Review: A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists

I remember a lecture in a college philosophy class about a medieval scholastic who wrote that if you can imagine something, it’s possible for it to become real. The artist Picasso took the idea a step further by declaring, “Everything you can imagine is real.” But what happens if you imagine something, and then destroy it, like a painting or essay that won’t come together? Does it exist somewhere, but only partly? That’s among the questions author Jane Rawson asks in her novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. Thwarted desires to finish the undone lie at the heart of this charming, if puzzling work.

Rawson tells the story of Caddy, a 30-something Australian widow of Harry, a man killed in a horrific accident that destroys her physical home and her emotional life. She lives on the streets of a 2030 Melbourne ravaged by a warming climate that magnifies the extremes of rich and poor, leaving Caddy living in a shack, surrounded by an odd assortment of friends. She’s also a writer, working on a story as she barters her body for food and water. In a fit of frustration, she throws the unfinished story away.

Meanwhile, Caddy’s friend Ray discovers a way to travel by jumping into the gap created in the creases of old maps. Via a fanciful bureaucracy known as Suspended Imaginums, a kind of cosmic storage unit for abandoned pipe dreams, located next to the Unmade Lists office of the title, Ray discovers two travelers driven to see every inch of 1997 America, or rather every 25-foot square of it. These travelers live a dream they cannot achieve in a human lifetime. It parallels Caddy’s own unfulfilled life.

In psychobabble, “unfinished business” refers to emotional work left incomplete. You forget to say “thank you.” You wished you had said “I love you.” You choose not to say “goodbye” when you knew a relationship was done. Business is often left undone when a loved one suddenly dies, and in the most tragic cases, the one left behind imagines that the lost person is still alive and will return. Caddy takes this to an extreme with her husband Harry. Rawson often makes Caddy’s journey unnecessarily complicated, leaving the reader scratching his head. But life is full of inexplicable bits we have to accept, or the wrong turns become a spiral into madness.

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