Monday, June 27, 2016

Something New

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

“MYSTERIOUS MYSTERIES OF THE ARO VALLEY” by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

Reviewing Danyl McLauchlin’s Unspeakable Secrets of theAro Valley nearly three years ago, I did note its witty and playful tampering with the Gothic horror genre, and its sharp evocation of a dusty and fusty corner of Wellington; but I also registered my view that its pratfall-laden fun-and-games did go on a bit. For all my misgivings, I was chuffed to receive a nice note from the author saying that he enjoyed the review and thought I’d picked up on points of the novel other reviewers had missed.
Now with the sequel, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley to review, I almost feel that I’m going to repeat the same praise and the same misgivings. From the deliberately inept title onwards, you know that this one is as much founded on gigantic leg-pull as the first novel was. It’s great fun; it shows great skill in the telling; when it wants to do moments of Gothic fantasy “seriously” it does them as capably as the experts do…. and at 370 pages it does go on a bit. One more chase through a threatening tunnel, one more dorkish mishap, and my patience would have snapped.
For the record, the set-up has Danyl McLauchlin (yes, the hero has the same name as the author) released from psychiatric care, returning to Wellington’s faded bohemian enclave the Aro Valley to find his missing girlfriend Verity, and in short order discovering a dark and daunting secret that threatens the entire universe, no less. Danyl is an unreliable narrator, a loser, a bit of a twit, paranoid – in other words, more than a little like the heroes of conspiracy novels that take themselves seriously. Little does Danyl know that, independently, his old mate Steve (who coincidentally has the same name as one of the author’s best mates) is delving into the same dark and daunting secrets as Danyl is, but coming from an entirely different direction. Inevitably their paths will cross – and their parallel delvings give the author the chance to show his narrative skill by sometimes interlocking the same events as seen from different viewpoints.
In we plunge to a world in which apparently harmless archivists are really agents of demonic power, and ancient second-hand bookshops are portals to a hellish underworld, and an uncompleted real estate project is the refuge for malign destructive forces, and running under the Aro Valley are huge tunnels which either could lead to universal enlightenment or could enable huge forces to break through and destroy our cosmos as we know it. A Spiral-shaped symbol warns our intrepid (and idiotic) hero of the extent to which the other world has impinged upon the Aro Valley. Well you always do get dark portents and “codes” understood only by initiates in Gothic horror, don’t you? Said idiotic hero is often chased by a giant capable of tearing him limb from limb. There is a drug called DoorWay, which zonks out unsuspecting citizens who wander into the nether world, allowing them to enter into the Real City (which may not be real) but also making them manipulable by malign cosmic forces. A group called the Cartographers are apparently at war with something (or someone) called the Gorgon, which may or may not have supernatural powers. Mind you, the Gorgon at one point gets voted onto the Te Aro community council.
And this reminds you that it is all going on under the streets of a Wellington suburb. As an early declaration warns us: “Te Aro, where nothing was as it seemed. Beneath the city’s quirky superficial charm lurked depths of madness.” (p.29)
I admit I enjoyed most the parts where the author makes satire out of the Wellington suburb and its bohemian pretensions, in such phrases as:
Rush hour. Even in the depths of winter there would have been people getting up and going out to teach yoga classes, or to beg change from commuters in the Capital.” (p.56)
He made his way over to the shelves on his hands and knees and examined the record player. They were a dead technology everywhere else in the world, but the subculture of Te Aro had formed a deep emotional attachment to these devices and they were standard issue in most homes.” (p.85)
Or (referencing student radicals and alternative lifestylers):
Anarchist cells were broken up and revolutionary demagogues returned to their anxious parents. Much-loved tenement buildings were deemed unfit for human habitation and condemned; their inhabitants were dragged blinking and screaming from their lightless interiors by child welfare agencies. It was a disaster for the culture and economy of the valley.” (p.145)
Or the point where the fictitious Danyl declares:
People see the residents of Te Aro as pot-addled, new-age dreamers. But that’s just a lazy stereotype. Only about sixty or seventy percent of the population falls into that category.” (p.286)
When a community archive is run by people who never, ever, ever want anybody to access its contents, you understand that this is only a smidgeon away from the reality of many community services, the obstruction of petty bureaucrats and so forth. So Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley has its quota of deadpan satire.
There’s another interesting level to it.
Danyl, just out of psychiatric care, not sure whether he should go back on his medication of not, is really like the Sleepwalker Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and this is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury”. For at least the first half of Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, it would be reasonable to read it as the distorted hallucinations of a troubled (or post-medicated) mind misinterpreting harmless reality. Only later (once the narrative of Steve gets going) does this fruitful ambiguity dissipate.
Once past the unreliable narrator aspect of it, the accommodating gormlessness of Danyl is engaging. Pick him out in this scene where he is in danger of being beaten to death by his nemesis the giant, and note his attitude:
Danyl lay on the concrete and the giant lay on Danyl, a vast warm bulk pressing down on him. It felt quite nice, actually: being pinned to the ground, face down, completely powerless. Not in a sexual way. It was more that while he was trapped beneath the giant Danyl didn’t have to make any decisions about what to do or say. He felt safe.” (p.117)
As for the chase-and-slapstick element of it (a very large part of the novel consists of either Danyl or Steve pursuing or being pursued by enemies), it certainly has its high points. As a piece of clever imbecility, I relished the sequence when the idiots make their escape from a bathroom using a bathtub for protection, and then having to hide beneath the bathtub when they attract the unwelcome attentions of a savage dog. This has the same sort of surreal inevitability as the ancient movie sequence where Laurel and Hardy try to carry a piano over a rope bridge and meet a gorilla halfway.
Ah yes, but there is quite a lot of it, and it will be entirely depending on your own taste whether you can take a great deal of this.

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