Monday, May 28, 2012

Something New

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

“KONSTANTIN” by Tom Bullough (Penguin/Viking , $NZ37)
To my shame and humiliation I admit it.

I had to do a little research (beginning with Wikipedia) to find out who Kostantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was, and I am now thoroughly annoyed with myself that I did not already know.

In a nutshell, Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) was one of the major pioneers in “astronautics”, the theory of space travel and rocketry. Working on his own, first in Tsarist Russia then in Soviet Russia, he was the first to devise some of the chief principles that made space travel possible. But most of his research was still unpublished when the German Hermann Oberth and the American Robert Goddard independently formulated some of the same hypotheses. In the West, Oberth and Goddard are regarded as the fathers of space travel. But in Russia, Tsiolkovsky gets the crown. He featured on Soviet-era postage stamps. In 1957, Sputnik was launched to coincide with the centenary of Tsiolkovsky’s birth. The statues of him that were put up have outlasted the Soviet Union.

So much for who Konstantin was in history.

Now let me deal with who Konstantin is in this brilliant, brief (not quite 200 pages) novel by a young British author.

Tom Bullough is not concerned to tell the whole life story of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. He is concerned simply to show the formation of an intuitive young scientific mind. Rounded off with a startling coda, Konstantin is an impressionistic account of the childhood and young manhood of the scientist between 1867 (when Tsiolkovsky was ten) and 1881 (when Tsiolkovsky was 24), before any of his scientific papers were published.

We are getting a portrait of the young man before his public lift-off.

Young “Kostya” is restlessly imaginative and inquisitive in his small, provincial town in late Tsarist Russia. He is adventurous. On the opening pages he faces off against a wolf when he takes it upon himself to walk through a forest to bring food to his father who is labouring in a lumber camp. (The image of hungry wolves re-emerges surpisingly in the novel’s last pages). He climbs to the very top of the cupola on a high church tower, against the screamed protests of his young playmates, to see the curvature of the Earth. Speed attracts him. He is keen on tobogganing over the snow that is generously on offer and he breaks the ice and plunges into a frozen river even though he never learns to swim properly.

Through the cold of a Russian winter he also contracts scarlet fever, nearly dies, and almost loses his hearing, leading to a life-long dependence on ear-trumpets. There is the subtle suggestion that partial loss of hearing might have heightened his other senses and made him more cerebrotonic than he would otherwise have been.

Though he is often absorbed in his thoughts, there is no suggestion that little Kostya is an isolate. He is endlessly inquisitive, plays with other kids, and frequently pours out his ideas to his brother Ignat.

We might judge that the remote provincial town would limit his potential and not provide him with intellectual stimulation. But Tom Bullough is seeing this from the child’s own viewpoint. (Wisely, the novel is narrated in the third-person limited voice, so that we see and experience only what Kostya sees and experiences, but we are not limited to a child’s vocabulary). Everything is a source of wonder to the kid, from the geometry he observes in the natural world to the models of fantastic “reaction engines” (i.e. jets) he begins to devise; from the few scientific textbooks he can access to the Jules Verne fantasies he gobbles up.

At least one part of Konstantin’s interest is purely historical. We know that late imperial Russia was technologically far behind western Europe, and this might tempt us to believe that it was lacking in speculative thought. Bullough’s novel suggests otherwise. Though Tsiolkovsky was largely an autodidact (he flunked out in school and didn’t make it to university), his self-teaching in a library in Moscow suggests a ferment of ideas. Oddly, the librarian who is sometimes his mentor is a devout Orthodox Christian, who wants science to advance so that Man will once again live in harmony with nature, as in the Garden of Eden. There is that odd Russian combination of pragmatism and mysticism. It is found, too, in Tsiolkovsky’s parents. His Polish father is a sceptic who prefers not to set foot in churches. His Russian mother is a devout worshipper who firmly believes that contact with the holy icon of St. Nikolai will cure her son’s deafness. The novel sees both parents as equally important influences on the boy.

