Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Demolition of the Century by Duncan Sarkies (Penguin 2013)

The Empire Cinema in Island Bay Wellington shut down his week.  There was a lot of disbelief in the community and I came across one woman who was lamenting the fact that she could no longer take her grandchildren there for ice cream after their weekly trip to the library.  While the Empire is still standing, for now, an old cinema called the Century is being demolished by Spud and his team in Sarkies second novel.  The cinema stands as a metaphor for the examination of the past, where Spud takes out the good bits and takes the wrecking ball to the rest.  While Spud is doing the demo job, a man called Tom Spotswood (aka William McGinty) has returned to town in order to find his hidden loot got by fraudulent means, and to reconnect with his wife and their seven year old son, Frank. 

The novel follows Spud and Tom and their struggle to emotionally connect with those they love amongst the stresses of life.  Spud shows more affection for his T-Rex wrecking ball (not in a Miley Cyrus way) than to his wife and daughter, while Tom tries to connect with his son, but the men who are tracking Tom down for his loot continually get in his way.  The strength of this novel is it’s characterisation of men who feel intensely for those around them but cannot express it.

Duncan Sarkies is the author of Two Little Boys and he also wrote the screenplay Scarfies; both of which have been made into films by his brother Robert.  While I have never met the brothers, I have met their Uncle.  I was working in a doctor’s surgery during the university summer break.  The Uncle didn’t go by his proper first name, adopting a nickname which didn’t align with his medical record (which a surprising number of people do), anyway, it took me a while to find his record.  While I was fumbling about he said:
“You must have heard of my nephews?” 
I must have looked puzzled at this point – I had registered the name Sarkies but didn’t think much of it – I just wanted to find the man’s file while thinking that I needed to find a way to avoid administration jobs for the rest of my life.
“You know, Robert and Duncan, Scarfies?”
“Oh yes, yes, of course.”
Uncle was happy, and I had found his file.
You know you must be pretty flash if you’re getting name dropped in a South Dunedin medical reception, and yes, I agree that the Sarkies brothers are pretty flash, and that Duncan has had a commercially successful writing career.   (He also has the flashest author picture since Stephanie Johnson decided to wear a cowgirl hat.)  But what my anecdote is trying to illustrate is that he is a Dunedin boy who has based his stories in the city, and he has successfully shown a white male working class/bogan culture, most prominently in Two Little Boys, within that city.  I enjoy the way he writes the intensity of the homosocial connections between characters in a city which has a very strong homosocial history with men coming to the region to find gold, and undertake other colonial manly pursuits. 

In the latest novel however, Sarkies characters have upped sticks to somewhere called The City, which going by some of The City’s features is Wellington by another name.  Every time The City was mentioned in the book I was a wee Bit Annoyed and questioned why he didn’t just name the actual city the characters are in.  I guess he could have changed locations because he was sick of being associated with Dunedin and wanted a change of scene, and perhaps by having a nondescript name for The City means the novel may have a greater international audience, and maybe he wanted to play it a bit free and loose with locations and was aiming for an imaginative landscape rather than a literal one.  These are valid reasons, but for someone who has lived in both Dunedin and Wellington it became a Bit Annoying, a distraction from the characters, and left me wondering why Sarkies was avoiding place when it has served him so well in the past.

My other nit-picking comment is the first person perspective.  The novel interweaves the first person perspective of Spud and Tom which means that some scenes where both characters appear are told twice.  A close third person narrator who focalised both of the characters may have been more effective, it would have saved the double ups while still getting inside each character’s head.  But don’t let my comments about The City and narrative perspective put you off this novel.  It is very entertaining.  Sarkies has an excellent ear for idiom and dialogue.  The demolition lingo and Spud’s collection of artefacts from the sites rang true to me because my father partook in a little demolition and could not help but bring a lot of crap home, and like Spud, my dad also had a few random yards around the place.  It also made me recall the time when I was growing up in Timaru and an old department store was being demolished to make way for a bank.  As a family we sat in the car and watched the wrecking ball swing, and this is what good books should do - bring up your own recollections so that you can relate to the characters on a deeper level.  

