Monday, October 1, 2012

Something New

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

“SOON” by Charlotte Grimshaw (Random House $NZ37:99)

            There’s a potential difficulty in reading Charlotte Grimshaw’s latest novel. Although it is complete in itself, it is also part of a continuum. The characters of Soon are characters from her last novel The Night Book (2010), some of whom earlier appeared in her collections of linked short-stories Opportunity (2007) and Singularity (2009).

            Remuera gynaecologist Dr Simon Lampton is married lovelessly to Karen. They have two biological children but they adopted a third child, Elke. She, however, turned out to be the biological daughter of Roza, who gave her away when she was young and unmarried. In The Night Book, Roza was married to a rising National Party politician, David Hallwright, on his way to becoming prime minister. Roza took an interest in the National Party supporter Dr Lampton. She discovered that he and Karen were now parents to her Elke, and she brought them and the girl into her life. The Night Book had a creepy sub-text about Dr Lampton’s almost incestuous feelings for the adopted Elke. At least he seemed constantly aware of her sexual attractiveness and had the mental habit of weighing it up as he compared her with his plainer, but more intellectual, biological daughter Claire. There was an atmosphere of the morally corrupt in The Night Book. It included the threat of a sort of blackmail, with the possibility that Roza could be “outed” for past indiscretions. Any such disclosure would have had a damaging effect on her politician husband’s career.

            If you had not read The Night Book and knew none of this, Soon would readily fill you in. Indeed, this new novel efficiently recaps the details of the earlier one, including the fact that Simon Lampton has a guilty secret of his own. He had an affair with a South Auckland woman, about which he never told his wife Karen.

            In Soon, David Hallwright is prime minister, holding court to his ministers and their wives and hangers-on at his beach-side mansion. One of his most enthusiastic hangers-on is Karen Lampton. Dr Simon Lampton is now commonly regarded as the prime minister’s “best friend”, but in his private thoughts Simon sees himself as being above the venal crowd with whom the prime minister associates.

            One major driver of the plot is the tension between Roza and Karen. Each thinks of herself as young Elke’s “real” mother. Roza manoeuvres to bring the girl back into her control. Another is Simon Lampton’s unease, especially when his brother Ford wanders back into his life and gives a stinging critique of the prime minister and everything he stands for. More unnerving for Simon, however, is Arthur Weeks, a small-time movie-maker who contacts Simon about the woman with whom he once had an affair. Weeks seems to want to use Simon as a means of gaining access to the prime minister’s circle so that he can write a screenplay about them. (Archly, Grimshaw calls the screenplay “The Night Book”).

            Three years ago I interviewed Charlotte Grimshaw at length for the author-interview anthology Words Chosen Carefully (Siobhan Harvey editor, Cape Catley Ltd, , 2010). I was amused that her first novel Provocation had been nominated for an award as crime writing. I asked her if she regarded herself as a crime writer. She emphatically said she didn’t, and of course she was right. She has an interest in the law and her stories and novels sometimes deal with people who commit crimes, but they are not detective stories. The crime is always only part of a narrative about character and morality. However, much of Soon hinges on the threat of blackmail. Almost exactly halfway through the novel comes the sort of whammy that is revealed only by reviewers with no conscience whatsoever. As a result, the second half of the novel deals with Dr Lampton’s fear of being caught and his self-justification rather than with any real sense of remorse. Soon may not be a crime novel, but an element of suspense is still part of its mechanism.

            In one very obvious sense, Soon is a highly political novel. I think the prime minister’s very name, “Hallwright”, is meant to signify mere competence (as in “Alright”)  and the portrait given of him is merciless. Let’s not beat about the bush here. He is obviously based on John Key, though Grimshaw adds some features to differentiate the two.

            David Hallwright is filthy-rich, but came from an impoverished background. He has “dragged” himself into the middle class, and “although David still sounded like a yob, always getting his words wrong…… David’s inarticulacy made him popular.” (p.90) Simon’s left-leaning brother Ford gives this commentary: “He takes from the poor and gives to the rich. He’s anti the welfare state that nurtured him. He’s the soft face of a very right wing agenda. You’ve seen the way he goes all dreamy when he talks about money? It’s his god.” (Pg.99)

            Ford later elaborates: “The deficit was huge, Ford said. Unemployment was climbing, the government was borrowing vast sums every week, they’d cut taxes to the rich…. and were slashing social programmes to pay for it. The poor were finding it increasingly hard to find food They were building extra prisons for the underclass they were creating. And this was a court… that was increasingly cut off from the nation it was supposed to serve….” (Pg.183)

            Meanwhile  Simon’s intellectual daughter Claire says of the prime minister’s party  “…it’s all wrong. There’s no ethics. The only thing they worship is money. They’re not Conservative or conservative or anything. And with David there’s all this stuff going on underneath. He…. hates something. He wants to kill something in himself.” (Pg.131)

            On top of such direct commentary from other characters, the actions of this Key-esque prime minister reveal him as entirely self-interested and focused on promoting himself. He performs pure self-promotional political theatre as he reads a eulogy for an old mentor at a funeral in a cathedral. He uses words like “instil” and “imbue” because they sound high-toned; and he circulates such buzz-phrases such as “harnessing aspirations” when he means “cutting welfare spending”.

            David Hallwright and his court epitomise the moral vacuity of a completely materialist culture with no sense of social responsibility. David’s circle are not the idle rich. They are the very busy rich – busy protecting their money. Grimshaw is very good at setting the scene of their conferences  - what would once have been  a kiwi beach open to all, with corrugated-iron-roofed baches, has now become an  expensive playground for the rich. This setting, and a drunken party Simon Lampton’s teenage son goes to, are objective correlatives to the moral rot Grimshaw sees in New Zealand’s current political masters.

