Ephemera by Tina Shaw (Cloud Ink Press, 2020), 285pp, $29.99
In this uncannily timed, eerily well-executed novel, Tina Shaw has rocked an antipodean remix of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, blending it with fertility, emotional depth, and a buxom archivist-librarian in place of a bristling, hero-worshipping Marlow. Before the virus, before the Crash, before any capitalised global disasters, Ephemera opens with a map charting the voyage south from Auckland to Huka Falls, just north of Taupō. There’s little but a boat icon and HoD epigraph to signal the hot journey ahead. Then, we enter an Aotearoa with no law, no electricity, no internet, no running water, no coffee. It has been seven years since the virus, the North Korea–US war, the Crash. The details are thin, but the extent of global catastrophe is slowly revealed.
The action opens with drug-hunting: the beneficent kind. Ruth, our librarian-heroine, is on a mission: heading south to source tuberculosis drugs for her ailing sister, Juliana. Rumour has it there’s a guy near Huka Lodge running his own black market.
Given the current global health crisis, there’s a hell of a lot of déjà-vu, or even déjà-vécu—already lived—going on in this novel: ‘We had been hearing the whispers for what seemed like months, although in reality it probably wasn’t that long. From the get-go, it seemed more myth than reality.’ The uncanny, the unheimlich art mirroring life: a virus, an economic crash, a run on prescription medication. But the ominous Crash is bigger than Covid: fuel, electricity, coffee, tampons—the list runs on. This is an economic meltdown triggered by global computer systems failure and total war: a geopolitical catastrophe bingo. ‘Hard to believe it was only a few years ago that we took travel for granted.’ The fictional world Shaw builds is familiar, but just beyond our present reality: there was a nuclear war between ‘two mad world leaders’, the dreaded domino effect, and then ‘our connected world changed irreversibly, almost overnight. Even little old New Zealand was affected. We were probably doomed from the moment the virus hit the airports,’ Ruth recalls. This is vague, but realistically so: an average vox pop as opposed to sophisticated analysis. Ruth’s naivety is omnipresent. Reading Ephemera in a real-world pandemic-cum-political firestorm; one may find that some aspects gel and others grate, like the reference to the ‘mana’ of a police officer’s uniform: ‘its mana, the echo of authority’. This is especially jarring in the aftermath of serial, severe police violence against people of colour, and against the long-time problematising of the police by Moana Jackson, PAPA, Emilie Rākete, even back to Ngā Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers in the 1970s.
What to take ‘on a long journey when you could realistically allow yourself only one book?’ Ruth takes her father’s copy of Heart of Darkness (thank God she didn’t opt for Wittgenstein). Ephemera tries hard to double-helix itself with HoD: there is beautiful interweaving of quotes from Conrad’s masterpiece; there’s the ‘mighty big river’, hypnotic and heavy with history and life; and there’s the voyage along the awa in ‘silent male company’ while Ruth contemplates her ‘deranged quest’. Linking herself with Marlow, Ruth wonders, ‘Was I also obsessive? This journey of mine was hardly less strange, touched by a kind of madness.’ But she never really seems obsessed, except when recalling details of a thwarted fling with her (loathsome) former colleague, and collecting ephemeral archival material. This particular love interest is a tiresome B-plot. We spend a while waiting for Ruth to rally herself out of this bathos, this unrequited, self-diminishing love. When a kiss is thwarted by a conga line of colleagues, she fumes, ‘wish[ing] a bomb would drop on them’. Very Apocalypse Now. Still, when Ruth murmurs to herself, ‘Oh Marlow, you’d understand’, I’m not so sure he would.
