Tales From the Netherworld, by Jo Randerson (Steele Roberts, 2012), 116 pp., $25.
For many travellers, New Zealand is a far-off mystical land, quietly reposing at the bottom of the world, 12 hours from the West Coast of America and 24 from continental Europe. What the tourist brochures fail to disclose, however, is the netherworld lurking beneath the glossy panoply: the space of the crims, the quacks, and the crazies; but also the neglected, the ignored, and those who defy labels. Jo Randerson’s new collection of short stories smuggles readers into the psychological theme park of this netherworld, where people flail on the spectrum between chance or choice.
Each of the fifteen tales concern characters who are derailed by the ‘mysterious audit’ of the Universe. In ‘The Sheep, the Shepherd,’ Edward experiences a sudden breakdown, and fails to board his flight home from Paris. He thus takes up residence in Charles de Gaulle airport, confounding its function. The airport is not built for exile, but as a brief repository for travel from point A to point B. But this mysterious wanderer in a business suit is a metonym for the airport, caught in ‘endless caves of withering time where all that has been (and all that wished it had) rushes around itself in a mad and filthy haze, this way and that.’ While, naturally, Edward becomes the object of airport workers’ desires and fantasies, he subsists in a fog of the ever-present.
Sometimes, moments of bodily disconnect empower social interconnectivity. When Ivan forcibly silences the terrors which wrack him in ‘The Screaming,’ he thus enables his parents to sleep without interruption. The delay between impulse and action in ‘On Wood and Knife,’ which results in a surprise punch in the face, similarly translates into an expression of love for a betrayed sister. In ‘The Revelation,’ a child’s clumsiness externalises a sunbather’s epiphany. When the child drops his ice cream, she realises the fragility of her own relation to the world, but also the interconnectedness of the universe: ‘It was a disaster, and a disaster that belonged to the boy. But it was my disaster too.’ As Randerson shows, the energy of an instant can precipitate seismic internal shifts.
The ice-cream dropping scene is echoed later in ‘The Golden Ticket’ when Sara, a visitor on a castle tour, witnesses a woman destroy an ancient ceramic vase. For Sara, the veneration of the vase acts as a distorting magnifier upon the utensils ignored in the kitchen: ‘She imagines hands rolling out pastry, cutting up vegetables, boiling eggs. There are no shields in this room, no recorded names. But people lived here, she thinks. People lived here and thought things and did things. What sort of things did they think?’
The silent kitchen suffocates under the expensive gold-plated entry cards, the 5% discount for every £50 spent in the gift shop, and the ‘click-click-click’ of tourists’ cameras. When the vase is broken and staff rage about ‘disrespect, money, history, carelessness, money,’ Sara embraces the ‘warm feeling of excitement’ which envelops her, stirring her sense of injustice at the skewed priorities of historical remembrance.
The celebrated castle, with its luxurious four-post beds and empty kitchen, is a mere parody of the family home; not so different, in fact, from the carefully constructed environs of a zoo. Randerson seamlessly conflates kingdoms and (domesticated) animals in two fables, ‘The Tale of Tiddy and Bamaju’ and ‘An Excellent Idea,’ each of which warns against economic favouritism. In the latter story, food, this time in the form of cake, again marks social tenure.
The family home takes on a more sinister hue in ‘Out of It,’ when a group of teenage boys decide to enliven a parentally-supervised party. The story is superbly narrated in euphemistic yoof-speak. The narrator bluntly denotes the drug used to spike the drinks as ‘magic,’ punctuates his narrative with staccato Americanisms such as ‘like,’ and identifies an attractive girl only by her ponytail. Hair takes on wider ramifications when ‘The Ponytail,’ as per the other girls in the party, become mere marionettes subject to teenage boys’ lust. The thrilling aftermath leaves us all dangling.
Although first-person tales supply heightened accessibility for readers, the storytellers can seem removed from themselves as if witnessing, rather than experiencing, their own lives. The narrator of ‘Out of It’ tries to self-detach from his crime by emphasising his status as a ‘guest’; just stopping over, in transit. Meanwhile, the blithely garrulous voice of ‘Blam-Blam,’ in describing his promiscuous gun-shooting, betrays an element of self-dramatisation. He is the star of his own action-film mentality, performing for people whom he does not know, and can never meet. There is no suspense here, however, since the script can only end in one way.
‘The Mistake’ offers an example of the kind of busybody compelled to catalogue, tame and possess those aspects of life from which she has been excluded, rather than focus on what she has had. A childless woman develops an obsession with her new neighbours’ third child, Harry, after his exhausted mother confesses that he was an unplanned ‘mistake.’ Making dolls of other people’s children will, perhaps, never end well; but the narrator’s delusional self-justifications are convincingly, disturbingly, and entertainingly wrought in the process. This is one of the longer stories in the collection, a quality which may account for its especial power; several other stories seem foreshortened, like postcards, in contrast.
Another haunting story is ‘Mr Schrödinger.’ A depressed mother has twin obsessions with, on the one hand, the possibilities for self-transformation and, on the other, the permutations of time. She tracks out destiny geographically, mapping out desires or ‘projections’ against results. The mother speculates that ‘life is continually forking, continually breaking off into similar but different scenarios, which then further break off from one another as more decisions are made.’ She adds the existential coda, ‘maybe I missed the right fork years ago.’ A trip to the zoo with her infant children is, however, arrested when her car does some ‘breaking off’ of its own (with a little push).
Consent is also at issue in the story ‘The Great Balance,’ whereby a wife struggles to reconcile herself to her husband’s deep-sea diving. Dave’s determination to retrieve the body of a boy which has been floating in the “inky” sea for years has tragic – but not unforeseeable – consequences. The event sets up a symmetry between the dead (Dave, the boy) and the living (Dave’s wife, the boy’s mother). When Dave’s wife visits the boy’s mother, she recollects that at the moment of her son’s death her worldview became saturated in greyness. It was as if ‘the universe [was] trying to even things out’ by bringing to her, temporarily, the underworld of the sea. On the way out, Dave’s wife notices a cup of tea sitting on the bench, untouched in the seven years since the mother received the bad news. Despite signifying death, the tea is an unexpected site of activity and life, with ‘thin layers of green and brown mould’ which form ‘a kind of mystical garden.’
Randerson is a brilliant conductor through this prismatic netherworld. Generous rather than patronising, Randerson invites readers to speculate, to suspend judgement and, most importantly, to empathise with, and alongside, the downtrodden and the down-and-out. The cacophony of voices can seem harsh and discordant, but their metaphysical musings telegraph our human need to attach meaning to the ‘series of random interactions with others’ that we call ‘life.’ Like aged tea, Randerson’s stories are deceptively fertile, and stay with you long after the journey is over.
AZURE RISSETTO is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Auckland.