Something Else by David Parkyn (Piedog Press, 2015), 388 pp., $38
The novel Something Else is bold in scale: its embrace reaches from the early 1960s, as seen from a marginal bohemian section of society, to the ‘more-or-less present’ (mention of the Christchurch earthquake locates the present time of the novel not earlier than 2012), in which some survivors of that 1960s era are imagined as undertaking what likely promises to be a last adventure. Inasmuch as that stretch of time (certainly more than 50 years) gently challenges plausibility, the novel is fanciful; whereas, inasmuch as it mourns the past and satirises the present, it is both nostalgic and abject in tone.
This play between past and present means that the novel’s concern is with rescue: how to rescue the world? How to rescue the past? How to rescue art? How to rescue the nation? And, most specifically, two targeted rescues: the first, how to rescue Danny, ‘ghost boy’ as he is coined on page 220, from the narrative his life became jammed up in early on (this is the abject tale the novel tells); and second, how to rescue an iceberg and sell it for a lot of money (this is – potentially, at least – the redemption comedy the novel threatens to tell, but doesn’t quite get round to).
The novel’s title, Something Else, remains a little puzzling. Does it intend an echo of Curnow’s lines from his poem ‘The Unhistoric Story’: ‘It was something different, something / Nobody counted on’? The characters of this novel comprise a bunch of dreamers and misfits, so it is hardly surprising that what was once envisaged in the past turns out to be ‘something else’ in the present. As Curnow murmurs authoritatively: ‘Time trips up all but the humblest of heart’. That kind of sententious sermonising is not a revelation. But Curnow goes on: ‘many are called, but many are left at the start’. Perhaps in that phrase, ‘many are left at the start’, lies both the enigma and the problem of Something Else.
The early part of the book reads like a satirical intrigue in which the rapidly ageing (and already aged!) 60s alternative life-stylers will be drawn into a neoliberal fortune-seeking scheme for towing icebergs that drift north to Aotearoa, and selling the water to the parched lands of global warming. The iceberg that sailed past Dunedin in late 2009 might have given Parkyn the spark for this entertaining notion. Then, from Chapter Five, the book shifts and a mystery of hidden parenthood suggests that this might be the reason that the ‘boy’ Danny (six years old in 1966, I calculate, and therefore in the present in his early fifties) is engaged in penning this story (‘I write up my notes,’ he tells us on page 159 and again on page 179, ‘I shall write up my notes’). We follow this mystery until it becomes clear that Danny has known the answer to the mystery for a long time. As this lack of revelation is revealed, the focus of the novel turns again and a grim bildungsroman begins to emerge from the traumatic set of events on board a boat on Waitemata Harbour, in which several of the key participants are tripping out of their brains on LSD. Our off-again, on-again narrator Danny is just six years old when these events occur. But, strangely, we learn almost nothing of Danny’s life between the age of nine and the present, so the promise of the great or lost expectations of the bildungsroman is not fulfilled.
The final section of the novel involves some of the characters from the traumatic past delivering a treasured garden shed (which featured in the shared past) by barge to a beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. Here the rescue theme of the novel is enacted in dramatic fashion when a storm arrives and physical courage, cooperation and ingenuity combine to save the shed in the teeth of the ferocious elemental rage of wind and wave. This scene is the climax of the book’s action. The revival of the iceberg story, sailing off together towards latitude 50, beyond which there is no God, feels tacked on, out of both writerly duty and narrative wish-fulfilment.
What is evident in this summary of a complex series of narratives that aim to pull together 50 years of shared and combatted history among six major characters and a host of minor, is that the image of the ‘ship of fools’ is granted a repetitious role in the novel’s structure. In updating Hegel, Marx noted, in relation to world-historic events, that history repeats itself ‘first time as tragedy, second time as farce’. In Something Else, the image of a ship of fools is utilised three times. The first, on Waitemata Harbour, is certainly tragedy, the most impactful moment in the book. The second, in the storm on the Coromandel, turns into a heroic rescue, a kind of triumph of communal effort, something Marx could only dream about in his lifetime. The third, the old Auckland bohos sailing south to lasso icebergs, definitely qualifies as farce. It is not hard to extrapolate, as the novel ends, that they will all be ‘left at the start’. But most significantly, the novel leaves our sometime narrator and would-be protagonist Danny stranded at the start. Though he boldly claims ‘my journal is done’ (page 388), we are still wondering what it was that prompted him to pick up his pen and tell this tale at the age of fifty-something and, even more, what he has been up to for those 40-plus years, from age nine (when, his parents dead, we see him living on a houseboat with the seaman Troon) until the opening of the book when he tells us he is at work scraping down Troon’s boat. The lack of a satisfactory answer to that question and of any account of our protagonist/narrator’s progress or lack of, may be the reason that the narrative strategies and methods of the novel are tangled and erratic.
