181st Meeting – February 1999

“Candy” Readings from his own work by Luke Davies

Your Convenor writes: Luke talked a bit about himself and read passages from ‘Candy’ and some of his other works but no summary was written for his presentation. I have done some research and found some background information on Luke Davies and a review of ‘Candy’ by Magdalena Ball which I feel reflects evenhandedly the sense or feel of the novel. I bought a copy on the evening, read it once and then put it away knowing that I would/could never read it again. The graphic nature of some of the details; particularly how and where to insert needles, got a bit too graphic for me. 

Luke Davies is an Australian writer of novels, poetry and screenplays. Davies' first poetry collection, Four Plots for Magnets, was published in 1982, when he was twenty. His novel Candy, was made into a film starring Heath Ledger in 2006. His other works include the novels, Isabelle the Navigator and God of Speed, and poetry Four Plots for Magnets, Absolute Event Horizon, Running With Light and Totem.

By Luke Davies

Allen & Unwin
ISBN 1741148685

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Davies’ first novel Candy became a cult classic when it was released in 1997, and it’s not hard to see why. At face value, it has a grungy, sexy appeal, featuring the gripping, through the keyhole details of a serious heroin addiction, and two attractive main characters who have lots of sex, and experience a welter of often orgasmic pleasure and intense pain. It’s an easily read, fast paced bildungsroman which offers a satisfyingly vicarious experience. But Candy is more than a sad love story or a novel about drug addiction. The sweet attraction of the title may be simultaneously heroin, sugary substances, and the novel’s beautiful subject, but the story is about more than simply the desirable substances that drives the narrative forward. This is a novel about the universals of human need. Davies is first and foremost a poet, and the linguistic tautness of the book reflects this. Although the narration is cool, set in the detached context of a distanced memoir, there are italicised passages prefixed with the title “truth” that take the reader below the skin and bones of the linear narration and move us into a place which is timeless:

Adrift. At times it seems that I am floating in the beauty of docility. Pulling the needle from my arm, I succumb again and again to the luscious undertow of the infinite spaces between atoms. My arm, an estuary of light in which all rivers gather. (171)

Although the entire book is written in the first person, the narrative voice changes fairly dramatically as the novel progresses, which has the effect of creating an internal motion that is more profound than the passing of days. The book is divided into three sections, which follows the protagonist’s internal journey. Beginning with “invincibility” the story begins with exuberance, and a sense of immediately as the narration happens in the present tense. This sets up an instant immediacy as the reader becomes an uneasy confidante and accomplice in the new affair as the beautiful Candy is drawn into the world of heroin:

“She’s just finding out what I found out a few years back, the thing that heroin does to you the first few times. She is over the moon. She’s in the Miranda zone—O wonder! O brave new world! Things are good beyond belief. I envy her that innocence. Nowadays, when it really works – which is beginning to be not always – what I get from hammer is a kind of deep comfort. An absence of this and an absence of that. Absence of everything that prickles and rankles. What Candy’s getting is the angelic buoyancy, the profusion of colours. Good luck to her; it won’t last long.” (4)

The narrator is matter of fact and comfortable in this section about what is happening. He is happy and in love and he wants to make Candy happy. There’s no malice, even though his justifications might suggest a niggling sense of guilt which he finds relatively easy to push away in the simple mechanics of his growing collaboration: “We’re just having a bit of fun right now, and soon, I suppose, it’ll be time to stop.” (8)

The descent in this chapter is slow and steady, moving one step at a time as Candy and the narrator try to maintain their addiction. There is the single trick which turns into a brothel job; a single scam which turns into regular theft. A few gruesomely funny situations such as the incident with the crabs:

“Within twenty minutes we had created a scene of bucolic bliss. All around the edges of the lake of blood were gathered like cows a hundred docile and happy crabs. Tramautised by the ordeal of the scissors, they drank in bliss from the healing depths.” (128)

But mostly throughout this section, Candy and the narrator move towards a pattern of regularity, which, as the narrator kids himself, there’s some kind of routine, a reasonable amount of money, and as many good times as bad. It’s easy for the couple to imagine themselves as a normal, happy couple with a minor addiction. It’s easy for the narrator to see Candy as a free agent having a bit of relaxed fun before the responsibility of marriage and children set in. There’s no attempt at eliciting pity, or even self-analysis, because none seems needed. As readers, we are conned along with the narrator. Candy’s luminosity and beauty blinds us.

The blinkers come off quickly however, as we reach the second part of the book. The author begins the section with his first truth segment. These poetic passages are very close, charting the narrator’s own pain and sense of responsibility for what he is creating. They contrast sharply with the deadpan narration of other chapters with their immediacy and intensity: “I would vomit up my life if I could.” (154) Candy’s stillbirth and her violent outburst with the ashtray start to show more than simply a growing discontent. The narrative simplicity in these chapters makes the intensity of the experiences more powerful:

“I reached my hands to the back of my head and cut my fingers on the chunk of glass that was lodged there. I pulled out the glass and felt a stab of pure pain. There was an explosion of blood from my head. I could feel its hot flow through my hair and down my neck. All this, in its own strange way, was less cloudy than the preceding seven hours of arguing. I was in that sweet realm where drama has a resolution in violence.” (167)

The novel is richly detailed, and both the nameless narrator and Candy come across as rich, full bodied characters. Although we get very little of the narrator’s backstory, we nonetheless feel we know him as he undergoes change, becoming very slowly aware of his part in destroying Candy, and himself:

“And if, and only if, you’re very, very lucky, then one night in the silence, in the deep heart of the dark, you’ll hear the distant trickling of the blood in your veins. A weary world of rivers, hauling their pain through the dark heat. The heart like a tom-tom, beating the message that time is running out. You’ll lie there strangely alert. You’ll actually feel the inside of your body, which is your soul, or where your soul is, and a great sadness will engulf you. And from the sadness an itch might begin, the itch of desire for change.” (238)

Candy’s backstory is revealed only in the tiniest hints throughout the first two sections, but it is revealed in the last chapter. Because it comes so late in the story, the reader, along with the narrator, begins to sense that Candy has her own story, which then spreads beyond the pages of the novel. Despite the exuberance of the early part of the book, the implications of Candy’s fall begin to become clear, both to the narrator and the reader. As Candy writes angry words across the wall in lipstick, the readers sympathises with her, and begins to take on the narrator’s guilt at finding the early sections—the violations and prostitution—a light thing. The reader grows along with the narrator as the truth becomes clearer. Candy is an easy book to read, but not an easy one to deal with. It leaves the reader feeling shattered, as if he or she had been through a similar experience. The verisimilitude in characterisation, setting, and in the great detail of the activities of the narrator and Candy are all part of why this book weaves its spell on the reader. With the nostalgic resonance of a story simultaneously halcyon and horrific, the reader feels the power of the great love felt by the narrator for people, sensations and places lost forever. Despite the ugliness of its subject matter, and often graphic nature of its detail, this is a beautiful story of love, loss, and self-awareness.