Monday, October 28, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“I’M WORKING ON A BUILDING” by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

Can or should a novel be written backwards, or designed as a piece of structural engineering? Indeed should a novel be conceived as a series of blocks and units, braced and welded together like a large building?

I’m not sure that I can answer these questions and I think they smack a little too much of the writing school or the degree in creative writing. But they are certainly relevant to Pip Adam’s concise (206-page) debut novel I’m Working on a Building.

Briefly, the novel is told backwards. Its eighteen chapters shift between different viewpoints and narrative voices. They begin with Catherine, a structural engineer, working at some future date on a skyscraper, a replica of the world’s tallest building (Dubai’s Burj al Khalifa tower), being raised on New Zealand’s Wild West Coast. Apparently Catherine is very single-minded and focused on her work. She has returned to New Zealand only out of desperation and because the work is there. There is no significant other in her life. This opening chapter is told in the third-person limited voice, staying with Catherine’s viewpoint.

But the second chapter is told in the first person by Catherine’s younger sister Isabel, who works in a hair salon and begins the process of moving us backwards in time by hinting at a backstory – how Catherine’s and Isabel’s parents were once rich, but lost it. How the two daughters once lived more bohemian and rebellious lives.

And so, back-step by back-step, the novel moves, now in the singular or collective first person as conveyed by a variety of characters, now in the third person, bit by bit revealing how and why Catherine has become the emotionally constipated person that she is, as she focuses on her engineering and uses it as a logical means of imposing order on what might otherwise be emotional chaos. What, after all, is more logical and orderly that working out weights and stresses as buildings move from the drawing board to actual construction?

As a reviewer, I do not think it is my right to provide “spoilers” for new literary novels any more than I would for a plot-driven thriller. There should be surprises for readers to discover for themselves. I’m not blunting the effect, however, by noting that Catherine has a failed marriage in her past, and a number of messy relationships. Matters of casual sex, infidelity and homosexuality come into it, and the novel moves eventually back to traumatic and formative events in her adolescence and childhood. Nor does it reveal too much to note that one central event in her life (which is made specific early in the novel) is a massive earthquake in Wellington where, in the CBD, “each building had fallen down differently, and they had to search for some wholeness and order in the shambles.” (p.57). In the earthquake, various people Catherine knows are killed, with many repercussions for her.

Catherine’s structural engineering career has taken her to Berlin, Taiwan, Pyongyang in North Korea and various other exotic points. We are given snapshots of these locations, as well as of more familiar ones (at least to New Zealanders – and especially Aucklanders) such as Rainbow’s End and the University of Auckland Engineering School.

As I understand the title I’m Working on a Building, it has a resonance beyond its literal meaning. It could just as well mean I’m Working on Becoming a Human Being. A building is structured, built, put together over time just as a human being is structured, built and put together through experience, planning, mischance and misadventure. Catherine is, in a way, herself the building she is working on, especially when she has fallen into the habit of sublimating herself in her work and thinking of herself in mechanistic terms. She is being both constructed and is self-constructed.

There is also resonance in the repeated images of skyscrapers and other towering buildings.  Somehow a skyscraper can’t help having overtones of hubris – maybe part of us always thinks of any skyscraper as another Tower of Babel, waiting to collapse. There is a certain insolence in building things that tower over mountains – as the building Catherine works on in the opening chapter is said to do:

At 509 metres the tower raised a floor above the top of the tallest neighbouring mountain. It was like coming out from inside. The wind, blown up by the mountain range, hit the formwork for the walls and blew the men about as they tried to place the concrete. The men swore and complained loudly to their supervisors who were as dirty and blown around as they were. Everyone was shouting. The heavy cages of the crane swung, and a large piece of wood blew off the building.” (pp.14-15)

The sheer scariness of this concept is well-rendered in the novel’s photo-shopped cover, which has Burj al Khalifa looming over a rocky New Zealand coast. (The cover and blurb are printed upside-down, signalling the novel’s back-to-front chronology). And yet, again as I read it, this thrusting hubris is related to Catherine herself. Her attempt to escape from the complex emotional realities of life, and to pretend her past either hasn’t happened or doesn’t matter, is as prideful a thing to do as building ‘em unnecessarily tall. And the shell she has built around herself can be easily shattered. Like the building of which another character observes:

Every framing member, every connection, every nut, bolt and screw shows and if any part is removed, the building will collapse. Even the vertical elements that appear non-structural stiffen the slender diagonal members. It’s everything it is, but it’s not immediately obvious. It’s a truss that’s a frame that’s a truss.” (p.82)

Pluck one element out of Catherine’s self-created persona and she would collapse. And the novel’s reverse trajectory does, after all, deflate her hubris by moving her from being tough professional engineer to being dependent and somewhat pathetic child going through a family crisis not of her making.

Pip Adam is capable of extraordinary lucidity in her writing. Her respect for the work of engineers and architects is plain in Chapter 12, in which she manages to make clear the technical complexities of earthquake-proofing a large library. There is also something uncharacteristically touching about Chapter 10 where another character, Craig, speaking in the first person, conveys his confusion as he tries to work out what the exact relationships are between other characters in the story. At that point in the novel, I shared his perplexity.

I must note some misgivings about this novel, however.  I’m Working on a Building is far from being the first novel to be written in reverse chronological order (Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, published in 1991, readily comes to mind). While the technique does have the effect of deconstructing Catherine’s emotional deadness, it also leaves the impression of an author wilfully withholding anterior information about the character from us, rather than allowing us to see the character developing psychologically. The changes in narrative voice also mean that some individual chapters read more like separable short stories than part of a larger narrative.

I confess to another reaction, which not all readers might share. When I reviewed Pip Adam’s short-story collection Everything We Hoped For (“New Zealand Books”, Winter 2011) I acknowledged her narrative skills but also noted “the relentless grimness of Adam’s subject matter and world view”. In the closing chapter of I’m Working on a Building, I find the same phenomenon in play. Do Catherine and her friend really have to be as degraded as Pip Adam makes them in the second-to-last chapter, or is this tending to sensationalism? You might disagree with my judgement here, but read the novel before you call me unrealistic.

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