Monday, August 26, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
Why do non-religious or anti-religious imaginative writers choose to write on overtly religious subjects?
There can, of course, be the motive of satire or critique. The non-religious person is setting out to expose or criticise what he/she sees as being wrong about religion in general or about a particular religion or about a particular church. Many are the anti-clerical novels or satirical squibs that have done this.
But I’m going to suggest there is another motive, which is coming increasingly into prominence.
It’s the motive of envy.
Atheism and agnosticism are in and of themselves not very good at creating inspiring images or concepts. Indeed they tend to scorn inspiring imagery. It is therefore somewhat galling to consider the continuing power that religious images still have, even in a very secularised age in which New Atheism rants and romps. You keep telling the populace at large that there is no God and that religion is an illusion or a neurosis and yet – blast it! – images of sainthood and angels and salvation still sit prominently in the collective consciousness as well as deep in the collective unconsciousness.
The envy wells up, so out come anti-religious works that have to resort to the imagery of religion. After all, they have no original and resonant imagery of their own. Remember the rush of films and novels there were at the millennium (i.e. around 2000), which dealt with “angels”, written or produced by people who clearly had not the least notion that an angel was a messenger of God and that the images of beautiful winged creatures (borrowed from the pagan Greek Winged Victory, of course) were strictly secondary to this concept? At least some of these angelic works were in the nature of elaborate sneers, attaching non-religious agendas to traditional angelic images.
A French wit once said that “hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue”. I would say that the use of religious imagery is the compliment that the irreligious pay to religion.
Which brings me to Amy Brown’s 237 page poem The Odour of Sanctity. From the title onwards, the alert reader understands that the intention is to belittle the concept of sanctity. I am fully aware that the phrase “odour of sanctity” was once used in good faith to refer to the sweet smell that was said to come from the preserved corpses of saints. But recently the phrase has more commonly been used with a distinct tone of irony, a smirk implying some sort of hypocrisy or delusion in the whole notion of sanctity. And that is clearly what is intended here.
Let’s begin with a logical question.
What is a saint?
If you are agnostic or atheist, the term has no particular meaning apart from, perhaps, the vague idea of a good person. If you are a Christian, a saint means one whose life and holiness may serve as an example to other Christians in their moral and religious practice. (For convenience and brevity, I here ignore the fact that other major religions also have concepts of sanctity and sainthood). The way is which saints are proclaimed or canonised (i.e. added to the “canon” or list of recognised saints who may be venerated) has changed over the centuries. Once it was simply a matter of popular acclamation after some noted Christian person had died. Then the process became formalised, especially in the Catholic system of having of having a person declared, after death, to be first Venerable, then Blessed, than a Saint as various hurdles of proof (such as miracles performed after prayer to the candidate for sainthood) were cleared. The Eastern Orthodox Church has as lengthy a calendar of saints as the Catholic Church. Most Protestant churches officially ditched the idea of saints at the time of the Reformation – they were seen as distractions from the single-minded worship of Christ, and hence dangerously in the field of papist idolatry. And yet some (such as the Anglican Church) retained the pre-Reformation calendar of saints, added various informal suggestions that some notable people were worthy “venerating”, and continued to use saints’ names in the naming of churches. Look at the back of Westminster Abbey and see images of twentieth century people (such as Oscar Romero) whom some Anglicans think worthy of veneration and in effect regard as saints.
By now you are panting with impatience at the fact that I have not yet started analysing Amy Brown’s book The Odour of Sanctity. But I thought this prologue necessary, as it is quite clear that Amy Brown has little real idea of what sainthood entails. I won’t quibble at the extremely limited list of sources given at the end. This is a poem, after all, and not a work of scholarship. (Although this very fact makes me very sceptical about the whole concept of regarding any imaginative work as a valid doctoral thesis – as this book was written to be. A work of imaginative literature either flies or it doesn’t, and calling something a doctoral thesis when it is NOT a work of scholarship strikes me as a damned impertinence.)
What I will quibble with is Amy Brown’s choice of “saints”. In different sections, this book looks at six candidates for sainthood. But only two of them (Augustine and Elizabeth of Hungary) are saints in the sense of being accepted as such by the church universal. One – the garrulous medieval mystic and memoirist Margery Kempe – is “venerated” in the Anglican Church, but nobody really regards her as a saint. One is more in the nature of folklore. This is the miraculous early-medieval talking baby Rumwold, who, says the legend, lived only three days but preached sermons and proclaimed his Christian faith. It may be fun for the poet to point out that there are a few churches named after this fantastic figure, but quite clearly his reputation (whether he actually lived is quite another matter) was a very local affair. As for the last two – the lavender-and-lace Victorian poet Christina Rossetti and the rock musician Jeff Magnum – nope, nobody has ever suggested either was or is a bona fide saint.
