Monday, April 26, 2021

Something New

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

“TOMORROW THE WORLD” by M.K.Joseph (Atuanui Press, $NZ35); “TRANQUILLITY AND RUIN” by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria of Wellington University Press, $NZ30); “THE DISINVENT MOVEMENT” by Susanna Gendall (Victoria of Wellington University Press, $NZ30)

            When M.K. (Michael Kennedy) Joseph (1914-1981) died, five of his novels had been published, but he left in his archive a number of completed, unpublished, typescripts. One of them, the medieval adventure Kaspar’s Journey, was published in 1988, seven years after his death. And only in October 2020 did Atuanui Press publish his alternative-history thriller Tomorrow the World.

            The year is 1960. Germany won the Second World War when Britain caved in, in 1941. The Nazi Reich embraces all of Europe and most of the Eastern Hemisphere. But Hitler is now in his seventies, old, getting feeble and living in a delusional mental dreamland. Who will succeed him? Surviving Nazi bosses seem to be lining up to become the new Fuhrer – Heydrich, Himmler, Goebbels, Goering, Bormann and the rest of the gang. There are rivalries and tensions at the top.

            In England, Jeff Amherst is a conforming bureaucrat, happy enough with the Nazi regime that has dominated the country for nearly two decades. He works for the German I.G.Farben corporation. With a wife and son and home in a better part of London, he is content to be one of the thousands of Londoners to join in the official celebration of the Fuhrer’s birthday; and he enjoys seeing the Nazi-sponsored revival of English volkisch traditions such as morris dancing. If there are disturbing rumours about the way Jews are disappearing and being “resettled” in the Reich territory of Australia, Jeff can still shrug them off.

            For all his conformity, a Resistance group finds a way to blackmail Jeff into working for their cause, and Tomorrow the World becomes the story of how he is forced to act as a courier, taking a mysterious package across the Greater Reich to Munich.

This is the thriller element of the story, and it works well. The ending might be a little abrupt, but it is plausible, and en route Joseph creates a number of details that other writers have ignored, such as the use of England’s ancient and under-used canalways as a means of escape. Accompanying Jeff is an interesting woman called “Charlie” (Charlotte) Peace and some sexual moments of a rough, comradely sort. There are traitors and informers to dodge, and glimpses of other Resistants in Europe.

Joseph does not subscribe to English exceptionalism. The English population acts very much as populations in other (historically) occupied countries did – most people keep their heads down and try to keep out of trouble. Only a small proportion actively resist. Jeff is not exactly an heroic figure. There is also an awareness that (as in historically occupied France) there are rival factions in the Resistance, often at odds with one another.

But all this is only the novel’s thriller element, as Joseph has much to say about the Nazi phenomenon. Joseph was in England when war broke out, and joined the Royal Artillery. He was in the D-Day landings in 1944 and went through campaigns in France and Belgium, ending his war in occupied Germany. He knew war well at close quarters – unlike at least one of his poetic critics. In some respects Tomorrow the World, despite being counter-factual, continues the exploration of war and Nazism that were part of two of his published novels, I’ll Soldier No More (1958), a realistic, and very autobiographical, account of an artillery unit at war; and A Soldier’s Tale (1976), which explored some of the ambiguities of collaboration and resistance.

In Chapter Two, a Cockney Jew gives Jeff Amherst some distressing news about what is really happening in England. This sounds very much like exposition for the reader. Similarly, Chapter 10 is an almost stand-alone chapter in which we are invited into old Hitler’s mind to see his accumulated madness. But, artificial though this chapter might be, it gives us Joseph’s very convincing diagnosis of Nazism as  Wagner-inspired megalomania built on a mixture of distorted Nordic pagan mythology, racial hatred and personal insecurity. As convincing are Joseph’s accounts of the grandiose and oppressive architecture that a triumphant Nazism might have built in a reconstructed Berlin. There is also his awareness that there was a true resistance movement among Germans, even if it was held in check for years by Hitler’s apparent victories.

There are now many counter-factual fictions about a victorious Nazi Germany, some of them written before, and some after, Joseph was writing. But Tomorrow the World is written from Joseph’s own perspective and says things unique to his own world view.

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Some time back, I reviewed on this blog, with pleasure, the two novels so far written by Danyl McLauchlan, Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley and Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley . Both are lively Gothic fantasies filled with chases and pratfalls, with a post-modernist sensibility and much satire on the bohemian lives of Wellington students, stragglers and wannabes.

