Reading Kate Scott’s debut novel Compulsion is a bit like tasting alcohol for the first time. You pucker up your face in disgust at first, only to become accustomed to the bitterness and burning, and then suddenly find yourself getting blind drunk every weekend of your 20s.
A hedonistic summer escape, serving up decadent dinner parties that turn into drug- and sex-fuelled orgies, spurred on by the invincibility and rebelliousness of youth in the early 2000s, the first chapters of Compulsion are annoyingly self-indulgent and difficult to swallow.
Overstuffed with flowery language and retro 70s and 80s imagery, they made me roll my eyes and refer to the dictionary far too often. Sunken lounge rooms with peach and apricot décor combined with phrases and words like ‘neon-drenched’, ‘aspic-slick’, ‘ennui’, ‘pinioned’ and ‘propulsive throb’ (all of which are used in the same sentence!) feel contrived and excessive.
The casual glamourisation of recreational drug use and sadistic sexual encounters doesn’t help, but Scott’s description of: ‘hyper literary kids… who’ve seen everything by 17 and want more, more, more…’ reminded me of my (slightly older) age and lack of certain life experiences. So, I pushed on with the goal of keeping an open mind and trying to see things from a different perspective.
It wasn’t long before I was intoxicated with the poetic, nostalgic, pleasure-seeking world where (metaphoric) pianos are thrown off cliffs, cars gobble up yellow lines as they speed down highways, and there’s a sense of complete freedom and escape from the mundane, hopelessness of ordinary life.
Electro music is a constant presence throughout the book, like the heartbeat that keeps all the chaos and characters alive and connected. As I write this review, the playlist titled ‘I Abject! Existentialism in Electronic Music’ (provided at the end of the book) is playing, and I am almost tempted to slip into my most sparkly outfit and head out to Revolver (aka Revs).
Ultimately, though, Compulsion is a dark and slightly twisted love story. Lucy, the main character whose life we follow from her early 20s into her 30s, is like many of us – flawed and complex. She’s detached and nihilistic and yet craves attention and safety. Despite repeated attempts to ‘destroy herself’ in the pursuit of feeling alive, she ends up with Robin – a mysterious, far more passive and self-conscious character, and together they finally begin to create a more stable and balanced life.
Compulsion may seem superficial and selfish in the face of all the disasters and serious issues of our world, and it may be a little hard to digest at first, but beneath the surface lies a deep existential yearning for love, meaning and purpose. It’s a yearning that many of us have learned to ignore or suppress through a constant stream of modern day distractions – some more destructive or creative than others.
Compulsion by Kate Scott
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 269 pp
Publication: 10 January 2023