A fearless work of fiction by new Melbourne author Raphael Brous, I am Max Lamm is likely to polarise readers but as he tells Melanie Sheridan, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Max Lamm is a walking calamity. A gifted tennis player – a gifted Jewish tennis player! – with a finely honed artistic sensibility, he had everything going for him. Then he went and fucked it all up. Literally. Lamm is running from an internet sex scandal involving an illegal prostitute when he accidentally ignites London’s worst race riots in years after unwittingly killing a Pakistani teenager who tried to mug him.
This is the premise of 29-year-old Melbourne writer Raphael Brous’ debut novel, I Am Max Lamm. It follows Lamm, on the lam, as he seeks redemption, first in the arms and between the legs of Kelly, an equally lost soul, then in Judaism. It is a frank and unflinching, darkly funny portrait of dysfunction, disgrace and collective hysteria in the age of terror.
Brous is unrepentant about the book’s confronting subject matter and frank writing. The manuscript appealed to his agents and publishers, he says, “because it has something to say which is unbridled and it does make a stand about issues, and it’s transgressive and it’s probably shocking to some readers”.
Inspired by “challenging” Jewish writers such Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Bernard Malamud, Brous felt it was important “for that tradition of muscular, incisive contemporary fiction to be continued, particularly informed by the ironic warmth of Jewish cynicism and Jewish irony. So I’m doing it,” he says matter-of-factly.
It seems a somewhat audacious claim from a first-time author, but if Brous didn’t have this audacity he wouldn’t be a first-time author. Acutely aware of the hurdles he has surpassed to get to this point – “I know there are so many writers out there who are frustrated and would dream of even getting representation from an agent; I was one of them.” – he happily admits to a requisite unshakable self-belief bordering on arrogance. “It requires the self-belief that you’ve got something to say worth publishing,” he says, “that people will respond to what you’ve written. You just have to believe in yourself. There’s a Hebrew word, koach, meaning strength; you have to have a lot of koach.”
“The writers I like, they shove their hands into the shit of life and bring it back up, then they rub that faeces between their thumb and their forefinger to see what we’re really made of. And that’s what I’ve tried to do with this book.”
Strength, or koach, is something Max Lamm has too, although he doesn’t really know it. But this is hardly surprising as Lamm is, to a degree, “substantially informed” by Brous’ own experiences. The book isn’t autobiographical – Brous isn’t a painter, nor a tennis ace – but the characters are based on elements of his personality, and their experiences are drawn in part from his own. “I’ve experienced some public disgrace, through controversies involving my old band,” he explains. “Certainly some of the physical and mental afflictions, such as Max’s Bells Palsy and Kelly’s severe compulsions and depression, come from my own experience. I think the only way for writing to become in any way enjoyable and convincing is to write about what you intimately know.”
Mention of Kelly’s suicidal ideation, in particular, brings up the palpable veins of madness and mental illness throughout the work. Knowing that in publishing this book Brous is saying things publicly and expressing himself in ways that some people wouldn’t want him to – “like my family” – he expresses concern. It is “sort of an expunging of all my neuroses and depravities,” he says, chuckling. “I made sure not to show it to my parents [before publication] but I fell that if you’re writing a book and you’re not saying something strong and you’re not putting your balls behind it and putting your own life into it and being honest about yourself, then what’s the fucking point?”
Noting that “there is a strong correlation between worthwhile art and mishigas [madness], Brous says “I went through some terrible mental states when I was younger. I know what it’s like to lose your mind in the deepest sense and that’s reflected in the book, particularly in the character of Kelly.”
“If you’re writing a book and you’re not saying something strong and you’re not putting your balls behind it and putting your own life into it and being honest about yourself, then what’s the fucking point?”
These days Brous is something of a polymath. In addition to his literary writing, he is the songwriter and guitarist in punk rock band Teenage Mothers, who this month will tour nationally with popular Anglo-American indie rock duo The Kills; he’s a skateboarder, and is rarely seen without his board; he’s studied both neuroscience and law at university; and he’s a volunteer campaign manager at Animal Liberation, the animal rights organisation. Brous has been vegan for “about 11 years”.
He’s also “made a concerted effort” to understand his Jewish roots more thoroughly and is more observant than other members of his family — “although you wouldn’t know it from looking at me!”
In the book the character of Max Lamm is “someone who comes from a fairly irreligious background, who’s more culturally Jewish than observant, but he finds that his circumstances – his thirst for redemption and spiritual closure – compel him to visit a synagogue after committing the murder. At those times, all the anaesthetic of day-to-day life is stripped away, so our most basic weaknesses and strengths become painfully exposed. It’s something that happens in the book and it’s certainly my experience with Judaism.”
I am Max Lamm opens with a quote from Eikhah, The Book of Lamentations. Brous describes it as “a harrowing, searing document that has informed the Jewish outlook ever since” it was written, more than 2000 years ago. “That outlook, of suffering and persecution and a kind of almost genetically imprinted desire for redemption, is something that is reflected in Max Lamm’s story, I suppose, but I wouldn’t have known about the Book of Eikhah if I hadn’t gone to synagogue,” he explains. “I mean I’m no expert in Torah but learning about Orthodox Judaism and halachah has certainly made me a better writer, and a richer person, in terms of what really counts.”
Early reviews of the book, which was published at the end of June, have been positive. Several have compared Brous to Jonathan Safran Foer, among others, which is a little ironic as Brous isn’t a great fan. “I deeply admired his recent work about eating animals but I find his fiction quite un-digestible, too hip,” he says. “Writers like him and David Eggers and David Foster Wallace, they’re too self-referential. You have to be in this trendy, post-modern, San Francisco-based clique to get it. I’m not really into that. The writers I like, they shove their hands into the shit of life and bring it back up, then they rub that faeces between their thumb and their forefinger to see what we’re really made of. And that’s what I’ve tried to do with this book.”