Sunday, 20 October 2013

I Heart Nellie Titterington

Max Gate (VUP 2013) by Damien Wilkins

It seemed fitting to pick up a novel that discusses the ownership of a writer’s remains (both physical and literary) on Katherine Mansfield’s 125th birthday.  The fact that her birthday is still noted and celebrated (even Google had KM on their webpage) brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating with the Dead where she suggests that one of the reasons writers write is because of the desire to be immortal.  While I’m not suggesting that every writer has this desire, it is true that KM has been alive in our literary imaginations for a lot longer than she spent on the earth.  While John Middleton Murry was in charge of KM’s legacy, Wilkins’s novel investigates the intricacies of handling Thomas Hardy’s reputation just before and immediately after his death.

 It was with some trepidation that I started reading Wilkins’s novel because I haven’t read any Thomas Hardy and I feared I may miss out on some literary allusions throughout the text.  By the end of the first sentence I had disregarded such fears, “When you wake in a warm bed in winter besieged all around by cold, for an instant you believe you have it in your power to stay right where you are for as long as you want” and snuggled down into the narrative voice of Nellie Titterington, a maid at Hardy’s house.  Nellie is a strapping lass with a delightful name, and an even more delightful talent with bawdy language.  Nellie recalls the visitors to Max Gate, the house where Hardy and his second wife Florence live, such as literary manager Mr Cockerill, J.M. Barrie, and Alex who is a local newspaper reporter and love interest of Nellie’s.  Thomas’s physical presence is off-stage, he is upstairs dying while Florence and her gentleman visitors discuss how to manage his legacy.

Nellie relates the workings of the house, her interactions with the other staff, and Florence who is at times practical and at other times distressed about how to care for Hardy’s reputation while being haunted by the legacy of his first wife, Emma.  The divide between the residents and the staff does have a feeling of ‘upstairs/downstairs’ about it, and also gives the book its comic relief at what is a stressful and emotionally charged time.  The subject matter doesn’t immediately suggest it, but this is a funny book.  While the theme of the novel is about literary legacy, who ‘owns’ a writer, and who is in charge of their reputation, and who wants to make a buck from it, Nellie’s perspective makes the novel feel playful while also being sensitive to those around her.

At times Nellie wants to slip into second person, she wants to say ‘we’ when recollecting incidents which reiterates the issue of who gets to speak about Hardy, who is to be believed, and whose story is accurate.  Nellie also makes this somewhat tongue in cheek statement when she relates a conversation between Alex and Mr Cockerill, “The hare sees the two men and takes a different path, hopping behind a tree.  I imagine it carries a recording device attached to one ear, which I placed there so that my account could be as full as possible” (32).  This wishful thinking shows the problem of a narrator trying to relate instances from the past with absolute accuracy.  Of course, individuals can usually remember the gist of a conversation rather than verbatim recollections, but the joy of historical fiction is that imagination acts as bunny ears which persuades the reader of accuracy, whether fact or not.  The research appears in this novel seamlessly; I could not tell when imagination took over from the historical record. 

At times I wondered whether Nellie was modelled on Hardy’s Tess (or another of Hardy’s female characters), but one that Wilkins has made empowered by her personal and sexual agency rather than a victim of patriarchy or class.  What I did pick up was Hardy’s love and protection of animals and nature in general, so much so it seems the house would be overtaken by the shrubbery and trees that surround it.  While this provided privacy, a gate to keep prying eyes out, and beauty, it also shows that nature untamed can dwarf and become menacing to its human inhabitants, as Thomas’s legacy becomes intimating to those that care for him.  

Wilkins’s book has made me want to read Hardy for the joy of his work itself, but also so I can bring out the resonances of Wilkins’s novel.  It is funny, with a touch of irony given Wilkins’s incredibly successful career as a writer and now as the Director of the IIML, but the novel is not a case of a writer naval gazing and contemplating burning first drafts in the backyard, it is joyful because Wilkins has chosen Nellie to tell the story who handles Hardy’s legacy with honesty, warmth and sensitivity.  I hope when I do get around to reading Hardy I will find a character that looms as large to me as Nellie does in Wilkins’s novel.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The West Coast is so hot right now