Nothing in these books prepared me for McLauchlan’s third book, totally different in kind. Tranquillity and Ruin is a sequence of four long essays, written in 2018 and 2019, with lengthy Foreword and Afterword. They plumb serious questions of consciousness and belief, and chronicle a search for the healing of a troubled mind.

McLauchlan is a committed atheist. I’m not. But I found myself fully in sync with what he was saying as soon as I read the opening essay “Arise and Pass Away”. Here McLauchlan says he has suffered chronic insomnia, has been prone to taking walks in the middle of the night, and has a history of taking anti-depressants. To all of which I can only say “me too”,  although I appear never to have been as fully depressed as McLauchlan has been (“mild bipolar disorder” was the diagnosis I was once given). McLauchlan, in his 40s, attempted to heal his troubled mind with meditation via a form of secular Buddhism – he was wary of the religious element. He found it really did help his mind to focus more, to calm him down and to make him less depressed. But he continued to be afraid that the meditation process might take him down mystic paths which he didn’t want to tread. So, as he fell once more into depression, he looked for enlightenment elsewhere.

The next three essays follow his attempts.

First, in the essay “The Valley and the Stream”, he recalls going on a retreat to the Wangpeka Study and Retreat Centre in the foothills of the Southern Alps. Because he is reflecting on states of mind, he considers how philosophers and psychologists have attempted to struggle with the problem of what Consciousness is and what Being itself is. Do we delude ourselves when we think we are autonomous beings with free will? Seeking inner peace, one of McLauchlan’s main theses here is that the mind is always cluttered with “noise” and the chatter of many “sub-minds” within the mind, overstimulated by too much information. Such an overload is the condition that causes insomnia and depression when the mind succumbs to “obsessional looping” as the sub-minds play again and again the same (depressing) thoughts. Meditation can be a means of cleaning out much of this “noise”. But McLauchlan admits that he did not really discover a way to meditate fruitfully, often finding the process boring and slipping into irrelevant and unhelpful thoughts.

In “The Child and the Open Sea”, he attends a camp in the bush organised by the small group of people who call themselves Effective Altruists. These are people who want to do good in the world, but who know that many well-intentioned schemes to better the lot of humanity collapse, because they are based on insufficient research and vague wishful thinking. (Examples of such failures are given). The philosophy of the Effective Altruists appears to be hard, materialist untilitarianism, with much resort to statistics and much discussion of moral dilemmas that might block effective altruism. McLauchlan tends to call them “rationalists” – people with immense trust in science – but he also notes some eccentrics and dogmatists in their fold. As he tells it, there is much reliance on the philosophy of Derek Parfit. To this reader at any rate, Parfit’s argument that there is no such thing as an individual – and that therefore we should act altruistically as we are acting for ourselves – seems a very contorted way of saying we belong to the same species. Page by page, this long essay raises many cogent matters, but perhaps in the end it fails to produce a focus as it comes up with no central line of argument.

It does, however, give its due to a strictly non-religious, scientific, rationalist view of the world.

In “The Hunger and the Rain”, McLauchlan goes to Bodhinyanarama, a Buddhist monastery in the Stokes Valley. The framework of this essay is McLauchlan’s diary of attempting a retreat there. He ponders on the new regime of unfamiliar food he eats there and on his own looming obesity. He does get used to the new meditation cycle the Buddhists approve. Being an atheist, he sees it primarily as a means of cleansing and renewing the mind, but he still reacts negatively to some of the spcifically religious elements of the retreat. Nevertheless, he listens with tolerance, especially in a conversation with the (Australian) head monk. At a certain point, this essay considers the rather intolerant atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. Mclauchlin approves of much that Dawkins preaches, but finds his argument to be self-contradictory and somewhat dehumanising. In turn, this becomes a dialogue between Dawkins and Martin Heidegger, wherein science is pitted against metaphysics. There is a curious outcome from this combat. It is McLauchlin’s conclusion that some sort of religious assumptions are necessary for a community like a monastery or a meditation centre to be stable and survive. He remains an atheist, but can appreciate how valid religious ceremonies and forms can be to so many people.

To squeeze these essays crudely into a nutshell, McLauchlan is saying that science and religion should respect each other because they have much to learn from each other. The metaphysical cannot be discarded, even by the materialist and atheist.

