Whaddya Mean You're Allergic to Rubber?
In 2001 RACHEL BERGER made her fiction debut with this sizzling novel.
AT THE DAWN OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM, when the corporate sponsors of greed, lunacy and prophylactics have gained priority seating with frequent flyer points, stand up comic LOLA FINKELSTEIN appears like Boadicea in a chariot with one missing wheel. Flipped out and fretful but perfectly pedicured, she confronts her opponents head on.
Should Lola trust the mysterious American with the coded smile, CHRISTOPHER PILLAR, who manages to lure her out of her perch and her G-string with whispers of a deal the State Premier has made with the Americans that will cost jobs and lives?
Thank god for SMOKEY TOPAZ, twenty stone of scarlet sequins and stilettos, Smokey's Syrian boyfriend FREDDY FARQOU, LAWRENCE THE LEATHER MASTER and MIMI TOMASEVICH, Bosnian survivor. Without them Lola would have to rely on her own imperfections. Together they slide with reckless gusto and the best low budget vodka into the sewer of the State Premier, whose allies are mostly rich, mostly vulgar and mostly very shady.
WHAT THEY SAID
"It had to happen. Rachel Berger, known for her subversive "take no prisoners" attitude on the comedy circuit, has finally committed her wonderfully anti-politically correct notions to paper and released her debut novel. Whaddya Mean You're Allergic To Rubber?is the perfect read for anybody disillusioned with just about anything-including politics, sex, relationships and money-and needs a reason to laugh about the whole damn mess. This is the Berger philosophy and her heroine-with high libido and high intellect-is the perfect vehicle for the Aussie comic's caustic humour. It's what chick lit is meant to be: racy, controversial and totally addictive." AUSTRALIAN STYLE JANUARY 2002
A COMEDIAN WITH HER ROOTS IN REFUGEE FEAR. By SIAN PRIOR
Picture this. Rachel Berger, stand-up comedian, is hunkered down in a Phillip Island holiday house, trying to write her first novel. Suddenly she hears a thunderous, crashing noise, as if bombs are dropping all around her. Berger's first reaction is to panic - surely World War III has broken out! But she refuses to be immobilised by fear. In fact, it's a spur to her curiosity, and with a bit of investigation, she discovers that the Australian Navy is conducting shelling exercises just across the bay in Flinders. So what does she do? She rings the naval commander and says, "I'm writing a book, can you just STOP IT!" It's a real-life episode that could have come straight from the diary of Lola Finkelstein, the neurotic heroine of Berger's newly-published novel, Whaddya Mean You're Allergic To Rubber?
Lola spends her life in a constant state of anxiety, hyper-ventilating and twitching her way through each crisis-laden day. She trusts almost no one, and is always ready to believe in an elaborate conspiracy theory. But she's got guts, our Lola, and as it turns out, most of those conspiracy theories are sound. From the sleazy State Premier and his shonky deals with the United States private prison system, to the CIA's funding of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, Whaddya Mean is chock-full of political corruption scenarios, and Lola Finkelstein sets out to expose them all. Notice how many descriptive terms I used in the last three paragraphs?
I blame Berger - her writing style is infectious. Whaddya Mean seems to operate on the premise that you should never use one metaphor per sentence when you can mix and match half a dozen. It's not surprising, because this is precisely how a lot of Berger's stand-up comedy works. She starts with an idea, then builds on it, adding layer upon layer of absurdity, until she's ready to demolish the whole elaborate construction with a killer punchline. Live audiences love it, and Berger loves feeling their appreciation.
A novel is different though, because she doesn't get to hear whether the solitary reader is laughing out loud - the loss of control was pretty frightening when she first started writing her novel. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done, going from the immediacy of writing standup, which is here and now and I know immediately whether it's going well or not, to putting it on a page and having no control over how people respond," Berger says. "The other hard thing was giving the writing over to an editor, because I'm the master of my own destiny on a stage; I had to learn to let that person (Penguin editor Foong Ling Kong) in."
This child of Polish Jewish refugees has great difficulty, as a result of her parents' experience in World War II, in placing trust in other people. Her father had half an arm blown off during the war, and though he rarely spoke about his experiences, Berger says he lived them every day in his habits. "As a child of refugees, you learn not to trust. It's quite well documented -how can they trust a world where people have tortured them?"
Berger's interest in refugee psychology enters the novel in the form of a character called Mimi, a Bosnian woman who always walks home from her waitressing job in St Kilda along the quiet back streets because of her ingrained fear of snipers. The issue of control comes up again when we're discussing the similarities between the plot of Whaddya Mean and certain key events and personalities from the days of the Kennett state government - the closure of a specialist infectious diseases hospital, the mass privatisation of public assets, the Equal Opportunity Commissioner who lost her job and the political leader who boasted about his compliant mates in the media. Is this novel simply one long, joyous revenge fantasy against the former Premier? "No, comedy is never about revenge, because people don't laugh at revenge," Berger says. "They laugh because it gives them five minutes, or 250 pages, of at least the illusion of having some control. This is why I started the book with that Mel Brooks quote, 'If your enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?' There were people telling jokes at Auschwitz. It's not about being angry, it's about trying to survive."
So if she's not inspired by anger, what is it that fuels Berger's social conscience? She returns to the subject of her parents' refugee background. "It meant that from a very early age I understood about difference, in a palpable way. Every refugee has a story to tell of escaping from a desperate situation. So I have always been a bit of an outsider and an observer, and that's fed my comedy. I have an interest and a curiosity in asking questions - we don't have to get angry, but we have to continue to ask the hard questions of our politicians." Sex and politics have long been staples of Berger's humor. Given the title of her novel, and the fairly racy first three pages ("I love the itching sensation that's making me want to fuck the doorknob!"), it's almost a letdown to discover that, while everyone's talking about sex in Whaddya Mean, hardly anyone's having any.
Even the sleazy, fictional Premier has a preference for a good whipping (accompanied by fairy stories) over the pleasures of bodily contact. It's partly a reflection of the HIVAIDS theme that dominates the novel's plot, and partly because, as Lola the standup comedian says early on, "When you work late at night you don't meet loads of eligible men".
Poor Lola lusts after two men, the handsome Greek fishmonger Eros, and a shadowy American with the "biggest shlong (she'd) ever squared up to". Every time she gets close to them, though, she falls flat on her face - literally! This is a novel with more pratfalls than you can poke a stick at. Berger says she wrote a novel in order to take time out from standup comedy, and she's not ruling out the possibility of further fictional adventures for Lola Finkelstein. But the experience has left her once again hungry for the stage.
"I don't want to just keep doing the old shtick. There must be another funny place in the writing part of my brain that I can go to. I feel like, before the novel, I had got competent at standup. I'd learnt how to juggle now I want to know how to do tricks."Whaddya Mean You're Allergic to Rubber? by Rachel Berger, is published by Penguin.
THE AGE Thursday 8 November 2001
Whaddya Mean You’re Allergic To Rubber? is no longer in print but you can find it in your local library.