The West Coast of the South Island has ignited the imaginations of several New Zealand writers of late.  Notably, Eleanor Catton’s Booker short-listed novel, and now we have a short story collection by Amy Head called Tough (VUP 2013).   The volume of stories mixes together contemporary and historic anecdotes of life on the coast.  My usual reading practice with a collection of short stories is to pick my reading order by the titles that first entice me, however with this collection I read it from start to finish.  I changed my reading practice because during my MA year, where some of my classmates were writing short stories, there seemed to be great importance placed on the order in which the stories appeared in their folios.  I guess it’s much like putting an album together, the musician wants to create a series of moods and tones throughout the work so the listener can hear how each work relates to the other to progress the main theme, but also how each song stands alone.

Head appropriately gives her readers entry to the coast via the “West Coast Road.”  In the opening story, Edward Dobson has invited Julius von Haast around for dinner, where they and Dobson’s son Arthur, sit around discussing land, road and water flows, as one does when one is a surveyor in colonial New Zealand.  The story is engaging and shows the domesticity of men who tried to domesticate the land for European settlement.  While the story is meant to be about the road from east to west coast, the people are the more engaging element of the story and I wanted to hear more about them (or to be more precise, the reimagining of them).  At one point I could see this lounge room setting as the basis for a novel, but then the story turns back to the road, Arthur’s Pass, and we jump from references to Dobson to 1999 and mention of Google.  On the one hand my desire to know more about the characters shows Head’s skill at characterisation, but on the other I found the abrupt ending a little unsatisfying.

 It wasn’t until I got to the story “Flood” that I felt at-home with Head’s collection.  The Constable coming across Robert Cooper, a prospector, and Cooper’s step-sister Ellen in a tent seemed a situation with many possible outcomes, as indeed it does to the Constable when it is suggested he take Ellen back into town.  The surprise at discovering a woman in a tent on the coast in flood was similar to the surprise I felt when I first realised than one of the traveller’s in Mansfield’s story “Woman at the Store” is a woman.  Mansfield’s story is about the inhospitable land and how the land affects the psyche, and Head’s too, is about violence and thwarted expectations. 

 The title story “Tough” links to “Flood” and “A Strange Story” by episodes of violence.  The murder of a surveyor called Dobson, which is first mentioned in “Flood”, is expanded on in “Tough” where we are told that the Burgess Gang staged a series of robberies and mistakenly murdered a surveyor called Dobson (who I assume is from the Dobson clan mentioned in the first story), and then go on to murder another five men.  The main character called Tough is caught up in the excitement that the reports of the gang’s exploits generate while he himself is ill and seeks a remedy.  When he’s a little better and working on a ferry coach he witnesses the bodies of two men floating by.  Both men are missing their eyeballs.  We find out more about these men in “A Strange Story.”  It is these connected stories which are the most satisfying in Head’s collection.  They do what all good connected stories do - retell incidents through different perspectives so the reader can see how large these incidents loom in the individual character’s life.  Realising the connections of these stories made me go back and re-read the earlier stories, particularly to see if Duncan’s wish to be a sinner (in the story of the same name) was actualised by him being a member of the Burgess Gang, but I could see no obvious link.

 The contemporary stories have no such connection that I can see, aside from their setting on the West Coast.  We have outsiders travelling to the coast such as the female American erotic costume designer taking part in a duck plucking competition at the local pub, a young man working at a hardware store about to go on a work-do, and coasters working in a kitchen where tourists are served and love is thwarted, amongst others.  While these scenarios are interesting and contrast the outsider status of visitors, and those who are considered outsiders within the coast community, they do not have the same resonance as the historical stories do.

