Book review: Enormity – Nick Milligan

Aisling Philippa talks to Novocastrian author Nick Milligan about his book Enormity.

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Nick Milligan with his novel, Enormity.

When someone talks about reading a good book, they say how they ‘devoured it’. When it comes to Enormity, it was the more-ish treat at the end of a hard day. It’s an engaging read – and easy to digest.

In the not-too-distant future, after a crash landing onto an alien planet in the depths of space, astronaut Jack is marooned on a strange new world that has developed in parallel with Earth. Rather than disappear into obscurity amongst the eerily human population, Jack instead launches himself to superstardom by playing the rock songs he learned as a child and releasing them as his own. We’re immediately introduced to his excessively debauched lifestyle, filled with sex, drugs, and ludicrous amounts of money.

The story explores a number of different concepts – the morality of plagiarism, the perspective of the unreliable narrator, the deep-seated isolation in a fast-paced, unknown culture and world. The novel takes on a postmodernist perspective that’s tired of the consumerism that Jack’s – and by extension our – society endorses. Author Nick Milligan took a left-of-centre approach, forming these elements of the story across a backdrop of religious dogmatism, and transforming the narrative into a murder mystery, cleverly weaving different aspects of the story to culminate in the climax of Enormity.

The book is a hybrid of genres – science fiction, erotica, and a slight hint of gore. From a personal perspective, the sex scenes nearly seemed to overpower the plot, seeming like a sideshow to distract from the core of the action that was taking place in the novel. While this exposed the extent of Jack’s depraved way of life, this was at the cost of a few characters not being as fleshed out as what they could have been. That being said, this turned into a strength for Enormity with the revelation of Jack’s motivation in the denouement of the novel.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to talk to Nick Milligan earlier this week about Enormity – just a warning; there are a few spoilers for the plot contained within:

Q: Enormity has a very unique concept. Where did you get the inspiration for Jack being a rockstar stranded on a parallel planet?

Nick: When I started writing Enormity in early 2009, it began as a simple satire on the music industry and the global culture of celebrity worship. It was going to follow a fictional rock star spending a summer in his home town, trying to escape the spotlight. And it was to be set on Earth. I thought it would be a short, character-driven exploration of this person. Something in the vein of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. But about half way through the first chapter this really odd idea just popped into my head. Instead of being on Earth it would take place on a planet where humans have evolved in parallel to those on Earth. It was an idea that gave me more creative freedom and the opportunity to be abstract. From here the scope of the story just expanded further and further with every chapter I wrote. What started as a simple concept turned into a four-year project.

Q: Right from the outset of Enormity, I really felt a sense of disillusionment and isolation coming from Jack when he reflected on the society he was immersed in. Was this in reaction to anything that is happening at the moment out in the ‘real world’?

Nick: I think his sense of isolation and disillusionment comes from within, more so than the society he finds himself in. Jack is living a lie. Despite achieving the dream he wanted for himself as a teenager, he is left feeling empty and detached. And the finale of Enormity also reveals Jack’s undercurrent of guilt. From a characterisation point of view, I had to accurately convey this inner turmoil. It’s what makes him compelling and, perhaps, a little bit likeable. The superficiality of the entertainment industry on Heaven is certainly a parody of the entertainment industry here on Earth that I have experienced over the past 12 years as a music journalist. There are some moments in the book where I made that very obvious. But, in saying that, I didn’t want to completely condemn people that worship celebrities or covet stardom. Jealousy is one of the more forgivable aspects of human frailty. I understand it and experience it. And I have a love-hate relationship with the Australian music industry. There are some lovely people that work in it. There are also some vacuous people that dwell within. 

Q: It’s unusual to reveal a character’s motivation until near the end of the book – and it definitely created tension around Jack’s betrayal of Natalie in the last chapter. Did you see Jack’s return to Heaven as a redemption of his calculating character, or more of a fulfilment of his self-preservation instincts?

Nick: I think it’s both. And I wanted an ending that was open to the two interpretations in your question. I think Enormity is interpreted differently by each reader. Their opinion of Jack seems to always be different. And I like the idea that readers might miss something the first time they read it but discover something new the second time around. There are many clues related to the various subplots throughout. One thing that not everyone notices in the finale is the suggestion that Jack was responsible for the Endeavour’s failed mission. If you notice this and believe it, Jack appears in a new context.  

Q: What was the most challenging part of writing Enormity?

Nick: I plot as I write, which is a double-edged sword. I find I’m more creative when I’m following a stream of consciousness, but it also means that you can paint yourself into corners that you have to work your way out of. I also wrote the book out of sequence, so there was a process of assembling the chapters in an order that both made sense and created the most tension. So the most challenging part was making sure all the interwoven plots made sense in a satisfactory way. With a book this size, it took a long time to make sure I hadn’t created any inconsistencies or holes in the narrative.  

Q: The ending of the book seemed to leave the story open for a sequel. Are you considering writing a follow-up to Enormity?

Nick: I actually never planned to write a sequel but the majority of people who’ve read Enormity have demanded one from me. It’s a giant compliment. So at the moment I am writing a sequel – of sorts. It’s not a direct sequel. It takes place on Earth during the events of Enormity.  It has a new protagonist. It’s connected to Enormity but I can’t say too much more just yet.

Intrigued? Check out Enormity’s Facebook page.

Image: Marina Nell, courtesy of Nick Milligan