There’s a short story by the American writer Brian Evenson where a man finds himself in prison, even though he has no idea what kind of crime he’s committed. All he knows is that he’s been put there by the government, and if he makes too much noise, he’ll receive physical punishment. Towards the end of the story the person in the cell next to him, who he’s never seen or spoken to, begins tapping out a code on the cell bars. After hearing it enough times, the man repeats the same code on his own bars, using his glasses, until the other inmate’s tapping stops. His neighbour on the other side gets the idea; he too taps out the code, and on it goes, passed down the line, cell by cell.
The story ends with the narrator wondering if he’s actually done the right thing. Maybe he’s helped someone escape, maybe he’s helped inform on someone – we’ll never know.
I think of this story often, and I thought of it while reading Some Tests (Text Publishing), the new novel by Wayne Macauley. Even though the two stories are not similar, both examine the very human trait of adhering to a system, even in situations that don’t make sense.
[Macauley] examines the very human trait of adhering to a system, even in situations that don’t make sense.
Some Tests begins with its protagonist, 37-year-old Beth Own, waking in her bedroom to find a man, a locum, standing over her. After coming home early from work ‘feeling a bit off’ and sleeping most of the day before, she’s confused but not hostile, and we soon learn from the locum that he has been called in after Beth’s husband was unable to book her an appointment with her regular physician. By her own admission, she thinks, ‘It was nothing much, it was hardly even there… Your colour is red and wake up feeling a little pink.’ After asking her a few questions, the locum suggests that because she doesn’t have a clear grasp on her symptoms, Beth may simply be part of the ‘worried well’:
We worry about not being well… because we can. If a greater worry was where to find our next meal, provide for our family, find shelter, or even just a place to rest we would not have so much time to wildly imagine our possibly imaginary symptoms’ imaginary causes, or go online every evening after the kids are in bed to see if our imaginings have any basis in fact.
Macauley spends the rest of this taut, enjoyable novel exploring this idea, and as we form a clearer picture of Beth, her husband David and their two young daughters, it becomes pretty clear that although Beth might be vaguely sick, an over-active, or defiant, imagination is something she doesn’t appear to suffer from.
Soon enough the locum refers Beth to another doctor across town, beginning her path from suburb to suburb, specialist to specialist, each of whom seem concerned for Beth’s wellbeing, but send her off to have more and more tests. These tests and the constant travelling to new ones make up almost the entirety of the book. While shunted between these places she runs into people seemingly in the same situation, including a woman who breaks down on the bus, saying that she’s now been travelling from doctor to doctor for days.
These tests and the constant travelling to new ones make up almost the entirety of the book.
For something that’s built on such a high concept idea, Macauley manages to bring a lot of tension out of the narrative. Its clear goals and problems are refreshing, the prose itself clear and unadorned – Macauley has a gift for rendering tedium in a very readable fashion. Despite being told in the third person, Some Tests sticks closely to Beth, so that we are never more clued in than she is. The movements of the plot only allow small parts of Beth and David’s lives to filter through, and it’s only once we’re already invested in Beth’s story that we start to wonder if she is actually a good person.
Beth and her husband are comfortably middle-class and seemingly unimaginative. Beth works in aged care and David runs his own accounting firm; they talk about renovations to their home a lot; Beth mildly worries about missing work, though, admittedly, not as much as the woman who breaks down in front of her on the bus. Even so, the payments for each visit begin to stack up, and she asks a doctor to put her on a cheaper path.
It would have been easy for Some Tests to transpire as a satire of beaurocracy run amok, but Macauley’s focus on the subtle differences in our class system is what sets this novel apart. At no point does it over-reach – any time it looks like the circumstances are going to be too absurd to swallow, his solid characterisation shines through.
Macauley’s focus on the subtle differences in our class system is what sets this novel apart.
Certainly as a protagonist Beth is largely docile – at no point does she fight back or wholly question why she, and a small percentage of the population, are being singled out. When her husband manages to track her down between appointments, he attempts to take her home, but she refuses – she needs to know what’s happening to her. She moves from appointment to appointment, mostly by public transport; she stays overnight for observation in outer suburbs she’s barely heard of, and is even taken in for a night by a family, who give her a meal and share their own harrowing medical histories.
But it’s in these repeated instances of travelling and sitting in doctor’s waiting rooms that Beth, like all of us, is given enough free time for heady self-reflection. The slow feeling that we’ve done something wrong, or made an incorrect choice, can strike the most when waiting to see a doctor, and this worry and hunger for reassurance is something that Some Tests depicts incredibly well. As Beth submits herself to more and more tests, the book becomes less a search for answers and more of a depiction of yielding to the flow of a labyrinthine healthcare system.
The slow feeling that we’ve done something wrong…this worry and hunger for reassurance is something that Some Tests depicts incredibly well.
Indeed it’s not until half way through the novel that Beth is given the opportunity to ask a small group of medical students about what’s going on. The questions start out about her condition (should she have just slept it off and not bothered with a doctor at all in the first place?) but soon stray into the more personal: ‘Why have I been so impatient with my husband? Is my lack of care for my daughters merely a symptom or a deeper personality fault? Does any of this have anything to do with my mother?’ Although it’s not stated, it feels like the first time Beth has asked these sorts of things in her life.
In the end it’s hard to pin down exactly what kind of a novel Some Tests is. Like his previous work, Demons, a novel where a group of friends meet at a holiday house and tell each other long stories, Macauley’s particular talent is in etching out the different facets of our class system. Unlike that book, though, which was readable but perhaps a little misguided, Some Tests is a much more tense and realised work.
That we’re kept grounded as the horror of Beth’s situation slowly comes into focus is the book’s true gift. With the endless sitting, and moving between doctor’s appointments, it becomes clear what Beth has been avoiding but thinking about the whole time; that death comes for all of us, in the end.