Tourist trap: Luke Horton on ‘The Fogging’
Luke Horton’s debut novel The Fogging (Scribe, July) follows two Australian academics as their relationship breaks down while on holiday in Bali. Reviewer David Little described The Fogging as ‘a gripping, subtle psychological tragedy’. He spoke to the author.
The Fogging is about the breakdown of a romantic relationship between two people, Tom and Clara. Importantly though, it’s written exclusively from Tom’s point of view. Why was it important for you to anchor the story in that single perspective?
The idea that I might include someone else’s perspective in the book did come up at one point, in a conversation with my editor, mostly as a way of solving the problem that so many important things happen to Clara and we get so little insight into them because she doesn’t speak about them much, or at all, and Tom is kind of baffled by Clara’s behaviour. But I never tried it. Not only do I doubt my ability to do that well, but I am drawn to books that immerse you in one person’s consciousness, and that seemed right for this book. Sometimes when you split a novel into different perspectives you lose more than you gain. And this book is about one very particular person’s solipsistic, self-absorbed view of the world. So, for better or worse, it made sense to stick with him all the way through. The technical challenge then was how to give the reader enough insight into Clara’s experiences and point of view. And, also, how to convince the reader to stick with just Tom for over 200 pages!
Tom suffers from a panic disorder, something that makes social interaction painful and problematic for him, as it does for many people. But, for me, much of the pleasure of reading the book came from Tom’s obsessive focus on the tone and direction of social interactions, which makes conversations feel like intricately choreographed routines. How did you negotiate representing anxiety in this way, as a burden but also as a kind of insistent focus?
I think the worst thing you can do when portraying any kind of mental illness is to romanticise it by suggesting there is something especially sensitive or special about the sufferer. And, of course, everyone is to some degree always conscious of the tone and direction of social interactions. But social anxiety is a kind of insistent focus on all of that. Anxious people tend to take all of that much more seriously than people without anxiety, at least in the moment. When he is feeling anxious, Tom can’t stop himself from seeing deeper meaning in the minutiae of social interactions, as if they reveal something deep, and usually something bad, about himself, or about how others feel about him. This can be excruciating to read, as it can be to go through, and to observe in others, so I am glad you found some of this pleasurable. Maybe that comes from the fact there is something inherently comic in it too: in taking things so seriously, in being so insistently focused, and in the contrast between your hyper aware, paranoid and accelerated state of mind, and the relaxed state of mind of the non-anxious people around you.
Tom and Clara are going through all of this in the context of a trip to Bali. While they’re there, Tom thinks a lot about another trip they took together around the world. It occurred to me after reading the book that in a novel ostensibly about holidays, not a lot of leisure actually takes place. There is a lot of social friction, a lot of unease, a lot of worrying about being seen to relax, have a good time in the right order or in the right way. How did you think about the concept of leisure while writing the book?
Designated leisure time is always pressurised. Especially expensive leisure you can’t really afford. For people like Tom and Clara, whose incomes are low and whose work is sessional and precarious, and who are exhausted and suffering from anxiety, this worry about having a good time is only heightened. They are incredibly privileged to be able to do this at all of course, but their effort to join in with the millions of Australians who take holidays in winter to places like Bali is an attempt to claim for themselves something of the comfortable, financially secure lifestyle they aspire to—and that maybe as academics with PhDs they might once have already secured by this point in their careers—where they can take international holidays and it be no big deal. But it is a big deal for them. And quite possibly they will never have the comfortable life where it is not a big deal. Also, they work in an industry where they are never really on holiday anyway; there is always something they should be doing with their time—which is increasingly the case for everyone. Leisure as a concept is being eroded. And maybe, for so many reasons—the casualisation of labour, climate change and now coronavirus—we are seeing a more generalised erosion of that complacency around international holidays too.
I’m also curious as to how you see yourself as a writer of travel literature more broadly. Tom and Clara are, for the most part, in places that are not their homes, and the people they meet who do live there are generally employed to provide them with an enjoyable experience. What kinds of ethical considerations are involved for you when you represent the cultures your characters (and by extension you, as a writer) are visiting?
This was probably the biggest ethical question for me while writing the book. The idea of thoughtlessly reproducing the colonial novel set in an exotic location where the locals are simply local colour, the backdrop for an unfolding white, middle-class drama, filled me with dread. One solution would be to write Balinese characters into it; to have Tom or Clara, or more likely [their new friend] Madeleine, become good friends with someone there and give them a voice in the book. But that wouldn’t be true to the experience of these kinds of tourists, or to these specific people, and it would bring with it its own ethical issues. It would also weaken the examination or critique of this kind of tourism that is at the heart of the book. I wanted the distance between tourist and local to feel as brutal and grotesque and painful to the reader as it does at times to Tom.
Tom has social anxiety, but interactions when you are on holiday in places like Bali are inherently awkward. Some people are able to transcend this to some degree, as does Madeleine a bit, but some people are just never that comfortable with it. And Tom really struggles to transcend the awkwardness of these power relations. He finds all these tourists indulging in colonial fantasies and rich lifestyles they don’t have at home repellent. And he finds his interactions with the people serving him excruciating. But he loves things about the holiday too. He loves being around the Balinese people and he admires the beauty of the island, and of course he is not immune to the luxury of resorts etc. It is a complex process of justification you go through when you visit places like this, places where the locals are much poorer than you, and you can see what tourism does to their country, and when you are aware of the historical, colonial context to it all, but you also know that so many livelihoods rely on this tourism. It is complicated, and fraught, and full of hypocrisy and ambivalence, which makes it a good thing to write about.
I want to ask you about the publication of the book. We don’t live in a world of overseas travel and open bookstores anymore. What’s it like to publish a book like this (or a book at all) during the time of Covid-19?
The biggest effect of Covid-19 on my book so far has been that my editor lost her job right at the end of the process, just as the book was being proofread. It was terribly sad and hard, but if we are thinking only in terms of the book, we were right at the end of the process and we got to finish it together, something we had worked on for over a year—we were literally that day approving the very last edits of the book—so that is something. Beyond that, it is a bit sad that I probably won’t get a book launch in a physical bookshop, but if that is the extent of the effect on my book, then I am lucky. Once I stopped worrying about how restrictions would affect the book, it became very heartening to see all the support for bookshops and authors and publishers online. Interest in novels could have evaporated at a time like this, but it seems that people are still interested, and I am very grateful for that.
What was the last book you read and loved?
I am currently reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, and before that I read Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction. It was not intentional, reading them one after another, but doing so has made these funny books seem even funnier. My mother loved The Magic Mountain and I have tried to read it before, but I am relishing it this time. Reading Bernhard as I was finishing off The Fogging was good because you go through so many moods about your own book and my mood at that time was that I’d written a pretty unpleasant book about an arsehole, and then I read Extinction and felt totally fine about it again. His work really encourages you to hold your nerve.