While the novel is convincing in the way it takes the temperature of its time and place, it does not pile on the period detail for its own sake. Bullough is more interested in the development of a young consciousness.

Early in the novel, we see a bright but purely childish imagination as Kostya talks to his brother Ignat. He is still thinking in terms of magical transformations:

             In my world… there wouldn’t be any gravity, so it would be easy to pick up anything we liked. In my world I would be able to jump versts through the air. I would be able to jump through the clouds and right out into the ether. If I wanted to go to Moscow I would just have to run and jump and I could fly there, easy. The people in the train would see me zooming past like a cannonball! I would bring back a new dress for Mama, and a smart fountain pen for Papa, and a whole cow for us all to eat…” (Pgs.9-10)

A little later, the child’s imagination becomes more genuinely speculative and analytic, as Kostya observes the universe while on a journey. A childish egocentricity is still there, but Kostya now begins to break things into atoms, and realizes that journeys entail some sort of technology, even if he continues to think in terms of fairy-tale technology:

            Silent, unmoving above the shivering sledge, the stars hung untroubled by clouds or even the moisture that flooded the air on those summer night when he might sleep outside on the grass. Kostya followed the track they lay above their own, conscribed by the treetops. He imagined that the stars were the atoms of some monumental being, perhaps of God Himself. He imagined that he was flying through the ether, pulled not by horses but by a skein of swans, and that soon he would arrive on other planets circling other stars, where he would be hailed as tsar by creatures who communicated not, he thought, by sound but by means of pictures mounted on their chests, which they would use to send messages even faster than the telegraph.” (Pg.35)

And a little later still, the fairy-tale technology is giving way to realizable technology, even if the dreams remain the grandiose dreams of a child:

            As tsar, Kostya would abolish death and allow no limit either to food or transort. He would build a railway in a belt around the equator, where a 4-2-4 would travel at a perpetual 123 versts per hour, its smoke rising in a spiral into space, and as he ate meat pies on the velvet cushions of his carriage he would lean from his window to regard the passing stars, to lift his hat to Mercury and Mars.” (Pg.68)

I believe passages such as these, and the novel’s whole concept of the developing young mind, declare the essential theme of Konstantin :-  A lively imagination is needed as much in science as in the arts. Intuitive leaps are as important for great science as are observation, hypothesis and experimentation. The fairy-tales and icons of his mother make Tsiolkovsky a great innovator as much as the rational measuring and logical thought of his father.

You will note that all the passages I have quoted here come from the earlier part of the novel, when Kostya is eleven years old. The young manhood passages (Konstantin married and beginning a family) are not quite as focused, and Bullough is tempted to lecture us a little as Konstantin gives a classroom lesson on physics and puts his infant daughter to sleep with grand speculations on space travel and the size of the universe.
This has annoyed a couple of critics.

In her review in the (English) Observer (which you can easily retrieve on-line) Ophelia Field generally praises this novel, especially its opening childhood section, but she complains that it does not have a well-wrought plot because, she says, Tom Bullough is constrained by the facts of Tsiolkovsky’s biography.

I disagree.

Even if there is the whiff of a lecture in one chapter, this is a perfectly-proportioned short novel, deliberately not venturing beyond the moment of young inspiration and the genesis of the adult scientist. Its milieu convinced me as authentic and it has some of the best-crafted prose I have encountered in a novel for some time. And for its factual information as much as anything else, I found the last chapter (the novel’s coda, set in the 1960s) a stunner.

Konstantin is a lovely piece of work.

