On Holly Childs’ NO LIMIT 0 Comments

On Holly Childs’ NO LIMIT

Last night I read Holly Childs’ novella No Limit in one go. I was sitting up in bed after a tedious day full of high frequencies. Government waiting rooms, impassive salespeople, legal documents, red tape. I had wanted to read the book for a while not only because I am interested in the writing of young Australians but because it was the final product of the Hologram project overseen by Johannes Jakob and Express Media, an organisation I have close ties with. That said, when I ordered the book I knew little of what I was in for. I was peripherally familiar with Childs’ manipulations of digital aesthetics in her Crazy In Love magazine, but I hadn’t read any of her fiction. To judge from her online presence, I had some idea of the territory—examinations of our relationship to the internet, abundant cultural references, casual drug use, et cetera—but I had little notion that these now commonplace tropes would be taken to create something that didn’t just feel new, but vital and necessary.

Like her contemporary Tao Lin, Childs is interested in how technology’s assimilation into our everyday life alters our brains and communicative abilities. Ash, the novella’s protagonist, gets stuck in Auckland when a supposedly imminent volcano eruption halts her plane out of New Zealand. She has to find her cousin Haydn at his friend Anahera’s, who is excitedly plotting an end-of-the-world rave party. In the background, disaster looms, and paranoia creeps up spiderlike as access to digital information becomes fraught. This is more or less the extent of the plot. But the book doesn’t really concern itself with telling a point A to point B story; it’s more like a guided tour through the weirdnesses of contemporary life.

As I followed Ash through her amusing and surreal run-ins with doltish dudebros and rave-happy pill chompers, I got the sense that I had experienced this narrative before, in a much older and less immediately relatable text. In many ways, Ash Rumble’s wanderings echo those of Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Both protagonists are lost in familiar but alienating landscapes, attempting to interpret systems of communication that are constantly on the edge of breaking down. Both are constantly having to shirk the sexual advances of self-assured douchebags, and both are trying to reach information cordoned off behind broken links and meaningless noise.

But while Pynchon leaves Oedipa Maas at the mercy of the signs and symbols she has to interpret, Childs’ knows that in the internet age we are no longer passive receivers of information: we are complicit in its dissemination, circulation, and appropriation. Ash constantly pauses whatever she’s doing to tweet things like “Fuck u Stilnox, Worst Pharm Ever”, and overhears people discussing the implications of a personal brand comprised solely of reblogs and regrams (“[it’s] built entirely off others’ hard work”). By consequence, the inundation of cultural references that becomes increasingly frenetic as the book progresses doesn’t feel gratuitous or shallow, but the logical end result of a culture that reaches for gifs when the need to self-express pops up. Studio Ghibli becomes an adjective. A drive-in session of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia seems the most appropriate course of action in the face of a possible apocalypse. Instead of trying to explain how she feels in plain English, Ash goes, “I feel like I’m Tank Girl, in the future with no water,” as if obscure cultural touchstones were now agreed to be the most precise method of describing emotion.

The language in No Limit is scarily familiar. Childs’ ear for Gen Y neologisms and slang is acute. Rarely is an assertive statement made without a stuttering “like” or “kind of” to cushion it. But something I think some readers will take issue with is the fact that sometimes these characters don’t sound like “real people”, and that their tangential monologues are sometimes so unnatural as to be unbelievable. This is a common complaint about Don DeLillo’s writing, particularly in his novel White Noise (1985), where people actually say things like “she has important hair”. Like White Noise, the world we’re offered in No Limit is skewed and hyperreal. It’s not the world we know delivered raw, but the world we know filtered through an internet-addled consciousness. People say things like, “He’s always trying to put on a show for international ladies, like, I’m assuming, yourself. Me on the other hand, I am totally pro-feminist, I’m also sensitive to lesbians and the broad spectrum of trans* identities. I’m a good ally. I’ll be useful after the collapse.” Those declarative phrasings would never come out of somebody’s mouth verbatim. But in the textual world of No Limit they feel right at home.

So yes, I found some similarities between this book and a certain American postmodernism. But I don’t really see No Limit as being a continuation of that postmodernism. To me, it’s further evidence that overlords like Pynchon and DeLillo are becoming relics of a past age. Valuable and virtuosic writers whose edges have dulled. Something about No Limit and the writing surrounding it (Tao Lin, Steve Roggenbuck, Megan Boyle, in addition to other young Australian writers like Oliver Mol and Emmie Rae) seems to be looking forward to a new kind of literature. One that will adequately capture how it feels to be a person nowadays. If this sounds like something you want to be a part of, I really, really recommend you check this book out. It is very excellent.

Sean Watson (20) is a writer and editor from Melbourne. He is an editor of Melbourne University’s Farrago and a poetry editor for Voiceworks.

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