The book – all 237 pages of it – is divided into seven sections. First, an investigation of each “saint’s” life as seen by somebody else. Then a “questionnaire” as somebody other than the “saint” works through questions regarding the “saint’s” sanctity. Then “beatification” of each as God speaks His piece about each. Then a “questionnaire” as a doctor or physician answers questions about the possibility of a miracle having been performed by intercession with the “saint”. Then testimony from a person supposedly cured. Then a canonisation ceremony for each. Then a brief envoi.
So what is the poet up to in choosing these six as her exemplars of “the odour of sanctity” and what is her purpose in mimicking at least some of the steps in the Catholic process of canonisation?
Basically mockery, I fear, especially as she mixes recorded beliefs and historical fact with sheer and outrageous fiction of her own devising. (No, no pope ever canonised Christina Rossetti and no pope ever bothered to curse a rock musician he’d never heard of.) Behind it all I hear the tired technique of something like Voltaire’s La Pucelle d’Orleans, in which traditional beliefs about Joan of Arc (who was not yet canonised at the time Voltaire was writing) were mixed with fantasy and obscenity to ridicule and belittle the traditional beliefs and those who held them. The underlying message was “See the nonsense that these credulous Christians believed!”, nudged along by the real nonsense that the author had himself created. Inflatio ad absurdum. Thus in The Odour of Sanctity.
And having no real idea of what sainthood entails, Amy Brown is reduced to the concept of sainthood as freakshow or freaky amusing experience. Take her impressions of Jeff Magnum.
“I don’t believe in heaven, / but Jesus is plausible” says the rock musician (p.24), with whatever Jesus was on about quite passing him by. Later, the rock musician’s admirer says:
“One with the music, I would no longer / have its company, as if I’d parted from God / by melding with Him. Like learning to read / silently – there would be no external voice, / no need to listen or pray. I would be inside / the music, or it inside me. Either way, / the song would be lonely as death” (p.36)
This is not mysticism leading to anything greater than oneself, but an objectification of the ego. This is where we get into the territory of those who see mysticism as the equivalent of having a trip on a mind-altering drug – in other words just another sensual experience. At another point and admirer says:
“My best teacher in grade school reminded me of Jeff / and of Jesus. He had such long legs. / His eyes were always wet and red-rimmed – in hindsight, / he was almost certainly stoned as we studied history. In his class we read The Diary of Anne Frank.” (p.117)
Good looks and being stoned – these are conditions of sainthood? And later still there is this really profound message:
“It was too hard to imagine Jeff dead. / His listeners venerate him by buying his records, / burning them for friends / but telling their friends / they should really pay / for music this good / but mainly they need / to listen to it, even if it means / not paying.” (p.124)
So veneration of a saint is feeding a rock musician’s royalties?
The superficiality of this is fairly stunning, but it is really at one with another consistent failure through this book. As well as having virtually no understanding of what sainthood entails, Amy Brown shows a consistent hostility to anything resembling asceticism. When she describes Margery Kempe, she suggests that her view of God was a neurosis blotting out the sensual pleasures of life:
“This creature enjoyed walks in fine weather / sharing ale and cake with her husband / until she remembered you, Lord, until / the warmth became a burning guilt, the cake / slid down her throat like sick, the ale / /smelt of rotting meat and the only cure / was you, Lord. It was only ever You. / Then she’d lie in the dark and feel calm, / plan her fast, dwell on her abstinence / list and count and categorise all things / in her life as they relate to You, Lord / As they relate to You.” (pp.54-55)
This tone becomes even more shrill when she is ridiculing of the notion of asceticism in Elizabeth of Hungary – “I forced my babies to be / pious, giving up their share of my flesh to God. It is wrong / to enjoy bodily pleasures. It is wrong to gain / satisfaction from turmoil. It is wrong / to use distress as a balm for anything….” etc. etc. (pp.65-66).