Footnote – Here’s an odd coincidence. Tsiolkovsky was a great scientist who was afflicted with deafness after a childhhod mishap. So was Thomas Alva Edison. I recently read Anthony McCarten’s latest (short) novel Brilliance, which deals with Edison and his corruption by monetary interests. There must be something in the Zeitgeist that is attracting young writers to fictionalised tales of pioneer scientists. The deafness of the Russian and the American might also imply that there is something in the theory that this condition drove both men to a more intense speculation. Just a thought.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“MICHAEL STROGOFF” by Jules Verne (first published 1876)

Reading about a nineteenth century Russian scientist whose imagination was partly fired by the “scientific romances” of Jules Verne, I am inevitably reminded of the one popular novel Jules Verne wrote about Russia.

Michael Strogoff is famously not a “scientific romance”. Its first readers would have seen its story as a thriller contemporary with their own times. But it is still an “imaginary voyage” on the pattern of nearly all Verne’s other works.

In some of Verne’s 50-odd books, explorers spend five weeks in a balloon. Phileas Fogg goes around the world in eighty days. Speleologists make a journey to the centre of the earth. Captain Nemo travels 20,000 leagues under the sea. Members of an American club fly from the Earth to the Moon. Robur the Conqueror circles the world in his mighty airship, using force to teach pacifism to warring nations.

Likewise Michael Strogoff, presented as a Cossack superman, dashes from Moscow to the other end of the Russian Empire to warn Tsar Alexander II’s brother, the Grand Duke, of an impending Tartar attack on the remote Siberian capital Irkutsk. There is no scientific speculation, but there is the same Verne-ian formula of a journey as a thread upon which to hang adventurous encounters and solemn descriptions.

Michael Strogoff faces a bear in the Urals, is helpless to prevent his mother being captured and interrogated, rafts across rivers perilous with ice floes, fights off wolves and at one stage is caught and apparently blinded by the barbarous Tartars. He survives to fight a duel with the traitorous Ivan Ogareff. Along the way, he picks up Nadia Fedor, daughter of a Siberian political exile, who guides him when he is blind. Verne was incapable of doing anything remotely resembling complex adult emotions, so the relationship of Michael Strogoff and Nadia is simply a gesture to conventional love interest and the means of providing a happy ending. Characters are strictly one-dimensional.

As with all Verne’s works, there is the strong sense that much of it has been “mugged up”. Verne had never visited Russia and the slabs of geographical and ethnic description seem to have been lifted bodily from text-books and travel books and dumped into his text. Years ago, when I read Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon to my elder children as a bedtime story, they would groan when I came to the pages where Verne speculated on air pressure, volumes, distances and so forth, so obviously simply repeating his material (ill-digested and often inaccurate) from other sources. When I spotted such pages coming up, I tended to skip them.

There aren’t so many temptations to skip in Michael Strogoff because there isn’t much of the pompous amateur scientific exposition. There is, however, one element in the story that would have been regarded as ultra-modern in 1876. Already there was exploration for oil in Siberia, and the traitors who conspire with the Tartars to destroy Irkutsk are planning to burn the city down by firing its oil dumps.

By this stage you are wondering why I am drawing your attention to a book that is so obviously a piece of enjoyable escapist rubbish, and that would be most attractive to an imaginative fifteen-year-old. Once again (pretending that I don’t enjoy brainless adventurous dashes myself occasionally) I fall back on the concept of what the book reveals about Verne’s times and their assumptions.

Verne knew that Russia was technologically backward when compared with Western Europe. Partly to signal this fact, he has as comic relief two rival West European reporters, the Frenchman Alcide Jolivet and the Englishman Harry Blount, following Michael Strogoff’s adventures and reporting back on them to the civilised world. In Verne’s view, Russia was exactly the sort of barbarous and undeveloped land that offered space for great enterprises and the scientific exploitation of natural resources. Russian imperial citizens may not have been as fully civilised as Frenchmen and Englishmen, but they were certainly more civilised than those barbaric Asiatic Tartar hordes. So, in Verne’s view, an adventurer like Michael Strogoff, helping to hold together the Russian Empire, is still an agent of civilsation.

