Monday, August 3, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“STARLIGHT PENINSULA” by Charlotte Grimshaw ($38, Penguin-Random House)
Back in October 2012, when I reviewed Charlotte Grimshaw’s novel Soon on this blog, I ended my detailed critique by hoping fervently that Grimshaw would move on from dealing with the self-deceiving and self-justifying Dr Simon Lampton, whom I found a tiresome character in many ways.
I clearly spoke too soon and in a manner that would doubtless have irritated the author. For in her latest novel Starlight Peninsula, Grimshaw is still in the world of Lampton and his social circle, although they are now seen from a very different perspective.
Let’s explain this in more detail. Grimshaw’s collections of linked short stories Opportunity (2007) and Singularity (2009) introduced some of the characters who appear in her novels The Night Book (2010) and Soon (2012). To simplify brutally, Simon Lampton is an affluent gynaecologist, financial supporter of the National Party and personal friend of the sometime prime minister David Hallwright. Lampton and his wife have adopted a girl, Elke, who turns out to be the biological daughter of Hallwright’s wife Roza – a daughter whom Roza had by an earlier liaison. Much of the narrative tension of The Night Book came from the uneasy position of the adoptive daughter in Lampton’s family. Much of the narrative tension of Soon came from the psychological conflict between Roza and Lampton’s wife Karen over the formation of Elke. Both these personal dramas were given a vivid social setting. In interviews, Grimshaw has denied that Prime Minister David Hallwright is based on John Key, but similarities between the two are unmistakable in Soon, and much of that novel amounted to a scathing satire on the neo-liberal monetarist ethos that currently controls this country’s ruling party.
In the storylines of both the earlier novels, there was a sense of moral corruption rotting the social fabric. There were also plot elements concerning dark secrets that influential people would prefer to keep hidden. Roza was worried about the possibility that earlier indiscretions in her life might be exposed. Dr Lampton was spooked by the thought of an affair he had had becoming known to his wife. A left-wing investigative journalist, Arthur Weeks, was circling too close to some of the dirty secrets of Lampton and his friends. In Soon, Lampton may (or may not) have accidentally (or accidentally-on-purpose) killed the nosy Arthur Weeks, but had friends powerful enough to have the matter covered up.
This is all back-story to Starlight Peninsula. But only back-story. I emphasise that to read any episode of Grimshaw’s Lampton-iad is to read a novel which is complete in itself. We are not dealing here with a series of “sequels” to The Night Book. As is now clearer to me, we are dealing with something more like a roman fleuve (like Balzac? like Zola?). The novels interconnect, but each is its own singular literary achievement.
And in Starlight Peninsula, the narrative perspective is very different. Soon was written in the third-person, but largely seen from the perspective of Simon Lampton. Starlight Peninsula, also third-person, is largely seen from the perspective of a character we haven’t met before, Eloise Hay. She lives by herself in a desirable piece of Auckland real estate, the Starlight Peninsula of the title, which was long ago working class but is now gentrified. She is extremely unhappy. For her chronic depression, she regularly sees a German psychotherapist, Dr Klaudia Dvorak. She drinks too much. She sometimes has migraine headaches and sometimes what amount to fugues. Much has gone wrong with her recent life, notably the fact that her husband Sean has deserted her for a flashy actress. Eloise regrets that she has no children. Sean, we discover, is the scion of a wealthy family (his mother being one Lady Cheryl Rudd); but even more significantly, Sean is a lawyer who works for the National Party politician David Hallwright, so we are now on the very fringes of the social set we saw in the earlier novels. Although a middle-class woman with a career, Eloise Hay is outside the magic circle of the very wealthy.
Alone and emotionally vulnerable and disoriented, Eloise Hay is reduced to borrowing a friend’s pet dog for companionship. She is also in some sense attracted to a new neighbour, the solid Nick Oppenheimer, who may or may not be the supportive character he seems. Eloise keeps thinking back to the death of the man she lived with before her marriage – Arthur Weeks, the left-wing journalist who died in Soon. The circumstances of Arthur’s death nag at her subconscious and emerge in the intuitive conviction that Arthur’s death was not an accident. This, in turn, leads to her stalking and on some occasions confronting Dr Simon Lampton and the police who dealt with the case. Dr Lampton makes his appearance some way into the novel. I understand that when I reviewed Soon, my characterisation of Lampton as a “creep” offended the novelist. I apologise for any offence given, but I find it hard to alter that characterisation on this outing. To say the least, Lampton still strikes me as a man whose moral compass is defective, rendered more sinister by the smooth suavity with which he responds to Eloise.
Eloise Hay’s doubts, guesses, intuitions, unease, disquiet and fears about the death of Arthur Weeks are the main narrative thread of Starlight Peninsula. Eloise is a flawed person who suspects certain unpleasant truths, but feels both threatened and fairly helpless to do anything about them.
It has to be said clearly that this is a novel which has all Grimshaw’s literary strengths on display. The dialogue is sharp and pungent (save in some opening sequences where it’s a little too self-expository as Eloise Hay’s background is filled in). The story does not plod along in strictly linear fashion, but is “layered” so that we find events interlocking and overlapping in unexpected ways. And there is great play made with some sort of objective correlative or (if the term isn’t too simplistic) symbolism. As Eloise Hay has her migraines and doubts and fears; as the country labours under moral rot; there is a drought going on and fear of fire. The country burns. The country is sick. When Eloise sets fire to a pile of rubbish, she causes a major blaze, which brings the fire brigade in. At her place of work, people suffer shocks from static electricity when they touch furnishings and door handles. The unease and disorientation of the main characters are reflected in the physical conditions of a sick country. Literary allusions are deployed discreetly. There are references to the Russian film masterpiece Stalker, to Yeats, to Balzac, and (relevant to Eloise’s uncertainties about reality) especially to Chekhov’s story about the black monk who may or may not be a figment of the imagination. (Given that Eloise is a mentally-disturbed, possibly neurotic, person who nevertheless intuits the truth, I’m surprised Dostoievsky didn’t get a mention.)
