This Excellent Machine is the first volume in an anticipated trilogy of childhood novels by Australian writer, Stephen Orr. Set in a single neighbourhood of a small Australian town in 1984 it is narrated by seventeen year old Clem who lives with his mother, his sister, Jen and his Pop, Doug. Pop has been a surrogate father to Clem since his own dad disappeared when he was a small child. Clem is incredibly close to his grandfather. They fix up cars together in the drive and have been plotting for some time to take off on a road trip, using an old treasure map to track down a seam of gold. As the novel begins, the family are just beginning to realise the implications of Pop’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Whilst Dementia isn’t the primary focus of the novel -it’s more a coming of age kind of piece- Pop’s illness is a theme consistently revisited throughout the novel and shown to impact Clem’s life in significant ways.
There were several thing I really appreciated about Orr’s depiction of Alzheimer’s in This Excellent Machine. Primarily I liked the way Pop’s confusion and deterioration is explored within a community context. He goes out of his way to make the point that, at this time, Australians living at this socio-economic level, rarely considered external care provision. Pop’s Alzheimer’s is managed within the family but it is also heartening to see neighbours and members of the local community taking responsibility for the older man. They look out for him when he wanders off. Two of them agree to accompany Clem and Pop on their road trip. They even encourage him to continue tinkering with cars as a means of retaining his sense of self and ongoing purpose. I appreciated the idea of community support which Orr is exploring. Having grown up in a small, rural community, in the eighties, it’s something I recognised immediately.
I also liked the way Orr gives Doug a certain amount of autonomy. Doug might have Dementia but his family and the community around him still look to him to contribute to decision making processes. They respect his opinion and look up to him. At one point in the novel Doug attempts to help a young delinquent get back on the straight and narrow and we are given a glimpse of the way people living with Dementia can continue to contribute meaningfully to society.
This Excellent Machine is far from being a utopian portrayal of living well with Alzheimer’s. Orr doesn’t shy away from exploring the more difficult aspects of the illness. Doug’s daughter is often frustrated by her father’s condition and their relationship is under strain throughout the novel. Clem finds it hard to watch the man who has been like a father to him, decline and lose interest in the world around him. Orr also includes a heartbreaking scene where Doug gets to be a participant on the TV quiz show, Wheel of Fortune and becomes confused and frustrated while it’s being recorded. All this to say, I found This Excellent Machine to be an accurate and balanced portrayal of an older working class man experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s. It manages to hold the balance between honesty and hope throughout.
This Excellent Machine was published by Wakefield Press in 2019