 Head’s short stories are accomplished, and she has managed to incorporate historical detail seamlessly in her narrative.  She is very skilled at describing the landscape and the descriptions of water - its channelling, flooding and wealth - is like another character that links her stories together.  What her and Catton’s novel make me question is why the West Coast, and why now?  Sure, the books have the same publisher (as does Pip Adam whose new book is also set on the West Coast), but I don’t think this is a defining factor as Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town (Penguin 2011) seemed to start off this literary West Coast fever.  But I do keep asking myself what the return, the re-imagining, of the colonial West Coast says about contemporary New Zealand literature, and what postcolonial inferences can we take from this revisiting?  Why is the West Coast so hot right now?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013 VUP)

I finished reading The Luminaries on the evening of a perigee full moon. The timing seemed fortuitous as the structure of Catton’s novel is based on the phases of the moon, and how those phases illuminate the characters and the narrative.  Walter Moody has arrived in Hokitika in January 1866 and checks into a hotel where 12 men have gathered.  Unbeknown to Walter the men have gathered to discuss recent sensational events in the town and Walter’s presence is unwelcome.  The hotel/drawing room setting has a sniff of the Dickensian about it, but the novel leans more to the Sensation novel of the Victorian period.  The Victorians found delight in their nerves being jangled by incidents of murder, poisoning, identity fraud, insanity, abduction, and concerns about heredity.  My nerves were suitably jangled by similiar events in Catton’s novel.    

I have not read Catton’s enormously successful first novel The Rehearsal which garnered many international plaudits.  However, Catton notes in an interview with The LumiĆ©re Reader that her second novel follows the thematic concerns of her first novel in investigating whether there can “be a version of an event that is more true than another version, with the answer probably put forward being no.”  In the novel we hear different versions of events, not simply the same scenes reiterated by different characters, instead the action is forwarded by perspectives and action viewed by different characters.  Slowly, like the phases of the moon, parts of the narrative are told to reveal the whole.  The idea of different characters taking up the narrative is not a new idea for sensational literature.  Catton notes that Wilkie Collins uses the device for The Woman in White.  Catton’s use however, is more successful.  Having read The Woman in White as an undergraduate I recall that Collins’s narrative loses its drive three-quarters of the way through and ends up being monopolised by one character.  Catton’s characters’ perspectives slot seamlessly into each other, without one overshadowing the other, and the narrative maintains momentum.

The Luminaries, according to Catton, is also to do with self-knowledge.  She asks, “Does perfect self-knowledge mean that you can act as unlike as that person as you know, or does it just mean you’re a slave to what you know about yourself.”  Each of the 12 men in the hotel lounge are aligned with a sign of the zodiac.  Each sign has different traits and characteristics, and I think the narrative attempts to show whether the astrological sign and its related characteristics confine the characters to those specific traits.  Whether characters’ traits align with the zodiac is up for the reader’s interpretation, or inclination, for astrology.  From a writer’s perspective I can see the attraction of building characters out of the characteristics of the zodiac and it would be all too easy for them to turn into types, but Catton avoids this.  The novel could be read with little or no knowledge of astrology and it is still an intriguing narrative.  However, the novel does feel like one you could study for some time to reveal its nuances.

One thing that can change an individual’s conception of themselves is a change of environment.  The majority of characters have come from elsewhere having followed the gold rushes in the new world.  To get to Hokitika they have crossed ‘the bar’ which acts like a liminial space, which if successfully crossed offers potential riches but also the threat of demise.  While a character may have aligned themselves with certain traits in the ‘old country’ (whichever country that may be), a new country offers new challenges to the individual and their conception of themselves.  For some, success in Hokitika means leaving it, for others they become resigned to stay.  The township itself is described mostly by its waterways and hotels.  At times however, it seems like the only inhabitants of the town are those mentioned in the narrative.  While having more of the general community would have added a bit more hussle and bussle, the lack of other people gives the narrative a sense of sparseness like the empty streets of a Western.

The size of the narrative is somewhat overwhelming.  I could spend a paragraph writing quips about its length.  With a book of such a large size I think the ending has to pay off, and I‘m not sure if the short chapters at the conclusion do.  They may be astrologically accurate but they are short and feel rushed which disrupts the pleasure in finishing a long narrative.  However, it is impressive how Catton has kept all the narrative strands together in such a mammoth word count.  The narrative is pacy, the characters are well drawn, in a Dickensian sense.  There is humour, and I did not feel tricked by an obvious plot omission in the mystery that can occur in some novels in order to continue the narrative.  It may be better for you wrists to buy this book as an e-book, however if you want to buy and treasure the book as an object I would suggest you bypass the paperback (it won’t last the distance) and go straight for the hardback.