Monday, March 14, 2016

Something New

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

"DAD ART” by Damien Wilkins (Victoria University Press, $30)

Here is (most of) the opening paragraph of Damien Wilkins’ latest novel Dad Art:
How strange to step off the streets one minute and then twenty minutes later to be safely on fire. Puffs of smoke were coming from his pale half-naked body, rising past his nose…. Some part of him thought, okay, why not, it ends right here. Middle-aged white men were a huge problem in the world. If the chance arose to incinerate one – yes, on the whole, go for it.” (Chap.1, p.7)
The paragraph introduces exactly the novel’s major focus – the travails of a “middle-aged white man”, a Pakeha New Zealander, as he reassesses his life and tries to come to terms with weighty matters like ageing, family and the spectre of death. A man who is a “huge problem in the world”, but mainly a huge problem to himself.
Michael Stirling, his body only notionally on fire, is being treated for cell carcinoma. He is an acoustic engineer: the guy who devises sound-scapes for new buildings and special spaces. He is separated from his wife of more than 20 years, Vanessa. Their daughter Samantha (always called Sam in the novel) has gone off to Elam art school in Auckland, leaving Michael in Wellington. Michael feels the male equivalent of “empty nest blues”. He is ageing, he is a little shell-shocked and certainly he is lonely. He lives by himself in an upmarket Wellington apartment building called The Sanctum. His hold on his family is tenuous and his grumpy old father, Derek, is suffering the early stages of dementia in a nursing home. Countering this disintegration, Michael is attempting to establish new connections and relationships. He’s joined a te reo discussion group, apparently trying to redefine himself as a better and more fully-aware New Zealander. He’s on the dating scene, looking for a new life-partner, although his success there isn’t great.
Diagnosed thus, Michael Stirling sounds like a sociological “case” – a neat example of middle-aged angst. Part of the beauty of Wilkins’ novel is the way Michael becomes much more than this, although he is placed in a web of controlling symbols and allusions. Take that upmarket apartment block. Its very name, The Sanctum, suggests something rarefied and separated from the world, as Michael often is. This image meshes with Michael’s career as an acoustic engineer to comment on his separation from others. After we have been told the arcana of sound recording and acoustics, and after we have considered the matters of noise and silence, we get:
He’d always liked Schafer’s idea that we should promote the sounds we want to hear and not focus too much on those we were banishing. Conceived positively, the banishing would almost take care of itself. His stereo speakers sounded, if anything, too dull, even though he figured there was sufficient glass around. The absorption was at a very high value. When he put a glass of water down on the granite sink, the sound’s stoniness was too mute. A hundred feet below him he could watch a man walking a dog – a little silent movie, the silence so complete it was eerie. Of course he was projecting his own loneliness – listening to his footsteps as he walked across the apartment from floor to rug to floor – but still. The doors closed with ear-hurting whooshes, like vaults, sealing everything – he was always afraid of being locked out, not just of his place but all over….”(Chap. 2, p.23)
Promoting “the sounds he wants to hear” and banishing the rest is part of Michael’s problem in life. And being in a tower where people outside are “a little silent movie” says much about his alienation. This image is ramped up later when, from his high window, Michael witnesses, in complete silence, a man having a heart attack on the apartment block’s tennis court down below. At certain points, it is suggested that Michael’s solitariness is not just a recent development in his life. One part of his backstory is the dangerous game he used to play as a teenager of breaking into a friend’s house, completely on his own, to raid its food and drink without anyone to see.
Then there’s that matter of inexorable ageing and hearing the chimes at midnight. Having to care for his aged, slightly demented, father Derek is part of this. Derek was once a professional geologist. The hardness of rocks may relate to the hardness of his character. (I am not clever enough to work out what the profession of Michael’s estranged wife signifies. She is a veterinarian. Maybe this simply means she is a veterinarian.) Derek’s shift from home to nursing home is shattering for Michael, and its awful finality is underlined by the implicit comment on the worth of Derek’s whole working life made in the following:
An antiquarian bookseller had spent thirty minutes with his father’s extensive collection of geology books, making a pile of some dozen titles and agreeing on a price. Hundreds of books remained and no other bookseller would agree to even take a look. It was Michael, not Derek, who appeared to suffer the full melancholy power of this abandonment. Here still were the books his father had built a professional life around and which he’d protected by designing special cabinets with glass doors. In the end two blokes from the Salvation Army scooped them into boxes after they’d come for a sofa, some old dining room chairs and a chest of drawers.”(Chap. 6, p.68)
