She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press, 2021), 399pp, $35
The hardest thing is to know oneself, said Simp.
I picked up Anna Karenina.
‘Go away, I’m reading,’ I said.
How do we write the now? What can novels do—for us, to us—in a time of crisis? What can they tell us about ourselves in crisis?
These are not new questions. At the heart of Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), with its scores of characters and intersecting plot lines, is a society in crisis. Poverty is unchecked, disease is rampant. The law exploits the powerless and government fails to protect the vulnerable. Children are ‘dying thus around us every day,’ Dickens despaired. Fast forward almost 170 years and children are still dying every day, the powerless remain exploited and unprotected. At the beginning of this century, novelists like Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, 2001) and John Lanchester (Capital, 2012) updated the sprawling Dickensian narrative by focusing on the personal impact of the crises of contemporary capitalism. More recently, novelists have been galvanised by an awareness that the planet itself is ‘dying thus around us every day’. The dystopian climate crisis novel, or cli-fi, has grown exponentially, featuring on publishers’ lists both locally and internationally. Warming oceans, diminishing natural resources, increasing rates of extinction: what is to be done? Or, as the blurb of one recent New Zealand cli-fi novel puts it, ‘How far would you go to save the world?’
Kirsten McDougall’s third novel, She’s a Killer, poses a similar question, in its way. It is set in an Aotearoa of the near future where water is scarce and food prices exorbitant. Despite such privations, New Zealand remains an attractive haven to those rich enough to buy citizenship in a world destabilised by the climate crisis. But the influx of such ‘wealthugees’ further exacerbates social pressures and inequities, effectively creating ‘third-wave colonisation’.
The challenge of worldbuilding in speculative fiction is to construct a plausible context for the story without stalling the plot’s momentum. In this book’s early chapters, McDougall works hard to blend the disturbing new world with one more familiar to us in the (slightly) less apocalyptic present. We are introduced to thirty-somethings with unfulfilled potential and unsatisfying jobs who are beginning to grow apart from old friends who have taken a different path (children, marriage, affluence). We observe a Wellington of failing infrastructure but also of gourmet supermarkets and ludicrously expensive coffees. In such a context our protagonist, Alice, may also seem familiar, as a character-type that features in much recent New Zealand fiction. Haunted by a troubled childhood that has left deep psychological scars and relationship issues, Alice is reluctant (or unwilling?) to follow a conventional life trajectory and seems simultaneously stuck and unsettled.
Alice’s psychological fragility and sometimes tenuous grasp on reality are also evident in the re-appearance, at the novel’s opening, of her imaginary childhood friend, Simp, a source of self-sabotage but also of truth-telling. Readers’ opinions may vary on the effectiveness of the imaginary-friend device in adult fiction but, for me, it is rather like an over-reliance on dreams as a means to convey a protagonist’s inner conflict: it risks seeming a heavy-handed substitute for character development by more organic means. (A more innovative variation on this device, combined with the uncanny trope of the doppelgänger, was recently deployed in Pip Adam’s Nothing to See, another novel in which the unsettled and disaffected navigate late modernity in Aotearoa.)
Alice, it is worth noting, is herself given to reflecting on the effectiveness of literary devices and the plausibility of novels, initially sparked by an encounter in her job in Student Services at the university. At the beginning of the novel she fields a complaint from a prospective mature student—clearly a wealthugee—about the absence of Russian literature from the curriculum, an episode that sets in motion a romantic interlude as well as the main plot involving eco-terrorism and international conspiracies. It also prompts Alice to read Anna Karenina. With a near-genius IQ, Alice is able to speed-read Tolstoy’s novel, skipping the ‘boring’ parts—like ‘the farming and politics bits’—before concluding: ‘It wasn’t a bad book but I didn’t understand why it was a book that people went on and on about.’ The eponymous heroine’s death was, she felt, ‘a bit of an anticlimax’.
For Alice, then, reading is neither a satisfying retreat from reality nor a means to greater self-knowledge, but her iconoclastic dismissal of the classic Russian novel says something about her outsider status and her refusal to accept received wisdom on anything. It is these qualities that will also see her eventually co-opted into the plans of a teenage assassin intent on striking a blow for environmental justice. A road trip ensues in which Alice and the young conspirator are accompanied by a former colleague who has romantic designs on Alice, as well as Alice’s mother and her handyman-boyfriend. They are all headed to the Wairarapa and the new home of Alice’s oldest friend, where the personal and the political, the local and the global, collide with catastrophic consequences.
Despite such impending catastrophe, though, the novel is at its best in comic scenes of characters at cross-purposes or out of their comfort zones, even as they are engaged in banal activities like customer service, work meetings or shared meals. Dialogue zings and whips but is not simply point-scoring wit. Instead, it is where relationships really come to life on the page, in all their variations. Recycling old stories enables some characters to hang onto a fixed version of their past while re-inflicting the pain of deception or denial on their listeners, who know differently. What people are prepared to disclose about themselves, however, depends not merely on who is asking but on the speaker’s own self-knowledge. Questions from a stranger may expose minor foibles or major self-delusion.
One such stranger, Erika—the mysterious, too-knowing teen who suddenly enters Alice’s life—stretches the reader’s credulity with her back-story (with more than an echo of a Killing Eve-type dynamic between the two), but the exchanges between them about food or household chores ground their relationship in a way that brings a freshness to their generation-gap misunderstandings while also ringing true. It is perhaps a measure of Erika’s presence in Alice’s life that it marks the retreat of Simp, the imaginary friend, and eventually leads to the revelation of secrets that Alice has effectively concealed from herself as well as the reader. Like the other fictional Alice who embarks on an unchosen journey away from the familiar when she falls down a rabbit hole, McDougall’s protagonist might well say, ‘It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’
There are no mad hatters here, but McDougall’s keen eye for the absurd in the everyday is on full display, laying bare all the contradictions of late capitalism that we often juggle almost unconsciously, suppressing our discomfort or ethical qualms for the sake of maintaining an apparently peaceful life. She’s a Killer operates from a kind of ‘boiling frog’ premise, gradually removing all Alice’s routines and coping strategies, but I’m not sure that it would be accurate to describe Alice’s journey as one of radicalisation. The eco-thriller elements of the novel—the choice of target, the means of executing the plot, the international dimension—have an air of the MacGuffin about them, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the kind of novel that might have resulted without such an extreme escalation of events. As Jenny Offill’s Weather demonstrated so brilliantly, speculative fiction is not the only genre that can explore the impact of climate change on daily life: the way it weighs down on us, seeping unbidden into all our connections and choices.
For all its plot pyrotechnics, She’s a Killer does allow some space for less dramatic moments, and it is in these moments, more than the breakneck action sequences, where the enormity of the encroaching global tragedy is most powerfully felt. In one short but beautifully handled exchange towards the end of the novel, when characters discuss whether the ‘time of the human has ended’ while looking at the starry night sky, a range of ideas is at play. Here we come to stark questions about futurity and extinction, mixed in with the anthropomorphic myth of the nobility of animals and the lingering emotional baggage of parent–child relationships. The scene ends with Alice watching her mother’s face and realising her parent remains unknown to her, stuck in a child’s view of an overbearing mother. Alice no longer needs an imaginary friend to pursue the hard task of knowing oneself. In such moments, to ask how far you would go to save the world seems grandiose, a hollow gesture to justify a flight from what is right in front of us, right now. No wonder such gestures fail. Maybe instead we might consider how close we are willing to get to what we have left.
WENDY PARKINS is the author of Every Morning, So Far, I’m Alive: A memoir (Otago University Press, 2019).