Review: Lion Attack!
Written by Oliver Mol
Published by Scribe
How old does one have to be before one can write their first memoir? Seventy? Sixty? Maybe, even, fifty? Does it differ with the profession – musicians seem to do so in their early forties, before years of drugs and audio loops catch up with their memory, while most politicians wait until they’ve just got out of office and are conveniently away from diplomacy and former colleagues. These were the questions that shot through my head when I first picked up a copy of Lion Attack!, the soon-to-be-released memoir by twenty-six-year-old Sydney writer, Oliver Mol. Thankfully, what Mol lacks in experience, life or otherwise, he makes up for in talent.
From the very beginning, Lion Attack! follows an intriguing duel narrative, as it flips between two periods in the author’s life – him in the current day, as a writer-cum-Keep-Cup-worker, and him as a young teen living in Texas. It takes a bit of getting used to, particularly as the American sections are given barely any introductory context, but once the reader has a grasp on the pattern the language turns into a fast-flowing torrent of ideas. Not necessarily interesting or useful ideas, but just ideas. Lots of them. This is, from where I see it at least, the key to the whole affair: hundreds and hundreds of thoughts, emotions, concerns and queries, blasted across the canvas of an ordinary contemporary hipster lifestyle. It’s not any one of these notions that make the book so engaging, it’s the frantic mashup of them all, illustrating beautifully the hyper-active mind of a keen social observer – the literary equivalent of Arthur Boyd’s Bicentennial Tapestry. It’s not so much ‘stream-of-consciousness’ as ‘Niagara Falls-of-consciousness’.
This leads to one of the most fast-paced texts written in decades, where there are no conventional paragraphs and only one or two words per line. At times, the narrative skirts with poetry, or theatre where the dialogue is concerned. Minimalism, despite its current popularity, isn’t always a good thing – in poor cases, a lack of structure is merely an excuse to lazily clump together whatever the author feels like. Having said that, Lion Attack! couldn’t be a better example of the contrary. Mol does a truly outstanding job of keeping the writing both tight and fluent, being bitterly raw in his description of everything, cutting time on flowery details to deliver a sharp, often cutting interpretation of his experiences in the book. It may not be the most glamorous or elaborate writing, but its ability to stun and move on is wonderfully refreshing. The sentences aren’t short for the sake of it, but because the author wants to get straight to the point, give his ten cents worth, and move on. This style may not be for everyone, but for people who like fast, direct novels, (including, say, reviewers, who have only a few days to read through it start to finish), I couldn’t recommend Lion Attack! more highly.
So, the prose itself is terrific; the story it tells, however, is a somewhat different matter. While the actual language is hectic, the plot never seems to progress, and feels like it’s building to one, big, fiery climax that never arrives. This is where the complications of an autobiography come into play because everything here HAPPENED – I mean, it wasn’t like the author had a choice of how his or her life played out (presumably). Although Mol tosses a few ideas around, he never seems to settle on any one message, and by the end it all feels rather hollow and meaningless. No lessons are taught, no fears conquered, no challenges overcome, just a long list of events that are entertaining, but not wholly philosophical. Insight is given into all the characters and their personalities, but not enough to form complex critiques around. Perhaps the only driving motivation of the narrator is hooking up with a girl he met online, but once this has happened the rest of the book kind of peters out. Alternatively, that may be the entire purpose of the novel, to portray a series of anecdotes that stand up on their own and make no attempt to question anything, but the problem with this theory is that there is just enough opinion given, like the odd strong word or a touch of sarcasm, to land it in the awkward no-man’s-land between romp and satire. Admittedly, Oliver addresses this himself when he ponders in the book: ‘I have been worrying for months… what makes my memories so special? Then I realised – nothing’, although it isn’t an entirely satisfactory justification. It’s just a shame that a work with as much character of its own has a bit of an underwhelming end. Not that this is a huge issue, and certainly not a deal-breaker, but it is big enough to be worth mentioning.
I know I was quite harsh on Lion Attack in the above paragraph, so let me just reiterate that this book is fantastic, and totally worth your time. To some degree, it reads much like This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, especially where it describes being a child in the backwaters of America, not to mention the same blunt, pensive style. The characters are all mostly well-rounded, interesting people, if slightly stereotyped. The majority of them work at a location called the ‘Keep Cup factory’, a manufacturing depot of reusable coffee cups, where Oliver works. Each employee represents a unique kind of person – the warm, Mother Hen with a mysterious past, the enigmatic Greek Martin Sheen, the stuffy but good-hearted floor manager, Martin, to name a few. There’s also an intriguing relationship between Oliver and his older brother, who lives in a far away city and to whom Ollie aspires to be like (another similarity to This Boy’s Life) but never really shows his gratitude to. This is one of the few times we see the narrator humbled, and suddenly a great new depth of character is revealed where he is forced to back down and swallow his pride, greatly enhancing the experience.
In short, Lion Attack is a fascinating read (and I mean that positively). The energy and spirit is unstoppable, and is of a level of sophistication arguably never seen before. It is almost safe to say that Oliver Mol has created a totally new genre of memoir, that could transform the way we look at the world. Who knows where this ingenious young writer will go to from here, and only time will tell what kinds of magic his style of capable of producing. For now, at least, Mol could not have made a better debut to his career than Lion Attack!.
– Andrew Kelso
Lion Attack! was pubished on May 4.