This rough outline of Tranquillity and Ruin misses out something very important. McLauchlan does not indulge in academic-speak even as he investigates major philosophical concepts. This text is peppered with very relatable descriptions of his own periods of discomfort, with amusing side-notes and with other signals that this is a very personal process. A genuinely enlightening book and a very good read. 

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Some years ago I saw a very good horror film. It involved ghosts. But what made it effective was the fact that ghosts were never seen and hardly referred to. They were implied only, which made them scary as they became the unseen presence, the insubstantial elephant in the room, all the more daunting for never being delineated clearly. What we only half-know can be terrifying. This is the effect of ellipsis.

Of all the words used in the back-cover blurb of Susanna Gendall’s debut novel The Disinvent Movement, the most important is “elliptical”. Told in the first-person in bite-sized chapters, The Disinvent Movement is written in a very elliptical style. There are gaps where things are not told to us. We have to infer, from very brief phrases here and there, what the narrator’s concerns really are.

We infer she is in her thirties. We know she has children. We understand the action takes place in France and Switzerland with memories of New Zealand. We realise early in the piece that she feels alienated from the society she is in, and detached from the domestic life she is expected to live. She says: “There was a time when I looked around and noticed that everyone had crossed over to the other side. I had no idea where they were or how they had got there – all I knew is the I was not with them.” (p.13) Frequently there are signs of detachment, not from reality necessarily, but from accepted systems of signification, as when she consults a dictionary: “How could so many words exist? Why choose one over another? Faced with this vast ecosystem that lived, supposedly, in my own head, words great and small crawling around, dozing, incubating, I had to take another sip of coffee.” (p.69) This indicates some sort of trauma in process.

But these alone are not the unseen presence, the daunting elephant in the room. Buried deeply in the text is the story of an abusive husband and the narrator’s desire to flee from their marriage. The husband is first introduced thus: “I met my husband at the airport. I recognised him for what he was: my absolute negative.” (p.27) There is evidence husband and wife have given up on each other, as when we are told they avoid confronting the real issues by burying themselves in media: “This was the way we talked to each other now – through the voices of journalists we’d never met before, through movie reviews and recipe instructions and letters that told us the amount we owed for the temporary use of electricity.” (pp.48-49) There is no depicted violence, there are no passages of direct abuse, but almost as a throwaway, there’s a comment about bruises on the narrator’s arm. And there is a throwaway line (here underlined by me) telling us there was violence in the narrator’s childhood too: “I was born in a bland house by the sea. My mother didn’t like it there. There were squashed mosquitoes on the ceiling and the linen was the wrong colour. And my father kept knocking her unconscious. I had always admired her for getting out.” (p.71)

The narrator wishes to abscond, but talks about it in an almost jocular way, as if she is avoiding the issue: “I had heard it takes at least seven attempts to get out. Seven just happened to be my favourite number.” (p.38) There are formidable barriers in her way, things that hold her back: “Each morning I knew I was closer to leaving. This was not so much about walking out the door as it was dismantling a whole system of belief.” (p.58) Perhaps it’s the children, but they are treated in an elliptical way too, as in: “The children went away for a while and were replaced by a thirty-something unshaven man.” (p.75)

I am labouring the point here, but all the ellipses and all the gaps are telling us of a frightened or bullied mind who can’t bring herself to face some things. In fact, she can’t even name some things. A lover is referred to only as “Maurice’s friend”. If her husband has a name, I missed it in my reading.

And there is a dose of escapism. The eponymous “disinvent movement” refers to the narrator’s plans to drive some things out of existence. She teams up with a man who wants to drive cars of out existence by vandalising them. Or does she? There is a strong suggestion that this movement is a figment of her imagination – another case of eliding reality and avoiding the harder facts of her life under the impress of long-term trauma.

If you skip through the novel too quickly, you might think it is a collection of unrelated anecdotes, told in a wry, deadpan voice as in “I met this guy who spent half his life wearing a suit in America and the other half a mundu in Kerala. He was trying to work out what to do next. In the meantime he wore shirts and pants” (p.24). Or as in witticisms such as the narrator’s reaction to visiting a spartan hotel: “Instead of a bathroom there was a velvet curtain, hung somewhere between poverty and decadence.” (p.66) But these are not loose anecdotes. They are building blocks leading up to a diagnosis.

It’s a very interesting exercise in style.



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