Novel by Vaughan Rapatahana (Rangitawa Publishing, 2018), 320pp., $38
‘In our contemporary world of increasing electronic surveillance from hegemonic national administrations, several diverse characters struggle to survive and to resist in a variety of ways. At the same time the so-called established methods of writing fiction undergo deconstruction.’
The italics are mine but the quote is lifted from the back cover blurb of this, Vaughan Rapatahana’s second novel, an earlier version of which was long-listed for the inaugural Michael Gifkins Prize for an unpublished manuscript.
The assertion of deconstruction is intriguing. I have to confess, it’s one of those terms I’d always associated more with architecture and a desire to reinterpret a structure as fragmented rather than unified or symmetrical.
For my own understanding, some further elaboration is required.
French philosopher Jaques Derrida, born a French Algerian Jew in 1930 (d. 2004), initially developed deconstruction as a means of gaining a deeper insight into the workings of powerful nation-states, of ‘hegemonic national administrations’ if you like, understanding that the power exercised by these institutions was based on a series of traditions, ideas, philosophies and doctrines, in other words – on words; nuances of meaning given often terrible authority by way of interpretation and, finally, application.
Deconstruction, in its origin, is about the relationship between text and meaning.
‘Monsters cannot be announced’, Derrida once said. ‘One cannot say: “Here are our monsters,” without immediately turning the monsters into pets.’
You can understand the motivations of a French Algerian Jew born into a cauldron of totalitarian anti-Semitic sentiment that would soon boil over into a turmoil of state-sponsored violence and hatred.
‘Here are our monsters.’
Is Rapatahana, a Māori writer in postcolonial Aotearoa New Zealand – ‘the skinny country’ – showing us our monsters? I do believe he is trying to. But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself here.
It turns out you can argue quite convincingly that deconstruction is the central pillar, from plinth to cap and completely by accident, of postmodern thought. A postmodernist can argue that there is no pillar, holding fast to the truth that there is no truth. Either way, there is the suggestion here that Novel seeks to occupy a defiant space.
The title itself then; is it a statement of intent, a pretense, or a piss-take? Is it parody or irony or all of the above?
Is Novel a postmodern work? It’s a serious question, more or less.
If it is, or is trying to be, what exactly does that mean?
The narrator implies that it is not, in a curious little addendum to a moment of meta-fictional commentary within the story ‘2011 HKALE [Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination] – The English Novel’, under the sub-heading ‘A successful novel must —’; point 4, ‘An author should try not to be too clever with aspects of so-called postmodernist tricks; flashbacks, disordered time sequences and so on. Vocabulary needs to be simple too.’
Novel ignores every part of point 4.
Another so-called postmodernist trick: the unreliable narrator. Sometimes I think this narrator is too clever for his own good. Perhaps it’s deliberate – you never know with unreliable narrators. Vonnegut could pull off that particular trick rather well.
Wouldn’t you know, Vonnegut gets a mention at page 86. And so it goes.
But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to this idea of deconstruction. The point I want to make is this: to me, applying deconstruction to ‘the so-called established methods of writing fiction’ has a certain specificity of meaning – in and of itself an ironic statement inasmuch as specificity of meaning and deconstruction could be considered mutually exclusive.
Well, you could say deconstruction has as much to do with what a text doesn’t mean, as with what it does. Deconstruction argues that meaning is inherently unstable, unreliable even, and that a close analysis of a text will show this to be the case. The same might be said about the structure, the form, the shape of the text, the body of the work wherein the reader would hope to ascertain the very soul of it or at least a glimpse thereof.
Deconstruction then runs counter to the formalist idea of structure in a given text. It says in a sense that you cannot naturalise what isn’t natural, as though the passage of time or a sequence of events was a simple tick-tock of words leading to a meaningful chime every hour. Deconstruction is suspicious of textual assertions of truth and order.
At last I begin to understand the architecture.
And I wonder, just in passing, what it is that Rapatahana doesn’t mean?
Novel then, begins where it ends, on a beach in Guam from the point of view of Ruby, a world-weary Filipina, tired of men and their draining ways, the unwitting, unknowing pivot about which world-changing events have revolved. She’s stoic, self-reliant, a survivor. She’s a realist with romantic inclinations. She loves, she desires, she yearns. She carries disappointment with a resigned dignity. She’s also an Asian woman in an outwardly postcolonial world on the cusp of violent upheaval.