            But (apart from their sloganeering and editorial-like obviousness), the direct political observations are not the core of the novel. At least as I read it,  the main issue in Soon is bad faith, Simon Lampton drips with bad faith and is the novel’s centre of consciousness. (Grimshaw writes in the third-person, but limits it to Simon’s viewpoint and he is the only character whose thoughts we are told.)  Simon Lampton is complicit in the moral corruption of the prime minister’s circle, but likes to pretend he is a thing apart from it. He’s like a drug addict pretending he can kick the habit any time. We see his self-deception in passages such as the following, in which he clings to the notion that he’s not like David Hallwright’s other admirers while clearly revealing that he also is a sycophant:

             “The only people who behaved like David’s equals were Simon and Roza. It was a fact Simon secretly contemplated, hoarded to himself like money in the bank: that he’d been singled out as the friend of the country’s most powerful man. He had achieved the position by straightness. He’d never ingratiated himself or played power games. He was the only one who argued with or contradicted David, who treated him without reverence. He felt he’d been tested by the friendship, he’d held his nerve and been rewarded and he was thrilled.” (Pg.122)

            Simon is a hollow man in other ways too. He is offhanded and mentally-dismissive of the women he treats in his gynaecological practice. He despises the superficial partying and gossip of Hallwright’s entourage and their sexual relationships, yet he lusts after Roza and he thinks of his own wife as a trophy: “She was blonde, beautiful; he wouldn’t have said it to anyone, but she was a symbol of success. She was the antidote to everything he hated about his childhood….” (pg.109) Whenever confronted with the truth (about his marriage, for example, by a wife who is not as stupid as he imagines) Simon lies his way out of it. The second half of the novel involves his elaborate fabrication of lies.

            Is Simon an intellectual corrupted by the company he keeps? Is the moral of the novel “lie down with dogs, get up with fleas”? I think not. In many respects Simon Lampton is morally worse than the crowd surrounding the prime minister, because he is capable recognising his moral flaws but refuses to acknowledge them. Expressive of his frustrations, Grimshaw gives us imagery of thrashing orcas and trapped seagulls (Pgs. 113-115). And along with the bad faith in marriage and bad faith in politics and social perspective, there are still those niggling quasi-incestuous undertones relating to his adoptive daughter, though they are not as central to Soon as they were to The Night Book.

            As a study of bad faith, Soon works reasonably well. Grimshaw is an astute literary craftswoman in setting up scenes. Like Hamlet, her Dr Lampton could say “How all occasions do inform against me!” in the latter half of novel where his fear of being caught is compounded by even small trivial things. This is a good study of that particular state of mind, even if the psychology attributed to other characters is fairly simplistic.

            There is, however, an element of this novel which simply does not work for me. The title Soon has a number of referents, some of which are worked out on the last pages. The most obvious is the running bedtime story that Roza tells her son Johnnie. It features a group of fantastic creatures including “a fierce dwarf who lives under the house”, called Soon. I am aware that this ongoing tale is meant to be surrealistic commentary on the people in the prime minister’s court, and on Roza’s own relationships with the Lamptons. Soon “wore armour, was always bristling with weaponry and dreamed of being a warrior, but was thwarted by the fact that he was only three inches tall.” (pp.46-47) Depending on the context, Soon could be seen as a version of the prime minister (all PR surface, no intellectual depth) or he could represent Simon Lampton himself (big ideas about himself, but at heart a sycophant like the others). Other characters in the bedtime story include “the Bachelor” and the “Cassowaries”, who seem to be the chattering, cackling women groupies at Hallwright’s court.

            The nursery tale’s imagery – especially the imagery of birds – invades the rest of the text. Simon himself later likens Hallwright’s female admirers to screeching birds (pp.157-158) and one of the prime minister’s entourage is nicknamed “the Cock”. When Simon himself is stressed and looking for a way out “he felt like a mad gnome in a fairy tale, setting out to lift a curse, leaving his princess in her drugged sleep. A fish would grant him three wishes, the skies would writhe, a storm would smite the House of Hallwright….” (Pg.169)

            Thematically, then, Roza’s tale can be justified. But, even given that Roza is supposed to have once worked in the publishing industry, you have to suspend a great deal of disbelief to accept that anyone could ad lib such an articulate story, especially in the circumstances of telling it to a child. Indeed you have to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept that a child would constantly request to hear such a tale. I am saying that however it ties in as imagery, it does not work in any naturalistic sense.

            I recall that when The Night Book came out, one reviewer, Heather Roberts in New Zealand Books (Summer issue, 2010), complained that it was hard to find any sympathetic characters in the novel. She ended her review with these words:

            “The other weakness is Grimshaw’s lack of empathy for many of her characters. We don’t ask writers to like all their characters; in fact, the most interesting writing often comes from characters who are unlikable. But good writing needs to move beyond the stereotypes so that we understand the motives of even those we choose not to like.

            Part of me concurs with this observation. I respect Charlotte Grimshaw’s ability to tell a story, set a scene, and efficiently dissect her more defective characters. But I wonder about the lack of rounded (or even halfway sympathetic) people in Soon. By which criteria, and indeed against which believably admirable people, is Grimshaw measuring the people she condemns? I don’t expect her or any other novelist to write a tract, but neither do I relish the invitation to feel morally superior to everybody in a novel, and to shit on them from a great height.

            After all the ironies about a small and socially-unrepresentative group of characters, I in the end have to ask - why should we care about this dishonest, self-deceiving creep Lampton, who seems more than anything an emanation of impotent middle-class guilt?

            Charlotte Grimshaw has said everything worth knowing about Dr Simon Lampton. I hope she’s now got him out of her system and moves on to a fresh cast of characters in her next novel.