Ruth is an unlikely heroine. Thirty-seven years old, a total homebody, she has never travelled. A specialist librarian, working in the Ephemera Collection of the Auckland Central Library, she is consumed by her work. Seven years post-Crash, it still exerts a powerful pull on her time and thought. Nevertheless, as soon as she heard about the stockpiled drugs, Ruth ‘wanted to leave the safe rut I had worn between home and the library, and travel south’. Of course, en route, she oscillates, feels incompetent: ‘I had to believe that sooner or later somebody would sort things out and we could go back to normal—or at least to what life used to be like before the world was brought low.’ (This is such a familiar thought, living in the part-vaccinated, part-tragic United Kingdom, and facing the unmitigated tragedy of India’s second wave of Covid-19.) All Ruth really wants is to get back to some kind of normal: a world where the hospitals are functioning, where the library is open, where she can work, and have a sense of purpose.
But Ruth is also something of an anti-heroine, an antagonist. She is occasionally nasty, ungrateful and racist: ‘How is it that the Majority manage to keep breeding merrily away, while ignoring the fact that there are very good reasons not to reproduce willy-nilly.’ On meeting their Pākehā skipper, Abedowale, Ruth thinks, ‘with a name like that … shouldn’t he be black? A man, at least, from the Caribbean. His name reminded me of Nigerian scammers, back in the days when we had the internet.’ Later, of a woman who mentions WINZ, Ruth spits, ‘Of course she would have been on a benefit.’ Of a lonely, chatty teenager, Ruth thinks: ‘She was probably traumatised by her mother’s abandonment, the poor child. I wished she would shut the fuck up.’ In this complexity, she is repellently human. At times, readers might struggle with Ruth’s voice because of things noticed, and things ignored. Where, for example, are all the Pasifika and Māori communities in Tāmaki-Makaurau/Auckland, or along the banks of the Waikato, other than the kāinga (village) described below? Perhaps the most cringe-worthy moment relates to the exercise of tino rangatiratanga. Not long after Ruth has offered a karakia to propitiate the taniwha of the Waikato River, the boat passes a Ngāti Raukawa settlement: ‘The people were a mixed bunch. As we drifted in to shore, I spotted gang patches, grannies, bearded chaps, two pregnant women, a middle-aged woman with tā moko, and kids … a kotahitanga flag wafted on the breeze … It could have been “first contact” all over again.’ I guess it is something of a first contact redux: racist voyagers meet sovereign peoples, are generously welcomed, and then take advantage of their hosts. I’m not so sure they deserved a hāngi. Lacking Conrad’s anti-imperial register and gravitas, the racialised presences and absences in this text are striking, ambiguous, unsettling. While I doubt these are Shaw’s values seeping through, all we know for certain is that we are travelling with an ambiguous, unsettling character.
Ever so slowly, we learn of Ruth’s teenage pregnancy, the baby she gave up for adoption, the difficult labour, the infertility, the dreaming of her apparitional son, the fixation on ephemera from 2004, the year her son was born. This is HoD with fertility (plus a pandemic and global collapse), introducing a whole different raft of hormones, emotions and obsessions. This is HoD repurposed, relived through entirely different micro- and macro-level circumstances. Shaw explores very different bodies, spirits and desires than Conrad, sketching a ‘biological imperative’ to parenthood, not to imperial missions; paying attention to bodies, not to politics. It is no coincidence that the smoke of their river steamer billows up and out through a DIY funnel made from baby-formula tins. Amusingly, there’s also a bit of light infectious humour. Helping a stranger with her nether-regions Ruth sniffs, ‘Marlow never had to deal with a woman riddled with thrush … It was probably my imagination, but I could smell yeast.’ Through an odd, flirty librarian as protagonist following Marlow’s wake in antipodean waters, Shaw inverts Marlow’s view of women. ‘It is queer how out of touch with truth women are,’ Marlow declares in HoD: ‘They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset.’ Shaw portrays this particular woman—however dubious her moral compass—as inhabiting a world very much not her own, as out of touch in some ways but growing into that world as best she can.
