Lydia is tired and overwhelmed. She spends growing hours playing a botanist in a video game, avoiding her silent teenage son, George. There’s an ambient weariness in their city, Fraser (a fictional melding of Melbourne and Geelong). People are uneasy, stressed, hysterical – but mainly tired, and starting to tune out. “It’s just – everything,” George says. “The world, the debt, the wars, the extinctions, the oceans. You know?”
Fraser has started changing in a very literal way, too. Taxis that were always yellow are suddenly blue; houses and entire suburbs teleport to new locations; freeways change direction. Then Lydia’s estranged sister Alice turns up: warm, spiky and fleeing the criminal consequences of a Banksy-style art prank in Europe.
This is the scene of Hovering: a form-shifting debut novel that won Geelong writer Rhett Davis the 2020 Victorian Premier’s literary awards prize for an unpublished manuscript. That he wrote this kind-of-dystopic, not-so-distant future before Covid (part of his PhD, after publishing several short stories) gets weirder as you go.
As the consequences of whatever it is Alice has done close in, the city’s erratic movements escalate. A shock jock blames shifting streets on “decaying moral standards”, memeable moments drown out the news, conspiracy theories bloom. Lydia doomscrolls her “streams”, “encountering confused people like her, scrolling, talking, typing, occasionally singing, looking for explanations”. Like Don DeLillo’s White Noise, but with smartphones – overwhelmed civilians confronted by a much more overwhelming environmental event, drawn to the public square. The public square in Hovering is the internet, where, despite an information overload, explanations are not forthcoming. The plot ramps up. The general cloud of buzzing – “milling”, in current parlance – breaks into George’s head, in the form of “indecipherable”, “unbearable” scraps of dialogue and sound he can’t stop hearing.
Davis brings this fractured world to the page in an array of formats: emails; instant group chats seasoned with emojis, videos, gifs; tracked phone records; fictional articles, reports and reviews; simultaneous social “streams” (that sync up just once, to powerful effect). This sometimes-chaotic bricolage is counterbalanced by Davis’s language: direct and unadorned, deadpan with bursts of (familial) sincerity in the mould of Jennifer Egan or AM Homes.
Like both, he can be funny, and pulls off not writing down to his teenage characters. Hovering doesn’t hit as formally gimmicky in the way recent “internet novels” have (Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, say, or Calvin Kasulke’s more speculative Several People Are Typing). What could feel fragmented reads smoothly: a not-unstandard day/state of consciousness for someone who spends any substantial amount of time online.
What is more jarring is the effect of the novel’s timing – how menacing and incongruous the constant feed of government alerts might have seemed pre-pandemic; how frightening and unbelievable the sudden relocation of houses, before rising sea levels swept entire homes off cliffs, and a parade of “unprecedented extreme weather events” in Australia tore up roads, sent cranes down rivers and lined streets with piles of furniture. If this is speculative fiction, it’s very normal-feeling.
“How could anyone live in a world like this, where everything moved so fast?” Davis has a character ask. It’s the sort of too-obvious signposting that, though infrequent, is one of the weaker points of this slick debut. But a pertinent question, in fiction and outside it; as someone tweeted (and deleted) recently: “Some real ‘widening gyre vibes’ out there this month.”
And so Lydia dissociates, Alice runs away, the sisters’ father, nicely drawn on the novel’s fringe, describes himself as “hovering”, something not too far from “languishing”. George (a genius, we suspect) seeks stillness in his own online life, designing lifelike plants for other games and, privately, endless and intricate digital cities where the streets don’t flip around. The sharp melancholia in a character creating extraordinary new worlds as their current one collapses and burns shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
Another soothing thing about virtual worlds is that they are less obviously carved out at someone else’s expense. Alice experiences a profound shift, from her youthful hatred of Fraser for having “no culture that was hers to claim” to the realisation its landscape is “in her bones, her blood” (and clearly Davis’s). But she also knows she’s one among “millions of colonisers … mourning what they’d lost but not what they’d done”. Davis seems to resolve this tension by concluding that Fraser is “an uncertain city, and to live there would be to live with its uncertainty”. This is possibly too neat.
For a book so much about the impossibility of resolution, Hovering is very interested in tying up loose ends. Davis offers, if not answers, at least coping strategies: nature can anchor us, family can love us, actions matter. If wholeness of any kind is a delusion, just think of all the parts – cities, the internet, multitudes of suffering others – as “streaks of light and noise and love”. These are tender, hopeful ideas, but they feel tidily sentimental in the face of the wild events and unsettling strength of this novel, which is most interesting when its questions go unanswered: maybe we’ll lose all our data, and then what? And, to get back to Lydia, is there any good way to deal with systemic crisis when you’re tired?