If you have no real conception of the otherworldly, then you stake everything on this-worldly pleasures. This is the essence of materialism. But if you have no conception of the otherworldly (except for a version of God that is intended as a piss-take) you also disqualify yourself from writing about sainthood in any meaningful way and you will not understand asceticism. Compared with this, other imaginative failures in this book are fairly routine ones – such as the (cliché and oft-used) attempt to “discredit” Augustine through the mouth of his discarded concubine.
Let us assume that some saints genuinely were as frail, flawed, neurotic etc as the author suggests. This misses the major point that all of humanity is ultimately embraced in sainthood (including the sick in body and mind) as saints become a medium between us and the divine. We are all flawed, but we all have the possibility of being saints. To berate some saints for their psychological failings is to set up some sort of eugenics as a criterion for sainthood. Saints become “cases”, inferior to the author, rather than people whose lives are worth knowing and treasuring. In other words, saints cease to be saints.
It occurs to me that in this notice, I have said nothing about the poetic qualities of The Odour of Sanctity. I grant that there are some moments that have a certain resonance. Of Rumwold and saints and criminals Amy Brown says “they are not lost in a green desert / of constant babyhood. Only / their acts are remembered, / their bodies turned into words. / The most precocious speaker, / now ungrounded by / words, is literally eternal.” (p.80) The sentiment comes close to Yeats’ “words alone are certain good”; but the phrase “a green desert of constant babyhood” is strong.
Poetically the book has its moments.
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.
“THE TIME OF INDIFFERENCE” (“GLI INDIFFERENTI”) by Alberto Moravia (first published 1929; best English translation, by Angus Davidson, first published 1953)
There are some writers whose high international reputations I understand even if I do not like their works. And there are some writers whose high international reputations are something of a puzzle to me. I must confess that Alberto Moravia falls into the latter category. I know that Moravia (1907-90) is often regarded as the foremost Italian novelist of the 20th century, that he wrote a prodigious number of books and that he had a very wide readership, enhanced by the fact that a significant number of his works were turned into movies. His Il Conformista/The Conformist (1951) probably became best known to English speakers because of Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie version (1970). His Il Disprezzo / A Ghost at Noon (1954) is better known for Jean-Luc Godard’s film adaptation as Le Mepris / Contempt (1963). And so on.
Gli Indifferenti (1929) was Moravia’s very first novel, getting what was apparently an inept English translation, under the title The Indifferent Ones, in the 1930s. Its definitive English translation, as The Time of Indifference, appeared in 1953. As Moravia often told interviewers [you can easily find the 1954 Paris Review interview with him on line], he wrote it between the ages of 19 and 21, partly because he had been suffering from long and debilitating sickness, an adolescent experience to which he attributed much of the alienated tone of his whole literary output. He was a mere 22 years old when Gli Indifferenti was published, partly with his father’s financial backing. The novel was a huge bestseller – quite unhindered by any censorship – in Fascist Italy. It was only later that some of Moravia’s work fell under Fascist disfavour and was banned. Gli Indifferenti has remained one of his most famous novels and is still sometimes regarded as his best.
With severe classical unity (and in that Paris Review interview, Moravia admits being influenced by true classical tragedy), the whole action of the novel takes place, with a restricted cast of characters, in the space of two days.
A mother and her two grown children are financially ruled by the mother’s lover, Leo Merumeci. The mother, Mariagrazia, may have to sell her villa, on which Leo has a mortgage. Her daughter Carla, aged 24, wants to get away from the family’s precarious and monotonous life. Her son Michele, aged about 20, is disgusted by the life they live, by his mother’s dependence on Leo, and by his own complete deadness of feeling or “indifference”. Neither Carla nor Michele have any notable skills or talents, however.
In the course of the novel, Mariagrazia becomes jealous of Leo’s lack of affection for her, and imagines that he has gone back to his former mistress Lisa. But the fact is that the cast-off Lisa is trying hard to seduce young Michele. And the further fact is that Leo’s real objective is to seduce the daughter Carla, who thinks that marriage to Leo might give her a new life.
So lover wants to seduce daughter and lover’s discarded mistress wants to seduce son. Different handling would make this situation more like a Cocteau hothouse drama than an Italian realist novel.
The mother’s lover Leo succeeds in his aim and the daughter Carla finds her way into his bed. Spurred on by Lisa, who has failed to seduce him, Michele makes an amateurish and botched attempt to kill Leo, the man who has taken both his mother’s and his sister’s honour. Michele fails and has to face his own powerlessness over his situation.
