I Laugh Me Broken by Bridget van der Zijpp (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2021) 261pp, $30; Driftdead by Mike Johnson (99% Press, 2020), 498pp, $35
In recent years, New Zealand writing has developed a strong relationship with Germany, and Berlin in particular. The Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency is partly responsible for this. A biennial programme established in 2000, it has taken half a dozen writers, including Lloyd Jones, Hinemoana Baker and Philip Temple, for sojourns of up to eleven months in the German capital. Some, such as Sarah Quigley, seem never to have returned. Others, like Catherine Chidgey and the late Nigel Cox, have written about Berlin outside of the residency. The latest of these is Bridget van der Zijpp, whose novel Laugh Me Broken is mostly set in the city.
It is a quiet book, closely focused on its protagonist, Ginny, a thirty-something New Zealander. She is in Berlin to research the life of Felix von Luckner, whose adventures in the South Pacific during the Great War are the stuff of legend, much of it of his own making. Ginny’s trip had been planned for some time and originally included her fiancé, Jay. Before her departure, however, she received a visit from a cousin, Zelda, with news of Ginny’s mother’s side of the family. Ginny knew almost nothing about these people. Her mother committed suicide before Ginny was born and her father had refused to talk about her. Zelda’s visit was disturbing. She told Ginny that the family suffers from Huntington’s disease, a hereditary and incurable degenerative condition that typically makes itself felt in middle-age. It is possible that Ginny’s mother suffered from it and if so, there is a fifty percent chance that Ginny has it too. Faced with the shock of this possibility, Ginny changed her plan and visited Berlin on her own to give herself time and emotional space to come to terms with the situation.
The first question she needs to answer is whether or not to get the genetic test that will show whether she has Huntington’s. Is it best to know the truth and suffer under the certainty of a slow and horrible decline, or is ignorance indeed bliss in circumstances like these? Her second question is what to tell Jay. He is a loving and supportive partner and she is certain he will want to stand by her, whatever happens. Can she bear to inflict the consequences of Huntington’s on him? If she has the disease, surely the kindest thing to do is break off the relationship and give Jay a chance at a normal life.
This might all sound heavy and perhaps even melodramatic but van der Zijpp handles it with subtlety. She builds a nice narrative tension out of Ginny’s troubles so that they reflect the more widespread anxieties of the modern world dominated by Covid and climate change. Can anything be done? Am I under threat? Is it best to do nothing and pretend that it might not happen?
This atmosphere of unease is intensified by the setting of the story—Berlin: cosmopolitan, cultured, hedonistic—and a cast of well-drawn characters.
There is Boz, an Iranian student of philosophy; Frankie, Ginny’s flatmate, engaged in a frantic fuckfest; the bear-like Christoph, a film archivist; and Ginny’s brittle but alluring half-sister Mel. Ginny moves among them, tempted by offers of casual sex, embarrassed by her cross-cultural faux pas, and stimulated by free-wheeling conversations about everything from the causes of the Great War, the nature of evil, Heidegger’s ideas on technology and the oeuvres of East German filmmakers. A deep feeling for the city and the nation it belongs to gradually emerges, a heavy past that seems to balance a dangerous future, offering a broad reflection of Ginny’s dilemma: take responsibility, or avoid it by following the old dictum: eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.
The one blemish in the otherwise satisfying coherence of the novel is the narrative strand dealing with Felix von Luckner. Van der Zijpp offers a quote or two and samples of what Ginny might write, one of which lapses into a dream-like fantasy, but apart from a visit to the town of Halle, where von Luckner lived before and during World War II, there is little mention of the adventurous count. It is hard to see how his story, with its bluster and personal myth-making, contributes to a tightly focused theme centred on Ginny’s dilemma.
This fault aside, however, I Laugh Me Broken is a satisfying experience. It offers a quiet, low-key story that achieves its narrative drive through a gradual accumulation of detail. It is well paced and beautifully observed. Its great strengths are in the clarity of its writing and the acuity of its characterisation. Well worth the price of admission.
