'It's the 1880s and Marvellous Melbourne is a lavish and raucous city where anything could happen. Eccentric entrepreneur Edward William Cole is building the sprawling Cole's Book Arcade and filling it with whatever amuses him, or supports his favourite causes: a giant squid, a brass band, monkeys, a black man whose skin has turned white, a Chinese tea salon, and of course, hundreds of thousands of books.
'When Edward decides to marry he advertises for a wife in the newspaper, shocking and titillating the whole town. To everyone's surprise he marries his broadsheet bride and the Arcade grows into a monumental success.
'But the 1890s depression hits Melbourne - and Edward - hard, and the death of one of his children leaves him reeling. Grief, corruption and a beautiful, unscrupulous widow all threaten to derail his singular vision. But it's not until he visits Chinatown one night - and his own deeply suppressed past - that the idealist faces his toughest challenge.
'Utopian Man is the story of a man who lives life on his own terms, and leaves behind a remarkable legacy.' (Publisher's blurb)
'Lisa Lang’s award-winning Australian novel Utopian Man (2010) reimagines E.W. Cole and his famous Book Arcade in Melbourne in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Running in its central Melbourne location from 1883-1929, in popular discourses Cole’s Book Arcade was, and is, synonymous with nineteenth-century Melbourne itself; its vibrant, eclectic atmosphere seemed to capture the essence of the booming nineteenth-century metropolis. In Lang’s biofiction, the Arcade becomes a lens through which to view Melbourne itself. Cole is sympathetically drawn and his characteristics – his eccentricities, entrepreneurism, philanthropy and idealism – provide a critical contrast with a city increasingly suspicious toward immigrants, as Australia moves toward federation, and toward establishing the White Australia policy. While it is set entirely in the past, the novel’s structural nostalgia – the Arcade and its values are always already lost in this narrative – speaks to a present in which Australia is once again closing its borders. The novel positions itself as witness to Australia’s lost alternative of a tolerant society, one that embraced other views and welcomed a range of immigrants, and which exists today only as memory.' (Publication abstract)