Carla explains that she will marry Leo. Perhaps the man’s money will rescue her from terminal boredom. But at the novel’s end the mother Mariagrazia, who knows nothing of what has happened, is still under the illusion that Leo, the seducer of her daughter, is devoted to her and her interests.
Michele thinks vaguely of sleeping with Lisa as a way of killing time. His indifference is intact.
The overall tone of the novel is one of weary disgust. Moravia handles skilfully an eye-of-God technique. We get to see what each character thinks in the course of conversations, which is often at odds with what they say out loud. Gradually, however, the focus comes to rest on young Michele, who is about the same age as the young novelist was and who presumably shares the author’s outlook. It is in connection with Michele that the word “indifference” occurs most often in the novel, signalling Michele’s emotional deadness or alienation, and his full awareness that he is not reacting to family crises in the way that convention says he should. In fact he feels virtually nothing about Leo’s abuse of his mother and seduction of his sister, but he knows he is supposed to feel outraged:
“But he had seen, he had felt what would become of him if he failed to conquer his own indifference. Without faith, without love, alone, he must, for his salvation, either live through this unbearable situation with sincerity and according to traditional standards, or he must get out of it for good. He must hate Leo, love Lisa, feel disgust and compassion for his mother, and affection for Carla – all of them sentiments of which he had no knowledge; or he must go away somewhere else and seek his own people, his own place, that paradise where everything – gestures, words, feelings – would have a direct connection with the reality in which they originated.” (Chapter 13)
So, like Hamlet working himself up to abusing his uncle, he has to work himself up into attempting to shoot Leo. And even then he feels impotent and silly. Here Moravia comes closest to the central idea of Cocteau’s Thomas l’Imposteur – that life is simply a matter of going through the motions by acting out a “role”. (Cocteau’s novel was published five years before Moravia’s). Another parallel occurs to me. In one lengthy sequence, Michele imagines being put on trial for killing Leo. This is almost of foretaste of Camus’s’ L’Etranger, with society apparently condemning a man for not feeling the way he should. If Moravia is an existentialist, however, then his is an existentialism that is stuck in the pointless, absurd and uncommitted phase.
In making these comparisons with other authors, however, I have probably made The Time of Indifference sound philosophically more focused and tightly structured than it really is.
The novel presents us with a hermetically sealed world (there are no other named characters apart from Mariagrazia, Carla, Michele, Leo and Lisa), which is claustrophobic apart from the occasional evocation of rainswept streets. We hear nothing of the characters’ interests or background (there is nothing about Mariagrazia’s late husband, for example) and everything centres on that dry, futile, intellectual quest for either sensual pleasure or financial security, which leads to inevitable disappointment. Typical moments include Leo’s first attempt to seduce young Carla – she has had too much to drink and proceeds to throw up. When Lisa makes her first attempts to seduce Michele, Michele can think only of a pathetic prostitute he once picked up who wept when he tried to “experiment” on her.
Of course nothing is resolved in this story and characters are condemned to live with bad faith and meaninglessness. I get this image of a tired, superior young Italian male arching his eyebrow as he sniffs at human nature and decides that men are his enemies and women are machines for masturbation.
Or am I missing an implicit social commentary? The young novelist, from his title on, is, after all, condemnatory. Indifference, deadness, is his chosen theme, so it may be irrational to berate him for it. And, though there is no political commentary whatsoever in the novel, it was published in the fifth year of Mussolini’s regime and it may have had resonance as a critique of an amoral middle class who were self-absorbed and simply didn’t care about the welfare of society at large. They are, after all, rentiers, who don’t produce much of value. Leo Merumeci is described thus:
“Of business, in the proper sense of the word, he had none; he did not work, his activities being limited to the management of his property, which consisted of a few houses, and to a little cautious speculation on the Stock Exchange. Yet his wealth increased regularly each year, for he spent only three quarters of his income and devoted the rest to the acquisition of more house property.” (Chapter 7)
Yet this implicit social critique is more background noise than the novel’s essence. We are allowed to feel disgusted at these characters and their passionless amorality, but we are taken no further than that. And that, in a nutshell, is all that the bulk of Moravia’s novels have ever delivered to me. Disgust, alienation and no sense that there are any alternatives to these conditions.
