Monday, August 19, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“UNSPEAKABLE SECRETS OF THE ARO VALLEY” by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria University Press, $NZ35)
I’m an Aucklander who once spent a very enjoyable year living in Wellington and who has frequently made shorter visits to the city. On the whole, I like the place. But for all my familiarity with Wellington, it is still essentially alien to me, and not my home.
So, being an Aucklander, as soon as I picked up Danyl McLauchlan’s debut novel Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, I began to luxuriate in the Wellington-ness of it. This is a piece of postmodern, genre-kidding, piss-taking semi-Gothic, but, from its title on, it also reeks of the close, hilly troglodyte city under Baxter’s “daylong driving clouds”. The novel’s Wellington is the Wellington of deep suburban valleys that are sunlit at the top and damp and chilly at the bottom. It’s the Wellington of late 19th century and early 20th century houses that have for years been student flats, before some of them got gentrified. And it’s the city of hidden hillside pathways between twisting roads; and of self-conscious bohemians who have moved from studentship to working in second-hand bookshops while devising schemes to change the cosmos. What a joy to plunge my nose into the pages of this novel and smell the familiar Wellington mould.
For the antiquity of houses, take this reaction to his domicile by the dorkish hero Danyl, whose observations (given his signal failure as a Lothario) inevitably turn to erotic fantasy:
“The kitchen was his favourite room in the house. Wooden benches, white plaster walls and an old stone sink: it looked just as it must have when they built it a hundred years ago. Except for the oven and the power outlets. And the kettle and the toaster. And the fridge. Anyway, it had character. Danyl wondered who had lived in this house back then. A family? A couple with children, teenage daughters perhaps, who chased each other around this very room in flimsy white cotton nightgowns that were transparent in the flickering candlelight? Yes, he was sure they did.” (p.26)
Then there’s that Wellington weediness and overgrowth; those little terraces that have been dug out for gardens as there’s so little flat land; and such quasi-archaeological bits and pieces as the following:
“This garden was about the size of a tennis court: it was a broken series of pits and mounds scattered with rubbish and choked with weeds – the kind of landscape lunatics takes pictures of and send to local newspapers as evidence of ruined civilisations.” (p.76)
Of course it makes a difference that the novel is specifically set in the suburb where people watch arty DVDs from the local store and sometimes have rather big and cranky ideas of themselves. In fact this aspect of the novel – turning one small (sub)urban area into the novel’s whole setting – together with the novel’s fantastic elements put me in mind of nothing so much as G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
There is another Wellington element to Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, of which I had to be advised by my own special and commissioned Wellington informant. You will have noted from one of the above quotations that the novel’s hero Danyl has the same name as the novel’s author. Apparently the novel’s hero’s best buddy, the know-it-all and pusillanimous Steve, also has the same name as the novelist’s best buddy. But most notoriously, the novel’s overbearing, up-himself, pompous and somewhat paranoid antagonist Campbell Walker has the same name as an erstwhile Wellington experimental film-maker of the novelist’s ken. We are told in an end-note that “Campbell Walker … has confirmed in writing that he will not be taking legal action.” I have so far read at least one reproving review [on Landfall Review on Line], which seems to take exception to the novelist’s handling of this real person.
The fictitious Campbell Walker is introduced in the novel rather tartly, thus: “Campbell was a wealthy software entrepreneur who assumed that his moderate commercial success merited international rockstar levels of fame.” (p.47)
Part of the mechanism of the plot has the fictitious Danyl writing a novel, which is an expose of the fictitious Campbell. There are therefore rather arch self-referential moments in Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley such as the following exchange between Danyl and his girlfriend Verity. Verity says:
“ ‘I hope I never see the Campbell Walker ever again. What a mistake that turned out to be.’
