When I’m asked to review a book, it isn’t often that I read the book, then write the review, then immediately delete everything I’ve written out of concern that my over-explaining the plot and themes might turn even a single person away from experiencing the sensation of feeling it unfurl.
Pip Adam’s Audition is as much about the experience of reading Audition as it is about the text itself. It begins with a truly absurd premise introduced in a somewhat impenetrable manner: it opens with a lengthy chapter that is wholly dialogue, told aloud by three characters who frequently misspeak, argue over one another, and could not be less clear in their narration. As explained in the marketing copy, this story is ostensibly about three giant human mutants trapped on a spacecraft hurtling away from our planet. As experienced, it’s more like listening to three plastered drunks in a pub fumble their way through a serious conversation in the wake of a tragedy unfurling on the news. People are dying on Earth—maybe? It remains unclear at that point why they are deserting the planet—and these protagonists are debating sandwich fillings.
But then something chilling happens. Certain words and phrases sneak their way into the characters’ speech. Things start to sound a little less bar crawl and a little more MK Ultra.
Here is where my scrapped review explained a bit more of the plot, touching on the layers of horror that unfurl like never-ending petals in the backstory of Stanley, Alba, and Drew as their previous lives are slowly revealed. But upon rereading, I realised that to give away too much would strip the narrative of its weight. I am the last person on planet Earth who cares about spoilers in media, as I believe that good plot elements will stand on their own whether they’re part of a reveal or not and also because my short-term memory could charitably be described as ‘bad.’ But I genuinely believe that Audition is a powerful book, and that power is lessened if you do not experience the book as intended.
“It is a story about the dehumanising callousness with which we can come to treat others if steeped in language that tells us this treatment is good and necessary.”
Audition begins as a science fiction tale whose characters and the method by which they tell their story will frustrate you. Then it morphs into a story about how the language we use can open doors for people or close off better futures for them forever. It is a story about the dehumanising callousness with which we can come to treat others if steeped in language that tells us this treatment is good and necessary—but also through the simple fact that those callous characters, like the giants’ human minder, Torren, need a job that pays above minimum wage and are trying not to think too hard about the structures they prop up.
As its story progresses, Audition lays bare some brutal truths about both physical and cultural incarceration. When imprisoned, humans only know one another through the lens of competition for food or space or rest or safety. There is little intimacy or trust found for our characters save for the things they choose to share with one another or keep to themselves—in prison, their time is never their own and revealing their desires, their need for comfort, is a weakness through which only harm can come.
Without giving too much away, incarceration and prejudice toward the incarcerated make up one of the core emotional pillars of Audition. You simply will not experience it the same unless you follow its characters along their nonlinear journey, frustrated and confused by their actions, wishing they’d only make better choices. You will wonder if they are stupid, then wonder why they are stupid, and later, arrive at the realization Adam so deftly leads you toward: humans don’t cease being human, worthy of human dignity and human rights, simply because they frustrate you. The little linguistic tics become apparent: those in authority segregate Alba, Stanley, and Drew into a separate species, but the wardens in their lives prior to the spacecraft did the exact same thing.
This othering of both giants as a species and prisoners as a population is also echoed through the main characters’ queerness. A line that Alba thinks stuck with me: she refers to someone as “Earthling-shaped, but in a performative way.” In this case, she means a literal alien trying too hard to look and act human, but the more I turned that line over, the more it resonated.
Audition is about Earthlings who must exist in a performative way for safety. Everything from violent women who don’t conform to our expectations of womanhood, to men who are forced into women’s prisons, to regular humans who emerge from those same prisons scarred and shunned. Fully Earthlings, but not recognised as such without working for it.
The prison scenes are an intentionally difficult read. If you struggle with depictions of homophobia, transphobia, and sexual assault, they can be confronting, though more due to the characters’ casual acceptance of this treatment than lingering descriptions. The novel’s themes are woven tightly through each biting word: everyone agrees that -isms and rape are bad, but only when they happen to real people. And we all know prisoners and giants don’t count.
“Profoundly anti-carceral, abundantly queer, and weird as fuck, Audition will lead you to spine-tingling places if you are willing to navigate its corridors.”
These Earthlings eventually reach an alien planet. This is not as much of a spoiler as you think it is. Promise. This new planet exists along all-new sensory axes that our protagonists struggle to take in, and so it morphs to meet the expectations of their human senses. It meets them halfway, growing familiar flora and fauna and shading itself in colours that make sense. Much in the way this alien environment meets the protagonists where they are and, liquid-like, fills the shape of their expectations and sensory capacity, Audition will fill the shape of what readers of different backgrounds see in it.
Profoundly anti-carceral, abundantly queer, and weird as fuck, Audition will lead you to spine-tingling places if you are willing to navigate its corridors. Adam has a knack for portraying the effects of social isolation. From the tightly-telescoped glimpse into the shame and loneliness of addiction in Nothing to See to the industrial-scale sexist alienation depicted in her short story ‘A Problem’, it’s a theme that resurfaces in her work again and again. Here it is at its most potent yet.
But like life itself, Audition is, despite its many horrors, not without hope. Adam trusts her readers to unravel the novel’s many clues, to empathise with those they may have written off, and to meet the book halfway. To allow ourselves to envision a world structured so differently from our own that its structure is unrecognizable. Not just an alien planet where feelings and sounds are the same and time doesn’t seem to exist, but a world where humans are free to live as their most honest selves because they are given the choice to, free from competition or consequence. A world where people in prison are treated with dignity–or maybe even a world with no prisons at all.
Featured image by Philip Kelly courtesy of Te Herenga Waka University Press and Pip Adam.