Puerile and largely irrelevant footnote: There’s this thing called Youtube, see? So when I’m putting together my notes on The Time of Indifference, I’m fooling around and I discover that I can watch on line the 1963 Italian film version directed by the competent hack Francesco Maselli. Which I proceed to do. I told you that much of Moravia was filmed, didn’t I? Anyway, I discover that it stars three dubbed American actors (Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Paulette Goddard as, respectively, the lover Leo, the discarded mistress Lisa and the mother Mariagrazia) and one Cuban-American (Tomas Milian as Michele), and only one real Italian (the luminous young Claudia Cardinale as Carla). On its first release, the film received almost universally bad reviews from the English language press which, among other things, objected to seeing actors whose lips were clearly speaking English having been dubbed into Italian. It is a “turgid melodrama” according to one of the film guides I have on my shelf; it is “soap opera” according to another; while the New York Times reviewer said “it takes itself so seriously and it is so bad”. But for what it is worth, this simple black-and-white film is a faithful adaptation of the novel, with its claustrophobic housebound setting, its concentration on just the five named characters and its discreet evocations of the late 1920s. And on the few occasions when Michele walks the night-time streets, it is indeed raining, just as in the novel. Besides, a film of dialogue and action has immense difficulty in conveying the internal-ness of characters, which is essential to the novel’s impact. Also, I’m biased by the fact that at the age of 12 or thereabouts I was hopelessly in love with Claudia Cardinale, who is still my ideal of young Italian womanhood; so I couldn’t help sighing nostalgically whenever she appeared in all her pouty glory. Told you this note was puerile, didn’t I?
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.
UP BRASENOSE PLACE
A simple factual record of a walk in greater Wellington.
On a visit there recently, I asked my host if we could take a bush walk somewhere in the bush-clad hills that intrude on Tawa as they intrude on most of suburban Wellington.
“No problem”, he said, after consulting his computer to see what tracks were recommended.
We drove for about ten minutes from his domicile. We parked on a steep hill and plunged through a connecting walkway to the promised track. It was not much of a challenge – about fifteen minutes tramping up a green tube of overhanging fern and other foliage before emerging at a fence-line where the shaved and bush-less farmland began. There were “Keep Out” signs. Mine host hinted that there was some research facility over the next rise and intruders weren’t welcome. We tramped back down the fifteen minutes of track and back to the car.
Not my idea of a great outdoors experience, but one that presented me with an odd contradiction.
You couldn’t imagine a more typically New Zealand scene than the one I’ve just described – suburban New Zealand homes built in distinctively New Zealand styles bang up against native (if regenerated) New Zealand bush which in turn was bang up against a barbed-wire fence and hilly New Zealand farmland.
But what were the names of the streets in this section of suburbia?
Brasenose Place. Balliol Drive. St Benet’s Place. Peterhouse Street.
“Yer what?” I thought, at this verbal onslaught of Oxbridge.
The houses were obviously all post-1960s, so there is no way that this subdivision was made, and its streets named, in the first flush of colonialism when 19th century settlers from England may have chosen names from “Home” as the names of streets. Obviously the streets were named by whatever property-developing company had carved up the subdivision in the 1960s or later. So why all these twee and self-consciously English street names? My guess is that they were intended to imply class, exclusivity, something for the superior homeowner.
This naming of streets is a difficult matter (it isn’t just one of your holiday games). In the real colonial era the country was covered with Queen Streets and Prince’s Streets and other names of like stunning originality. In country regions, there were and are roads named after whichever farming family originally farmed locally. Most suburbs have streets named after battles and eminent local personalities (it’s depressing to discover how many of them were minor figures in the local council decades ago). Then there are the Maori names that have been preserved in street names, or sometimes fancifully applied to them.
But you can spot a subdivider’s cunning commercial plan whenever you see a set of street names that runs thematically.
In the East Auckland suburb of Howick (well, really the township east of Auckland, so far is it from the city centre), there is an old subdivision that was obviously named by a subdivider who knew his Dickens – there are streets with names like Dolly Varden Place and Bleak House Road. I suppose that shows a certain literacy, although I think some snob appeal was intended.
Anyway, back to Brasenose Place and its fellows. Looking at these street signs, I felt like shrieking “You’re not at Brasenose, Peterhouse or Balliol College. You’re in suburban New Zealand for feck’s sake! Look at the bush! ”
Not that my shriek would have made the least bit of difference. The marketing appeal of snobbish English names is fairly constant. But so is the incongruity that results when they are used in the wrong context.
