'Kiwi literature just [sic] got a lot more interesting'
The wheels of justice turn slowly - very slowly, if you're a new publisher determined to push dangerous and difficult literature onto a sometimes unworthy world. It's now more than a year since Titus Books launched itself on the Kiwi literary scene by publishing a set of three of novellas by Olwyn Stewart, Jack Ross, and Bill Direen. Titus has followed its debut with a series of stylish volumes, and has more in store for 2007, but Landfall, the leaky flagship of NZlit for nearly six decades, has only just noticed the company's original offering.
Landfall may have a been a bit tardy in paying notice to the novellas of Stewart, Direen, and Ross, but it has at least found a thoughtful and sympathetic reviewer in the person of Katherine Liddy, and given her a reasonable amount of space in which to pass judgment. Here's Liddy's review, in full:
by Katherine Liddy
Coma, William Direen (Titus Books) pp. $XX
Trouble in Mind, Jack Ross (Titus Books) pp. $XX
Curriculum Vitae, Olwyn Stewart (Titus Books) pp. $XX
Discord between this world and another, a creeping awareness of the afterlife and a mounting trouble in mind—these are prominent features of the Titus Books novella series, three slim volumes published in 2006. Each novella expresses the other-worldly in its own way. All of them glide to crucial points of contact with The Beyond, encounters or journeys that prod the stories along and create a sense of eerie possibility. Read together, the books make a highly interesting group of modern ghost stories.
Right from the start it is clear that William Direen's Coma is paranormal or at least out of the ordinary. 'I', the unnamed protagonist, begins the story by describing her own birth:
I'm feeling the cold and the thinness of the air. I'm gaining in size. I'm trying to turn. I'm swimming again in a fluid thickening. My head goes under. I thump into a wall. My head is throbbing, my skull is about to crack. The beat of a drum as loud as I can stand and the swirl of a deafening Wurlitzer. I am curled up in the ear of a dragon. Blood is pulsing under a membrane, I am in a tympanum, in a blood vessel in a dragon's brain, on the warm side of a peritoneal wall that separates us, me and another, from others.
Chilled, detached and sorrowful, the narration continues in the present continuous tense as the heroine develops post partum, through childhood and adolescence. However unlike Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which adjusts its diction to match Stephen's intellectual age, the voice of the principal character is changeless. As she grows she speaks in a steady mournful monotone that makes her seem almost ghostly, as in this exchange with her young teen boyfriend:
He is laughing. He so wanted me to say I could go with him. He is laughing because deep down he really wants to hit me. He is laughing so hard that his breath clouds the windshield. He is yelling into the windshield, 'Birds don't matter! They don't know they are going to die!'
Realistic interior monologue is eschewed; anaphora and Jim-Morrison-style metaphor solemnises her utterances. Death, or a funereal formality, pervades the atmosphere.
Intrepid ventures deserve admiration, and by choosing to write from the perspective of a young girl from contemporary USA, Direen exhibits the sort of derring do that gives fiction wings. Whilst it is commendable that he dares to imagine situations beyond his experience, the drawback is that a lack of detail also interferes with the suspension of disbelief.
Although the mode of narration creates a sense of tragical importance around Ms X, it also prevents the reader from believing she could be a real live human girl. Not only that, but there are several anomalous details that accumulate to expose Direen's act of ventriloquism, problems with dialect, cultural allusions and obtrusive authorial ideology.
Yet perhaps Direen wants to draw attention to his artifice? Only the author can know his intention, but readers usually require a basic level of credibility before they are willing to surrender to a story. Unless it be drawn from lived experience, a writer has to be able to contribute enough pertinent and coherent detail that a scene feels right—I feel that is missing here.
With Trouble in Mind, there is perhaps a surplus of pertinent detail. No matter how bizarre or seemingly unrelated the disparate puzzle pieces, the reader is lured into hoping that they fit. ‘Have you ever thought that if you took a single story and read it carefully enough, you could deduce all the laws of human behaviour from it?’ You are asked by the narrator, a deranged scholar who delights in dismembering texts, scribbling in margins, constructing decoupage of body parts and obsessively systematising everything from sitcoms to sex acts.
Deranged as the consciousness may seem, it actually represents an orthodox post-modern sensibility. Once you realise this, the periodic musings seem less mysterious and anxiety producing because you realise they are completely dispensable.
Yet the main narrative, the one the kooky professor is supposedly narrating, is a different story. Opening with panache, the novella reveals a teenager's Inanna-like descent into a horrifying Underworld.
