The Boyfriend by Laura Southgate (Victoria University Press, 2019), 273 pp., $30
When I started uni, one early friendship group included a girl who, in memory, was a kind of Marilyn Monroe. Blonded, made-up, grown-up and, although new to the city, already in a relationship with an urbane and much older married man. In fact, we could never really be friends with her because the world into which she’d fallen was not even adjacent to our own naïve and wide-eyed take on Year One. It was another galaxy.
Most of us went on through life trying out social, sexual and marital situations with our age-mates. We learned together and didn’t get too far behind or ahead of the gang. The girl who paired with a much older man was inviting a swift and deep initiation, with her place in his life likely dictated by him.
And so it is for 17-year-old Erica and her ironically labelled boyfriend: Donny is 42 and exhibits no capacity for the subtle interplay of friendship. Actually, neither Donny nor Erica has anything like the sophistication of the couple mentioned above, although they’re well matched in emotional immaturity. If Erica is ‘young, broken and naïve’ (author’s description in an interview with Stuff.co.nz) then Donny is older, very broken and manipulative.
Erica knows only what she thinks a boyfriend is supposed to do and that she’s supposed to have one. She doesn’t know that she should repudiate Donny from the outset: he’s the guy who turns up all over the place; he does yoga with shoes on and there’s something wonky about him. Also something murky in his past. He exudes a certain charisma and sense of entitlement; he’s a feckless puer aeternus who bludges, blurs boundaries and is disinclined to work for an income.
Having won the Adam Foundation Prize (awarded to an outstanding MA student at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington), The Boyfriend has been picked up by a UK publisher; it’s on its way. Southgate’s writing is so clean as to be almost completely unobtrusive. There’s not an awkward or dubious construction; scene-setting is deft and dialogue pitch-perfect, sharp and often funny.
The conversations are also frustratingly flip and tangential to the case in hand: Erica’s disturbing thingship with Donny. Many occur at drunken parties, often punctuated by vomiting. There’s no one who gets what’s happening for Erica with Donny. Her other friendships are too slight; she has no one to ask the hard questions, to help relieve the claustrophobia inside her head. Erica calls her parents by their first names and there’s a chilling lack of affect in their encounters; they proffer no enquiry, comfort or advice, but let Donny stay for a while in the spare room.
Those who were 20ish around the time of the new millennium will chime with the music CDs, mixtapes and cultural references exchanged as tokens of conversation or affection. Southgate conjures all too vividly the relative cheerlessness of student life: dodgy flats with dicey flatmates, foraging for outdated foods, hangovers, self-preoccupation – all that, with study as backdrop.
Others have written of Southgate’s ironic stance. Reread with irony glasses on, certain passages could turn wry. Take the scene where Donny comes home late at night, having earlier pinned Erica under a chair and slammed her to the floor as the finale to their scuffle: she creeps out to watch while he goes into various yoga poses, ending up in downward dog – which exposes his ribs and what might be the claw-marks of a prostitute … No, maybe not that one.
But all along, there’s dismay: why does she let Donny in the door, why go to bed with him, and then, why won’t she get rid of him? Well, we know the answers to those questions and they can make any woman older than Erica feel tired. ‘Cognitive dissonance’ might be one term for it: when you can’t explain or change what’s happening to you because it falls outside your experience or ideas of how life works.
‘“Don’t play dead,” Donny told me. “I’m not into that.”’ But ‘dead’ is what he appears to have inflicted on Erica. Something inexplicit happens at Donny’s hands, which makes her vomit. It makes her blank out and lose her feelings, and it makes her a puppet in his increasingly frustrated and hostile hands. Whatever else is going on in her life, no matter who else captures her interest, she keeps flying like a lone iron filing to the magnet of the deeply dubious Donny. ‘I was eighteen. Was I repressed? I had to admit the possibility that Donny knew better than I did.’ It takes another 250 pages for Erica to come out of that particular fugue state.
Southgate tells it like it is, sharp-eyed and relentless. I wonder whether today, in 2019, a relationship of this nature could last as long as Erica and Donny’s does (about six years in its various configurations), with the online information now available. Erica would surely Google ‘Am I in a toxic relationship?’ ‘Is he a narcissist?’ ‘How violent is too?’ and see her situation writ large.
The setting is suitably confined: mostly Wellington, but only the parts of it that an impecunious student is likely to visit on foot, or to a party where the backdrop is irrelevant after the first fast drink or three. Towards the end of the novel Erica leaves Wellington on the train for Auckland, to escape Donny. When he silently turns up on the adjacent seat, the jolt of energy suggests that we might actually be reading a psychological thriller, taking off only now. But no, this is more of the long bump and grind. Donny is unpredictable and demanding. Erica is as obliging as possible, until – at last! – she isn’t because she has ‘defrosted’ and is able to issue a dubious, even a dangerous ultimatum. The Donny who answers it is peculiarly mellowed.
For Erica at least, the shape of things has become clear: ‘It felt like an ending, because it was.’ And not before time.
She has arrived at a state of clarity, almost of tenderness, with no recriminations. We can imagine that recriminations will come later.
The trouble now is that Donny will presumably lurch on his way, looking to become someone else’s boyfriend, someone else’s nightmare.
PENELOPE TODD writes and edits in Dunedin.