The Pillow Fight (1999) – Matthew CONDON

I read Matthew Condon’s A Night at the Pink Poodle some time ago now, and though having little to no memory of it, it clearly left a good enough impression for me to pick up The Pillow Fight when it came up on a sale table at work. I have been interested in the concept of this novel for a while, along with another novel, The Book of Revelation. They both deal with undermining traditional gender roles, and concern themselves with domestic violence and rape against men.

Luke and Charlotte have been married no more than six hours when an act of violence comes between them that is symptomatic of much larger problems in their relationship. It forces Luke to consider just what led to this chain of events, and indeed, how he came to be in an abusive relationship. As the past between Luke and Charlotte unfolds, we see a relationship between two people that should never have been placed in the same room together, let alone get married.

I’ve always been fascinated by the reversal of gender roles in popular culture. Try watching a sitcom on television, and imagine what the jokes would be like if each character’s sex was reversed. Would we still laugh at a nerdy girl unlucky in love? Would middle-aged men feel the same attachment to a male version of Sex and the City as so many middle-aged women have for the current edition? Would Spider-Man and Mary Jane’s relationship be different if she were the web-slinging superhero, and he were the damsel in distress? Would people demand a young, attractive male companion if we had a female Doctor?

I don’t do this to make some kind of point about gender roles as a whole, but it is an interesting exercise nonetheless. And I’m also not saying gender roles are inherently bad – just that we should be careful in our consideration of them, and think about them more critically. As such, a novel that deals with male domestic violence fascinates me, because I’m curious to see how a male author treats the problem.

In many ways, Condon is tricky in his treatment of the issue. So much of what Luke says and thinks is what we expect the stereotypical battered wife to say or think. He thinks everything will get better, as long as he remains patient and lets Charlotte blow off her anger, it will all get better. Of course, once he wakes up to the fact that this is not at all how the relationship is going to pan out, he doesn’t waste time in calling reinforcements. Their visit to a marriage counsellor is both awkward and a relief, because you’re sitting there thinking, well, of course no one’s going to believe Luke, he’s the man in the relationship. Had Condon wanted to ramp up the tension, or make his point more lucid, he could have pushed this angle. Mercifully, though, he puts Luke out of his misery, and Charlotte’s confrontation with the counsellor is terrifying.

Chapters alternate between present and past, and the flashbacks to the beginnings of Luke and Charlotte’s relationship attempt to provide some kind of reason as to why the two are even together in the first place. Most important in these flashes is Charlotte’s overwhelming personality. It is clear she is in charge here, and Luke is initially willing to go with the flow. The sex is good, Charlotte is hot – it seems like an adventure, particularly since his relationship with Charlotte is conducted behind the back of his long-term girlfriend. As time progresses, and when Luke finally breaks it off with his real girlfriend, it seems inevitable that Charlotte should propose. Glimmers of her temper are present, even in the early stages of the relationship, but it is not until the present chapters that we finally understand just how horrible she truly is.

Without delving too much into pop psychology, Condon does provide us with a possible explanation for Charlotte’s temper, her violent tendencies, and her all-round two-facedness. Though they only feature in a few scenes, Charlotte’s parents are vital – her mother, too, is derisive of her husband, and he has become a door-mat in his own house. While this is initially played for comic effect – think back to what I said earlier about sitcom tropes; the overbearing wife/long-suffering husband is on full display here – it rapidly becomes apparent that here, too, is probably another violent relationship behind closed doors.

Unrelated to the main plot, this is also a novel unashamedly of Sydney, which is a pleasant change. As a Sydney boy, I do occasionally feel like my city is shown up by Melbourne, or indeed, the outback, in Australian literature, so it’s nice to see something so fully immersed in the localities of Sydney. From the hotel in Circular Quay, to Luke’s home at The Entrance, to the North Shore background of Charlotte’s family, they’re all presented so carefully and perfectly, you can’t help but imagine exactly where the action is taking place. Sydney stereotypes, too, flow from this, and when we meet Charlotte’s friends from the North Shore, images of snooty North Shore private-school girls float into your head with ease. Similarly, Luke’s Central Coast background shines through, and his simplicity and ease of movement are so typical of people from The Entrance.

I’ll finish by returning to something I said at the beginning – this is a relationship between two people who should never have met. They are not good for each other in any way. While there may be some semblance of love buried deep within, just like Archie and Clarence in The Circuit, Luke and Charlotte feed into each other’s insecurities, and push each other’s buttons in a way that is not healthy. The spill into violence from an unexpected corner is handled deftly by Condon, who makes his point clear to us – domestic violence is never funny, even if a woman hits a man.

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