Iydia is tired and overwhelmed. She spends increasing hours playing a botanist in a video game, avoiding her silent teenage son, George. There is an ambient weariness in their town, Fraser (a fictional mix of Melbourne and Geelong). People are uneasy, stressed, hysterical – but mostly tired and starting to disconnect. “That’s just – everything,” George said. “The world, the debt, the wars, the extinctions, the oceans. You know?”
Fraser also began to change in a very literal way. Taxis that were always yellow are suddenly blue; homes and entire suburbs teleport to new locations; highways change direction. That’s when Alice, Lydia’s estranged sister, emerges: warm, bristling, and fleeing the criminal consequences of a Banksy-esque art prank in Europe.
It was the scene of Hovering: A Shapeshifting Debut Novel that won Geelong writer Rhett Davis the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. That he wrote this sort of dystopian, not-so-distant future before Covid (part of his Ph.D., after publishing several short stories) gets stranger as it goes.
Like the consequences of everything Alice did nearby, the erratic movements of the city intensify. Shocked jock blames shifting streets for ‘rotting moral standards’, memorable moments drown out news, conspiracy theories abound. Lydia doomscrolls her “streams”, “meeting confused people like her, scrolling, talking, typing, occasionally singing, looking for explanations”. Like Don DeLillo’s White Noise, but with smartphones – overwhelmed civilians facing a much more upsetting environmental event, drawn into the public square. Hovering’s public square is the Internet, where, despite an overload of information, explanations do not come. The plot escalates. The general cloud of buzzing – “milling”, in common parlance – burst into George’s head, in the form of snippets of “indecipherable” and “unbearable” dialogues and sounds that he keeps hearing.
Davis brings this fractured world to the page in a range of formats: emails; instant group chats seasoned with emojis, videos, gifs; phone records tracked; fictional articles, reports and reviews; simultaneous social “flows” (which sync once, with powerful effect). This sometimes chaotic tinkering is counterbalanced by Davis’ language: direct and unadorned, tongue-in-cheek with bursts of (family) sincerity in the mold of Jennifer Egan or AM Homes.
Like the two, he can be funny and manages not to write his teenage characters. The Hover is not as formally whimsical as recent “Internet novels” (Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, for example, or Calvin Kasulke’s more speculative Many People Are Typing). What might seem fragmented reads smoothly: a non-atypical day/state of consciousness for someone who spends a lot of time online.
What’s more shocking is the effect of the novel’s timing – how menacing and incongruous the constant stream of government alerts might have seemed before the pandemic; how frightening and unbelievable the sudden relocation of homes is, before rising sea levels sweep entire homes off the cliffs, and a parade of ‘unprecedented extreme weather events’ in Australia tear up the roads , send cranes down rivers and line the streets with piles of furniture. If it’s speculative fiction, that’s a very normal feeling.
“How could anyone live in a world like this, where everything is going so fast?” Davis has a question of character. It’s kind of too obvious a signaling that, although infrequent, is one of the weak points of this smooth start. But a relevant question, in fiction and outside of it; like someone tweeted (and deleted) recently: “Some real ‘widening gyre vibes’ are here this month.”
Then Lydia dissociates herself, Alice flees, the father of the sisters, nicely drawn on the margins of the novel, describes himself as “hovering”, not far from “languishing”. George (a genius, we suspect) seeks stillness in his own life online, designing realistic plants for other games and, in private, endless, complex digital cities where the streets don’t turn around. The acute melancholy of a character creating extraordinary new worlds as his current one crumbles and burns should be lost on no one.
Another soothing thing about virtual worlds is that they’re less obviously hollowed out at someone else’s expense. Alice experiences a profound change, from her youthful hatred of Fraser for having “no culture to lay claim to” to the realization that her landscape is “in her bones, her blood” (and clearly Davis’s). But she also knows that she is one of the “millions of colonizers… who mourn what they have lost but not what they have made”. Davis seems to resolve this tension by concluding that Fraser is “an uncertain town, and to live there would be to live with its uncertainty.” Maybe it’s too neat.
For a book that talks so much about the impossibility of resolution, Hovering is very interested in solving problems. Davis offers, if not answers, at least coping strategies: nature can ground us, family can love us, actions matter. If fullness of any kind is an illusion, just think of all parts – the cities, the internet, the multitudes of others who suffer – as “stripes of light, noise and love”. They’re tender, hopeful ideas, but they feel properly sentimental about the wild events and unsettling force of this novel, which is most interesting when its questions go unanswered: maybe we’ll lose all our data, and then what? And, going back to Lydia, is there a good way to handle a systemic crisis when you’re tired?