Monday, April 3, 2017

Something New

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

“LIFTING” by Damien Wilkins (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

            Cutty’s department store has been a Wellington institution for years. It represents the old style of city shopping that has been overtaken by supermarkets, malls and specialty boutiques. In a way it is an anachronism. There is a façade dating from the Edwardian era. There is a court with a fountain. There is a statue of Mercury, who was god of commerce among other things. At the door there are top-hatted lackeys to greet customers. It used to be the sort of place where mothers would ceremoniously take their daughters to have their first bras fitted, and then stop off in the store’s tea-shop as a treat; or where wealthy customers would linger long at the jewellery and perfume counters.

            But its time is past. At very short notice, staff are told that Cutty’s is winding up business and will soon close its doors for good.

            How does Damien Wilkins handle this group crisis in his latest novel Lifting? More to the point, what is he doing in making his protagonist a store detective – somebody commissioned to watch for, and collar, shoplifters?

Lifting is a study in both group and individual psychology. As closing date approaches, as employees stress over how they will find new jobs in a tight market, as a massive Closing Sale is hastily scheduled, Damien Wilkins sometimes gives us satire and reportage, as in this brief account of the store’s past, since it was founded by the Cutty family:

A Cutty has always been on the board, up until the 1980s when the store was sold again to a property developer who had put two glass towers onto the handsome Edwardian structure, sort of ruining it. In the towers lived the cruel prince, or the property developer. Within a short space of time he was knighted, charged with domestic abuse (case abandoned), then successfully prosecuted and jailed for massive fraud. Cutty’s had been sold twice more since then and its current owner was an equities company based in Sydney. The apartments in the tower were penthouse, whatever that meant, and no one knew who lived there. Mostly some shady figures from Sydney stayed the odd weekend, watching the rugby test match and as the doormen liked to say ‘Rooting for Australia.’ ” (p.24)

This sort of general comment is very much in the mould of Wilkins’ incidental comments about Wellington theatre, arts, and gargantuan Te Papa displays in his last novel Dad Art (find a review thereof elsewhere on this blog). In Lifting, satire seems to include the last surviving remnant of the founding Cutty family, a faded and rather dotty old woman called Gertrude Cutty still trying to live the old glory days.

Satire is also found in the way the esprit de corps of the staff disintegrates as they become demoralised. Members of staff now swap anecdotes about the grubbier things (including a few in-store deaths) that happened even in the days when Cutty’s was a fabled up-market enterprise. Some consider petty acts of revenge against their inconsiderate employers. What once seemed elegant and chic in the store now looks faded and shopworn. The top-hatted doormen are revealed to be a pair of vulgar loudmouths who swap lewd comments on female customers. Displays become tatty and sparse as no new stock is brought in to replace what has been sold. There is also an awareness that shoplifting will increase as customers assume that the store is dying anyway and therefore won’t miss a few items. As the protagonist reflects:

 “People certainly would have noticed the general falling away of standards, the growing mess of the place that had been immaculate. I can get away with it now – is that what more customers felt? Or even, this place deserves it. Like taking the boots off the feet of a corpse.” (p.124)

But the public face of the situation is at best the half of it, for as well as being a group portrait, Lifting is also a very intense individual portrait. Written in the third-person, its focus is the mind of Amy, the store detective, and the only character whose thoughts we are privileged to share. In her early thirties Amy has  - typically for her generation – married only recently and has a husband (Steve) and baby son (Frank) at home. The tiredness that comes with balancing work and babycare is an inevitable part of her story. Amy’s views on the closing of Cutty’s are both corporate and private; and include personal memories, thus:

            “ ‘Cutty’s Closing’ was in her face. Someone had been quoted as saying the staff was just one big family. Was it? It was a lot of smaller groupings, some run as fiefdoms, some almost as collectives. Some of these groupings pretended to have so little in common with each other that they could scarcely claim to speak the same language. They communicated through gesture, hand signals, barking. Sabotage even. Others were very close, loving in fact. She’d met Steve at her very first Cutty’s Christmas party. He was going out at the time with a lipstick girl who dumped him that night for a guy in Kitchenware. The dish ran away with the spoon, Amy told him.” (pp.20-21)

More piquant, however, is Amy’s growing awareness of how incongruous her situation is. She was once a schoolgirl who had her own brutal encounter with a store detective when she attempted shoplifting. She was once a student radical, involved in quixotic and illegal schemes to free farm animals from inhumane pens. In those days she and her student mates despised the sort of upmarket, luxury capitalist enterprise that Cutty’s is. And now she works for such an enterprise. On the rare occasions that she bumps into one of her old student mates, her mind jangles with flashbacks of the way she once looked at the world. Indeed, she is now policing and protecting what she once attacked. She is poacher turned gamekeeper. Certainly she is good at her job, acute at noticing aberrant behaviour in browsing customers and following them discreetly. Among other things, Lifting gives in documentary detail the whole process of apprehending and interrogating shoplifters. Yet sometimes Amy sympathises with the thief. Or is such sympathy fading? Could it be that this novel ultimately sees Amy’s radical past in the same way that it sees the department store, as something that will inevitably die or be outgrown?

In the middle of the department store’s crisis, Amy is in effect having an existential crisis, best worded by Damien Wilkins in this passage:

 “For a moment there was a break in the traffic. The road in both directions was suddenly clear. She was aware of a faint buzzing in the air that grew in intensity and she looked up, shielding her eyes against the brightness, which had also come about quickly, the heavy clouds parting. The drone hovered behind her, holding its position, beaming something down to her or taking her image up into itself. At that moment she was struck by a realization that made her shiver. She was in the middle of her life but had no feeling about its shape, its future. Was this so strange, though? You lived and by that living you saw what your life was. You planned things – where to be, what to do there, how the baby would survive another twenty-four hours or forty-eight and so on – and your plans met the plans of other people head-on or sideways, creating the texture of life, the muddle or the pattern or the mess. She couldn’t articulate it very well to herself, yet the powers of this realisation came to her physically, looking up at the drone in Ngaio Gorge….” (p.105)

Is Wilkins seeing the ties that bind a family together as transcending public causes and crises? Possibly. Just as Dad Art had a middle-aged man coming to terms with his own ageing and with the dementia of his old father; so does Lifting have Amy trying to come to terms with her fraught and broken family background, with her sisters and with her ageing and increasingly incapable mother – as well as her husband and baby. It is a nuanced and interesting portrait.

Just a few quick comments on Wilkins’ style. I’m interested to see that he can occasionally plunge into surrealism, as in this moment where Amy’s fragmented thoughts represent her tiredness at the end of a hard day:

She cooked some broccoli in the microwave, peeled a carrot, slicing it into sticks, and cut some cucumber. They ate the pizza on their knees, watching Come Dine With Me. Steve had put the baby in his cot…..

 …. She peeled the baby, slicing it into sticks. She ate Steve – he was lying in the baby’s cot, his legs in the air. He tasted of pizza…” (p.42)

I was also taken by the framing device he has, to entice the reader along. Every so often, we are made aware that Amy’s memories and observations are being jogged by an interview with police that she herself is undergoing. What trouble is she in? Has she herself committed some crime against Cutty’s? The way these questions are ultimately resolved is both dramatically satisfying and logical, but the device certainly piques interest.

Lifting also has one of Wilkins’ prime virtues. It is concise, weighing in at barely 200 pages. He says much in such economical ways.

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