There’s a fair chance that if you were going through a personal crisis of almost Biblical proportions, one that had seen you lose your lover, husband and successful trend-spotting, and not-so-successful retail businesses, all in the space of a few short months, that you wouldn’t seek to find some sense of peace at a tourist attraction, or rather series of tourist attractions, that have clearly seen better days.
You might perhaps go to a spa, flee overseas Eat, Pray Love-style or lose what’s left of your sense of self at the bottom of a bottle, but you probably wouldn’t embark on a highly unorthodox pilgrimage along the upper east coast of Australia visiting The Big Banana, the Big Redback or the Big Shell to name just a few once great tourist meccas, with a highly-intelligent, perceptive, fashion-chameleon of a Japanese tourist for company.
But then you wouldn’t be suurealist-painting devotee Arkie Douglas, the protagonist of Lisa Walker‘s transcendentally-wonderful book, Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing, a woman who once had an uncanny ability to know what the world would want and how they would want and even when they would want it way before they did, but who is now adrift without any emotional bearings, sense of purpose or reason for being, and has very little left to lose by holding to convention.
She was, after all, once paid to blow convention, or at least the faddish version of it anyway, clear to smithereens in order to usher in whatever new trend was in the offing.
So when Haruko, the Japanese tourist in question saves her from killing herself one new year’s eve on the railway tracks at Byron Bay – it wouldn’t have been much of a death since the trains no longer ran to the town but then neither Arkie nor Haruko knew that at the time – and they begin working together on the next big thing coming down the zeitgeist pike, and the idea of a pilgrimage to Japan comes up, Arkie is more than ready to give the idea, no matter how fanciful it might sound a red hot go.
There is one problem however – a crippling, vision-sapping loss of funds which kills the idea of a pilgrimage through Japan’s temples and shrines before either women has had a chance to so much as book a taxi to the airport.
Fearful that Haruko, her one lifeline back to the life she once knew, and or least its promising new incarnation, will go back to Japan without her leaving her even more at a loss than before, she comes up with the idea of visiting all the Big Things of Australia, of which there are 88 in all, a monument to the country’s once-overriding fascination with giant facsimiles of plants, animals and agricultural products.
The Big Things themselves, which have to be at least twice their normal height to qualify as such, are mostly long past their prime, sealed or boarded up, or long-neglected, their facades faded and peeled or hidden away, whatever allure they once held for the holidaying masses mostly long lost to the mists of time.
But against all odds, and Arkie’s expectations – she initially views their Antipodean pilgrimage as a poor substitute for the glories of the Shikoku Pilgrimage with its bounteous attractions such as the shrine to Inari the fox Goddess near Kyoto and its thousands of vermillion-painted gates – she and Haruko, both of them on the run from their pasts, find measure and resolution as places as unusual as The Big Mower, The Big Macadamia and even the stunningly-prosaic environs of The Big Mover.
All of them, despite their own charms, are not exactly the first place you would choose to cleanse your soul and find a renewed sense of purpose, and frankly at first, Arkie isn’t sure what she’ll find on her hastily-thrown together, make it up as she goes pilgrimage (one that evokes in some measure her great love of The Wizard of Oz movie, itself a pilgrimage of sorts for everyone involved).
But as she and Haruko jump on and off buses and meet a host of divergent of people, all of whom are in need of some kind of rebirth, and Arkie finds her mojo, sapped by her deeply-regretted affair with Ben and the apparent loss of her marriage to Adam, whose lawyer Fabian provides some comic relief as he chases them from one Big Thing to another, renewing itself, she comes to understand that it doesn’t matter so much where you go, as why you go there and what it is you are open to seeing and hearing.
What makes Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing such a pleasure to read, apart from its rich evocation of the communities of far northern NSW and southeast Queensland (the areas in which I spent my formative years), hilarious one-liners and its finely-wrought characters, major and minor, who are joy to spend time with, is that it manages to be both profound, delightfully goofy and magically surreal at all once.
There’s a sense of lightness and fun to the book, evinced by Arkie and Haruko’s ongoing and competitively-played game to name as many fads or trends as they can from the year in which the Big Things the visit were constructed, but also some deeply serious insights into what makes us who we are and what we need to do sometimes to bring those parts of us back to the fore after life has knocked them around more than a little.
It’s like a literary therapy of sorts that doesn’t lose itself in New Age faux-portentousness or glib catchphrases so much as it stares life straight in the eyes, hands firmly curled around Shinto’s Seven Lucky Gods – who are themselves indispensable characters in a book full to the brim with highly unusual searching souls – and does it best to explain what we need to feel whole and right again.
You emerge at the end of the book having completed your own pilgrimage of sorts, one that is funny, insightful, charmingly offbeat, sweet and meaningful, a reminder that it is possible to be both entertained and given pause for thought, and that what you perceive as the end of all things could simply be the unexpected gateway to the next Big Thing in your life.