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Thinking pop culture

In Celebration of Ragtag Posses

Last year, in a very small town with a pretty big university, I wrote a forthcoming book called Internet and Intimacy.

A minor point in my book but one with some happily tangential relevance to a slew of novels I read during that period, is how online dating often connects people whose paths wouldn’t normally cross.

In real life most people meet their partners at work/school/church or through friends - their lives, their networks are likely already at least a little connected. Online however, and matching is based on algorithms. Online we’re put in the path of people we’d normally never ever bump into and are paired off based on keywords and electronic prayers for, say, an athletic Aryan atheist who adequately appreciates Air Supply, aqua-aerobics and almond butter.

While in film and television such matches are invariably presented as disastrous - the Internet, apparently, has uniquely diabolical ways to efficiently match us with homicidal maniacs and organ traffickers - in real life the whole shebang is predictably much less exciting. No, you probably won’t actually meet the love your life, but you’re unlikely to wake up sans kidney either.

Recently I’ve realised I have a real fondness for fictional unions of people whose paths probably shouldn’t have crossed, but they did and it was splendid. This can involve sex, sure, but I particularly like it when it involves unique friendships.

In real life friendships oftentimes are with people like us: similar backgrounds, education, income, values. In fiction however, sometimes the most special relationships form between people who have no real business being in one another’s company but there they are and it’s magical.

Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Effect. A substantially better book, I thought, than its predecessor The Rosie Project. As an academic who’s done two US sabbaticals, I did have to laugh at how one of the characters organised his own American sabbatical - complete with a J1 visa! - in mere pages, but nonetheless, something I deeply enjoyed was the informal men’s group at the heart of the story.

Don is the protagonist of both volumes. In Effect, he’s a father-to-be now residing in New York. His romantic relationship with the titular Rosie is on the rocks and his social issues - Asperger’s, as opposed to him just being a run-of-the-mill academic weirdo - are causing him extra consternation.

Don’s sexually rapacious and generally-Melbourne-based colleague Gene - who I suspect was based on at least one of my former bosses - is on sabbatical, staying with Don in the U.S. Then, rounding out a quirky foursome, are Don’s plump refrigeration specialist friend, Dave, and Rockstar George, a client of Dave’s and soon to be Don’s landlord.

This of course, is not an uncommon pop culture plot device. Many narratives throw together a diverse bunch of characters in the hope that chaos/chemistry/calamity ensues.

Unlike most attempts at the ragtag posse however, Don and Gene and Dave and George actually work. Their rapport is easy and unforced, humorous and occassionally moving, and, most importantly, believable. Too often such ensembles are assembled consciously, formulaically and heavy-handedly - think of the slew of television shows built around the clichéd clustering of the nerd, the hot guy, the hot girl, the overbearing boss and the office “mom” - and the parts just don’t fit together.

But when it works it’s lovely.

Part of the charm of Jonas Jonasson’s (admittedly long-winded) book The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared - and something watered down substantially in the film - was the gathering of a group of characters who, under ordinary circumstances would never have met, but through literary happenstance did. A centenarian on the run from his nursing home, a whipper-napper septuagenarian, a scholarly hotdog vendor, and an elephant are together on a weird and wonderful Forrest Gump-esque journey across time, across Sweden, across the world.

Granted, the perception of chemistry is completely subjective. If I think of TV shows or movies I hated but which others seemed to love - off the top of my head, Mad Men - invariably I just didn’t quite buy the chemistry. My brother and I recently discussed the first two books in Stephen King’s Hodges trilogy. His preference was for Finders Keepers, book two. My problem with it was the absence of the one thing that I’d been most charmed by in Mr Mercedes: sufficient quantities of the beautiful friendship between the retired detective Hodges, his whip-smart lawn boy, Jerome, and the maybe-autistic film-buff Holly.

This trio has a substantially smaller role in Finders Keepers and the book suffered for it.

Admittedly, most casts of books, of screen fiction, are ensembles. It’s rare however, to have them made up of genuinely diverse characters brought together spontaneously, and then for it all to gel. Wonderful though, when it does.

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