Monday, August 19, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“UNSPEAKABLE SECRETS OF THE ARO VALLEY” by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria University Press, $NZ35)
I’m an Aucklander who once spent a very enjoyable year living in Wellington and who has frequently made shorter visits to the city. On the whole, I like the place. But for all my familiarity with Wellington, it is still essentially alien to me, and not my home.
So, being an Aucklander, as soon as I picked up Danyl McLauchlan’s debut novel Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, I began to luxuriate in the Wellington-ness of it. This is a piece of postmodern, genre-kidding, piss-taking semi-Gothic, but, from its title on, it also reeks of the close, hilly troglodyte city under Baxter’s “daylong driving clouds”. The novel’s Wellington is the Wellington of deep suburban valleys that are sunlit at the top and damp and chilly at the bottom. It’s the Wellington of late 19th century and early 20th century houses that have for years been student flats, before some of them got gentrified. And it’s the city of hidden hillside pathways between twisting roads; and of self-conscious bohemians who have moved from studentship to working in second-hand bookshops while devising schemes to change the cosmos. What a joy to plunge my nose into the pages of this novel and smell the familiar Wellington mould.
For the antiquity of houses, take this reaction to his domicile by the dorkish hero Danyl, whose observations (given his signal failure as a Lothario) inevitably turn to erotic fantasy:
“The kitchen was his favourite room in the house. Wooden benches, white plaster walls and an old stone sink: it looked just as it must have when they built it a hundred years ago. Except for the oven and the power outlets. And the kettle and the toaster. And the fridge. Anyway, it had character. Danyl wondered who had lived in this house back then. A family? A couple with children, teenage daughters perhaps, who chased each other around this very room in flimsy white cotton nightgowns that were transparent in the flickering candlelight? Yes, he was sure they did.” (p.26)
Then there’s that Wellington weediness and overgrowth; those little terraces that have been dug out for gardens as there’s so little flat land; and such quasi-archaeological bits and pieces as the following:
“This garden was about the size of a tennis court: it was a broken series of pits and mounds scattered with rubbish and choked with weeds – the kind of landscape lunatics takes pictures of and send to local newspapers as evidence of ruined civilisations.” (p.76)
Of course it makes a difference that the novel is specifically set in the suburb where people watch arty DVDs from the local store and sometimes have rather big and cranky ideas of themselves. In fact this aspect of the novel – turning one small (sub)urban area into the novel’s whole setting – together with the novel’s fantastic elements put me in mind of nothing so much as G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
There is another Wellington element to Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, of which I had to be advised by my own special and commissioned Wellington informant. You will have noted from one of the above quotations that the novel’s hero Danyl has the same name as the novel’s author. Apparently the novel’s hero’s best buddy, the know-it-all and pusillanimous Steve, also has the same name as the novelist’s best buddy. But most notoriously, the novel’s overbearing, up-himself, pompous and somewhat paranoid antagonist Campbell Walker has the same name as an erstwhile Wellington experimental film-maker of the novelist’s ken. We are told in an end-note that “Campbell Walker … has confirmed in writing that he will not be taking legal action.” I have so far read at least one reproving review [on Landfall Review on Line], which seems to take exception to the novelist’s handling of this real person.
The fictitious Campbell Walker is introduced in the novel rather tartly, thus: “Campbell was a wealthy software entrepreneur who assumed that his moderate commercial success merited international rockstar levels of fame.” (p.47)
Part of the mechanism of the plot has the fictitious Danyl writing a novel, which is an expose of the fictitious Campbell. There are therefore rather arch self-referential moments in Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley such as the following exchange between Danyl and his girlfriend Verity. Verity says:
“ ‘I hope I never see the Campbell Walker ever again. What a mistake that turned out to be.’
