Sydney: Harper Collins, 2018

I’ve been trying to put my finger on the reason why Trent Dalton’s book Boy Swallows Universe (HarperCollins, 2018) is so popular. For the first time in the history of the Australian Book Industry of the Year (ABIA), Dalton’s work all four major categories: Book of the Year, Literary Book of the Year, the Matt Richell Award for New Writer and Audio Book of the Year. It also won the 2019 NSW Premier’s Award as well as the 2019 MUD Literary Prize.

At almost 500 pages it is not a short read. And while it could have done with a good edit at points, it’s a novel that is reflective of the zeitgeist of our age. The central plot—based largely upon the real events in Dalton’s life—revolves around family breakdown, drug abuse, and domestic violence. In this sense, it’s like surveying the scene of a car crash in that it’s both deeply sickening but also strangely compelling, which makes it difficult to look away.

The fact that it’s also set in 1980’s Australia, the glory days for many in the ‘boomer’ generation, means that it’s permeated with pop-culture references relating to soft-drink, lollies, cricket celebrities, movie stars, video games, TV shows, a growing multiculturalism and most of all music. This was a time when the mighty Parramatta Eels were a rugby league force to be fear, and the names of Price, Kenny and Cronin were household names. As such, this is like a nostalgic trip down memory lane, which also explains the novel’s broad appeal to tradies as well as academics. What’s more, his attention to detail really draws the reader in to the world he grew up in. Dalton says 60% of the book is autobiographical and the other 40% fiction.

Without giving too much away, the story revolves around two brothers, Eli (12) and his older brother August (14). Due to a traumatic event in their young lives, August has stopped talking. And the way he has chosen to communicate is by writing with his finger in the sky. But through an even more dramatic set of circumstances, Eli and his brother go from living with their mother and her boyfriend—who deal drugs—to living with their alcoholic father. The only stable influence in their life is a man named Slim Halliday, based on the real-life character of the same name, who is a convicted murderer.

Throughout this completely chaotic and dysfunctional situation, August and Eli believe that they have the esoteric ability to see into the future through a “moon pool” that August creates sometimes at night. But in one of the key scenes, the title of the book is made plain. Both boys are lying in bed at night and relay a story that Slim has told them that he had read while in jail. The story is of Young Krishna and the Universe in His Mouth. If, like me, you weren’t familiar with it then here is a quick summary and explanation:

A young child (the Hindu god Krishna) is playing with some children who exclude him from their games. They all climb a tree but he is not allowed too but instead starts to eat all the fruit that they pick and discard. The child becomes so ravenous, though, that he starts to eat dirt as well as fruit. And so, the other children call out to his mother to get him to stop. But after the child says that he hasn’t any dirt in his mouth she looks into his mouth and to her shock and amazement sees the entire universe.

This story becomes the central paradigm for the book. And yet, strangely, in all of the reviews I have read, not a single person picks up on this. For the point is that young Eli is discarded by the world and has to eat the scraps—literally and metaphorically—that no one else wants. But in his hunger for love and acceptance he not only eats ‘food’ but also ‘dirt’. However, because he is ‘special’ (another major sub-plot of the book) he is able to transform everything into his own universe, or maybe that should be ‘multiverse’? That’s why so many of the chapters have titles alluding to actions that only a god-like figure could achieve; e.g. drowning the sea, conquering the moon, stealing the ocean, mastering time…and in the penultimate chapter, swallowing the universe!

As can be seen on every front cover, central to the book’s plot development is a cryptic phrase, “Your end is a dead blue wren”. This is a prophecy that Eli’s brother August utters at the beginning of the book in one of his esoteric dream states. But there are other key times in the book where Eli or August receive a message from the universe as to what they should do or whom they should connect with. This proves that they are not only “special”, but in keeping with the Hindu myth, also in a divine, spiritual sense of the term.

Another important sub-theme that runs through the book is—especially regarding the men around him—is any of them truly “good”? And yet, in a world of drug dealers, alcoholics and murderers none of them seems to be prepared to recognise their own depravity. But then it struck me. This is precisely why the book is so popular. Because it is a story of salvation by works.

In this post-Christian age, Australia is not only become more secular, but increasingly more pagan. The spiritual void that should be reserved for Christ is instead being filled with Eastern mysticism. And sadly, no one is stopping to discern whether or not it’s all true. But the reality is, is that this religious myth is the oldest lie of them all. It is the original temptation of Satan back in the Garden of Eden, for Adam and Eve to become like God (see Genesis 3:5). And rather than come to Christ for forgiveness, the message of the book is about saving oneself.

It’s this aspect, in particular, that everyone reviewing the book seems to be overlooking or missing. At least, in all my searches, I have yet to discover a reviewer who tries and tackles it. And that is, the aspect of religion. Which is all the more significant when one considers that at the heart of Dalton’s bestselling novel is the spiritual worldview of Hinduism. That each person is ‘special’ in that we ourselves are divine. (It’s also worth noting that while every chapter up until this point is a three-point summary of “boy” doing something, in the final one everything is flipped on its head and it’s “Girl Saves Boy.”)

But the reality is, we are not gods. The universe is not in our mouths. And the love of another human being cannot save us. Instead, the Bible tells us that the One who made the heavens and earth has died in our place so that we might be healed. God has come to earth and done for us what we could never do for ourselves. And that is, Jesus has taken the punishment for sins which we deserved. If I could offer an alternative three-word summary, the reality of our situation is not, “Man Becomes God” but “All Have Sinned”. All of which means that the greatest news of all is that anyone can be forgiven, as soon as they confess that, “Jesus is Lord!”