Naturally, like all European adventure stories of its age, Michael Strogoff has an undercurrent of Euro-centric racist mythology. Like the “Red Indians” of older Westerns, like the Zulus of Rider-Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and John Buchan’s Prester John, the Tartars of Michael Strogoff are the primitives who have to be tamed and ruled by their betters. As more than one critic has pointed out, this ignores the fact that the Tartars were a comparatively small ethnic minority in the Russian Empire. They had long since been been subjugated by Russian imperial masters and they were, by the nineteenth century, in no position to mount the type of attack upon the empire which the novel envisages. So, although Verne’s descriptions of Russian landscapes are apparently surprisingly accurate, Michael Strogoff has an in-built element of fantasy to it.

Three points of related interest.

Before the Russian Revoluton, it was France more than any other foreign country which had invested most in the development of Tsarist Russian industry and infrastructure. (The French liked to have an ally to the east of a united Germany.) Hence it was France that lost most of its investment when the revolution came. I’ve often wondered how much Michael Strogoff, a big best-seller in France, romanticised and made attractive to French investors the potential for the “civilzation” and industrialisation of Russia.

Second point of interest. Jules Verne was a staunch French republican, and knew how barbarous the absolutist Tsarist government could be. Verne scholars have pointed out that when the man first wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the mysterious Captain Nemo was going to be revealed eventually as a Polish political exile taking revenge for Russian repression of the Poles. Verne’s publisher persuaded him not to annoy his large Russian readership. So Verne changed Nemo into an Indian prince taking revenge for British repression of the Indian “Mutiny”. As good Frenchmen, neither Verne nor his publisher minded annoying their large English readership. (Fair enough.)

Final point. Largely through the medium of colourful Hollywood movies, most of Jules Verne’s better-known “scientific” romances are familiar to an international and English-speaking audience. Michael Strogoff, however, has always remained more popular in Europe than anywhere else. It has been filmed three or four times in Europe (once with a miscast Curt Jurgens in the lead), but only once (in the 1930s) in an English-language version, which was called The Soldier and the Lady. And even that version was made by adding English dialogue scenes to the action scenes of a prior European version (which took as its title the novel’s subtitle Courier to the Tsar).

I guess the time-and-place-specific Russian-set adventure story didn’t translate as easily to international taste as stories of submarines, moon rockets and peripatetic balloons.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Quite some time ago on this blog, I wrote a “Something Old” essay called “The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fantasy” (look it up on the index at right). In that, I glanced at the fact that magic-based Fantasy has, in the last half-century, supplanted science-and-technology-based Science Fiction as a preferred mode of escapism.

There are some obvious reasons for this. One of them is the quotidian nature of advanced technology now. We are so used to modern marvels that they no longer give us an imaginative buzz. Even if (as I did last night) we see on television a woman controlling a robot arm by brain power, via a gizmo wired into her brain, we simply shrug and say it’s just another marvel coming out of the laboratories. Yawn. This is arrogant of us when we consider rationally how much the ingenuity of scientists should be respected. But you cannot command the popular imagination on how to react.

So out with techno-based Science Fiction and in with “Chronicles of…” this and “Saga of…” that and Gandalf throwing magic curses about as our chosen form of mind-rot.

There was still the odd hard-core Science Fiction writer holding out into the 1970s and 1980s. (I think of Arthur C.Clarke’s 1972 opus Rendezvous with Rama as the archetypal hard-core SF. It’s essentially a detailed description of a huge machine.) But they were fighting a losing battle.

There was also the argument – more popular in the Cold War than now – that after two world wars and with the nuclear stand-off, people had come to see the malign side of technology and were no longer so beguiled by Verne-ian or Wellsian visions of technology providing an endlessly blissful future. Flawed human nature and Original Sin had reared their heads, as they always do, even in the age of advanced technology. So we retreated to hippiedom, the New Age, magic, and fat, pompously-titled volumes about dragons and wizards.

