Travesty, by Mike Johnson with illustrations by Darren Sheehan (Titus Books, Auckland, 2010), 243 pp., $35.00
After finishing Mike Johnson’s Travesty, and re-reading his previous novels and poetry, I have come to the conclusion that, with it, he has achieved the epitome or culmination of something. He has achieved a kind of ‘worldmaking’ — to borrow American philosopher Nelson Goodman’s famous term — that confirms his position as one of New Zealand’s most important fiction writers.
Travesty is an unusual work of fiction. For 204 of its 244 pages Johnson creates an unknown world, the imaginative space of an unknown place. It is a world related to known concepts, and to literary genres such as science fiction and fantasy — and yet it is foreign. The writer’s characters are bizarre and involved in irrational quests. His material world is recognisable, but also thrown into some indeterminable time and place. Reading Travesty is like trying to make out a mirage that is always shifting before your eyes: you are unable to quite grasp it, but somehow you seem to know enough to read and understand it. This, I am certain, is the writer’s intention, and evidence of considerable skill.
Johnson’s characters live in Travesty’s Rathouse, each engrossed in their broken yet richly personal lives. Over the course of the book, the writer takes each of them, including a baby rat, out into Travesty’s wider world to face or to make their fate. It is this seemingly-simple movement that shapes the work and allows the novelist to weave his characters’ realities around each other and thus create the dark, glistening and many-threaded world of Travesty.
Glow Harvey, or Harvey Evensong, is a ‘glowworm,’ a lost soul addicted to chemical patches of Glow that pump ‘a benevolent light’ through his system. He lives in a heightened yet veiled kind of reality. Nevertheless, a light-bringing woman, Hermes (a lover in another life?) is able to set him upon a quest to remember who he is, or who he was, ‘to remember anything worth remembering.’ Tumbling across and through the vortex of his neuroses, he is ‘too scared to take his place in the big outside world of his memories, terrified of his previous incarnations.’
Harvey is obsessed with the quantum theorist Schrodinger’s well-known paradox. He is like the cat in Schrodinger’s booby-trapped box, neither dead nor alive until the lid is lifted. He is ‘in a state of quantum uncertainty, waiting to be collapsed into flesh and blood.’ But thanks to five portentous cards drawn by Hermes, and a spiked batch of Glow provided by the Rathouse’s resident psychotherapist Dr Octavio Reingold (previously Sigmund Freud?), Harvey remembers who he is. In particular, he remembers his mathematical equation, his ‘diversity equation,’ the answer to the central problem he has been drawn to Travesty to solve. He remembers that he is Schrodinger, or a later incarnation of himself able to break his earlier paradox wide open, supposedly able to destroy The Fortress at the black heart of Travesty. And ultimately, he is able to discover that ‘there can be no victory through sorrow.’
As can be seen in the case of Harvey, Johnson’s world draws on what Nelson Goodman would refer to as ‘facts’ — or theories, maxims and terms from the worlds of science, mythology, philosophy, and literature. With language as his agent, Johnson creates a world of his own making, a world that seems familiar, while it is not. What Goodman has argued is that ‘facts,’ and the worlds in which we are fated to live, are ultimately the product of description and depiction. What Johnson shows us, uncannily in line with Goodman’s thinking, is that there must always be many worlds that are no more found than made.
Johnson’s language is what makes Travesty live. It has a magical, mythical, almost biblical quality. The author’s words are also infused by ‘a rather grand and sweeping despair’ — to borrow a line from the book itself — while they are full of a close and intense sense of humanity. He writes, for example, of Dilly Lilly who lives in rooms stacked with soft toys yet attends a real funeral she unwittingly and magically claims for her late mother:
This is the most precious thing in her life right now: her tear, a token of true grief, still making a wide-angle lens of the world. She harbours this tear as if it were a child, allowing it to be born out of the swollen tissues of her eyelids, allowing it to gather there, swell up with itself and head off through the porticullis of her eyelashes to make witness on her cheek.
And when Harvey touches Hermes:
… as soon as his fingers connect his hand fills up with images. These he plays back into her skin with another touch and hears her give a little quick breath of recognition, as if she too were remembering with her body.
