David Foster. Plumbum. Vintage, 1995. ISBN: 0091832217. First published 1983.
I’m afraid I just didn’t get Plumbum.
Early on I felt that it must be saying something interesting, even profound, if only I had the smarts to understand the literary/religious/musical/drug references that must be just eluding me. My library copy bristles with bookmarks of pages and passages that I sensed might be significant once I got a grip on where it was all headed, what the underlying (or to the educated, the overlaying) messages were. Other page markers are for the passages I wanted to return to. Passages that evoke in their chaotic rhythms, their disintegrating language, their rambling logic and illogic, the anarchy of the Calcutta slums where much of the action takes place.
Almost 400 pages on, I just wanted it to be over.
The plot arcs from Canberra, where a group of dissatisfied musicians somehow coalesce into a band. Each of them is looking for one of the things that we might be tempted to believe that rock n roll fame and fortune can deliver us: love, sex, money, respect, enlightenment. From orderly Canberra the Blackman Brothers Band begins an accelerating descent into bedlam, first in a squat in seedy, street-wise Sydney, then to seedier Bangkok, where they sell themselves into slavery to make a buck, then sell their souls to a sound engineer called Nick, to fulfil their dreams.
Nick takes them to Calcutta, renames them Plumbum (it’s the Latin for lead. Get it? Worst. Band. Name. Ever.), draws from them unsuspected musical gifts, and disappears, leaving them to live on the doorstep of his studio. Pete, Jason, Rollo, Felix and Sharon slowly disperse throughout the city, each pursuing their own version of success, or at least survival, until Nick returns to make them gods.
Foster brings in each member of the band through their individual voices. Pete’s is a documentary narrative, Rollo has a superhero alter-ego, Felix speaks in a barely literate testosterone rave. Introductions out of the way, the narrative settles down into a normal enough telling of how the band members came together. Normal, although slightly odd in places, with Jason somehow responsible for his musical icon’s death outside the Albert Hall, and Felix’s near-blinding of Pete with a drumstick in a Fyshwick music shop.
Early on there seems to be a mania for pinning down the reality of Canberra, for naming every suburb, at times every street. Hackett Gardens, Turner. Groom Street, Hughes. Mugga Way, Red Hill. Gritty O’Connor. Scholarly Acton. There is sharp attention to the suburban details:
The window is fitted with a fly screen. Canberra, surrounded by cowpats, is in summer a city of flies. Through the window Pete can see a typical Canberra scene. Across two backyards of yellow grass is a house in the adjacent crescent….
Dotted around Spence are some stately old gums, remnants of the Aboriginal forest. In the shade of these trees stood ruminants ruminating before Canberra came. Spared by the farmer, they’ve been spared by the planner, though most have had limbs lopped, for making threatening gestures.
There are other interesting observations of Canberrans and the city they have made. Jason’s father Arthur is a holocaust survivor:
It’s not sufficiently realised today that Canberra in the 1950s was a city of reborn people. This artificial metropolis attracted reffos of a certain kind the way the blue light in a butcher’s shop does flies…
One of Arthur’s workmates began life in a Ukrainian hut…Today, you can find this man in the Commonwealth Club, hobnobbing with Oxford types. …Like it or not, when men have been through Hell, it is Canberra they desire, Canberra they create.
Later, in Calcutta, Pete tries his hand as a doctor, trying to make the lives around him somehow less horrific, perhaps more like that utopia, Canberra:
Sometimes at night, Pete has a vision of the lifestyle he wants for these people. Decent homes with sanitation. Parks with trees. A clean dry climate.
Free, compulsory education! Law and order! Medical Care! Pensions for the needy! Plenty of good food!
An artificial lake for recreation.
Despite the solidity of suburbia, even normal, dull Canberra starts to unravel for the members of BBB. Sharon’s husband throws her out. Felix’s car explodes in the middle of a Civic night. Rollo is somehow caught up in an ASIO sting, inadvertently passing bags of cash to Russian spies in the Curtin milk bar. Sacked, he’s no longer prevented from getting to rehearsal because “he’s too busy trying to decide which new fighter jet the Australian air force should purchase.” So, with nothing left for them in Canberra, the band begin their descent through the circles of hell, to be reborn as Plumbum.
BBB arrive in Sydney on page 138. From there to page 393 I became increasingly lost. As do the band members. I can appreciate the vibrancy, the suggestive power of Foster’s writing. As each band member’s individual obsessions overtake them, so the narrative and the language conveying it become more and more chaotic:
The convoy rolls into Utrecht. Pete, riding in Plumbum Three, is riding red and rigid. He saw that kiss, that craven-snatch of Polesblubber Maxmeat jellogore, offered under thin greaseworms on a Flandersfield halbersmack, and Sharon sucking up the yellow treaclepus.
Pages and pages of it. Perhaps I’m just old, but give me safe, suburban Canberra.