The musical novelist
Before it was famous for the low-fi guitar pop pioneered by the Flying Nun label, Dunedin was known for giving shelter to some of New Zealand's most interesting writers. A bronze Robbie Burns gazes benignly over the city centre, and nearby Otago University blazed a trail by setting up a Burns fellowship to support local and visiting writers way back in 1958. The Burns put a smile on local publicans' faces by bringing Maurice Duggan south in 1960, and later that decade it stimulated James K Baxter to write some of his most popular work. Bill Direen is the latest writer to seek refuge in the deep south: he arrived late last year, after living for the best part of a decade in Paris.
Direen is hardly a stranger to Dunedin: in the 1980s he released a string of gloriously ragged recordings on Flying Nun, and frequently travelled south to perform in the city. In the latest issue of Critic Te Arohi, Otago University's student magazine, Megan Anderson has written a very hospitable review of Song of the Brakeman, the novel Bill published with Titus Books last year. Critic is a mostly offline mag so, with the permission of Anderson and Titus, I've reproduced the review here.
Song of the Brakeman, by Bill Direen. Reviewed by Megan Anderson in Critic Te Arohi, pp 46-7, Issue 7, 2007.
Bill Direen is achieving something in his literature that defies his claim that he writes simply to “stay relatively sane”. His latest novel Song of the Brakeman, seems rather to be an exercise in prose and poetry that is refreshingly unique among a fairly predictable mainstream literary scene.
Song of the Brakeman is set in a world like ours, but it is impossible to treat it as such. The landscape Direen portrays is one in which the continents have fragmented, the environment is irrevocably tainted, the ice caps have melted, and the entire hydrological cycle is suspended. Direen calls it “ a world of the imagination, rather than of the future.” This is reassuring, as the world Direen paints is the sort of apocalyptic future one could easily envisage for our own world, if global warming is anything to go by. Situated in the midst of this ecological nightmare is Brakeman, a technician (surprisingly enough) closely involved in the mafia-like global state that is in possession of the earth’s remaining wealth and resources. Outside this chaotic mess of intrigue and violence is the Tribe — a species of humanity separated from the rest of society for both their strangeness and their inability to survive if taken captive. While the global state is set for the Tribe’s destruction, there is an inexorable twist — within the Tribe’s genetic structure is the key to the rest of humanity’s survival. With the intention of holding and breeding the Tribe like cattle, the global state begins a plot to secure the salvation of mankind. This plan is doomed as they see the only means of accomplishing this to be violence and slavery. Aiming to subvert this plot, Brakeman, with the help of his tribal lover Enola, secretly feeds information to the Tribe — only to be suspected and imprisoned in a sort of interrogation camp from hell. The novel subsequently plunges into their escape and their eventual refuge within the Tribe.
During an interview with the Dunedin-based Bill Direen, Critic got the impression that storyline plays a relatively small role in Direen’s writing. As a product of Titus Books ‘(a writing platform which embraces works of literature that “menace existing categories”), Song of the Brakeman is decidedly set apart from the standard novel. What’s particularly striking about the novel is its musicality. Direen uses narrative as an expressive tool, constantly altering the narrative’s pace, rhythm and tone to represent what it’s describing. What begins as a choppy, violent urban setting reflected through a film noir / Sin City monologue evolves into a retreat into nature — or what is left of it in a deteriorating world — a lyrical prose flooded with imagery. This performative aspect of Direen’s work is something he is obviously passionate about (he is also an active musician), and this is evident in his search for a language which “includes the verbal elements and the musical elements which [are] a part of me, which [have] always been a part of me.” Direen emphasises the sound and musicality of language, rather than focusing on just the semantic qualities of words: “Because I was a musician, and still am” he says, “music and rhythm, and a lot of the musical aspects of language play a big part in the way that I see literature.”
For Direen these musical aspects include “the rhythm of the sentences and also the personality of the voice … so with each novel there’s a definite voice there that I hear in the back of my mind which preserves the style, and that’s why the styles are quite different in [my] different novels.”
Direen is adamant that his search for an expressive, musical language is not him “purposely trying to be difficult in this language thing” though he admits, “People have accused me of it.” It is understandable that Direen has been regarded with scepticism concerning his unconventional style of language. Undoubtedly, Song of the Brakemen is not a novel to be greedily devoured on a rainy day — although it is certainly absorbing enough. Direen writes in a way that forces you to reflect on what you are reading, with imagery at once muted and elaborate, tenses that shuffle with the rising conflict and film noir narrative that splinters into frames of lucidity. In addition, poetry is interspersed throughout the novel to shake any impressions readers may have had of this being a straightforward mainstream novel. What Direen achieves instead is a seemingly self-reflexive examination of the text itself, the language, and the power of prose. Rather than falling strictly into any modernist/post)modernist genre, the distinct style of Song of the Brakeman remains accessible throughout. At times Direen approaches his reader directly with such lines as, “His mood scared you sacred,” “We achieve in death not life,” and “we were the living carcasses in an experimental soup.” Direen’s sharp observations on the lusts and lows of human character, and humanity’s often irrational thirst for survival continually draws the reader into this strange world. In this respect, reading Song of the Brakeman is almost like an out-of-body experience, with a continual sense of being suspended in time and space. This sensation is enhanced by the scattered fragments of poetry that are oddly incongruous with Direen’s depiction of a world utterly destroyed and disfigured by its inhabitants. The actual song of the Brakeman, sung enthusiastically by Brakeman in the midst of the exceedingly violent interrogation scenes of Part II, is, as Direen says “intended as light relief, really, because of all this heavy stuff.” Direen admits that “It’s a satirical piece, I guess. It’s sort of anti-capitalist.” This makes sense when considering how Direen’s interrogation scenes were influenced by the Guantanamo Bay imprisonments. While Direen refers to America extensively in the novel, he stressed that ‘it’s not anti-American, but obviously I use America as a model for the world state.”
Song of the Brakeman is certainly a novel that transcends the bounds of normative literature. While Direen is continually attempting to achieve a new form of expression through his writing, he seems content in the fact that what he is expressing is essentially himself: “I don’t want to revolutionise NZ literature”, he says. “I think there’s a whole lot of really great developments in NZ literature ([such as] the number of women writing, the number of ethnic groups represented, [and] cultural representation… Now we’re getting down to very interesting representations as far as New Zealand literature. It’s just that that’s not what I do.
“I just want to keep on realising the narrative and completing the projects that I’m working on at the moment, and perhaps starting a new one. The main thing for me is just that I’m able to continue writing, which means that my mind is still operating — and I’d be happy if that continues to operate. I don’t really have any illusions about my work being accepted by the mainstream.”
Certainly, it is interesting to ponder the effect Song of the Brakeman would have upon a mainstream audience At the end of the interview Direen asked Critic of his book, “Did you think it was bizarre?”
Song of the Brakeman bizarre? Perhaps. An absorbing novel regardless? Certainly.