Saturday, July 28, 2007

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 Brown's book documents the lives of characters - stressed out wage slaves, drunks, unpublished writers, head cases - living on the margins of a city in decay.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.

6 Comments:

Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I think that this concentration on surfaces reflects - perhaps - not only the "gay" world - or the world of the troubled etc - but the
"world" you described (of loneliness connected to decaying Capitalism and also to deep individual distress) - this story is of love, reality, and distress is (reflecting many social/political/interpersonal injustices)* not limited to the 90s -its timeless in its implications.

But certainly N.Z "dived" from 1985 on . D L Brown is, I think, acutely aware of the sociological matters - I also felt a bit frustrated that D B didn't "take off" with the character Sykes (I wondered immediately if that name chimed with "Psyche"); and the twins, the eerie Poole brothers, might have become symbolic, even central - or been used more extensively as a leitmotif as e.g. Oscar in "The Tin Drum" ...

But I must re-read the book. I am finishing my book about Amundsen and Scott - David Brown is indeed not a stodgy Scott of the literary world but an Amundsen, a winner - whose meticulous and great planning and foresight (combined with quite some imagination, courage and intuition) got him to the people and back with supplies in reserve and in sufficient time to avoid the scurvy which beat Scott. (In fact - Scott was such a bungler he didn't actually reach the mathematical South Pole!) David Brown is indeed a developing Amundsen of literature...

* Nor is 'Marked Men' all darkness and distress the light is there also - it is also at one level 'about' courage.

The restraint in "Marked Men" may be just right. (So some possible "lines" for this writer might indeed be to Flaubert and Zola while others to Carver, and something of Grass, and possibly a (more distant) nod to Garcia Marquez).

It occurs to me that this "surface" concentration you note in "Marked Men" is possibly what is required in the novel - it reflects the world that is not only that of many in the gay community or the "fringes" (and who isn't or hasn't been in those fringes or edges?) but it is in fact the way many people do deal with their realities - too many people concentrate too much on things and acquisitions and surfaces - though there is no doubt that also here can be invoked the body-mind inter conjunctions (I am thinking of what I have read about Merleau-Ponty (courtesy of the Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia - trying to get to grips with Alan Sondheim - see my Blogs);and also what I have read or heard about Lacan and Foucault (I have actually read some of the latter's primary texts) - now this starts to connect up with Marx's concept of 'alienation' - the novel is 'about' many things - but one reality is that of loneliness and love - now I confirm what you say on love (in the book) and what Mike Johnston said at the launch, when he challenged anyone who hadn't been or couldn't see themselves as potentially "destroyed" by love to leave (this was off course partly for effect!) ... but it was also savage, and hit the mark.

But the love in "Marked Men" is indeed (in some ways) limited (if intense) - or it seems limited - Fabulina perhaps doesn't develop enough (she, through her name and sayings and her fate, and the other characters via their names and actions: are all quite fabulous of course - but I didn't feel much, or enough, for her, or for Sykes, or the protagonist (my thoughts on this book hinge on whether this is just how the protagonist would actually present his "love" and life; or whether there is need for the book to have been greater in scope and even length) - but I may have been bedazzled by the fiery brilliance of the work.

There are many passages such as the one you quoted of great poetic virtuosity segueing into realism or 'reality'.

But it is not just pyrotechnics - clearly David Brown can do that - it is controlled craft as with Sargeson. This is a book that certainly draws a reader in (via the eye at first as Mike Johnston said) - it is a work of great significance; showing a writer of scintillating energy and great ability.

10:15 pm  
Blogger Olivia Macassey said...

I can't say I agree with this review at all.

The example you give to support your contention that it is "a novel of surfaces" is a case in point.

I'm guessing you don't simply want the character to say "I sat on the bed and investigated my feelings and thoughts"; you want him to talk you through it - to deliver some kind of angst-ridden interior monologue. For me, the passage illustrates his inner state quite adequately - it shows us rather than telling us.

This non-didactic approach also enables a layer of uncertainty, ambivalence, fluidity - we infer, rather than know - even as readers we don't get to sit there like gods. For instance, again in this example, your interprettation of this scene as a crisis brought on by Sykes "infidelity" is worlds away from what I think it was about!

