Monday, October 11, 2021

Something New

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

“SHE’S A KILLER”  by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ55); “THE PINK JUMPSUIT” by Emma Neale (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $NZ35)


Kirsten McDougall has written a novel which kept me reading into the small hours, so eager was I to find out how it would end. The mere size of the thing surprised me. Her first two novels were both taut and relatively short. [See reviews on this blog of The Invisible Rider from 2012 and Tess from 2017] But She’s a Killer is epic in comparison, all 400 pages of it - a detailed and exuberant story, filled with dark humour and comic invention but also suggesting personal tragedy and sounding out an only-slightly-exaggerated version of major problems that are already worrying New Zealanders. As I have often asserted, the best comedy is always serious at heart.

She’s a Killer is set in the dystopian New Zealand of just a few years away. Waterways are befouled, so clean water is both rare and rationed. Climate change is taking its toll. Yet compared with other recent full-on dystopian climate-change-nightmare New Zealand novels (see James McNaughton’s rambling Star Sailors  and Lawrence Patchett’s more focused The Burning River ), She’s a Killer’s references to ecological disaster are discreet – mainly a few “noises off” with one-line references to riots in Auckland or a shooting in Palmerston North. The real social issue is the overwhelming and largely malign presence of “wealthugees” – incredibly wealthy climate “refugees” who have bought their way into New Zealand as a convenient bolt-hole. They are able to buy up prime land and in the process push up prices of everything from real estate to everyday food-stuffs. From Kiwis both Maori and Pakeha, a rising chorus of dissent is turning into rebelliousness. And of course there are demagogues to stir people up such as “Norman Brailey, an anti-immigration politician who had been in and out of government for aeons.” (p.55) ( I can’t for the life of me think who he could possibly be based upon…)

While this may be the novel’s context, and a necessary motive for the plot, it isn’t really the focus. Its focus is the psyche of the first-person narrator who is not just an unreliable narrator but a pathologically unreliable narrator.

Consider what sort of person Alice is (and by the way, I had to look up the blurb to remind myself what her name is, so rarely does it appear in the text).

Alice - presumably in a mental wonderland of her own – is in her late thirties, single, without any “significant other” despite having bonked various men, and a self-proclaimed genius. At least she repeatedly tells us that she once had an IQ test which placed her just one point below genius level. Her mother thinks she has never become the person she ought to have become, and has never fulfilled her genius potential. Alice herself is always allowing people to assume that she is one day going to use her genius to become a psychologist.

As she relates in a number of flashback memories, she had a turbulent and unruly childhood. Part of it involved apparently befriending a vulnerable little girl called Amy, who had no friends at school, but then abusing Amy in a very callous way. More extreme, she managed to burn down her parents’ house when she was a kid. Her elderly mother, in whose house she still lives, has never ceased to make excuses for her. Also as a kid, Alice had an imaginary friend called Simp who used to take over her brain and talk to her. Simp disappeared from her mind for years, but has recently returned now she’s in early middle age. Often when she speaks to others, Simp butts in to make clever comments, which occasionally reflect more common sense than the things Alice says out loud.

Amy is still Alice’s only real “friend”.

In a rare moment of self-criticism, Alice says : “I wasn’t into talking, especially not about myself. What was there to say? I lived in a dingy flat beneath my mother’s house. I’d been in the same job for nearly fifteen years. My childhood imaginary friend had just come back.” (p.75)

Like many people who border on the psychotic, Alice is extremely manipulative. She used to manipulate colleagues at an advertising agency. Now she tries to manipulate colleagues in a university’s clerical staff. She’s also absolutely cocksure about her own judgements. Without considering the consequences, she self-righteously walks out of one job when a colleague gets fired. Worse, she intervenes in, and effectively tries to break up, the marriage of her “friend” Amy. Of Amy’s husband Peter she declares: “Neither of us approved of the other. I thought it an enormous mistake for Amy to have children with him and I’d tried to stop it.” (p.49)

Now all this is told to us by Alice herself, which brings us to the dominant paradox of this novel.

Mentally unbalanced, perhaps delusional, self-centred, manipulative – Alice is somebody you’d never want to cross paths with in real life. And yet her narrative is intoxicating in its forthrightness, no matter how off-centre she may be. She has the energy of one who lives infallibly in her own head. This is Kirsten McDougall’s greatest skill. We begin to identify with Alice because she’s often funny, because her reading of other people can be acute and because her sidelight satire is often spot on.

She is wrong to intervene in Amy’s and Peter’s marriage, and yet her description of the couple convinces us that he is a materialistic jerk and she has become a craven house-slave. Of universities she declares “We were in the bowels of the university corporation, modern shovellers of figurative shit.” (p.27) A crude and rude statement, but then elsewhere there is reference to a university’s Russian department being closed down (pointing to the utilitarian minimisation of the humanities in so many universities) and she comments accurately on kids doing pointless courses and building up nothing but debt for themselves. She takes an equally crude – but funny – kick at drama schools, saying of one: “Many of New Zealand’s acting and dancing greats, famous people the rest of the world had never heard of, had trained here.” (p.224) Sadly, one has to admit that actors egos often outrun both their talents and their fame.

