Monday, September 12, 2016

Something New

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

“THE STRAIGHT BANANA” by Tim Wilson (Victoria University Press, $30)

Dear old dull book-reviewing me! I have this awful habit, I mean this dreadful habit, of first stripping books down to their narrative essence and then telling you what’s going on in the style of it and in the social commentary of it, before I end up telling you (as every critic and reviewer, without exception, does) what to think of it.

I did this cloth-footed thing the last time I reviewed a novel by Tim Wilson on this blog,News Pigs, and here I am doing it again.

First some information, for those who neither read nor watch television. Tim Wilson is a very talented and nimble New Zealand novelist who has jumped through a number of genres. His first novel, Their Faces Were Shining (2010), was a serious fantasy with satirical and religious overtones: an apocalyptic tale of how “the Rapture” might really work out. There followed his collection of short stories The Desolation Angel (2011) where tales were surrealistic and/or dealt with excessive lifestyles and/or had religious overtones. I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing these books for platforms other than this blog. (Oh very well then – I wrote brief reviews of them for a newspaper….)

At this point I should note that both these tomes had American settings, which brings us to the fact that for seven years Tim Wilson was TVNZ’s American correspondent – the chap who would do to-camera stuff from Washington or New York about matters of moment and sometimes (as is the way of TV news) about matters of no moment. Tim Wilson is now, I believe (unless my information is wonky) mainly a behind-the-scenes man at TVNZ, though often doing gag stuff to camera for Seven Sharp and sometimes stepping in to sub for Mike Whatsisname.

Have I made it clear that this is a very intelligent man, who knows a lot about the mass media?

Now, dear readers (yes, I can do that “dear readers” schtick, because Tim Wilson does it often enough) The Straight Banana is a kind of continuation of Wilson’s third book News Pigs (2014), except that it’s a prequel. Same main character, much of the same supporting cast.

News correspondent Tom Milde is from the PLC, or Plucky Little Country (i.e. New Zealand with a few bells on). He’s based in New York. He’s a print journalist, but he lusts and salivates after the limelight of television, and there are once again comments on His Majesty’s Royal PLC TV (i.e. TVNZ) and its rival Erewhon TV (i.e. TV3). HMR PLC TV has a pompous frontman called Samson Agonistes. The French correspondent Plongeur (i.e. Plonker) appears again and so do the works of the Postmodernist sage Xenanakakakis, that is the foreign nana who talks ca-ca. And at certain pints Tom Milde gets called Tom Wilde, coalescence of initials telling us how much the author identifies with him.

As its tale predates that of News Pigs, The Straight Banana is set back in 2007 with the Iraq War in full chaotic flood and General Petraeus is still very much in the news. Incompetent, tyro, often hung-over and often over-partied Tom Milde, author of one slim volume of verse, wants to make a splash in New York. But his tale begins with humiliation. He is conned into making a kinky sexual tryst, which turns out to be set up by a TV gag show hosted by the Aussie “News Clown”. Humiliating images of Tom Milde threaten to appear all over cyberspace. Tom rushes to cover what could be a terrorist bomb blast, but which turns out to be a broken steam pipe. He feels “The sinking poetic sensation; applicable only to those operating in news: Things aren’t so bad. Bummer.” (p.42) Journalistic glory again slips away from this stumblebum, Tim Wilson’s self-deprecating self-portrait.

Then comes what could be Tom Milde’s big break. Suddenly straight bananas are flooding the country, rather than the usual bent type. Milde becomes addicted to them. So do other people. They have extraordinary effects. Are they a foreign plot? There are pro- and anti-straight banana riots. There is wild speculation among the chattering classes. “Straight bananas – who knew? Is it a virus? Explosives? What? How big is this? Homeland Security? Caught flat-footed. The counterinsurgency grapevine is buzzing…… A fruit! On the same perp parade that hosted Lee Harvey Oswald, Malcolm X and Sirhan Sirhan. A 9/11 of fruit!” (pp.80-81)

Out of the blue, Tom Milde is commissioned to write an article on the straight banana menace for a highly prestigious highbrow magazine The Remora (which seems to be either The New Yorker or The New York Times Book Review). Should his by-line appear therein he will be made. Or will he? Dear reader, look up “remora” on The Source of All Knowledge and Truth (i.e. Wikipedia) and you will find it means suckerfish, so presumably The Remora fishes for suckers and others who are taken in by high-brow journalism.