I don’t resile from any of these arguments and I also make the obvious point that the genres of SF and Fantasy are not mutually-exclusive and sometimes interpenetrate. Fantastic bug-eyed monsters sometimes co-exist with spaceships.

But I would not like to appear too simplistic in the historical judgement I’m making here. After reflecting on Jules Verne this week, it occurs to me that a particular line of Fantasy was in full swing at the movies even in the days – the 1950s and early 1960s – when Science Fiction still seemed to rule the literary roost as it had since the 1920s.

And it came from a most paradoxical quarter.

This chap Jules Verne. He’s often called “the father of science fiction” (despite feminist literary critics claiming that Mary Shelley really created the genre in Frankenstein). Verne’s best-known work is based on what was, in his age, deemed the latest technology. In his study of Science Fiction New Maps of Hell (published in 1960), Kingsley Amis credited Verne as being SF’s founder, but rightly noted how unreadable so much of Verne’s interpolated “scientific” information is. In a later essay on Verne, “Founding Father” (published in his collection What Became of Jane Austen, 1970), Amis also noted that Verne’s general conceptions were more interesting than his actual writing. True enough. But none of this alters the fact that Verne’s adventure stories were generally based on technological and scientific ideas which (no matter how much detail Verne got wrong) were generally considered to be realisable. They were Science Fiction rather than Fantasy.

But  - to at last get to my point after all this throat-clearing – once Hollywood got hold of Verne, the passage of time had turned Verne’s works into Fantasy.

Consider this. While there had been earlier filmed versions of Verne’s works, the golden heyday of Hollywood’s encounter with Verne was in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the space of eight years, the following titles came out:

            * The Disney production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), with James Mason as Captain Nemo, Kirk Douglas as Ned Land and Peter Lorre as Obligatory Comic Relief.
            * Mike Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), a three-hour-long and (sorry) boring all-star extravaganza, whose main purpose was to show off as many Hollywood actors as possible in cameo roles. David Niven as Impeccable English Gentleman and Cantinflas as Obligatory Comic Relief.
            * Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959), with James Mason as Sober
Swedish Scientist and pop-singer Pat Boone as Marquee Name to Attract Teenagers.
            * The Disney production In Search of the Castaways (1961) (based on Verne’s novel Captain Grant’s Children) with Maurice Chevalier as Old Singing Frenchman To Amuse Parents and child-star Hayley Mills as Person To Amuse The Kids.
            * A cheapskate Master of the World (1961) (a mash-up of Verne’s Robur the Conqueror and its sequel) with Vincent Price as Outrageous Ham.
            * Mysterious Island (1961), made in Britain but with American and British  actors, and entirely within the Hollywood orbit.
            * And finally Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962) with Cedric Hardwicke as Tediously Expository Scientist, Peter Lorre once again as Obligatory Comic Relief and pop-singer Fabian, with anachronistic bouffant hair-style,  as Marquee Name to Attract Teenagers.

Thereafter, Verne-derived films weren’t made as often and the series flickered out with lame and dull efforts like Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969).

Now as it happens, nearly all these films were made when I was a child and in the habit of imbibing them on Saturday afternoons at the local flea-pit (just a few years before television put it out of business).

I made my own peculiar Kiwi judgments on them.

Far and away the most entertaining was Journey to the Centre of the Earth, though years later, when I showed it to my kids on video, they refused to be moved and outraged by the sequence when Villain kills Harmless Supporting Character’s pet goose. Insensitive little brats.

The two that tickled me most at the time were Mysterious Island and In Search of the Castaways, but for reasons their producers never intended. Mysterious Island has a sequence where its heroes, having been swept in their balloon (by a mighty wind) across the Pacific, come to land on the strange island, filled with fantastic volcanoes and oversized vegitation. Before they encounter the elephant-sized crabs and bees, they speculate on where they might be. “It could be Noo Zealand”, says one American character. That caused gales of laughter in the bug-house.

