, and also through a brief scene in a tutorial where the narrator says The Bell Jar is “underrated as a comedy”. Though the scene doesn’t elaborate on how it’s funny, it says something important about the book in your hands. It says, this too is a funny book about being sad. From a less skilled writer, this instruction would have felt ham-fisted, but Marra pulls it off. I needed to be told. I needed Marra to insist that what I was reading was meant to be both funny and devastating.

This style of humour won’t be for everyone. There were moments when I had to walk away from the book, and moments when I skimmed with one eye closed (the wart; you’ll see). To enjoy the book, you’ll need to be able to find the WINZ scene funny, while also recognising the tragedy of it; that similar scenes happen every day, and that we live in a nation where beneficiaries are routinely humiliated by the systems that are supposed to help them. It’s certainly not a failure to not get the humour.

At university, I lent The Bell Jar to a classmate. I might have said it was “relatable”. A week later she thrust the book back into my hands, her eyes wide. Before I could ask if she liked it, she was backing down the hall. Now that I think about it, I can’t recall her ever speaking to me again. Some may have the same experience with 2000ft Above Worry Level. It can be grim, merciless, it reminds you how hard it is to live, but unlike The Bell Jar, the narrator turns to the reader and says, “It’s okay to laugh.”

This book fits into a lineage of work being made by writers like Sally Rooney, Elena Ferrante, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. These works have a way of turning away from the dramatic in favour of the mundane, and infusing the everyday bumblings of ordinary people with the kind of narrative energy reserved for kidnappings and house fires.

It’s a strange time we live in. We see more crises on our newsfeeds than on a Home and Away finale. It’s likely that we’re living at the end of days. So thank goodness we have art that captures the piercing anxiety and guilt that comes from trying to stay alive during late capitalism. In future years (if we get future years) we might hand this book to someone and say, “This is what it was like for us.”

2000ft Above Worry Level, by Eamonn Marra (Victoria University Press, $30) is available from Unity Books. 

Keep going!