There is an element of topicality to this novel. (I wonder how it will read in ten or twenty years time?) Libel laws mean that novelists do not loudly proclaim whom they chose to depict in fictional form. In Starlight Peninsula the Key-esque David Hallwright has been replaced as prime minister by a certain Jack Dance, so that a subplot concerning intrigue within the ruling National Party can be introduced. (Hallwright is plotting to roll the prime minister in a caucus coup aided by the aggressive Minister of Justice Ed Miles). Anyway, it can’t be said that the prime minister in Starlight Peninsula resembles John Key. Other minor characters seem recognisable from real life. There’s brief mention of a mayor who’s had an affair with an employee. Eloise Hay works as researcher and producer for a TV show, Roysmith, “a weekly show of supposedly hard-hitting current affairs, although they were forced by the network to cover a lot of human interest and fluff” (p.24). According to one character, its host, Scott Roysmith, “doesn’t smile, he beams” (p.21). He is ironically described as having a reputation for being “a deep thinker” (p.171). Now I wonder who this can possibly be based on? There is a crusading nuisance called Terry Carston who champions a convicted murderer, Andrew Newgate, who was acquitted after a second trial. But the Minister of Justice is dithering about paying compensation. Could this have any possible connection with a real-life situation? Of course one minor character in Starlight Peninsula is so outrageous that he can only have been produced by Charlotte Grimshaw’s unaided imagination. This is the “obese and six foot six” (p.92) German media pirate Kurt Hartmann who is described by another character as “operating a big electronic warehouse and it wasn’t his business if people were storing material in it that breached copyright.” (p.41) Both comic and sinister, Hartmann has been illegally spied on by New Zealand’s security services as the government wants an excuse to extradite him to the USA where he will face prosecution. Hartmann has an ostentatious mansion decorated in the worst possible taste. At one point he is interviewed by Eloise Hay, and he plays a role in the novel’s denouement, inasmuch as a fairly open-ended story has a denouement. Preposterous to imagine that such a person could exist in real life…
Starlight Peninsula has a strong element of social satire, some of it both waspish and funny. I relished (dammit, I almost fell off my chair laughing at) Grimshaw’s dead accurate account of media personalities showing themselves off at the charity-performance of an opera, hoping to be seen as patrons of High Culture, and then at the end of the performance, rushing to the bar as “reward for having sat through that boring shit for so long, in a good cause.” (p.170)
Starlight Peninsula also has a strong element of social commentary. As in Soon, Grimshaw is concerned with the stratification of New Zealand society as neo-liberalism has taken hold, the proliferation of gated communities and privileged groups, the ostentatious displays of wealth by those who have long since lost any sense of egalitarianism. Her protagonist Eloise Hay has sort-of left-wing convictions but comes from an affluent background in the novel’s equivalent of Epsom or Remuera. Returning at one point to her childhood neighbourhood, she reflects on:
“The drone of lawnmowers, the roar of leaf blowers. The svelte blondes in their tanklike SUVs. Sporty, burnished lycra-clad couples, bedizened widows with stiffened stacks of dyed hair. This was Jack Dance’s constituency: true blue. This was where the affluent lived and rejoiced in the gap – the gap between rich and poor. Because what would be the point of being rich, if everyone else was rich too? Look how far away the poor were! The further away they got, the more enjoyable everything was. And the clearer it was that you’d arrived. Obv. Eloise knew all this: she grew up here. She knew the hilarity, the tolerant mirth that ideas like ‘wealth distribution’ and ‘fairness’ were met with around these parts. Left-wing candidates were laughed off doorsteps at election time: they just didn’t get it…” (p.206)
Yet I think I agree with Philip Matthews when he said, in a review of Soon, that what Grimshaw writes is not “simply political satire” – or for that matter simply social commentary, important though these things are in Grimshaw’s work. Given that Eloise Hay works in journalism, and given that she is trying to unravel a mystery basically using her imagination and intuition, there is much discussion in the novel about what truth is, what the difference is between bias and reporting, whether we don’t all edit what we understand to be the truth, and other weighty epistemological matters. In effect, Starlight Peninsula is as much concerned with perception as with politics. The main character is often tempted to draw conclusions from things she has intuited or seen from the corner of her eye. Given that such insights are neither fully conscious nor fully rational, this touches on another question that Grimshaw has broached in her earlier fiction. How much are human beings compelled and predetermined creatures rather than reasoning and choosing creatures? (There is some reference in Starlight Peninsula to dogs and whether we are not simply instinctive creatures as they are).
A part of me wants this novel to be more the social satire. A part of me wonders if asking questions about the nature of truth isn’t a timorous way of backing off from harder social commentary. I’m a little miffed that the conclusion comes close to the cynicism that says everyone has his / her price. I’ll suppress such misgivings. To make a big thing of them would be to violate one of the chief rules of good reviewing, which is to review the book the author has actually written rather than the one the reviewer wishes had been written.
Starlight Peninsula works on a whole lot of levels. And this time I will not end on a dismissive comment about the awfulness of Dr Simon Lampton. Chances are, when she next puts him in a novel, Charlotte Grimshaw will surprise me.