Monday, March 23, 2015

Something New

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

“IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD OF FAME” by Bridget van der Zijpp (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

I have repeated two principles so often on this blog that they have virtually become mantras and you are probably sick of hearing them.
They go like this:
Principle A: Never underestimate or sneer at the power of good storytelling. Even if a novel is not the most subtle or profound piece of work, the ability to tell a story well is a thing to be prized, and the term “page-turner” should be reserved only for those novels that have nothing to offer but a jaded plot ingenuity.
Principle B: It is unmannerly to spike all the surprises that new novels have to offer. If major twists in the plot are central to a new novel’s impact, then reviewers should not deploy “spoilers”. [On the other hand, it’s perfectly okay for critics to give away twists in the plots of novels that have been available to the public for years – as I do frequently in this blog’s “Something Old” section.]
Both of these principles come into play with Bridget van der Zijpp’s second novel In the Neighbourhood of Fame.
The title has a double meaning.
Evie, with slightly surly teenage son Dylan in tow, has come back home from Oz for her father’s funeral, and is settling things up as she stays in her father’s home. The house is just across the back fence from the large and leafy property of Jed Jordan, who once made a splash as a Kiwi rock-star but whose career has subsequently gone nowhere is particular. He apparently spends his days pottering around growing peppers in his greenhouses and occasionally doodling with his guitar. But he’s still kind of famous among the middle-aged nostalgia crowd and Evie is in his neighbourhood. So they’re both in the neighbourhood of fame.
Something niggles in Evie’s mind. Her son Dylan was the result of a casual teenage sexual encounter and she never has been sure if Jed Jordan or another boy was Dylan’s father. She wants to find out. So she starts going through her back fence and being friendly to Jed as she circles nearer the topic of his possible paternity. Not that Jed is exactly the boy she once knew. As she remarks: “The missing years between us contained both his rise to fame and also, apparently, a large decline in scope.” (p.59)
Of course there’s another woman in Jed’s life – his wife Lauren, who is apparently admired for her chic and her model-girl looks. Lauren works in showbiz promotion and publicity. She, too, niggles at something about Jed. When they first met, he treated her like a mere groupie. Now she wonders if he is sometimes unfaithful to her. And, truth to tell, she’s also a little bored with him. So she embarks on an affair, which seems to have overtones of mommy-porn fifty-shades-of-blah crassness about it. (She has anonymous sex with a creep she meets at a revival screening of Last Tango in Paris.) It at once makes Lauren feel guilty.
As for the third female in Jed’s life, she’s a naive teenager, Haley, who has heard Jed’s music played by an old rock-music-journalist geezer. Haley has set her heart on doing an interview with Jed as part of a school project.
So there’s the set-up. Three women taking an interest in an over-the-hill rocker. The inquisitive neighbour who possibly bore his son. The bored and guilty wife. And the little kid who thinks she is growing up fast by exploring sex. Evie, Haley and Lauren tell the whole story in alternating chapters and in the first person. Or at least Evie and Haley speak in the first person while Lauren, for some reason, speaks in the second person (“you”). I’m not quite sure why Bridget van der Zijpp chooses this voice for Lauren, unless it’s a way of suggesting her hauteur or her attempts to distance herself from her own guilt. I did note that, possibly for the same reason, young Haley switches to the second person at the point (pp.116-118) when she joylessly surrenders her virginity.
Van der Zijpp tells the story skilfully. She suggests the exact social milieu with precision when Evie meets Jed for the first time in years and comments: “His clothes were so artfully unkempt as to be an announcement that he was above caring what anybody thought of him” (p.10) – an apt description of the “dressing down” that is part of any rocker’s contrived public image (even a has-been rocker). A little further on Evie notes of Jed and his wife: “They had a big outdoor wedding at his place and his father paid a team of professional landscapers to work for six months to ensure the garden was worthy. This news had been in a House and Garden magazine….” (p.11) We know at once that we are in the world of trust-funded music-making where “rebellious” music aimed primarily at teenagers is really a rich kid’s commercial indulgence.
From Lauren, when she isn’t rethinking the wisdom of her sleazy affair, there are some apt comments on the tiny fish-pond that is New Zealand criticism of all genres. Thinking [in the second person] of how her husband’s second album tanked, she reflects on the power of just one negative review:
            “On the walk home you begin about the reviews Jed got for his second album. Is it possible to say that they were unfair? People had been excited about it pre-release, its originality, but somehow he struck a public mood that wasn’t inclined to see it favourably. It essentially came down to one big review in one of the major dailies, one reviewer who set the tone that others followed. That’s the problem with being notable in New Zealand – it’s different from being noticeable elsewhere in the world. The population is so small, an the opportunity for over-familiarity so great, and really, it only takes one unbeliever…” (p.34)
There is also the waspishness of the following when Lauren does a post-mortem on an unsuccessful play that was produced by her theatre-promoter millionaire father-in-law’s company. She says:
You have always known that this theatre complex was originally conceived by Jed’s father as an appeasement to the local council, to smooth the way for the construction of his ten-storey hotel above the site. Some experimentalism pleases the arts advocates on the council, who like to regard the city as having a vibrant cultural centre. And the populist theatre pleases the council’s tourism team, who use it as a tool to draw audiences from outside the city….” (p.63)
Central Auckland and its council in a nutshell.
But you will notice that I have merely given you the scene-setting and told you that these three women have an interest in Jed.
The point is that the first half of this novel is really the set-up, the rest is the pay-off, and I run up against my rule about not giving spoilers while reviewing a new novel. Obviously the entanglement of Jed, Evie, Lauren and Haley is going to go badly awry somehow. It has to do with accusations made on Facebook and Twitter, who turns out to be blood relation to whom, how social media can damage people’s lives and how the public too easily assume that the private lives of even half-famous people are public property.
It is a neat piece of storytelling; but then that may be its problem. It is too neat. The way characters’ back-stories are contrived in the first half of the novel is only to justify some of the implausibility of how they are related in the second half. (Sorry - my non-disclosure rule kicks in here). In short, I think it becomes well-written soap and something for the glossies rather than a novel that exploits all the possibilities of the characters the author has created. A neatly dove-tailed piece of narrative carpentry, however.

Dyspeptic footnote : On p.93 the author (or her narrator) uses that redundant and semi-literate term “evolvement”. Perhaps she should have a word with her copy-editor. Or perhaps she isn’t a believer in evolution.

1 comment:

  1. Nick, good review - I have been thinking about the difficulty of writing around social media in books and how this seems much easier on the screen. Now interested to read this book.
    Just for your information, am launching a novel this week by Shona Hammond Boys, the director of the NZ Children's Art House Foundation. It is a rather poignant story about a young boy growing up in or around Opotiki in disadvantaged circumstances. Art helps him to realise his creative potential.
    You can see more at:

    Sorry for the plus - thought you might be interested.