At certain points, Michael finds himself sharing unwillingly the values of his parents’ generation. His mental arteries are hardening, as when we are told: “He avoided Courtenay Place at night. Reactionary editorials, dispiritingly, got it right every time.” (Chap.16, p.222) “Dispiritingly” at least because Michael now finds himself agreeing with what he did not think himself part of.
To finish my sounding of the novel’s big symbols, there’s another in this novel. Michael’s daughter comes back from Auckland with her fellow art-student Matiu. They (Pakeha girl, Maori boy) are literally tied together by a length of rope. It’s a performance art thing to which they are bound by a signed contract. But – oh boy! – what can be read into this length of rope about the ties that bind, marriage, family and so forth, and the constraints and awkwardness they sometimes inflict. And, if you like, what can be read into it about the relationship of Maori and Pakeha, also bound by a signed document.
So far, I have completely misled you about the nature of this novel. I have made it sound far more solemn and mannered than it is. What I’ve said about the protagonist’s condition is accurate: lonely middle-aged man, estranged from wife, having a hard time relating to young adult daughter, hearing the tread of mortality in his hospitalised father’s condition and desperately trying to make new connections. But the arc of the narrative is far more lively than this. In fact, much of it can be read as comedy. How Michael relates to the widowed Chrissie, his latest find on the dating scene, is a mixture of farce and acute awkwardness. Ditto his negotiations with Sam and Matiu. There is pain in an angry scene where father (justly) rebukes adult child for a lack of courtesy, and then feels guilty about it; but there is also a degree of pure slapstick in Sam’s and Matiu’s being roped up. While old Derek may be grumpy and a bit of a nuisance, there is an odd imaginativeness and creativity to the flaws of his vocabulary, imposed on him by creeping dementia. And the novel’s final note – at least where Michael’s personal relationships are concerned – is one of cautious optimism.
In fact at times, Damien Wilkins seems to be greatly enjoying himself taking the piss, and no more so than in the way he depicts Wellington and its revered institutions. “Snoring in the Sanctum – it could be the title of a play at Circa,” reflects Michael as he thinks of his current domestic life. (Chap. 6, p.67) When Michael takes Chrissie to a play, we are told “Michael had given her a lift home after Bats. The play had done its job, he thought – 55 minutes, not terrible and definitely discussable.” (Chap. 9, pp.109-110). Those last seven words are the definitive review of most live plays in little theatres. The te reo class is the most obvious site of comic relief, especially when Wilkins (Chap.8, pp.104-106) has a woman stridently offering her opinions on what Pakeha writers are really thinking when they deal with Maori characters. When Michael, to amuse Chrissie’s young son, visits the Weta Workshop-devised Gallipoli exhibition at Te Papa, we can of course remind ourselves that his are the thoughts of a fictitious character and not of the author; but I do wonder how much Michael’s thoughts are in fact the heartfelt thoughts of the author himself – in which case I have to say I agree with them completely. They range from “How had a bunch of film nerds, model makers and war-gamers managed to co-opt the national story?” to “They had an orgy of necrophilia to walk slowly around. They had the scrupulously researched bad taste of adult boys to solemnise.” (Chap.12 pp.151-156) This witty, mocking spirit is also found when the novel touches on the flag-change controversy and inserts fleeting guest appearances by John Key, Jemaine Clement…. and Janet Frame.
I’m not suggesting that Dad Art is only comedy. There is great skill in the way that, just at the right moment, dark backstories of both Michael and Derek appear, enlarging our understanding of why these two men became the people they are. Nor am I suggesting the novel is flawless. The meaning of the title, and perhaps of the whole novel, is spelled out a little too patly for us in the last chapter, when we are given a brief discourse on the American performance artist Linda Montano and her roping experiment, which Sam and Matiu have emulated. But this is still an excellent exploration of parenthood, adult responsibilities and how grown-ups relate to grown children, entering some of the same territory as Wilkins’ earlier Somebody Loves Us All.
Two years ago, when I reviewed for Landfall Wilkins’ novel about Thomas Hardy, Max Gate, I asked “Did Damien Wilkins expect us to read this novel in a spirit of sorrow or in a spirit of laughter?” The obvious answer is “Both”. The same goes for Dad Art.

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