It's also significant that the passage continues:

Then I unplugged the telephone, climbed into the shower and turning on the water as hot as I could stand it, scoured my skin raw.

For you, the passage describes "the behaviour of a man who mistakes the objects around him for the feelings inside him". But I think that this way of seeing the book is only really possible if you maintain a fairly rigid Cartesian mind/body duality. And you seem to signal an allegience to this a little later in the review, by creating an opposition between balls and bowels on one hand and hearts and brains on the other - placing emotion on the side of the intellect rather than the corporeal.

David Lyndon Brown's work on the other hand refuses this distinction. I think Richard is right to bring up Merleau-Ponty in this context. Why try to enforce a separation between mind and body, between body and body, body and "objects" and world, when Marked Men so clearly establishes the correspondences (metaphors, figures, senses) between them? He does not suppress "the intellectual and emotional life of his characters"; on the contrary he expresses it in all its obliqueness and unknowability in everything his protagonist sees, touches, feels. Paradoxically, your review seems to be complaining of an absence because of what amounts to a saturation of presence.

I'm reminded of the end of Journal d'un curé de campagne: all is grace.

9:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point isn't that the author shows rather than telling, but that he doesn't show much about his characters.

We have a clash between these inarticulate characters who have a profound lack of interest in the world and quite nihilistic patterns of behaviour, on the one hand, and the desire of the novelist to write about love and imbue Sykes with a certain innocence and goodness, on the other.

It's not clear to me that either Sykes or the narrator is capable of love. At the very least, we need to know more about them, to understand why the behave in the way they do. Why is Sykes rebelling against the world to the point of death? Why is the narrator so utterly uninterested in everything else, and yet so obsessively drawn to Sykes? The only answers we are left with are essentially biological ones - hence my reference to balls and bowels.

I don't accept that love is the same as physical desire, and I don't think you really do either, outside the realm of theory, though of course it'd be silly to go to an extreme and think that our brains weren't at some level sexual organs.

Here's a test for readers of the novel: were you shocked when the loveable, innocent Sykes committed murder, and the narrator didn't bat an eyelid? No? Me neither. I think the novel really presents what should be a cataclysmic event as a minor detail. It's certainly much less affecting, in the context of the novel, than Sykes' sexual betrayal of the narrator. This is what I mean when I say there is a moral vacuum at the heart of the novel. Such a vacuum wouldn't be a problem if the author wanted to write The Outsider, or a hardboiled Chandler novel, but it is a problem if he wants to tell readers a story about love.

Of course I could be utterly wrong and you could be utterly right. I need to think about the book some more and perhaps reread parts of it. David Lyndon Brown is certainly a writer worth arguing about.
(Maps)

9:45 pm  
Blogger Olivia Macassey said...

How do you figure the narrator as an "inarticulate" character?

His is the voice that narrates the whole novel - David has imbued him with the gift of being - in your own words - "someone who can write [or speak] sentences as gorgeous as these."

I'm certainly not arguing that "love is the same as physical desire" - perhaps my criticisms aren't as eloquent as you generously suggest in a later post, if that's what you think I'm trying to say! I can't engage with you on this as I'm not sure what position you're arguing against - but I will note that I don't accept that love and biology are in binary opposition either (or is "biology" used here as a euphemism for sexuality? In which case are you trying to construct sex in opposition to culture?? Which I'd also dispute.) I'm at sea on this point, to be honest.

I think though, fundamentally, you've put your finger on our central point of disagreement - there's an ethics in this novel that you can't agree with, but in which I see parallels with things like Journal... but you know, for me, it goes back to Mike's comment cited by Richard above. "Love" (if indeed that's what the book is "about", and I don't think anyone so far in this conversation has really defined that properly yet) love... love isn't always a morality play (except in Hollywood, perhaps).

I should add a disclaimer: I haven't even finished reading it yet! But I'm finding it very engaging and was rather surprised by your take on it, so I thought I'd comment.

4:33 pm  
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