Starlight Peninsula, by Charlotte Grimshaw (Random House, Vintage, 2015), 352 pp., $38; The Writers’ Festival, by Stephanie Johnson (RandomHouse, Vintage, 2015), 284 pp., $38
Is inner Auckland a state of mind? Two novelists demonstrate that, in a way, it is with recent novel sequences. Charlotte Grimshaw has completed a trilogy that began with The Night Book (2010), followed by Soon (2012) and concludes with Starlight Peninsula. Stephanie Johnson has yet to complete a trilogy that began with The Writing Class (2013), was followed by The Writers’ Festival, and will end with The Writers’ Retreat. Both novelists are canny chroniclers of the age, of post-millennial New Zealand society, as shown in their psychogeographies of Auckland.
Each depicts the city as at once an urbanscape and a mediascape: as a landscape transmogrified by history, by market forces, by climate change. Their Auckland is a place where subtropical lush vegetation and suburban sprawl are edged on one side by the ocean, and on the other side by manicured corporate spaces demarcated by gates, fences, security guards and, of course, surveillance cameras.
But though their settings are cross-referencing Aucklands, they are also distinct from one another. One novelist delivers a semi-comic, semi-conspiratorial, semi-thriller with Dostoevskian aspirations – or perhaps indications – while the other engages in a satirical interrogation of the meaning of current literary culture, with feminist undertones and sociological overtones. Literature has lost its twentieth-century status as an existential necessity and moral guide, and been reduced to a consumer choice, a lifestyle accessory. However, writers themselves remain as prolific as ever and there are a lot more of them.
In a golden age, everyone goes around complaining how yellow everything looks, wrote the American critic Randall Jarrell. There’s a similar sort of apprehensiveness signalled in Charlotte Grimshaw’s depiction of Auckland in Starlight Peninsula: ‘It was summer when everything changed. On hot stunned weekend mornings Eloise Hay woke alone, left the house, and walked clear across the isthmus … spending whole days roaming into sunstruck corners of the sprawling city.’ The gilded city, probed by sunlight, conceals, as the earlier novels also intimated, a miasma of something corrupt, which manifests itself for Eloise as a personal sense of unease, a malaise, feelings of urban alienation – with the city itself a kind of puzzle that she needs to solve. In her Auckland there is no wintering gloom, but rather a harsh brilliance, as in the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler: the bright blue sky contains vultures, circling.
Having been deserted by her philandering husband Sean, a high-powered and well-connected lawyer, and suffering from depression, Eloise undertakes ‘a talking cure’ with Herne Bay psychotherapist Dr Klaudia Dvorak. Eloise is also still obsessed by the unsolved murder of her former partner Arthur Meeks, an investigative journalist, and decides to undertake her own sleuthing, which brings her into contact not only with the police but also with mysterious snoopers who may or may not have broken into her home in the suburb of Starlight Peninsula.
Yet if on one level crime provides the narrative and finding out the truth is the goal, Grimshaw is not so much concerned with the mechanics of the procedural as she is with the concept of criminality itself, and the way opportunities for transgression coexist with moral imperatives. Societies function by tolerating ambivalences and compromises, but these ambiguities allow all sorts of behaviours to flourish on all social levels.
Eloise works at Q TV Studio with the star current-affairs presenter Scott Raysmith on the evening news show Raysmith, which is covering the story of Kurt Hartmann, an internet entrepreneur fighting extradition to the United States on charges of copyright violation.
So if, in the first, instance Auckland is Eloise’s personal emotional hinterland, where she obsessively crisscrosses the isthmus and studies the estuary below her house at high tide – ‘the water looked viscous, almost bursting like the skin of a blister’ – or visits and revisits the house below the slopes of Mount Eden where she lived with Arthur Meeks, or mooches around the plush Eastern suburbs – ‘this was where the affluent lived and rejoiced in the gap between rich and poor … Eloise grew up here’ – greater Auckland is also everyone’s collective emotional hinterland, reflected through mass media and celebrity culture.
Starlight Peninsula contains a tidying up of plot strands that stretch from the two previous novels, and offers a resolution of sorts. At the same time, however, there is no ultimate resolution, as what the trilogy wants to represent, as a roman-fleuve or roman à clef, is society’s collective secrets. The scale of the novelist’s ambition in establishing a web of intrigue across the city and the nation creates a kind of Pynchonesque paranoia where everything is connected, as if the fluttering of a butterfly’s wing in the Parnell Rose Gardens, or the appearance of a rat by the deck outside Dr Klaudia Dvorak’s office are manifestations of a hidden chain of causation.
This is a novel heavy, perhaps top-heavy, with symbolism: Grimshaw gives a woman detective ‘unmatched eyes, one blue, one brown’ for no discernable reason, apart from making her stand out in the novel’s crowded canvas. Elsewhere the symbolism does achieve a fine neatness, though. The Q TV Studio building, where Eloise and Scott plot their strategies, is ‘terrorised by a stray new hazard, static electric shocks’; there was ‘a sort of St Elmo’s fire in the lift yesterday’. Supernatural, but also credible.