Though filmed entirely in a London studio, In Search of the Castaways has a sequence which really is supposed to be set in New Zealand and which features real New Zealanders – Inia Te Wiata and a Maori concert party, doing a savage war-dance to the consternation of Maurice Chevalier, Hayley Mills et al. The New Zealand depicted, however (pasteboard backdrops and endless high Fuji-shaped active volcanoes, spitting fire) had the bug house howling with mirth.

So much for my kiddie reaction. The big thing to note here, however, is that when Hollywood was plundering Verne, his scientific and technological marvels had become old hat and quaint, as had his speculations on what might lie in undiscovered corners of the Earth.

When we watched Journey to the Centre of the Earth, we already knew there wasn’t a colony of dinosaurs down there. Indeed we already knew there wasn’t any way human beings could withstand the pressure just a few kilometres below the Earth’s surface, let alone at its core. When we watched 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, we no longer thought submarines per se were marvels, even if the places where some of them went were still pretty amazing to us. (It was just four years after the Disney film that the US sub Nautilus, its name taken from Captain Nemo’s vessel, was the first to travel under the ice of the North Pole). Statesmen were threatening one another with weapons far more lethal than the ones Robur persuades warring states to lay aside in Master of the World. As for balloons, they were funny old things in the same category as buggies and whale-bone corsets.

Verne had always appealed most to the little boy in everyone, but now he was a source of harmless, beguiling family entertainment, without any sense of real speculation (or the real – if ham-fisted – social criticism that Verne sometimes plonked into his books). Note how some of these movies were Disney productions – and how most of the ones that weren’t aspired to be. Note the use of child-stars and pop-singers to get the family audience. Note the recurrence of certain actors (James Mason, Peter Lorre), creating the impression of a cosy, reliable family.

So here is the curious fate of the creator of Science Fiction. He had become the retailer of harmless Fantasy.

Verne was not the only one to suffer this fate. Updated movie versions of H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds  and The Time Machine still managed to be authentic – and horrific – science fiction. But the delightful 1964 British production of Wells’ First Men in the Moon was exactly like the Verne films, revelling in the quaintness of its Victorian technology and playing up the quirky humour, especially in the scene where Lionel Jeffries tries to explain to the “Selenites” (moon people) why human beings are stupid enough to wage war.

Perhaps this fate was inevitable. What is quainter than yesterday’s conception of tomorrow, once time has moved on? And what more rapidly becomes a back number than the latest technology?

Bah Humbug to your memory stick carrying 30,000 movies. I will continue to watch my DVD discs until you can give me a memory stick that carries 1,000,000 movies. I am confident in the knowledge that in less than a century, your memory stick will be one with the quill pen.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Something New

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

“THE FACELESS” by Vanda Symon (Penguin, $NZ29:99)

A teenage street-person who calls herself Billy makes her living as a prostitute on Auckland’s Karangahape Road. She sleeps rough in cardboard boxes down back alleys, and is watched over paternally by another street-person, the scruffy and smelly old bum Max.

Billy’s real passion is art. She spray-paints magnificent frescoes on disused walls and under bridges. None of your cheap graffiti art, you understand. She hates taggers. She paints real Madonnas and Venuses. Prostitution is just a means to the end of being free to do her art.

A company accountant called Bradley Fordyce is frustrated at his job, under pressure from his demanding boss, and seems to have bedroom issues with his wife. He persuades himself that he needs some “relief”. He picks up Billy off K.Road and drives to a secluded spot where she can service him. But, when he proves incapable of performing, he notes the slight smirk on Billy’s face.

He belts her hard.

Then he realizes he has to get rid of  her, but without being seen by the many prying eyes of K.Road and environs. So he belts her some more, trusses her up, bungs her in the boot and drives her out to Mt.Wellington where he chains her up in the locked basement of an industrial property he manages.

