Looking for the super-rat
Back in 2007 Titus published a large, elegant book of Johnson's 'reinventions' of the poems of the medieval Chinese mystic, Li Ho. The margins of A Vertical Harp were decorated with large Chinese characters painted so delicately and fluidly that they looked like butterflies about to take flight from the page. Travesty, which is a novel about urban decay, reality TV, and violence, is by contrast full of imagery that brings one down to earth with a thud. The drawing of a run-down necropolois on the book's back cover transports us efficiently to the fantastic and yet peculiarly New Zealand dystopia which has been the setting of many of Johnson's earlier novels, including his now-legendary eighties tome Lear.
'Darren has put a lot of work into the cover', Brett told me, as he opened his first beer and settled into my creaking sofa. 'His central image fuses the profiles of two rats, and in doing so creates a super-rat.' I squinted hard at the proposed front cover of Travesty, then looked back at Brett. 'See them?' he asked me, in a tone of voice which implied that an answer was uneccessary. 'I think it's a fine cover. Very gothic. Very Mike. Very super-rat!'
I squinted at the image again, and again, but I couldn't see one averagely-sized rat, let alone some sort of massive mutant creature. I could, however, discern the nose, eyes, and ears of a bear - not the sort of hulking black bear that overturns the cars of shrieking teenage girls on holiday in the Rockies in B-grade horror movies, but the type of cute adolescent grizzly bear whose modest dimensions and permanently puzzled expression attracts crowds of cooing kids at zoos around the world.
'I see a bear', I told Brett.
'You can have one. Don't need to ask.'
'A bear' I persisted. 'Not a beer. I see a bear on Mike's cover. Quite a cute bear, actually.'
'There's no bear there. There's a super-rat. Take another look! You probably didn't look properly. Try swivelling your head a little. See it? A super-rat!'
It suddenly occurred to me that the image on Mike's new cover might have a sort of radical ambivalence, like the Wittgensteinian duck-rabbit drawing which I blogged about last week. Perhaps it was a cute grizzly bear and a super-rat! I squinted again, and, lo and behold, a second image announced itself amidst Darren Sheehan's tangle of lines.
'I can see something else', I announced to Brett, who was by this time looking over my shoulder.
'Of course you can! It's good, isn't it? A super-rat.'
'I still can't see the super-rat, sorry. But I see a green man, in the white space near the top of the centre of the picture, where I used to see the bear's forehead.'
'There is no damn bear! And what the hell do you mean 'a green man?' Brett's voice seemed more bewildered than angry.
'A green man, like the ones that were carved in wood or stone on gothic churches in medieval Europe. A symbol of the natural world. Anchorites or noble savages, with lilies and wild roses blossoming in their beards. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You know what I mean...'
'There is no green man! There's a super-rat!'
It seemed politic for me to change the subject, by complimenting Brett on his choice of beer, by asking him about his plans for the launch of Travesty, and by trying to get him to join the World Cup betting pool I am organising. He, too, seemed keen to abandon his attempt to get me to see what was as plain as day to him.
I don't want to bemuse Brett again, but I have to ask: can anybody else see the super-rat? How about the bear, and the green man? Footnote: in the hope of adding some substance to this rather silly post, I'd like to point out that recently-repatriated Yorkshireman Carey Davies has written a long article for the Werewolf website which develops the discussion of tourism, escapism, and paranoia that he began last month on this blog.