And so the brochure images of scenic Auckland are undermined as both villains and missing persons hide in plain sight and a Cabinet minister throws his weight around. Yet if metropolitan Auckland has been turned into a sinister locale, it’s a locale more accurately termed faux-sinister. Characters who bring to mind John Key or Steven Joyce or else generic and telegenic high-fliers – news anchors, weather presenters, journalists – are presented as cartoon figures: over-determined, over-signalled, of the moment.
After all, creatures who inhabit the mediascape are already larger than life: Kim Dot Com is New Zealand’s King Kong du jour – an outsize exotic whom Hollywood wants to cart off to America as a prize exhibit; John Campbell, beaming toothily, until recently was the epitome of the people’s crusading television current-affairs investigator.
It’s difficult to exaggerate these already flamboyant performers without making them hyperbolically ridiculous, and there is a certain sense of strain in the comedy of nods and winks in Starlight Peninsula, where such well-known characters are given walk-on roles. More successful are the less identifiable figures: Eloise, for example, is herself a kind of meditative solitary given to fugue states, a brittle and exasperating character who then begins to grow and fill out in the telling, traversing, in the course of her journeying, vagaries of memory, guilt, identity, desire. She also starts to reveal a ready wit: ‘I looked into a Jeep outside the supermarket …What he’s got in there is a wolf … It must be illegal.’ And: ‘I like Auckland, less crime. You don’t have to live in a fortress,’ (Nick says). To which Eloise ripostes, ‘Carjackings.’
There’s Eloise’s mother Delmelza, an old trouper, a frank-speaking Brit who talks like someone from Coronation Street; and the briefly glimpsed Hamish Dark, ‘jogging in the Domain, fully clad in lycra, his teeth bared as if he were in agony beyond the physical’. Such characters have a convincing air to them – but it’s the complex figure of Simon Lampton who lingers in the mind: he’s a character central to the whole trilogy. This is because he exemplifies one of Grimshaw’s main perceptions. We all present different versions of ourselves in different situations: ‘Everyone is hidden. People are strange … Who is your neighbour … Who is your smiling blonde shrink behind her therapeutic veil? Who is your mother?’ In this concluding novel, having been tracked down by Eloise, Simon Lampton, the wealthy Remuera obstetrician and confidante of the rich and powerful, somehow seems empty and vitiated, as if all his manoeuverings, his deceptions, his self-justifications have been exposed as hollow even pathetic – albeit momentarily.
Stephanie Johnson’s Auckland in The Writers’ Festival is less of a phantasmagoria and more a set of geographic mash-ups of intermittently recognisable suburbs with their attendant social atmospheres. Settings in this novel are usually backdrops – bedrooms, kitchens, a deck or a verandah, a heritage building converted into offices – or else points of transition – Albert Park, a motorway – to enable characters to get from one set piece to another. But at the same time the particular weather of Auckland, moving from late summer through autumn to early winter, influences mood, and an excursion out to Auckland’s wild west coast stands in for the great outdoors. In this latter scenario nature becomes comically atavistic as a feral cat turns farcically predatory and a hapless writer struggles to locate his survival skills in what is, after all, only one night’s camping out in late summer not far from the city.
Auckland exists then in The Writers’ Festival as a series of vaguely repellent close-ups – as a series of granular textures, be they unweeded flowerbeds, an insect-riddled fruit tree, bulging rubbish bags or a fetid lobby: ‘Outside in the lobby that more resembles an airport departure lounge than the anteroom of a theatre complex, the aroma from the coffee bar mingles with carpet damp from wet shoes and dripping umbrellas.’
This novelist’s eye-view pans and zooms from inner-city suburb dilapidation to a university campus to apartment buildings and downtown bars with a constant air of urgency. What matters is the scrutinising of situations and the careful rendering of comic bathos. If it’s not a frolic, it’s a folly, with the author fighting hard to steer her characters away from sitcom typecasting and mostly succeeding.
Rae McKay is the artistic director of the annual Oceania Writers’ Festival, which is ‘one of those extraordinary occasions when the world’s writers in all combinations meet and mingle and talk to enormous audiences, sometimes numbering in their thousands.’ But who to invite? ‘A lesbian poet/comedian/filmmaker from Canada, and an economist from Taiwan, a mythic epic poet from Norway, a religious historian from Istanbul, a political scientist from Croatia, a marine biologist from Japan …’ Inevitably this pick’n’mix catalogue suggests that somehow literature, serious literature, has become trivialised into the pseudo-carnivalesque: a passing parade of forgettable demi-semi-celebrities. As Johnson fast-forwards through her pop-culture tropes, which often take the form of name-checking – Richard Dawkins, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis – you sense her attempting to critique the commodification of culture, but ending up merely quoting the actuality, with nods towards ