Monday, June 2, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“NEWS PIGS” by Tim Wilson (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)
“INCOMPLETE WORKS” by Dylan Horrocks (Victoria University Press, $NZ35)
I’m going to begin this review like Dumb Dora, stripping the fat and flesh off the skeleton and leaving only the bones. In other words, I’ll give you the “plot”.
Tim Wilson’s News Pigs is about a low-level print journalist, Tom Milde, from a small and parochially-minded country, who wakes up with one hell of a hangover in New York, is broke, is disoriented and yet by a sheer fluke gets an offer to cover for TV the latest US college shooting massacre, which is still in progress. So down South hapless, bedragged, incompetent, out-of-his-depth Tom Milde hies himself and mixes with the TV journos and frontpersons; and tries to do the job of to-camera reporting; and bumbles and flummoxes and has near-misses and dodges some bullets; and makes a sometime fool of himself; and engenders many pratfalls (well, he is a prat, after all) and much loud farce.
There now. See how useless telling you the “plot” of a novel is? Because this is approximately as helpful as saying that Ulysses is about two guys wandering around Dublin and eventually bumping into each other late at night. The “plot” doesn’t give you the flavour of the book, or what it is doing stylistically. 90% of the impact of News Dogs comes from Tim Wilson’s rollercoastering use of language, a classic case of “it ain’t what you say but the way that you say it.”
Allow me to quote the novel’s very opening words to see what part of the sea coast of Bohemia we are walking on. News Pigs beginneth thus:
“Excuse us, dear reader, for we begin rather than end – as is traditional for journalist hymns – with The King of All Hangovers!
Blame this tale’s topsy-turvy moment, a bejewelled gangrenous era now slipping from anecdote into myth.
Blame Our Hero’s milieu: the scribbling classes: part newshound, part boozehound, all zeitgeist.
Blame New York City, for she is both mother and whore.
Phooey, let’s just save time, and blame his drunken, oversleeping @$$.
Behold, gentle reader, the snoring, suppurating, flattened form of freelance hack, single-volume poet, and occasional PLC Possum think piece penster, Thomas Tudehope Milde.
Totally pro at being 28, having had 13 years of practice!...” (p.7)
Ah! Now you understand, don’t you? Tim Wilson is quite consciously and deliberately pushing himself as author to the fore, warning us from the get-go that he will be appearing in this novel, providing direct commentary, directly addressing us, daring us to get, or not to get, all the current and often ephemeral cultural references that will be thrust at us and using a vocabulary now erudite and now downright demotic. And might I say, dear reader, that in the process Tim Wilson confirms what I have long believed? There is only a hair’s breadth of difference between modernist novels which break the fourth wall and go all self-referential; and 19th century novels which directly addressed their readers. Hence, I guess, this mocking use of ye olde “dear reader” and “Our Hero”.
Now get how Wilson describes the small and parochially-minded country from which dithering Tom Milde comes. It is habitually referred to as the PLC, which is explained in one of the (not-infrequent) footnotes as “The Plucky Little Country, pop.3.8 million: Milde’s motherland: social laboratory and cheese larder (particularly Gouda); widely admired for the nobility and humility of her inhabitants, her beautiful weather, and her dominance in the sport of curling.” (p.11)
In other words, it is New Zealand in the most transparent of drag, with curling replacing rugby and Our Hero as Milde as the mild cheddar produced therein.
More to the thematic point, the PLC just happens to have two rival TV companies. There’s Erewhon TV, whose screeching and frantic producer Rita Hurrikin recruits Milde. It is described as “The PLC’s second-string network: a yapping cur, journalistically it’s true; not to be confused with the powerful and widely respected His Majesty’s Royal PLC TV” (footnote p. 46). In other words, it is TV3 and its affiliates up against the mighty TVNZ. And in this novel the HMR PLC TV (i.e.TVNZ) network has a seasoned frontman grandiosely called Samson Agonistes (oh self-dramatiser!) up against Erewhon TV’s (i.e. TV3’s) amateur dork Tom Milde.
Ah, dear bibliophiliac reader, did you hear a faint echo of a long-ago novel about another incompetent twit thrust into the frantic part of the journalist game? Yes!! Poor flapping nature-writer William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938). Surely Tim Wilson has read it??? No satirist of the media can do without it etc. etc. And as you read News Pigs, did you see, in drag, equivalents of the New Zealand Herald and the Listener and Metro? I think I did.
But enough, enough of this feather-footed-through-the-plashy-fen exposition of mine. What I want you to understand clearly is that Tim Wilson can draw curlicues and do handstands with language and pun twenty-to-the minute. Did he coin the term “autohagiographical” (p.44) for works in which journalists talk themselves up? If he did, then a big fat Bravo to him. And may I compliment him on giving the name Xenanakakakis to the Greek sage whose book Milde has souvenired, for clearly the Greek sage is a postmodernist twit, and therefore both a nana and a purveyor of ka-ka (= poo-poos = shit). Also, there is the omniscient, omni-commentating author’s chirpy confession of faith in our endurance: “You think it’s hard to write like an adult? Sometimes, sweet reader, it’s even harder to read like one. We salute you.” (p.141)
It is great fun to rollick and romp in this novel’s linguistic games, and enjoy the joke of having big black spaces on the page where drunken Tom Milde’s memory fails him. It is fun to see bitchy, fashionable, promiscuous NY gallery-attenders and hangers-on skilfully trashed. It is also arresting, in the midst of the verbal pyrotechnics, to have Tim Wilson draw us up short with hard statements about America such as “In its heart, America is sullen, brooding, and terrible. No wonder people fled to the extremities, to cities, light and clamour.” (p.99)
But surely the main business on hand is to assess Wilson’s implied attitude towards the news media, is it not? Is this straight satire on television news, or is it more complex than that? In the corner of straight satire, let me quote as evidence Wilson’s skewering of the agendas brought by, and stereotypes engendered by, the international TV news crews as they descend on the site of the US college massacre:
“When America soils itself, the world rocks up. Yarpies, Eyeties, Krauts, Poms: Correspondents and cameramen buzz hither and yon, oozing internationalist self-righteousness. The locals, stretched to the max, wearing their too-wide ties, offer lessons in polite Southern disdain. The news crews (mostly Caucasians) treat the blacks as if they’re long-lost brothers, and the whites like regalia-clad Klansmen.” (p.89)
Ah yes, pre-packaged patronisation courtesy of the evening news.
