From First to Fourth Gear
'The English Department common room has never seemed so mysterious', Michelle Leggott remarked tonight, as she MC'd the launch of two new books from the Titus imprint in the midst of deep shadows and waves of ambient sound. Somebody had had the clever idea of turning all the room's lights off, and using a handful of gaudy old '70s lamps instead (I heard one patron describe them rather defensively as 'proto-antiques'). In the corner of the room Andrew McCully leaned over a massive electronic keyboard, turning knobs and playing fragments of Bach, Reich, McCully, and the Fame soundtrack over the droning of various pre-recorded sounds. It was all a long way from a departmental seminar.
The unveiling of Jack Ross's The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis and Bill Direen's Song of the Brakeman brought all manner of curious characters out of the woodwork: besides the increasingly Satanic and worrying sober Richard Taylor, the common room played host to that old avant-garde hand Michael Morrissey, the young literary lioness Olivia Macassey, and Gabriel White, a survivor of the legendary psychedelic Cook Island drumming combo Spacesuit.
Here's the text of the introductory talk I gave for Song of the Brakeman:
From First to Fourth Gear: Bill Direen's Song of the Brakeman
Like many of you, I suspect, I first associated the name Bill Direen with music. As a teenager who spent too many rainy afternoons flicking through the vinyl section of Real Groovy Records, I would encounter the output of Bill's legendary 1980s band The Bilders, on albums and EPs with strange cover art and titles like We Are the Coolest Cats in the World and Six Imaginary Things. When I eventually shelled out for one of Bill's records - they were out of print at the time, so the secondhand copies were often obscenely expensive - I discovered a very beguiling mixture of pop perfection and avant-garde anarchy. A beautiful melody or catchy chorus would be interrupted by squalls of feedback, or a solo by an out of tune electrified ukelele, or a sample of a drunken Russian speaking English badly.
In his notes for the booklet of the CD reissue of one of The Bilders' albums, Roger Shepherd observed that 'perversity is not just Bill's middle name, it is his first name and last name as well'. Shepherd remembered that when he worked in Flying Nun's office in the '80s he would 'always be expecting to receive a new version of Bill's latest album, in which Bil had replaced all the guitar parts with solos on Tibetan teaspoons'.
I realise it may seem a bit self-indulgent for me to be going on about Bill's music like this, when I'm supposed to be talking about his new novel, but I think that the music can help lead us into the writing. I think that the perversity which so perplexed and delighted Shepherd is present in the writing as well as the music. Like those great albums from the '80s, Song of the Brakeman is a restless, genre-hopping work, which mixes some fairly straight passages of narrative and some lovely descriptive writing with disorientating, staccato dialogues and dense wordplay. Reading the novel is a little like getting in a car with Brett Cross, Bill's publisher at Titus Books. As I've found to my expense once or twice, Brett likes to go straight from first to fourth gear without worring about the gears in between.
In some ways Song of the Brakeman is two novels in one. On the one hand we have a reasonably conventional narrative which probably falls into the science fiction sub-genre labeled post--apocalypse or, if you're a highbrow, dystopian. Bill introduces us to a world which has barely survived the breakdown of the disorder we can still call civilisation, and he involves us in the lives of two characters - one is the engineer of the title, the other his lover, a woman from a mysterious tribe - who are struggling to make sense of the ruins around them. Ultimately the hero and heroine become involved in a sort of a quest, and in a struggle between two rival power blocs representing not only two alternative futures for humanity but two interpretations of the collapse of civilisation. I won't go into any more details about Bill's plot, for fear of ruining your read, but I hope it'll be apparent that Song of the Brakeman contains a number of quite recognisable motifs, motifs that enable us to link it to the writing of sci fi greats like JG Ballard and John Wyndham.
The story of Bill's Brakeman also calls up some interesting parrallels in the canon of Kiwi literature. One thinks of Lear, a post-apocalypse novel by Mike Johnson, another writer with an association with Titus Books, and The Quiet Earth, the Craig Harrison novel which Geoff Murphy filmed in the '80s. The Quiet Earth showed us the conflict between a Pakeha scientist partially responsible for an experiment that has depopulated the earth, and a Maori who rejects him and his science, and ends up stealing the last girl on earth from him. There is a similar tension in Bill's novel between the Brakeman, a scientist implicated obscurely in the ecological catastrophe that has befallen the earth, and his lover, who belongs to a group of people who live a pre-industrial life. In Song of the Brakeman, as in The Quiet Earth, there is the question whether science and technology are hopelessly implicated in a way of life which has led to apocalypse, or whether they can be made to serve different ends. Can the scientist redeem himself, or must he suffer the same fate as the order he once served?
Despite all the similarities I've mentioned, Bill's novel could never be mistaken for a conventional work of sci fi. Readers of Song of the Brakeman encounter a linguistic exuberance - a verbal delirium, we might almost say - which is quite foreign to the conventional narrative of post-apocalypse.
This is a novel which shows the influence of Finnegan's Wake as well as The Day of the Triffids. Again and again, Bill's dense, chaotic language smashes holes in his narrative. As the gears change abruptly and the car zig zags wildly the passenger is forced to pay attention to the road he is travelling, as well as the narrative destination he has been seeking.
Bill's decision to mix a sci fi narrative with full-blooded high literary experiment is not without its risks. There is a danger, in particular, that Bill will fail to reach an audience - that he will achieve what is known in the music industry as a 'negative crossover'. Will Song of the Brakeman be too weird for the sci fi fans, and too, well, sci fi for the small number of people who consume experimental literature?
Some of the risks Bill is running were highlighted by an Iain Sharp review of his earlier novel Jules. Writing in the Sunday Star-Times, Sharp used a sentence from Jules to highlight the 'obscurity' which he feels too many New Zealand writers still embrace. For Sharp, Bill's difficult style is an affectation, something that needs to be discarded if his novels are ever to win a wide audience.
I haven't read Jules, but I want to suggest that it would be wrong to treat the style of Song of the Brakeman as a mere affectation unrelated to the setting and story Bill wants to bring to us. I think that the linguistic chaos of Song of the Brakeman is intended not to distract us from but to dramatise the chaos of the world Bill imagines. We might say that language is one of this novel's characters.
I'll offer one quick example to make my point clearer. One of the favourite motifs of the post-apocalypse story is the mutant, and Song of the Brakeman features some skilful and sickening descriptions of mutants and mutation. Olwyn will read you one of these descriptions in a minute, but in the meantime let me assure you - these folks ain't exactly the X Men. It seems to me wholly appropriate that the language Bill uses to treat this subject should itself be prone to mutation - that it should also sprout its own hideous and miraculous variations and innovations, its neologisms and gnomic fragments, until it is at times hardly recognisable in its impurity. It seems to me that, far from being careless or self-indulgent, Bill is working hard to find a style that is capable not simply of describing but of enacting his subject matter. If his language is dark and chaotic, that is because his subject is dark and chaotic too. The question is: are we as readers up to the challenge of exploring this strange yet strangely familiar new world?
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