So there’s Billy tied up in the basement and periodically being abused by Bradley. And there’s her good friend the bum Max, wondering where she’s gone and trying to get a “missing person” enquiry going, against the scepticism of respectable people who don’t trust a bum. And there’s Bradley, partly worried that he’ll be found out by wife and young kids, but gradually coming to enjoy exercising sadistic power over somebody even more helpless than himself.

It’s the height of rudeness for reviewers to give away the twists in thrillers, detective stories and yarns, so I’ll halt my synopsis there. These are just the first 50-or-so pages of Vanda Symon’s 300-page thriller The Faceless. I’ve revealed little more than the initial set-up. I do note, however, that it is essentially a thriller – a variation on the “police procedural” genre with Max and his allies working their way towards finding out where Billy is; and with Bradley driven to desperate expedients.

Vanda Symon arranges her narrative with chapters cutting between Bradley, Max, Billy and a policewoman who becomes involved. There is detective work, together with confrontations and beatings and a last-minute dash and a violent climax. There is also, I can’t help noting, the cliché of the cop who has been so traumatised by a horrible experience that he has ceased to be able to do his job. But it works well as a thriller, the only noticeable weakness being Billy’s failure to develop as a character (or indeed to do much more than suffer) once her role in the story is established.

Part of me notes a certain fantasy element in the novel, for all the gritty realism of the setting. From the get-go I found the compassionate, gentlemanly, well-spoken street-person Max a little too good to be true, given that he is also presented as a broken-down, black-toothed, smelly creature who scavenges for food in rubbish bins. On this score, I was not mollified by later plot developments that tell more about him. The fresco-painting pure-hearted teenage whore Billy is also too good to be true. As far I know from documentary material, teenagers working the streets as prostitutes are more desperate, less in control and more abused than this. It would take a lot to convince me that there are many budding artistic geniuses among them.

It interests me that Vanda Symon’s perspective is essentially a conservative one. She believes in real law-and-order. On the whole the cops in the story are presented positively, apart from two unpleasant young constables who give Max a hard time when he first seeks help. More surprisingly, when the hunt for Billy takes investigators to him, the pastor of a large Auckland Pacific Island church is also presented positively as a caring person not too impressed by the selfish attitudes of some of his congregation.

There is one moment in this novel where I think Vanda Symon takes a real risk, and it pays off. Bradley is energised by his own sadistic behaviour and the apparent power it has given him. He is so energised that he stands up to his boss when he is bullied at work. For just that one chapter, we are almost on the creep’s side as he says forthrightly things that any harassed employee would like to say. Here at least there is an unexpected complexity to the characterization.

Vanda Symon certainly presents the seamy side of life, but her writing can go over-the-top pretty when she wants. The novel’s opening sentence (describing Billy at work on her art) reads thus:

The arc of white spraypaint mists the wall with absolute precision, the microfine droplets highlight the crest of the crashing wave with each graceful upsweep of her arm, and then contour the roiling fall into the form of a triumphant stallion’s head.”(p.7)

This is a fine way of establishing the teenager’s surprising talent. But later, such writing seems rhetorical and ranty, as when we have this passage of old Max waking to a new day:

            The first rays of thin autumnal light greeted him from a fitful sleep, a sleep that had been haunted by dreams of faces melted like waxen candles grotesquely consumed by the very flame they fuelled. There had been the image of Billy, whose aetherial form kept slipping from his grasp, his hand raking through the misty trail of her passing, vortexes and eddies forming from between his spread fingers.” (p.108)

I know this passage, with its “faces melted like waxen candles”, explains the novel’s title. But “thin autumnal light” and “aetherial form” seem to be overdoing it.

I hasten to add that doing a fine analysis of the quality of prose is no way to assess a good thriller.

The Faceless is Dunedin-based Vanda Symon’s fifth novel. The first four all featured her detective hero Sam Shephard and all, I believe, had South Island settings. This is her first to do without Sam and also her first to venture into the wicked big northern city of Auckland.

As an Aucklander, I applaud all the things she has got right. Some of us really are as revolting as the worst characters in this novel.