I am not such a swine as to tell you all the twists of a comic novel and thus to spike all its gags. But I can say that terrorists, and a drag performance by our intrepid hero, come into it.

At which point I’m forced to say what I said when I reviewed News Pigs. You cannot convey the taste of a novel by simply synopsising. Most of the impact of The Straight Banana is sheer style, and the frantic style is as it was in News Pigs. Wilson’s present-tense prose goes a mile a minute through pop culture references, puns, sly neologisms and snarky acronyms (one assumes that the news corporations CON and LIE stand for Fox News and CNN). One chapter consists of a blank page (to give us pause for thought). There are cod footnotes and cod questionnaires on the tastes and preferences of minor characters. On page 122, we cut away to a commercial, which is a plug for Wilson’s earlier novel. In an age of out-and-open cussing, I’m bemused that Wilson prefers to convey the word “fuck” as “&%#$”, which occurs on most pages. [Actually, that ampersand should be a pound sign, but my keyboard can’t do pound signs.] In an age of historical ignorance, I congratulate him on so often using the term Dolchstosslegende to designate paranoid conspiracy theories. And then of course, there is his coup de grace when, towards the end of this slim scramble, at pp.173-177, he gives a cod quiz, allowing us to critique the book and perhaps attempting to anticipate what sober critics such as I would say.

I greatly enjoyed some of Milde’s (i.e.Wilson’s) stand-alone comments about his version of New Zealand, the Plucky Little Country:

 “The past, dammit! That was the problem with the PLC. Too little of the stuff! A bit had happened, and people cared so much for their history, they tried not to repeat it. America? Such profligacy, such backstory, such indifference, history being bunk.” (p.53)

Later there are even more pungent comments on the PLC:

 “Fundamentally it was an economy of scarcity. Everyone knew everyone. The young departed, never to return. The old were old at 30. For each person, 100 sheep and ten cows. The cows paid for everything. Seriously….. It was an economy of integrity. Selling real stuff. Packaging didn’t matter; ideas didn’t matter. Stuff did. Real stuff. Thinking existed, but only to decorate and imbue the real stuff with meaning. Pragmatism was valued above all else, so of course each generation was hijacked by intellectual fashions long discarded overseas. Occasionally the poets were religious, but that’s poets for you.” (p.94-95)

At least part of The Straight Banana’s purpose is to dramatise the New Zealand love-hate relationship with the USA and its popular culture and media: “Oh broadness! Mental fecundity! Admiration of the U.S. takes its typical form for Milde: saliva.” (p.73)

Wilson is also adept at skewering much of the pretentious talk that now immures pop culture, as in this conversational snippet about Twilight: “See the movie. It’s not just about vampires, it’s a meta-meditation on the anxieties of teenage carnality.” (p.65)

            In fact, pretentious but inane chatter, especially among New York’s wealthier classes, appears to be one of Wilson’s major satirical targets. One iconic scene has Tom Milde involved in a book-throwing fight, which is simply an extension of the way so many supercilious characters attempt to best one another by coming up with fashionable, snappy highbrow quotations. We are presented with a representative gathering: “Within three minutes Tom Milde meets an extrapreneur (an improvement on entrepreneurs, apparently), an ex-Olympian figure-skating champion, a mujahedeen who won a scholarship to Princeton and now trades oil futures, two pretenders to the Peacock throne, three heiresses, and an African American gay rights activist.” (p.134) In no time they are all giving their equally-inane theories on the meaning of straight bananas.

            More than any other target, though, this novel aims at the media itself (strictly speaking – themselves) and its (their) blurring of fact and opinion and theory and rumour – that new malaise whereby what bleeds leads and what is believed is as important as what is really so.

            I keep thinking about that straight banana symbol. Bananas are the centre of a world of jokes. (You slip on bananas, you nana.) In American vaudeville, the “top banana” used to mean the leading comedian. (The term now loosely means the boss.) There’s something inherently funny about bananas. I was already mentally whistling the old song “I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana” before Tim Wilson referenced it. So we’ve got something patently ridiculous to represent all the paranoia and false theorising and panic that now appears to be part of America’s growing siege mentality.

When I reviewed News Pigs, I likened it to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, with its account of an inept journalist out of his depth. I think with as much justice I could compare The Straight Banana with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, where people are conned into taking seriously a fashion for green bowler hats. Vile Bodies is also a scathing picture of a frivolous, narcissistic, fashion-obsessed society. So is The Straight Banana. No answers or solutions are provided, but then it is probably not satire’s business to find them.

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