Sometimes Ruth’s voice is clunky, falters, loses us in its grasping narcissism. When she refers to ‘pride swelling my rather ample breast’, or ‘my breasts undoubtedly swelling like some romantic heroine who has finally scored her man’ (she is obsessed with her bosom), this jars as an unlikely self-description. She has evidently read one too many bodice-ripping romance novels in the stacks. Ruth also has an arcane, distracting manner of speaking, always ‘looking for I knew not what’ and exclaiming ‘Ye Gods!’ every few pages. Still, Shaw executes a tight action scene, as explosively tense as Apocalypse Now. She also turns a wonderful phrase, with Ruth growing especially poetic in her garden, ‘tying up the broad beans, lanky as newborn colts’. Confidently blending the pūrākau (ancient legends) of te ao Māori with fantastical elements from the Brothers Grimm and Conrad, Shaw deftly works Rumpelstiltskin with patupaiarehe (fairy-folk) into the same post-hangover scene in the ngāhere (bush), blending mythical worlds into a verdant, post-apocalyptic present that, not too long ago, might have seemed stranger than fiction, but is now all too familiar. Even Shaw’s penchant for Mills and Boon self-characterisations makes a strange kind of sense, for Ruth is someone whom self-worth has always eluded, someone who feels ‘a shadow in [her] sister’s wake’. This is a complex blend of sisterly emotions.
In The Female Complaint, Lauren Berlant writes: ‘As when a refrigerator is opened by a person hungry for something other than food, the turn to sentimental rhetoric at moments of social anxiety constitutes a generic wish for an unconflicted world, one wherein structural inequities, not emotions and intimacies, are epiphenomenal.’1 Berlant critiques women’s culture as a ‘sentimental bargain’, the marketing of strong feeling, including romance and melodramatic suffering, as a comfortable refuge not only from social transformation but from feeling the actual conditions of one’s life or the larger world. There is no refuge, in Ephemera, through feeling. Any sentimentality, any emotion, any nostalgia is quickly tarred with its distance, its unreachability, its impossible past-ness. Ruth dubs Juliana’s TB drug regime ‘Golden Pash’, as a form of coping mechanism, ‘because if you give something a silly name, I find, its emotional power becomes somewhat diminished’. Similarly, when daring to imagine her apparitional son and his disappeared father, she says, ‘The boy—let’s call him Jason, as it’s an all-purpose kind of name—wanted to buy me an abortion.’ Verging on overwhelm, Ruth copes by repressing sentiment, by quashing emotions for later, deferring them to the unknowable future.
When they reach journey’s end, Ruth is disappointed by the drug dealer’s mismatch with the ‘Brandonesque Kurtz’ she had imagined. There’s a long, Kurtzian monologue, surrounded by his orgiastic revellers and followers. Ruth hears Marlow’s voice knifing behind her eyes (though one wonders how she’d have found the time to read along her arduous river journey). Still, it’s a nice touch, ending not with romantic coupling or thwarted desire, but something more independent and open, a vista of possibilities. It’s also a significant departure from Heart of Darkness, for unlike Conrad’s novel, Ephemera doesn’t end with a lie. Conrad ends with Marlow returning to England and calling upon Kurtz’s ‘intended’, lying to her about Kurtz’s death and his dying words, which readers will know to be: ‘The Horror, the Horror’. A different kind of horror might be found in Ephemera, which offers no real insight into neo-colonialism or imperialism, unlike the relentless anti-imperialism of Conrad’s text. Readers would do well to read Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes after or alongside Shaw’s offering for a taste of the white supremacist horror and violence Ephemera ultimately only hints at.
Beyond Heart of Darkness, this book is similar to Ling Ma’s post-apocalyptic New York City novel, Severance. But it reads more like a young adult novel, and this itself is no criticism. In its occasionally didactic tethering to Conrad, Ephemera does something the best of young adult fiction accomplishes: introducing readers to the canonical, the political, the beautiful.
- Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The unfinished business of sentimentality in American culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 21.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi. She is working on a PhD in history at the University of Cambridge, and is a Research Fellow for Te Takarangi at the University of Otago Faculty of Law.