Then there is the French correspondent called Plongeur (= Plonker?), who explains that those over whom Milde has to tumble to get to the scene of the massacre are “News Pigs. The grunting of the news pigs. Always worried. Always hungry. Today, massacre. Tomorrow, hurricane….” (p.121)
And yet, and yet, and yet…. as we hoot at the satire, we remember that the talented Tim Wilson was TVNZ’s frontman in the USA for the best part of a decade and is (unless my information is grossly out-of-date) still employed in a behind-the-camera capacity by TVNZ. This is not a man who hates TV news and all its implications, surely? Is his tone more love-hate? He is more scornful than endorsing of sensationalist bulletins and rightly shows us how much “news” is sheer “construction”, yet (via self-evidently ridiculous quotations from that postmodernist plonker Xenanakakakis) he also warns that there is such a thing as objective reality, however much academic theory may ignore it, and that it does have to be reported upon. Perhaps, indeed, parts of the novel are a sly celebration of the fierce rivalry of channels to get a scoop, no matter how undignified may be their means of getting it.
Or should I interpret the whole novel in another way? Let’s consider it in the sequence of Tim Wilson’s published work to date. First there was Wilsons’s novel Their Faces Were Shining about some people’s idea of salvation. Call that Wilson’s Paradiso. Then came his collection of short stories The Desolation Angel in which Wilson’s characters struggled hard through sin and failure. Call that his Purgatorio. So could News Pigs be his Inferno? This means he’s written The Divine Comedy in reverse. “Milde must find his place in this Boschian nightmare” it says on page 120. Yes, news-feeds are a vision of Hell. It is Tim Wilson’s Inferno.
By the way, did I also happen to mention that it’s bloody funny?
I’m always forgetting the freaking obvious.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
If Dylan Horrocks reads this (you never know – it could happen), then I’d like to apologize to him and to all cartoonists. Not for anything I’ve done or said in print, but for an attitude I’ve long harboured.
You see, I’ve never been an enemy of comics. I was brought up by a father who took out subscriptions for his kids to English comics like Dandy and Beano and the awfully decent Eagle, and I enjoyed the likes of Desperate Dan and Dan Dare. I also enjoyed the Mad magazine paperbacks he had on his shelves and Pogo Possum and L’il Abner. When I was a teenager, I enjoyed the value-for-money of those fat, square-bound Superman comics, always black-and-white and good for long train journeys. There was the whole other world of Tintin, supreme adventure stories for boys and still books much revisited by me. And the fun-and-games of Asterix. And then, in student years, there were student mag reprints of the likes of that weirdo Robert Crumb.
BUT, no matter how much people thrust things like Maus at me, I never could or would catch on to the idea of comics as adult works. If anybody used the term “graphic novel” in my presence, I would harrumph that it was merely a “comic book” and insist that it be so called.
“Graphic novel”? Pshaw! Leave the term “novel” for grown-ups novels. Comics were essentially kidstuff.
So all the way through reading Dylan Horrocks’ Incomplete Works I found myself revising my ideas. Not only is this good stuff but it is good grown-up stuff… except when Horrocks deliberately chooses to draw in a childlike style, for satirical effect, as he does in the strip “Siso” which looks as innocent as Rupert the Bear at first but which turns out to have teeth.
These are Incomplete Works because they are just a selection of Horrocks’ work for the last 25 years, and besides, Horrocks is not an old man and he still has much work ahead of him.
So many of the early works are about the younger cartoonist’s self-doubt, self-consciousness and difficulties in trying to make a living as a cartoonist. You can find all this in the 26 puzzling and melancholy pages of the “Pickle” sequence drawn and written in 1990. When you get to the “Western Wind” sequence, there is the imagery of an Eastern country (Arabia? Egypt?) yet the story is one of longing for a beloved one, universal in its implications.
When Horrocks moves (or moved?) out of the autobiographical strips, he can enjoy himself denting national pieties, as in his “Captain Cook’s Comic Cuts”, where the revered navigator turns out to be a closet cartoonist. He also experiments, as in the Holocaust story “There Are No Words in My Mouth”, which has blank speech bubbles.
What I find most interesting, and one of Horrock’s most endearing traits, is his awareness of a tradition in comics. This collection includes strips in honour of Krazy Kat’s creator George Herriman, in honour of Winsor McKay, who invented the first regular newspaper strip cartoon, and in honour of the New Zealand cartoonist Barry Linton. I mean this is a cartoonist who admires his peers and forebears, and is happy to show how much he has learned from them.
Okay, I’m not saying that everything in this volume appealed to me. Because I am still highly allergic to dice-throwing, role-playing fantasy games, I simply did not connect with the sequence “The Physics Engine”, though I do know some people (such as one of my sons-in-law) who would absolutely revel in it.
There’s an obvious thing to say which I should add – Dylan Horrocks is very versatile, and can draw in many different styles. Incomplete Works is a virtuosos portfolio.