Zebulon: A Cautionary Tale, by Richard Meros, (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011) 169 pp. $24.00; Getting under Sail, by Brannavan Gnanalingam, (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011) 236 pp., $24.00; The Constant Losers, by Alex Wild, (Titus Books, 2010), 189 pp., $30.00.
The ridiculous is skilfully made both funny and thought-provoking in Richard Meros’ Zebulon: A Cautionary Tale, recently published by the writers’ co-operative Lawrence and Gibson. Not only does the book present a writer’s hilariously sadomasochistic efforts to dominate a few fledging writers in order to spark his own creativity, but the head of long-dead Che Guevera is made to thaw on a shelf of the FBI and head south, levitating and directing itself with a new-found power. What’s more, these two unlikely threads of storyline are brought together and intertwined to form a novel that playfully and pointedly explores the potential of experimental fiction and the act of writing itself.
As the book began, I suspected that the writer was going to do little more than indulge in the pursuit of smartass-edly writing about himself. But by the end of the second chapter he had begun to reveal his particular ability to throw reality around since ‘no mere story, especially one posing as auto-biography, can approximate reality’. Meros convinces the reader that the book’s main character is also its author, slyly establishing a chronological link to his previous book, On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover. At the same time, he is the book’s main character: a writer typing words that ‘flopped off [his] computer, onto their pages, and onto the floor.’
At the hands of Sally and Leo the main character and author, Richard, is unexpectedly smeared in a number of condiments and subjected to an erotic encounter with a book on tattooed nudes. Somehow inspired, he devises a plan to dominate would-be writers, and reels in three recruits like trout that each require ‘a different type of tickling.’ In master and servant sessions they are slapped, pinched and caressed into writing, without drifting from their narrative flow. But by the end of the fifth chapter, Richard has inevitably and unsatisfactorily slept with one of his recruits, fired another and been overcome by the normalising demands of Riley, the third.
In the sixth chapter Meros goes further, throwing the reader into a narrative that is almost surreal. Taking the ridiculous to a new extreme, Che Guevera’s defrosted head is able to move as if controlled by the joystick of his new life force. Levitating without friction, Che traverses America at his own discretion, creating hysterical rumours and headlines along the way. At the end of the chapter, however, the author presents ‘Richard’s comments’ on that chapter’s text, making it that of Riley, his only productive recruit. And so follows a to-ing and fro-ing of chapters that alternate between the story of Richard and Che.
Over a lengthy nine chapters, Che Guevera achieves a second coming and eventually recognises the impotence, capitalisation and stylisation of his so-called revolution. Co-incidentally, Richard finds a new recruit, Karl, that turns the tables on him, more fully discovers his own impotence as he begins to write again, is suddenly engaged to be married and tries to quit the Lawrence and Gibson Group. This gives substance and movement to Meros’ novel, but if the author did wish to draw parallels between the idea of failed or eventually impotent revolution and writing, he could have made more of the play between these chapters.
Part way through his novel’s nine chapter interplay, Meros infuriates the reader. He takes the story of Che — which is supposedly that of Riley — into his own clutches, sneaking in bits of language he used in his first few chapters. The reader — who is also likely to be a writer, given the experimental nature of Meros’ novel — is likely to ‘tut tut’ and shake a finger. Fully aware of his flaunting of ‘the rules’, however, Meros deliberately plays a trick on the reader and rescues the reputation of experimental fiction in the last chapters of his book.
As it turns out, the members of Lawrence and Gibson (which include Riley and Karl) decide to declare their insolvency. But on the insistence of their accountant, the uncooperative cooperative’s James Marr claims the incomplete manuscripts of its last active members and tries to compile a book that will make enough money to cover their debts. He ‘[cobbles] the confiscated texts into something half-coherent, whittling it all down to two plotlines,’ sends it to Richard to both finish and edit, and calls it ‘Zebulon: A Cautionary Tale.’ In one fell swoop Meros finishes by throwing questions about the authorship of his novel up in the air, and causes the reader to rethink his entire novel as those questions fall.
Lawrence and Gibson’s other recently released book, Getting Under Sail by Brannavan Gnanalingam, is less successful. Gnanalingam recounts his extraordinary road trip from Morocco to Ghana with two guys previously his high school friends. It is, as advertised, part-travelogue, part-picaresque and part-confessional. This is what makes it interesting and worthy of attention. However, the language, while at times surprisingly refreshing, is often overburdened by grammar and diluted by unnecessary ‘factual’ or autobiographical information. In addition, the dialogue between Gnanalingam and his travel companions is often banal and the laddish dialogue that includes frequent mention of girlfriends as ‘good bitches’ will, I suspect, sound unreal to most readers.
With some direction and a good edit, Gnanalingam’s book could have been polished into a gem. For the author can conjure a place with a stellar phrase. Of Cairo he writes: ‘the pollution snarled at my eyes, stuck its tongue down my throat like an over-enthusiastic first kiss.’ In the medina of Marrakech: ‘music filled every spare corner … Moroccans [were] taking on the blues, or waltzes with traditional instruments that convinced the sky dust and night air to dance a dervish around the open space.’ In Mauritania, the aroma of fried fish ‘stood out in the blanket of dust.’ In Senegal, a van ‘was a stutterer under stress’, and ‘a sharp, cool, palliative beer’ washed away heat. ‘Tamale was a city lurking in wait.’ And in Busua, fishing boats ‘flopped onto land like a swimmer too tired to get out of a pool.’
Perhaps the most interesting, and yet underdeveloped, thing about Gnalanalingam’s account is his exploration of his own identity as a ‘darkie’ from a ‘white’ country travelling as a tourist in Africa. Throughout the book, the author gives little snippets of his Sri-Lankan heritage and muses on the nature of ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’. Poignantly, Gnanalingam calls himself ‘the black man who is white’. On the back of this is a load of guilt, contradiction and conflict that works its way to the book’s end. Gnanalingam does fully understand and explore the strange experience that is travelling, however. He mentions the need to explore the world for the sake of it, the practice of ticking off attractions, the way a traveller remains dislocated from people and their so-called monuments, the fact that ‘tourists’ and ‘locals’ inevitably act out their respective roles, and the supposed superiority of the well-travelled.
Like Zebulon, The Constant Losers by Alex Wild is a surprising and successful work of experimental fiction. Written as a series of zines that combine text-speak, doodles and photocopied notes, it offers funny and appealing musings on music, relationships, books and sexuality, among other things. Of particular note is its ability to be fully Generation Y (‘OMGWTF’) while it draws on plenty of music and other stuff dear and recognisable to a Generation Xer, such as the practice of making and exchanging audio cassette tapes.
It might seem unlikely that any writer could maintain a zine format with its truncated manner of speech and keep the reader engaged, but Wild pulls it off with ease. She lets her zine-like format structure her novel’s text under snappy headings and uses her doodles as visual cues. At the same time, she offers a recognisable narrative flow. She has a deft touch and a way of making her story live through her own kind of content. In particular, the tone of her central characters, Frankie and Amy, skilfully carries the smile, wink and nudge of the author. And the battle-of-the-zines that develops between them and ultimately brings them together is nothing less than a sweet read.
JODIE DALGLEISH is a curator, critic and author currently living in Wellington. She is a regular contributor to the online art journal EyeContact, and has a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the Auckland University of Technology.