Monday, May 21, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE FACELESS” by Vanda Symon (Penguin, $NZ29:99)

A teenage street-person who calls herself Billy makes her living as a prostitute on Auckland’s Karangahape Road. She sleeps rough in cardboard boxes down back alleys, and is watched over paternally by another street-person, the scruffy and smelly old bum Max.

Billy’s real passion is art. She spray-paints magnificent frescoes on disused walls and under bridges. None of your cheap graffiti art, you understand. She hates taggers. She paints real Madonnas and Venuses. Prostitution is just a means to the end of being free to do her art.

A company accountant called Bradley Fordyce is frustrated at his job, under pressure from his demanding boss, and seems to have bedroom issues with his wife. He persuades himself that he needs some “relief”. He picks up Billy off K.Road and drives to a secluded spot where she can service him. But, when he proves incapable of performing, he notes the slight smirk on Billy’s face.

He belts her hard.

Then he realizes he has to get rid of  her, but without being seen by the many prying eyes of K.Road and environs. So he belts her some more, trusses her up, bungs her in the boot and drives her out to Mt.Wellington where he chains her up in the locked basement of an industrial property he manages.

So there’s Billy tied up in the basement and periodically being abused by Bradley. And there’s her good friend the bum Max, wondering where she’s gone and trying to get a “missing person” enquiry going, against the scepticism of respectable people who don’t trust a bum. And there’s Bradley, partly worried that he’ll be found out by wife and young kids, but gradually coming to enjoy exercising sadistic power over somebody even more helpless than himself.

It’s the height of rudeness for reviewers to give away the twists in thrillers, detective stories and yarns, so I’ll halt my synopsis there. These are just the first 50-or-so pages of Vanda Symon’s 300-page thriller The Faceless. I’ve revealed little more than the initial set-up. I do note, however, that it is essentially a thriller – a variation on the “police procedural” genre with Max and his allies working their way towards finding out where Billy is; and with Bradley driven to desperate expedients.

Vanda Symon arranges her narrative with chapters cutting between Bradley, Max, Billy and a policewoman who becomes involved. There is detective work, together with confrontations and beatings and a last-minute dash and a violent climax. There is also, I can’t help noting, the cliché of the cop who has been so traumatised by a horrible experience that he has ceased to be able to do his job. But it works well as a thriller, the only noticeable weakness being Billy’s failure to develop as a character (or indeed to do much more than suffer) once her role in the story is established.

Part of me notes a certain fantasy element in the novel, for all the gritty realism of the setting. From the get-go I found the compassionate, gentlemanly, well-spoken street-person Max a little too good to be true, given that he is also presented as a broken-down, black-toothed, smelly creature who scavenges for food in rubbish bins. On this score, I was not mollified by later plot developments that tell more about him. The fresco-painting pure-hearted teenage whore Billy is also too good to be true. As far I know from documentary material, teenagers working the streets as prostitutes are more desperate, less in control and more abused than this. It would take a lot to convince me that there are many budding artistic geniuses among them.

It interests me that Vanda Symon’s perspective is essentially a conservative one. She believes in real law-and-order. On the whole the cops in the story are presented positively, apart from two unpleasant young constables who give Max a hard time when he first seeks help. More surprisingly, when the hunt for Billy takes investigators to him, the pastor of a large Auckland Pacific Island church is also presented positively as a caring person not too impressed by the selfish attitudes of some of his congregation.

There is one moment in this novel where I think Vanda Symon takes a real risk, and it pays off. Bradley is energised by his own sadistic behaviour and the apparent power it has given him. He is so energised that he stands up to his boss when he is bullied at work. For just that one chapter, we are almost on the creep’s side as he says forthrightly things that any harassed employee would like to say. Here at least there is an unexpected complexity to the characterization.

Vanda Symon certainly presents the seamy side of life, but her writing can go over-the-top pretty when she wants. The novel’s opening sentence (describing Billy at work on her art) reads thus:

The arc of white spraypaint mists the wall with absolute precision, the microfine droplets highlight the crest of the crashing wave with each graceful upsweep of her arm, and then contour the roiling fall into the form of a triumphant stallion’s head.”(p.7)

This is a fine way of establishing the teenager’s surprising talent. But later, such writing seems rhetorical and ranty, as when we have this passage of old Max waking to a new day:

            The first rays of thin autumnal light greeted him from a fitful sleep, a sleep that had been haunted by dreams of faces melted like waxen candles grotesquely consumed by the very flame they fuelled. There had been the image of Billy, whose aetherial form kept slipping from his grasp, his hand raking through the misty trail of her passing, vortexes and eddies forming from between his spread fingers.” (p.108)

I know this passage, with its “faces melted like waxen candles”, explains the novel’s title. But “thin autumnal light” and “aetherial form” seem to be overdoing it.

I hasten to add that doing a fine analysis of the quality of prose is no way to assess a good thriller.

The Faceless is Dunedin-based Vanda Symon’s fifth novel. The first four all featured her detective hero Sam Shephard and all, I believe, had South Island settings. This is her first to do without Sam and also her first to venture into the wicked big northern city of Auckland.

As an Aucklander, I applaud all the things she has got right. Some of us really are as revolting as the worst characters in this novel. 

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