Mike Johnson’s fiction has often flirted with the conventions of genre, from identity swap in Counterpart to horror in Stench and modern Gothic in the splendid Dumbshow. It is tempting, therefore, to call Driftdead his zombie novel, but that would fail to do it justice. This big, sprawling story offers so much more than the standard frights of TV and movie apocalypse. It is set in the small Kiwi settlement of Keatown, which we can imagine somewhere in the South Island, with mountains to the west and a desert to the south. It interweaves a dozen or so storylines involving a host of neatly individualised characters who are each also sufficiently of a type and evocatively named to give the narrative threads the aura of allegory. They include Annanda, the gentle Indian owner of the Sunshine Supermarket, and Flay, the motor mechanic across the road who despises him. There is Big Bill Broonzy, the bluff and forceful mayor; Rev Stickman and his acolyte Rasputin; plus Hera, the earth mother and Baron Fairweather, the billionaire computer genius who lives in one of the new mansions on the hills above the town. There is also a librarian, scarcely named, who prefers the tidiness of books to the messiness of people, and Akona Kāmaka, a kuia who maintains her connection to the past through her visits to Wai-O-Tapu, the sacred spring that serves as the town’s water supply and nourishes its existence.
In addition to this cast of adults, a wild flock of ‘mokopuna’ roam the streets and the surrounding countryside. Prominent among these are Little Sanyo, smart and calculating; the nymphet Orchid, who is the subject of Baron Fairweather’s obsessive fantasies; and Sirocco Cornet, the adopted son of Gypsy Cornet, who found him in the desert.
Sirocco is the first to notice the driftdead in the person of a woman
crossing their hot, weedy, tussock-ragged property as if gliding over a cool marble floor; in her hand a large rose as fresh and pristine as the moment it was cut. And a voice. A cool silvery murmuring voice. Like the moon as it fades into an autumn dawn, gathering in its threads. If the moon had a voice it would sound just like this one: distant, faintly metallic, elusive, inaudible. He didn’t like the voice because it made him want to follow it. Hard lessons he’d learnt in the desert under the guidance of Lizard, learning not to follow the voices of shimmering mirages.
At first the driftdead are a curiosity. They appear alone or in pairs or small groups, passing through the town, oblivious of its inhabitants, heading south. The mokopuna follow them and try to make them respond. Gradually, however, the driftdead numbers increase until they become a plague that swarms through the streets, getting trapped in empty buildings and blind alleys, inexorably and blindly drawn to an unknown destination. One becomes stuck in a window; another walks endlessly up and down the southern doorless wall of a room in the library. Their numbers and unresponsive state begin to wear down the townsfolk, who build barriers to keep them out and deflectors to turn them away. Nothing works. The human tide threatens to sweep everything away.
We can read this situation as a metaphor for a catastrophe such as Covid-19 or climate change, which from barely noticeable beginnings gradually overwhelms ordinary life. The driftdead themselves might be the masses of humanity blind to the future they are stumbling towards. ‘Going south’ is, after all, colloquial idiom for deterioration and failure and, for some Native American people, a euphemism for death. The novel has a brooding atmosphere that slowly intensifies, both in the physical world—with an accumulation of bizarre events such as a dust storm that almost buries the town and a massive iceberg that appears in the harbour—and in the social fabric, which comes under increasing strain.
Johnson’s prose is as much a pleasure as his ingenious storytelling. He eschews the affectless manner that seems an increasing feature of modern New Zealand literary fiction and boldly goes his own way, unafraid of extended metaphors and almost metaphysical comparisons. For example, in the opening paragraphs, Sirocco is scratching in the dust with a stick when he notices the wind:
Or maybe it noticed him because, as he later described it, wriggling currents of air drew their own shapes in the dirt and tried to burrow up his nose as a baby will do with its fingers when it’s trying to find out if your face pulls apart. A hesitant, cheeky, infant wind.
This combination of playfulness and violence reminds me of the kind of paradox Yeats was fond of, as in, for example, ‘the murderous innocence of the sea’. In Johnson’s case the intent is not to create some lyrical resonance but to hint at ambiguity. The doom-ridden plot is lightened by irony and absurdity that blends into an undercurrent of hope. In fact, the figure of the baby is made manifest in a real baby of uncertain parentage, which becomes the responsibility of the community and which is carried through the story in a state of blissful equanimity.
The author’s note at the beginning of the book suggests that Driftdead was a long time in the making. It has the feel of a novel that has been through many versions, each of which has added layers of allusion and complexity to the text to create a marvellous blend of astute observation, prophetic judgement and reckless humour A big book in all the ways.
CHRIS ELSE is a Dunedin writer and reviewer. His latest published novel is Waterline (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2019).