Messages from Chaos


This book is my first novel and, as such, it has a special place in my heart. I wrote it with a sense of wonder, on my first ever grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council ($8,000 in 1986 was a ticket to heaven, a vote of confidence in me as ‘a writer’, a title I felt very hesitant to assume.) All my friends believed it had come from nowhere: in my friend Sandra’s memory, it just appeared one day, and suddenly I was a writer.

The reality, as every writer will know, was very different. I had been trying to write seriously since my early twenties, but with no success. By my mid-twenties I had successfully completed a few short stories and wanted to write a novel but I kept starting things and everything seemed to peter out…. Then, when I was about twenty-seven, I knew I had to make a decision: I gave up my job as a journalist with The National Times (a once great but now sadly defunct Sunday newspaper) and set about becoming a writer. The whole of 1985 I studied the books I loved best. How were they put together, exactly? I took them apart: Monkey Grip, the novels of Fay Weldon, Storm Jameson, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I looked at their structure, the way the writer had opened the story, teased a story, who narrated it, whether it was first person, third.

I knew what I wanted to write about: the disarray and confusion of my generation when it came to men and sex, and how we were supposed to live. It seemed to me that for my generation, born after the war in the 50s, all the old rules had been broken but nothing was clear. As Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch, life for the Nora’s of this world will not necessarily be easier but life for ‘new women’ will certainly be more interesting, even nobler. But this was too general an idea and I had to work out a way to focus it.

I interviewed my friends (I got the part about Anna expecting her life to be glamorous in some way from my friend Emma), I read everything I could on the changing relationships between men and women (being a journalist with a background for research certainly helped) and of course I mined my own life. But it wasn’t until I hit upon the idea of the married man that the story came to life. Jimmy’s being married is a perfect metaphor for his emotional unavailability to Anna (even though it later meant when the book came out everyone assumed I had been in a relationship with a married man for 10 years!)

I wrote it first in third person but it was only when I tried first person that the character of Anna Lawrence was truly born (thanks for the surname, too, Emma). Once I had my story worked out, the story rushed from my fingers and it was an utter joy to write. I wrote longhand, in an A4 pad, and then typed out every afternoon on my little portable typewriter, making corrections as I went.

I was free then of the burden of audience, of literary critics, of reviews. I wrote as I pleased, natural as breathing, starting after breakfast and a shower first thing in the morning and sometimes forgetting to stop to have lunch. It was exhilarating, as if I was writing myself as I went along. I think some of that spirit can be felt in the book, even today. It is still in print, after four or five editions, and just about to be published in America. It’s also an ABC audio tape and will be on Radio National. Reviews “I had to plead guilty. I was everything a modern girl was not supposed to be: possessive, needy, proprietorial. I wanted so much to be cool and contemporary and was ashamed of my secret conservative heart.” Messages from Chaos is Johnson’s first novel and concerns the character of Anna Lawrence and her inner turmoil that climaxes when she reaches her 29th birthday. Professor Stephen Knight, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald in a review of Johnson’s second book, Flying Lessons, observed that “Messages From Chaos was a first novel better than good, a sprightly, searching account of a young woman on the plateau of daily life in Brisbane. It drew unfairly little notice, being published at a time when most of the local major writers had a strong book out for the Bicentennial market”. However, Messages from Chaos has now become something of a modern ”cult” classic, in that it is still in print after some thirteen years. It has just been made into an ABC Audio Book, which will be read on ABC Radio National sometime during 2001.

The heroine Anna gives her heart and life to Jimmy West – a man who believes in free love, an open marriage and a constant string of affairs. His openness about his life and lovers is traumatic for Anna. Her plight and battle to win Jimmy all to herself is expressed in a reflective and detailed style that delves into the inner motivations of Anna and the self-realisation that life needs to change. Her 29th birthday instigates a new urgency for change and ultimately, a decision to leave Jimmy. Ros, Jimmy’s wife, is presented in an interesting juxtaposition to Anna. She is calm and thoroughly accepting of Jimmy and his lovers. As Anna battles for Jimmy’s attention she grows increasingly obsessed with Ros – her politeness and acceptance of Anna as Jimmy’s lover is incomprehensible and Anna is always looking for Ros to slip – show anger, frustration or that she is as unhappy as she is.

A skillful plot is weaved and we slide seamlessly between time periods. Johnson builds this novel revealing with accuracy and perfect timing the character’s actions. Anna’s story is told in a clever and interesting construction of flashbacks and commentary. We learn about Anna’s obsession with the frustratingly cool and unconcerned Ros and how she wishes desperately not to care, to be uninterested in Jimmy’s other affairs – but Anna wants to be loved on her own, not as one of many. The passion of the novel and its reflective intelligence bursts from the tension as Anna finds herself tied to a man in a way that, sadly, reminds her of her mother’s generation, and in many ways, she is less free – the way she never wanted to be. The climax of Messages from Chaos is a revelation of human crisis and Anna’s realization that she may be ordinary, and that the extraordinary may never happen to her.

Messages From Chaos


Kate Ahearne, The National Times (June 28, 1987)

“If Johnson gets her due, the superlatives will flow when the reviews start to appear. . . in Johnson’s hands the first-person narrative is not a failure of the imagination but an ideal tool for the job”.


D J (Dinny) O’Hearn, The Herald (August 6, 1987)

“Reading is sometimes like gold prospecting: every so often one stumbles across a large nugget. It may be unrefined, may show clumps of soil from its resting place, but its pure gold, nonetheless, and exciting because it is so unexpected….It is witty, reflective and finely written. Our literature will be the worse for it if we do not feel more of her voice.”