‘Mistake?’ [replies Danyl] ‘Campbell’s not my favourite guy, but he’s how we met. And he inspired my book.’ ” (p.209)
A little later Danyl reflects:
“Campbell was the inspiration for the book and it mocked him mercilessly, but he wouldn’t even know it existed until after publication. Danyl planned to change the names and a few salient details to preclude any lawsuits. Campbell would know – oh yes, he’d know – but he could prove nothing.” (p.218)
I know nothing of the real persons whose fictionalised images feature in this novel, but I would have to assume that the real Campbell Walker at least has a sense of humour, given how the fictitious Campbell Walker is ridiculed. In the novel, Campbell Walker runs two successive secret projects to change the universe. He frequently refers to himself in the third person as “THE Campbell Walker”. He orders around the novel’s Danyl as a lackey, addressing him as “writer”. But whenever Campbell Walker expresses his ideas, they are the most banal comic-book tosh and his pretensions come clattering down. Take this late scene, where he is chewing out his current acolytes, the DoorMen, for failing him, and offering gobbets of simple textbook information as if they are the Secrets of the Ages:
“ ‘Failure!’ Campbell drove his fist into his palm. ‘There’s nothing in the world I hate more than failure, and people who perpetuate it. I refer to those people-‘ He paused for dramatic emphasis. The crowd of DoorMen assembled outside the biochemistry lab leaned forward in anticipation. ‘As failures.’ The DoorMen nodded, impressed. Crowded together they were an arresting sight. Most had fallen under Campbell’s sway to such a degree that they imitated his appearance. They had grown their hair out into long, straggly strands, and dressed in black army boots, three-quarter length shorts and black leather jackets. Those with light-coloured hair had dyed it black and their blond roots gleamed against their oily skulls.
‘Failure’, Campbell continued, pacing before them like a drill sergeant. ‘The term comes from Old French: failler, meaning “to fail”. And that is what you’ve done. I didn’t ask for much. Just that you breed sponges and then extract and isolate a protein from them that increased human intelligence, transforming us into a new species, all the while operating under conditions of absolute secrecy. But even in this simple task you have disappointed me.’ ” (pp.302-303)
All this self-referentialism and dickering with the real world and attempts to pre-empt criticism are the novel’s “postmodern” aspects. But at heart it is a simple romp and genre parody. The genre is the occult novel of satanic intrigue and secret codes - perhaps a cross between the drek of Dennis Wheatley and the cack of Dan Brown.
Briefly, innocent and somewhat gormless Danyl and his buddy Steve get caught up in a complicated plot wherein rival bands of occultists are trying to get hold of something called “the Priest’s Soul” which is apparently buried somewhere in the Aro Valley. Backstory has a sort of satanic coven being set up in Wellington in the early twentieth century by a mysterious Austrian mystic. The search for what this mystic may have left somewhere leads to houses being smashed and pulled apart, up and down the valley and around the ears of the aforesaid gormless Danyl.
Meanwhile the paranoid and ridiculous Campbell Walker has plans first to change human consciousness by synthetic drugs and second to forestall his rivals in finding “the Priest’s Soul”. At different times he draws together separate groups of devoted followers, first under the title the DoorWay Project and second under the title the SSS. The novel therefore has a kind of double time-scheme, cutting back and forth between the earlier and later manifestations of Campbell’s megalomaniac plans. For the record, in the plot both sets of Campbell’s followers behave more like the Keystone Kops than any really malign force, the author’s aim more often being farce and pratfall than shudders and shocks. Campbell Walker also dominates a multi-storeyed tower that watches over the valley, booby-trapped with mazes and thus allowing for a number of chase sequences wherein terminally dopey Danyl attempts to outrun and outwit various pursuers.
Let me make it clear that much of the humour is laddish to the nth. degree. Much fun is had with Danyl’s jolly jape of pissing in a camper van. The whole of a short chapter (Chapter 18) is devoted to Danyl’s difficulties in having a pee when he has an erection. There is a brief encounter with a tea-and-scones making little old lady who induces mystical experiences with the help of a dildo. Then there is the character of the pneumatic, sexy Russian “healer” Stasia about whom Danyl endlessly fantasises. When the sex scene eventually comes, it is of course farcical.
I will not be puritanical about this, however. There’s much real fun in this book. I loved the interplay between Danyl and his commonsensical girlfriend Verity and I loved the pratfall moments I didn’t see coming (and won’t spoil in this review). Danyl McLauchlan (the real one) is nearly 40 and this is his first novel. He has much skill in his descriptiveness, his deft switches in the novel’s time sequence, his calculated silliness and his knowledge of the genre he is parodying. My one real criticism of Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley is that its 437 pages do allow the joke to drag on too long. Maybe all those chase sequences through the tower mazes could have been edited down a bit.
One very stray and off-the-wall thought to finish. In the early nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained that it was hard to write a “romance” in the United States because there simply wasn’t enough (European) history there for stories of hidden treasure, ancient family curses and so forth to carry much weigh. The same could of course be said of early 21st century New Zealand. But in those sections of Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley in which he is evoking the early 20th century Wellington coven of occultists, Danyl McLauchlan comes very close to creating such “romance”.
Now I wonder what he would be able to achieve without the piss-take element?