‘Mistake?’ [replies Danyl] ‘Campbell’s not my favourite guy, but he’s how we met. And he inspired my book.’ ” (p.209)
A little later Danyl reflects:
“Campbell was the inspiration for the book and it mocked him mercilessly, but he wouldn’t even know it existed until after publication. Danyl planned to change the names and a few salient details to preclude any lawsuits. Campbell would know – oh yes, he’d know – but he could prove nothing.” (p.218)
I know nothing of the real persons whose fictionalised images feature in this novel, but I would have to assume that the real Campbell Walker at least has a sense of humour, given how the fictitious Campbell Walker is ridiculed. In the novel, Campbell Walker runs two successive secret projects to change the universe. He frequently refers to himself in the third person as “THE Campbell Walker”. He orders around the novel’s Danyl as a lackey, addressing him as “writer”. But whenever Campbell Walker expresses his ideas, they are the most banal comic-book tosh and his pretensions come clattering down. Take this late scene, where he is chewing out his current acolytes, the DoorMen, for failing him, and offering gobbets of simple textbook information as if they are the Secrets of the Ages:
“ ‘Failure!’ Campbell drove his fist into his palm. ‘There’s nothing in the world I hate more than failure, and people who perpetuate it. I refer to those people-‘ He paused for dramatic emphasis. The crowd of DoorMen assembled outside the biochemistry lab leaned forward in anticipation. ‘As failures.’ The DoorMen nodded, impressed. Crowded together they were an arresting sight. Most had fallen under Campbell’s sway to such a degree that they imitated his appearance. They had grown their hair out into long, straggly strands, and dressed in black army boots, three-quarter length shorts and black leather jackets. Those with light-coloured hair had dyed it black and their blond roots gleamed against their oily skulls.
‘Failure’, Campbell continued, pacing before them like a drill sergeant. ‘The term comes from Old French: failler, meaning “to fail”. And that is what you’ve done. I didn’t ask for much. Just that you breed sponges and then extract and isolate a protein from them that increased human intelligence, transforming us into a new species, all the while operating under conditions of absolute secrecy. But even in this simple task you have disappointed me.’ ” (pp.302-303)
All this self-referentialism and dickering with the real world and attempts to pre-empt criticism are the novel’s “postmodern” aspects. But at heart it is a simple romp and genre parody. The genre is the occult novel of satanic intrigue and secret codes - perhaps a cross between the drek of Dennis Wheatley and the cack of Dan Brown.
Briefly, innocent and somewhat gormless Danyl and his buddy Steve get caught up in a complicated plot wherein rival bands of occultists are trying to get hold of something called “the Priest’s Soul” which is apparently buried somewhere in the Aro Valley. Backstory has a sort of satanic coven being set up in Wellington in the early twentieth century by a mysterious Austrian mystic. The search for what this mystic may have left somewhere leads to houses being smashed and pulled apart, up and down the valley and around the ears of the aforesaid gormless Danyl.
Meanwhile the paranoid and ridiculous Campbell Walker has plans first to change human consciousness by synthetic drugs and second to forestall his rivals in finding “the Priest’s Soul”. At different times he draws together separate groups of devoted followers, first under the title the DoorWay Project and second under the title the SSS. The novel therefore has a kind of double time-scheme, cutting back and forth between the earlier and later manifestations of Campbell’s megalomaniac plans. For the record, in the plot both sets of Campbell’s followers behave more like the Keystone Kops than any really malign force, the author’s aim more often being farce and pratfall than shudders and shocks. Campbell Walker also dominates a multi-storeyed tower that watches over the valley, booby-trapped with mazes and thus allowing for a number of chase sequences wherein terminally dopey Danyl attempts to outrun and outwit various pursuers.
Let me make it clear that much of the humour is laddish to the nth. degree. Much fun is had with Danyl’s jolly jape of pissing in a camper van. The whole of a short chapter (Chapter 18) is devoted to Danyl’s difficulties in having a pee when he has an erection. There is a brief encounter with a tea-and-scones making little old lady who induces mystical experiences with the help of a dildo. Then there is the character of the pneumatic, sexy Russian “healer” Stasia about whom Danyl endlessly fantasises. When the sex scene eventually comes, it is of course farcical.
I will not be puritanical about this, however. There’s much real fun in this book. I loved the interplay between Danyl and his commonsensical girlfriend Verity and I loved the pratfall moments I didn’t see coming (and won’t spoil in this review). Danyl McLauchlan (the real one) is nearly 40 and this is his first novel. He has much skill in his descriptiveness, his deft switches in the novel’s time sequence, his calculated silliness and his knowledge of the genre he is parodying. My one real criticism of Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley is that its 437 pages do allow the joke to drag on too long. Maybe all those chase sequences through the tower mazes could have been edited down a bit.
One very stray and off-the-wall thought to finish. In the early nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained that it was hard to write a “romance” in the United States because there simply wasn’t enough (European) history there for stories of hidden treasure, ancient family curses and so forth to carry much weigh. The same could of course be said of early 21st century New Zealand. But in those sections of Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley in which he is evoking the early 20th century Wellington coven of occultists, Danyl McLauchlan comes very close to creating such “romance”.
Now I wonder what he would be able to achieve without the piss-take element?