Perhaps (like Jonathan Swift, like William Blake) real satirists can be at their most incisive when they are troubled in the head and very ready to call out the faults of others.

There is another reason for us to sympathise with Alice. Well into the novel, she meets Pablo, a smoothie who seems to be wooing her but who conveniently finds an excuse to buzz off and leave her looking after his 15-year-old daughter Erika. Not only is Erika more manipulative than Alice, but she is far, far cleverer; perhaps a real genius as opposed to a self-proclaimed one. This spells real trouble for Alice.

At which point I hit the wall that all honest book-reviewers hit. Where newly-published novels are concerned, it is not my role to introduce “spoilers” and sabotage those twists of plot (and characterisation) that the author has devised to surprise us. Suffice it to say that the trouble Erika leads Alice into has to do with hitting back at “wealthugees” and some eco-terrorism. The last quarter of the novel has the tension of a good thriller and a sort of metamorphosis - or at least some self-realisation – in the mind of Alice.

In Alice, Kirsten McDougall has created a great tragi-comic character. This is a very accomplished novel, giving a unique viewpoint and polishing it in a strong narrative. Readers looking just for a good story will find it here, but readers interested in the complexities of the mind with also find that here. I recently had the pleasure of dubbing another author’s work as “compulsive reading”. I do the same for She’s a Killer. 

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Emma Neale is best known as poet, novelist and erstwhile editor of Landfall. She has never before published a collection of her shorter prose fiction. Comprising twenty-eight tales and reflections, The Pink Jumpsuit is her first collection of short stories.

Reviewing collections of short stories presents the same problem as reviewing collections of poetry. Each story (or poem) is a separate and unique text and deserves analysis of itself. But the reviewer is compelled to discuss, more generally, the flavour of the whole collection. So here I go once again name-checking and making generalisations.

None of Emma Neale’s stories is very long. But many of them are very short, being a paragraph or a couple of pages. These offerings are very much in the mode of “flash fiction” and are epiphanies, reflections or moments of inspiration, each making one dominant point. Thus “Mothian” and “Courtship” which are almost prose poems; or the anecdote “Obitchuary” about journalistic revenge; or the vignettes, “Cabaret”, “The Apocalypse Shelves” and  “Faery lights”, the last of which becomes a sort of miniscule horror story.

            In both the “flash fiction” and the longer stories, there are some dominant concerns. When Neale deals with families, there is a strong sense of stress or crisis, especially in married or sexual situations. In “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue” three different sorts of relationship are presented, one of them gay, and two of them suggest a relationship coming unstuck. “The Leopard Skin print handbag” suggests the subtle codes that can show a marriage disintegrating. Without being preached to, we are often shown that men exploit women as in “Off-casts”, “Ditched” and “Deep Liking” which are all about men’s fickleness in either dumping, cheating on or abusing women.

There is concern with pregnancy and birth, with a weird take on childbirth in the semi-surreal story “The fylgja” and a more troubling one in the reflection called “Braced”.

Inevitably, this is linked to motherhood and children. “Party Games” is almost a frustrated and angry woman’s wish-fulfilment fantasy as she attempts to control an increasingly unruly children’s birthday party. “Rack” displays a mother’s deep concern for her sick child, but (like other Neale stories such as “My Salamander”) it moves into surrealism.

It interesting to note how frequently fathers who are scientists appear in many of Neale’s stories, as in “The Spirit Child”, “The Pink Jumpsuit” “My Salamander” and “In Confidence”. Often the scientist father is related to childhood memories of living in California. There are also childhood memories of swimming in “The local  pool”, “Freestyle” and elsewhere. I am not so literal minded as to confuse first-person narrators with the author, but I do find it hard not to read some stories as autobiographical or at least partially-autobiographical, such as the meditation “Braced” or the story of uncertain identity “In Confidence” where the protagonist is called Emma.

There are some stories in this collection which really intrigued me and showed Neale’s mastery of the genre.

“Stray” is a pungent mood piece. It conveys perfectly the subtle changes in a young woman’s perspective and feelings when she attends a party in a student flat. She is at first alienated, then intrigued, then anxious. This is a tale that is also perfectly completed.

“Spirit Child” dares to have a male as first-person narrator and attempts to nail down the origin of men’s competitiveness, sheeting it home to the example of fathers and strongly implying that “man hands on misery to man.” (Another story, “Apples and Oranges”, also has a male narrator and encodes a whole family background in 12 pages – including trauma and heartache.)

Neale’s strongest suit, however, is the moral ambiguity in her best stories, where we are left to work out degrees of rightness and wrongness for ourselves.

Only a superficial reading would see “Trypanophobia” as the straightforward story of a racist getting her comeuppance. We are left wondering if the apparently sympathetic, but also somewhat self-righteous, character has behaved ethically. Similarly one of Neale’s more anarchic stories, “Worn Once”, seems at first glance to be a street-wise satire on marriage. It involves a young woman making an anti-marriage art project after she’s been jilted at the altar. But its outcome is pensive, ambiguous, not at all clearly satire only.

Like the stories of Elizabeth Smither, Neale’s stories must be read carefully and closely, though the preoccupations of the two authors are quite different. A very strong collection.

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