The narrative zigzags between the past and the present. And it zigzags between an ‘I’ narration (Danny) and several other techniques and strategies. Danny narrates the present time in the present tense (‘A chill is in the air …’, page 1). This present-tense narration is exhausting because it must, instant on instant, reaffirm and enact the immediacy of what is going on, while at the same time telling you what happened, so you can move on to the next thing, and then it must revert to the constant task of reminding you that you are in the present (which, in fact, you are not, as a reader – you are in your present, reading the book). Film treatments tend to be written in the present tense in order to evoke the immediacy of the screen experience that will, hopefully, eventuate. In all dramatic scripts, the stage instructions are written in the present – for example, she sits, or he coughs – because they are for the actor, not for the audience. In novelistic present-tense narration one is burdened with reading all the stage instructions.
But Danny also describes the past, when he was a child in the big house full of freaks in St Mary’s Bay. Here the narration moves to the past (‘I was in paradise and I was not quite five years old’, page 21), but when things ‘hot up’ the present is used to evoke the past: ‘out onto the landing and down the stairs I go’ (page 23). So, we have narration in present tense, past tense and also ‘present past’. From the beginning of Chapter 5, however, there is a complete change of narrator. Suddenly Danny has gone and we have free indirect narration with Owl as protagonist. Owl is Danny’s father and what we get, in Wellington c. 1961, is the story of Danny’s conception, with Rain, Danny’s mother, and the parents’ one night together; and then Owl’s subsequent move to Auckland and his meeting with Carla and Clem and the beautifully evoked scene of their bohemian flat in Grafton.
Joseph Conrad used a variety of narrative techniques in Under Western Eyes, mainly because he was anxious English readers would be lost in the politics of Russian exiles. The provision of vital narrative information was Conrad’s aim. But, the variety of narrative techniques that Parkyn uses are difficult to justify. It is a little like hitch-hiking with a motorcar – you have to go back all the time, pick up the car and drive to where you got dropped off, then hitch again. Danny is always having to return to the start, to re-find the present narrative – and meanwhile, the powerful story from the past is flooding forward, like a spreading inkblot, overwhelming the present.
David Parkyn has previously published two books of poems. Children of the Storm (1980) was illustrated by Sally Griffin, Phil Clairmont and Alan Taylor. Griffin provides black-and-white chapter heading drawings and the colour illustration for the cover of Something Else. Her painting, After Marat, is a quotation of Jacques-Louis David’s famous Death of Marat. Is Marat’s bath a kind of ship of fools? Is Marat the figure of the ‘true pilot’ from Plato’s allegory in The Republic, whom the mutinous crew does not recognise? It’s hard to see how this allegory fits Something Else: who might the ‘true pilot’ be from the line-up of Troon, Carla, Clem, Rain and Owl? Four out of five of these characters are painters, and painting as literal activity and elevated metaphor stands at the heart of this book. The hapless Danny also dabbles, just as he ‘writes up his notes’, but he hardly seems to be a candidate for ‘the true pilot’. No doubt the ‘ship of fools’ in Something Else represents the whole sad, silly nation, but Parkyn’s cry uttered in the poems long ago (‘O Aotearoa! / Hold me worthy for your fight’) barely gets a start in this novel. It is more a tale of woe, with touches of satire and an affectionate warmth for the world of the past.
The novel seems to lack an engine to drive it forward; nevertheless, along the way there are pleasures and delights. The tryst between Owl and Rain, in which our Danny is conceived, is a sex scene with both comedy and joy. Clem and Carla’s ‘cave of art’ in Grafton is a truly terrifying house of delights. The world of the 1960s is strongly evoked, featuring the art of ‘pozzling’, ‘seagulling’ on the wharves and taking ‘ups’, proof-reading on The Star, Caesar cuts and ducktails, L15 Citroëns and men who call everyone ‘Man’. Owl’s first exhibition captures the era, and promises a conflict between the working class left and the bohemian left, but, sadly, that conflict is not played out. Such delights are dotted here and there through the novel, but they do not compensate finally for the feeling that whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts.
MURRAY EDMOND is an Auckland writer who retired at the end of 2014 from his position as associate professor in drama at the University of Auckland. His most recent books are Shaggy Magpie Songs (Auckland University Press, 2015), Then It Was Now Again: Selected critical writing (Atuanui Press, 2014) and Strait Men and Other Tales (Steele Roberts, 2015).
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