One of the men in, or rather of her life is/was Norton, a disconnected Māori. A disconnected man. Ex-soldier, ex-husband (not Ruby’s), ex-father. Present-day meat worker. Murder suspect. Drinks too much, thinks too little, cares even less. Upon first meeting he almost feels clichéd, except that I like him. He’s lost. He feels somehow familiar.
And then there is Godfrey Woo, Ruby’s Hong Kong Chinese ex-husband, a man whose rock bottom seems bottomless. He’s deplorable, degenerate, degraded, a remnant man on the run from his follies, of which there are many. Yet, strangely, the more his humanity disintegrates, the more human he seems to become. I like him too.
Will Woo find redemption? Will any of them? Three dispossessed souls caught up in a geopolitical conspiracy of Ludlumesque proportions. They are less than pawns; they are chaff in the wind.
Novel is ambitious in its intent; Rapatahana’s canvas is broad. The catalyst is murder. The chain of events extends from the hinterlands of Aotearoa to the Philippines, from Hong Kong to the Deep State back rooms of Beijing and Washington. The established world order is threatened. Information presents as the great democratiser. Hit men ply their trade. Students hack secrets and foment revolution via the back doors of the internet. Indigenous peoples take up arms to the call. The time is now.
So far, so political thriller with a hint of conspiracy theory. Or as our somewhat cynical narrator would say, ‘It was all a bit like another Hollywood movie – that stilted, staged and, if you ever thought about it too much – quite unbelievable. Pure fiction in essence.’
I just wish it had been said after a little bit of editing.
I want to believe it. I want to imagine militant Māori radicals firing the first shots in a global post-colonial revolt. In simple storytelling terms, I want the tangata whenua to matter in the bigger picture. I want to know we spit for a reason.
There’s a lot of spitting, by the way. Enough for it to be some kind of motif, some kind of statement; in the opening stanzas Norton ‘spat bilious into the dandelion scurf on his way to the train’, which is a picturesque description. A page later in Hong Kong, Godfrey Woo ‘spat out a wad of sputum’, and four pages later another character in the Philippines ‘merely spat’. A little further on, a nameless Hong Kong villain ‘spat a large sputter of sputum …’
That last phrase has an ugly structure to it but I suppose there’s only so many ways you can spit. And a ‘sputter of sputum’ is something special. Sputum comes from somewhere deep, somewhere infected. Something is rotten in the State.
But I have to say, to my eye at least, the so-called established methods of writing fiction are not undergoing deconstruction here. Thankfully there’s a story. A good story really, trying to get out. It has a narrative arc, an internal logic. Good, evil and unexpected things happen; coincidently, randomly, haphazardly, as in life or some meaningful reflection of it.
‘And so it goes.’
Novel even has a kind of prescience, echoing Hong Kong protests against their mainland Masters for example, or the drawn-out surreality of the Julian Assange show. It’s not tidy by any means and some harder editing wouldn’t have gone amiss, but the prescience is there.
There are some quirky or ‘novel’ elements; illustrations of a certain naïveté, tables acting as strangely formal asides within the story, fictional footnotes of reference and even self reference. I’ve seen these things before: again, Vonnegut comes to mind, or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves for example, both authors incidentally represented as part of the postmodern canon.
Personally I find much of it distracting – but my sense is that these elements perhaps present moments of deconstruction, at least as far as the author is concerned. As they offer alternate layers of meaning, I guess you could argue that this is the case. Does it help the cause, does it add to the story? I’m not convinced. But that’s just me.
And so, Novel in the printed literal sense ends before it begins, with a final chapter called Prologue: Laos, in which we are transported back decades to the Vietnam War, and Norton, the Māori soldier, is stoned out of his skull in a clandestine encampment ‘way out back’, contemplating his metaphysical existence during some downtime between patrols.
‘Norton spat as much in irritation as anything and laughed to himself. Any novel he was in right there in the boondocks of Laos wasn’t written to any prescribed and proscribed English format at all. That was all bullshit. Lineal progression and climax were severe misnomers in relation to his own personal circumstances, as far he [sic] was concerned. And as for any fictive message: it escaped him.’
Me too, Norton.
BEN BROWN is an award-winning children’s author, a short story/non-fiction/freelance writer, and a poet for stage and page.