It’s difficult to find a first novel that conveys a mature and understated voice while daring to tackle as seminal a topic as imagination’s connection to the human soul, but Ben Rice’s Pobby and Dingan (opening excerpt here) is that novel. Pobby tells the tale of two imaginary friends of Kellyanne, a young girl in an Australian Outback mining town. The two friends are “lost” one day by Kellyanne’s alcoholic father and this sets into motion a remarkable series of events that demonstrate how important fantasy is when juxtaposed against the daily upheavals of life. Rice adeptly captures the nuances of rowdy Down Under vernacular (Mello Yello and all) and pommy prejudices while showing how Ashmol, Kellyanne’s brother who narrates the tale, gradually comes to understand his sister’s mentality. But more importantly, Rice has achieved a pitch-perfect balance between Balzacian reality and the plausible hyperreality that the novel is almost intended to get away with. While my colleagues at the Complete Review may quibble over the abstract nature of Kellyanne’s condition, I think they’ve failed to fully appreciate how Rice has created a self-sufficient fable for our times.
I will confess that recent personal events probably had my heart more ready to be scattered into a thousand shards. But with pomo dismissed in some circles as intellectual flummery and a literary climate encouraging mammoth “event” novels that are essentially trumped up popular fiction (now worse than ever, given that the most egregious cases are now taken seriously by the NYTBR), Rice has done the unthinkable. He’s written a thin novel that contrasts the human heart with its own sustaining requirements. Which is more than a dozen highly regarded authors could do with a single humorless sentence, much less a concept purlonied and distilled from Donald Barthelme.
A film adaptation of Pobby is in the works, but, even with Full Monty director Peter Cattaneo behind it, Rice’s story demands to be experienced on the page.