Each word and sentence of Travesty is there for a reason, put there by a writer with an uncanny sense of language. At his best, Johnson, who is also an established poet, arranges his words to allow a multidimensional kind of play between them, binding them with just enough of the familiar. This linguistic ability was essential to Johnson’s last book of poetry, The Vertical Harp: Selected Poems of Li He (Titus Books, 2006). As shown by the writer’s translations of the Chinese poet Li He (790–816 AD) Johnson takes great delight in verbal flights of what might be called abstract lyricism.
It seems to me that the nature and skill of Johnson’s worldmaking — his fabrication of facts and his composition of language — is readily evident in the books he has written over the last twenty five years. His language and ideas put the reader, more or less, in uncertain territory while they craft something quite unique to each text. In his first novel, Lear (Hard Echo Press, 1986), the characters of an acting troupe are Shakespeare’s while they are also Johnson’s. In Anti Body Positive (Hard Echo Press, 1987) the subtexts spiral around each other, poking a friendly borax at popular science fiction while creating a strange world for the connection of otherwise disconnected thoughts, reminiscent the otherworldy state of feverish illness.
In Dumbshow (Longacre Press, 1996) a child’s best friend is her younger brother’s ghost, and her father — a traumatised ex-soldier — rediscovers his daily reality through her and a world the writer creates from the Canterbury landscape and a ritual of death. In Counterpart (HarperCollins, 2001), Johnson’s Harry Blackman somehow inhabits the world of his ‘antiparticle’ or ‘counterpart’. Unfolding within the story of a working hypothesis is Blackman’s desire and ability to save and remake his ‘other’ life. In Stench (Hazard Press, 2004), Johnson skilfully makes his subject into a malevolent and mythical entity with ‘a voice to call in the dead.’
But unlike Johnson’s previous novels, Travesty is illustrated, albeit with economy. The graphic images of Darren Sheehan punctuate the text without spoiling the imaginative world of the reader. As noir-styled graphic panels, they embroider Travesty, adding another layer of description and depiction. And, just as Nelson Goodman has explained the worldmaking potential of ‘pictures,’ so Sheehan’s ‘pictures’ act in the same way as ‘facts’ or ‘labels’ for the things they represent. They also often act like parts of a greater puzzle, as if they were laid down like clues. They are not, however, essential to the narrative, as they would be in the case of a graphic novel. Johnson and Sheehan gesture towards this genre, but their work falls elsewhere.
So, what happens on page 204 of Travesty, almost at the book’s end? It is there that the writer explains the nature of Travesty. It is there that he explains, in more specific and rational terms, the world he has made. It is a ‘para-world’; it is ‘a half-way house of the soul, a spiritual limbo where spirits come to finish the work they were not able to finish while alive’. At the same time, ‘Travesty is a hateful place, an utter tyranny dominated by the secretive Universal Products symbolized by the fortress, eaten away at from within by terrorist groups like the Lion King and his allies, Scrooge and the Sleeping Beauties.’ The explanation is enough to make things fall into place for the reader, without betraying their strange and pleasurable reading experience.
With Travesty, Johnson achieves something many a fiction writer struggles to achieve. He stretches the boundaries of fiction and its language while he somehow stays within the ambit of more conventional notions of storytelling. It seems to me that the bulk of New Zealand’s small stable of published fiction is becoming more concerned with a conventional sense of ‘story’, not less. Surely Johnson’s novels of the ’80s, Lear and Anti Body Positive, would be lucky to be published today. I imagine publishers and agents raining on their writers’ parades over the years, just as Clyde Aichen does in Johnson’s Lethal Dose, in which Johnson satirises the writer’s struggle. Aichen, who writes an extended love poem while also grappling with a load of facts about chemical poisons, takes a kamikaze ride in a car with his agent who tells him ‘your books don’t tell a fucking story’ and that he is no more than ‘Dick Francis on acid.’ Two decades later, Travesty, fulfils its experimental life and still manages to tell a story, more so than any of Johnson’s other books.
Ultimately, the worldmaking of Mike Johnson is a search for words that create something more. It is a process that can be compared to that described by him in his extended poem Treasure Hunt (Auckland University Press, 1996) where he writes of learning to ‘read’. It is: ‘learning to search for something – for a Sign, a Clue, a face, for somebody half remembered or nearly forgotten, in moments when forgetting doesn’t work’; it is: ‘like turning a very metal key; the first clue lies, on the other side of the door.’
JODIE DALGLEISH is a Wellington-based freelance art curator, writer and reviewer.