Conference-ville by Frank Moorhouse

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Conference-ville is the first book I have read by Australian author, Frank Moorhouse, who, back in the day, was huge. He has written novels, short stories, essays and won the Miles Franklin Award for his novel, Dark Palace.

Conference-ville was written in the 1970’s. Despite the novel feeling quite dated though, Moorhouse is a good writer who doesn’t put words into stories unless they belong there.

The chapter titles are funny and clever. The first, In-Flight Sadism, sets up the story. The narrator of Conference-ville, a successful writer, is on his way to a political conference when someone else on his plane buys him a drink. Since Conference-ville was written in the olden days when you could move around on a plane, the writer goes and sits with the fellow who bought him the drink. During their conversation they discuss another writer, and the other fellow says, “he was a darling of the literary world, but no one reads him now.” The poor writer knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night knowing that one day, the same would be said of his writing. It seems cruel that this is almost Moorhouse’s fate now.

Class Warfare in the Bistro has the writer meeting with his fellow conference-goers and seeing through their facades while believing he is maintaining his own, then Words and Blood tells of the first morning of the conference. Some very big names from Australian politics are dropped in this section, with Jim Cairns and Frank Hardy as conference attendees, along with other names I didn’t recognise. During the conference’s first lunch break, a radical group try to break away and the writer, who would rather be at lunch, gets involved in the move. The mob turn on the writer when he points out that the conference wasn’t a protest.

Classroom Liberal and Saying Your Piece show the poor old writer making his official contribution to the conference, a speech that no one takes any notice of, but things improve with Motel Midnight when he goes to bed with an old flame who is also attending the conference. She turns out to be a popular guest, with a number of other men who thought they were ‘in’ knocking on her bedroom door while she and the writer are in bed together.

The next day the writer is interviewed by an idealistic young journalist in Pictures of Corruption. The journalist sees religion and big ideas in the writer’s work, which the writer says were never his intention. When the writer gets annoyed with the journalist the journalist breaks out photos of the writer which expose him as a ‘rhino’, someone who no longer thinks for himself.

In A Homely Experience, the writer arranges for a prostitute to visit him on the second evening of the conference. He pays for an hour, finishes in forty minutes and is then stuck with the prostitute’s conversation for the last twenty minutes, because as she says, he has paid for her time and companionship.

The writer sees video of himself during the chapter called Access to Ourselves and realises, to his dismay, that he fawns over other people. In The Holocaust Game, the conference-goers get drunk and play a stupid game where they guess if they would have survived the holocaust, and in A Gentlemen’s Club During the Cold Civil War, the writer and others in his group attend a club, where they don’t discuss anything of importance but enjoy being important. Conference-ville finishes with Café Society – table-to-table Fighting, with the aftermath of the conference, where it seemed little was decided on or actioned, and no one cared anyway.

By the end of Conference-ville, I still had no idea what the purpose of the conference was, but expect that the shifts in the attendees allegiances and the politic-ing in this story is much like an actual political conference. If I ever get invited to one, I’m not going. I’ll stay home and read another book by Moorhouse instead.

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