Decay and Beauty
[Here's my review of David Lyndon Brown's Marked Men...
]The 1990s was not a golden decade in New Zealand history. I can just understand how commentators of a certain ideological bent might honour the second half of the '80s as a revolutionary era, a time when the Young Turks of the fourth Labour government fearlessly opened up New Zealand's protected economy to global capitalism, promised economic salvation in a few short years, and even briefly made the share market and the America's Cup into popular passions.
By the 1990s, though, the share market bubble had long since burst, a colourless and cynical National government led by the plodding Jim Bolger had taken power, and the full cost of neo-liberal 'reforms' had become apparent to large numbers of Kiwis. In the 1990s, New Zealand was suddenly a country where pensioners were evicted from state houses because they couldn't pay market rents, and where otherwise healthy people died because their kidney dialysis had been judged fiscally irresponsible.
In Auckland, New Zealand's largest city and the capital of Polynesia, the side-effects of unfettered capitalism were felt especially strongly. In the '90s whole suburbs of the city acquired a sort of sad shabbiness, as loan shark outfits, massage parlours, and two dollar shops installed themselves in the buildings vacated by post offices, libraries, and banks. Winos and psychiatric survivors pioneered the squeegee business at traffic lights, and food banks boomed.
If anybody wants to know what it was like to live in the 'new' Auckland of the 1990s, they could do worse than consult Calling the Fish, the collection of short stories that David Lyndon Brown published through Otago University Press in 2001. Brown's book documents the lives of characters - stressed out wage slaves, drunks, unpublished writers, head cases - living on the margins of a city in decay. In my favourite story in Calling the Fish, a young man living in an increasingly ugly part of Auckland struggles to hold on to his sense of the beauty and potential of life. Living in an undersized and overpriced flat in a neighbourhood over-run by newly liberated psychiatric patients, the narrator of 'Faith' creates elaborate fantasies about an attractive, smiling young couple he glimpsed on a bus one day. The couple become symbols of a world untouched by the chaos and misery the narrator sees all around him. Eventually, though, the young man and woman turn up again, on a stormy winter day. They are haggard and dressed in dirty clothes, and look angry and bitter. The narrator's ideals of beauty seem to have succumbed to the ugliness of reality.
It is tempting to identify the narrator of 'Faith' with David Lyndon Brown, because Calling the Fish is marked everywhere by attempts to salvage brief glimpses of beauty from the ruins of the world. At once elegiac and celebratory, it is a book which dwells on suffering and ugliness without being overwhelmed by them.
Brown's distinctive response to contemporary New Zealand comes wrapped in a distinctive prose style. Influenced by Flaubert and Firbank as well as Raymond Carver, he has a liking for laconic sentences and strange, often elaborate metaphors that are at once realistic and fantastic. In a typical David Lyndon Brown passage the prosaic and the poetic rub against each other:
There was still Formica on the walls and stand-up tables with a hole in the middle for an ashtray. The sodden carpet was a psychedelic minefield of exploding purple whorls. There was a dartboard and a pool table and sports trophies in a glass case behind the bar. The barman looked like a ventriloquist's dummy. His dyed black hair looked painted on and he had two red dots on his cheeks and one on the other end of his nose, where the capillaries had broken.
I have been discussing Calling the Fish because it is an essential companion to Marked Men, the short novel that Titus Books launched last Thursday night at Alleluya Cafe. Marked Men was written in the late '90s, but a succession of publishers turned it down, citing its 'extreme' and 'unmarketable' subject matter. The book's plot is fairly simple. Its gay narrator, who is never named or described, meets a young junkie and prostitute called Sykes in a 'dated and rundown' bar, and soon falls in love with him.
Sykes and the narrator enjoy a series of encounters, and even take a truncated holiday together, but Sykes keeps disappearing into Auckland's hazy underworld. The narrator learns that his lover was involved with the notorious but enigmatic Poole brothers, a pair of sadomasochists who have been arrested for torturing young men at the 'Institute of Pain' they ran above a sex shop in a trendy part of Auckland. When a house where Sykes stayed burns to the ground the police become interested in him, and in his connection to the Pooles. Brown's narrator is driven to the edge of insanity by Sykes' erratic behaviour and infidelity, but eventually forgives him. The end of the novel is marked by the suicides of Sykes, who has diagnosed himself with AIDS, and the Pooles, who face long prison terms.
Like Calling the Fish, Marked Men is set against a seedy, decaying Auckland - a city of crumbling boarding houses, twenty-four hour bars, and overgrown gardens. But Brown's novel has far less sociological detail than his stories, and its characters are much less defined. We never learn much about the structures and rituals of the gay milieux the characters move through, and the evil conspiracies that surround the Poole brothers remain shadowy. The reasons for Sykes' permanent rebellion against the world remain mysterious.
Marked Men is a novel of surfaces. Its narrator is able to describe the faces and clothing and genitalia but not the feelings and ideas of the people he encounters in his sorties into the world. Even when he is thrown into a crisis by Sykes' infidelity, Brown’s anti-hero does not succumb to introspection. Instead of investigating his feelings and thoughts, he engages in a little therapeutic redecoration:
I spent the whole day in a frenzy of cleaning. I vacuumed and scrubbed and polished and rearranged the furniture. I emptied the refrigerator. I scoured the bathroom and then I started on the bedroom…Stripping away the layers. All those veneers of joy and pain and boredom and wonder. Get rid of it. Get rid of it. Get rid of it.
This is the behaviour of a man who mistakes the objects around him for the feelings inside him. He seeks to regain control of himself not by investigating the emotional roots and intellectual presuppositions of his frustration and anger, but by remoulding his physical environment. Elsewhere in the book the narrator rhapsodises about his love for Sykes, but his love is always described in physical rather than emotional or intellectual terms. Sykes is an assemblage of eerily sensual images, not a human being:
I woke with a start to find Sykes standing naked by the bed. He was so thin and so pale that he seemed to glow. His skin seemed to absorb the frail moonlight that filtered in through the curtains...He was hot and cold at the same time...When I ran my hands over his back, I could feel some strange crenellations.
Perhaps it is wrong to make any criticism of someone who can write sentences as gorgeous as these. In Marked Men David Lyndon Brown has created characters who are driven by their balls and their bowels, not their hearts or brains. By suppressing the intellectual and emotional life of his characters, and excising much of the sociological detail found in his earlier writing, Brown has narrowed the horizons of the world he presented in Calling the Fish. Without a lucid, self-aware major character, the novel becomes a virtually uninterrupted stream of sensuous details - a beautiful, stormy prose poem with a disturbing vacuum at its centre.