Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria University Press, 2016), 376 pp., $30
A few months ago, after nearly a decade overseas, my husband and I began preparing to bring our young family back to Wellington. But where in Wellington? You have Mt Victoria, with its Art Nouveau architecture and well-heeled populace; the sleepy seaside-village vibe of Island Bay; Kelburn and Northland and Karori, winding with a deceptive laziness up the hillside; you have the southern bays, houses teetering precariously on ragged and exposed cliff faces, all the better to catch the walloping force of a southerly storm.
It’s a big decision made all the more difficult by the space of nine years and the curious feeling of being a visitor in one’s own city, that despite a close familiarity we don’t really know it at all.
Interesting timing, then, that in the midst of this process, Danyl McLauchlan’s Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, which plants a sinister underbelly in the most unlikely of Wellington settings, should happen upon my desk.
Dank, subversive Aro Valley is a suburb well known to Wellington’s student population as the sun-deprived den of hippydom where mould blooms on bedroom walls and whose streets pulse to the beat of a few dozen drumming circles. The valley itself is as much an institution as its most famous enterprise, the venerated Aro Video, one that was ripe for the satirising when McLauchlan, creator of blog The Dim-Post, published his first novel, Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, in 2013. That book, promoted as ‘a classic Kiwi comic mystery erotic horror adventure novel’, gleefully transposed a Dan Brown-esque tale of dark occult conspiracy uncovered to the decidedly unglamorous setting of Wellington’s own Aro.
Now appears its follow-up which does, it has to be said, exactly the same thing. Like its predecessor, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley casts in the starring role of hapless accidental hero a character who shares the author’s first name (few characters are accorded last names). Over the course of this book Danyl will, as before, stumble into a plot of Byzantine proportions, one that threatens the very fabric of reality itself. We rediscover Danyl upon his return to the Valley – or ‘back in the worst place in the world’, as he puts it – after six months away seeking a treatment for depression that appears not to have been wholly successful. Before the end of page 1, MacLauchlan describes his namesake as ‘a once-attractive man reduced by hard times to mere handsomeness’, but that is his first and only dalliance with vanity. There are a few peppered references to Danyl’s mental illness throughout the book, particularly questions of whether medicated, stabilised Danyl is more or less essentially himself than the unmedicated version. McLauchlan has been open in the media about his own experience with depression but isn’t interested in exploring them in this particular fiction. The events of the first novel, formative though we might imagine a brush with a cult bent on societal domination to be, seem to have taught his protagonist nothing, and the Danyl of Mysterious Mysteries is just as much of a comic loser as he was before. Before the first 30 pages are out, he’ll find himself embroiled in a conspiracy which, based though it is on real philosophical and mathematical conundrums, is never explored so deeply that the book loses sight of what it is.
What it is, is a wonderfully deadpan farce of a pastiche in which the chief villains are mathematicians and bureaucrats, a soiled adult nappy is used as an important weapon and (again, in common with Unspeakable Secrets) one of literature’s least titillating sex scenes features significantly in the – ahem – climax (sample line: ‘The man fell backwards, screaming, still masturbating, and landed on a flock of women who swarmed over him in an instant.’). But what we have here is much more than just a satire of a genre. That satire is an apt vehicle for MacLauchlan’s mirth, directed at Aro Valley itself (‘You know this valley,’ says one character. ‘There are sects, cults, tribes of nudists living in yurts. Worse.’), as well as local politics, hippies, librarians, cults and fanatics of every order, installation art, and vegetarian restaurants.
My favourite character is Danyl’s friend and fellow Valley-dweller Steve, whose characterisation is a hilarious send-up of graduate student mentality. Taking a bigger role in this second book, Steve, his delusions of grandeur dwarfed only by the size of his crowbar (really – no euphemism intended), both uncovers and becomes a major player in the plot against reality at the centre of the novel. A good third of the book is told from his point of view, and every moment is delightful. I particularly enjoyed the random skill and knowledge base that MacLauchlan ascribes to Steve, who has spent the last many years officially engaged in pursuit of a PhD in psychology (even if, we are told, he sleeps for 18 hours a day): ‘Like most psychologists, Steve could move through the darkness without making a sound.’ Or: ‘Tasers weren’t Steve’s favourite form of non-lethal weapon, but years of laboratory work had made him an expert with the devices.’
Barmy, and that’s what Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is – a big, barmy, romp of a book. The action is relentless, even as the exposition comes thick and fast. The story twists back on itself; the flashbacks have flashbacks. Does the plot add up? I think so? Does it matter? Not really. The genre parody demands a certain pace, one which McLauchlan is more than capable of setting and maintaining, and a certain level of convolution, one which McLauchlan is all too delighted to deliver. Besides, his writing inspires, from the outset, a confidence in the reader; we never feel that McLauchlan has anything other than a firm grip on the story, the characters and where they are going. We have the impression – valid or not – that he knows exactly where in the air every ball he juggles is.
I could niggle, sure. Probably the most significant niggle is precisely how similar Mysterious Mysteries is to Unspeakable Secrets – their plots are not exactly the same, this one is perhaps a little more ambitious, but the style, the humour, many of the characters and the jeopardy are at the most generous very similar. So, a reviewer could certainly take McLauchlan to task for a lack of new ideas.
But to do so seems churlish when the book is quite this much fun to read. It’s impossible not to get swept away by the sheer wackiness of the caper, not to laugh at the sustained po-facedness of the characters. Every page delivers a new level of lunacy, a new height of discomfort, a new depth of belly laugh. It’s great.
And maybe the tiniest bit sad, too.
Danyl McLauchlan was born in Wellington, grew up here, studied at Vic. Like me, he spent several years abroad, and like me, he can’t have helped but notice the changes to Wellington upon his return. Students are plodding steadily further and further away from the central city as rents continue to rise. Gentrification stops for no suburb, and borderline-habitable Aro Valley is no exception. For how long will the Valley continue to be, as MacLauchlan puts it, ‘geographically in, but culturally and economically and spiritually and sociologically and politically not of’ the Capital? At times the book does if not overtly acknowledge then at least allude to the fact that the average resident of Aro is as likely to be a former student than a student itself. ‘These people don’t really care about the universe,’ he has his namesake say at one point of Aro’s inhabitants, ‘but if you tell them someone’s building a road through their community, they’ll riot.’
Whatever Aro Valley is or was, once you have seen it through McLauchlan’s eyes, it will never look quite the same again.
EMILY BROOKES is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and a former editor of Salient. Her reviews have appeared in the Dominion Post, the Listener and the Times Literary Supplement