Ten feet further, another layer of logs. She took off her top, and, sweating heavily in the stuffy air of the tunnel, kept descending.
Ten feet further, more logs. She removed her jeans. The trapdoor opened and she went on. By now it was very hot.
Underneath the eye of the sun, in the murky territory between Life and Death, the story unfolds like a papyrus emitting the spores of an ancient curse.
Horror, at least in film, usually plays on the tension between sex and death. Unlike the healthy human animals around her, the horroine tends to embody sexual innocence and morbid hypersensitivity. Ross, never one to shy away from female teenage sexuality if he can help it, creates an effectively anxious atmosphere by stressing the naivety, depression and sixth sense of his sixteen-year-old protagonist, Laura.
Truly frightening in many places, Trouble in Mind deserves to be read if only as a good example of the genre in its baroque, post-modern stage. Movie horror conventions are adhered to but the writing itself is also highly polished, lending the story the bright gleam of designer kitsch:
The driver had a skull-face. Chalk-white, crabbed and cold—a mask to frighten little children with.
From the back seat of the Daimler, all Laura could see was a pair of bony ears protruding from between the red scarf and black top hat. But every time he turned his cheekbones came into view. Sharp as knives. As if he were slashing a way forward with them.He hadn't spoken once since the journey began.
Every time I read this description it gives me an extraordinary sense of satisfaction. It manages the elegance significance of Joyce, evoking everything from Charon, the Stygian taxi driver, to Dracula, to campy Italian vampire flicks. Such subtle demonstration of literary awareness is typical of Ross's style, and one of the great pleasures in reading his books.
Experimental, assured, contemporary and local, Trouble in Mind is a healthy new leaf in the old stick of New Zealand lit. Even though I personally have an aversion to self-conscious post modernism, I can see that it would make an ideal text in a university course on that sort of thing. Keep an eye out for more by Ross if you are a fan of post modernism, New Zealand literature or high-brow porn. Lovers of literary puzzles may be attracted to the erotic Nights with Giordano Bruno (Danger Books), while I preferred Monkey Miss Her Now, a collection of short stories 'de l'amour'.
In a different way I was also delighted with Olwyn Stewart's novella, Curriculum Vitae. Bristling with wit and instantly recognisable Auckland detail, this is not only an enjoyable yarn but also a beautifully structured little piece of writing.
Evolving from more traditional traditions that Coma and Trouble in Mind, Curriculum Vitae has the same earthy rambunctiousness as a Chaucerian anecdote but is also thoroughly, refreshingly contemporary. Realistic in its careful reproduction of grungy Auckland vernacular, habit and habitat, its very credibility supports the outrageous epiphany central to the plot. Approaching the story with gusto, Stewart's narrative is both lively and unobtrusive, matching her characters' speech, as in the opening pages among K-Road coffee drinkers who have found a CV:
'Some one's CV,' one notes, 'Look, there's a photo of him, scrambling down the side of some waterfall with a rope around his waist. You can't really see what he looks like though, apart from his rude eighties haircut.'
The other laughs, taking a finger full of sugar, spilling a few granules onto the folder as she reads, 'He used to be in this band called Overdrive. Must be an old metaller.'
The first girl leans back on her chair and drops her smoke. 'Oh fuck. I've burned a hole in his positive attitude.'
'Who cares? He's a Taurus,' the other declares. 'I can't stand Tauruses.
A skinny guy with a face full of piercings appears, slips into a chair and runs an eye over the opening page. 'A CV! Shit this could come in handy,' he exclaims.
'For what?' Asks the first girl, shovelling more sugar onto her tongue.
This quote alone shows Stewart's considerable dramatic talent. I love the easy way these few short paragraphs generate interest in the yet-to-appear main character (Mike Lockwood) and at the same time work as a neat vignette on their own. Once Lockwood appears on the scene, like some scruffy unemployed Hamlet, it becomes clear that he's an inarticulate, not terribly bright dude who doesn't really deserve to be the hero of a book. Nevertheless he is also convincingly attractive and his rare and foggy glimpses of self knowledge are even rather endearing in their inadequacy:
Is an arsehole less of an arsehole if he knows he's one? Maybe a bit.
Like Coma and Trouble in Mind, Curriculum Vitae deals with the afterlife in a way but I won't say anything more for fear of giving away the delightful twist. Olwyn Stewart's a fine storyteller—I'll leave it at that.
Vanguards, points of novel triangles, do not appear on the NZ scene all that often. Even though flawed, the Titus novella series presses ahead of the pack with something new, smart and strange. Kiwi literature just got a whole lot more interesting.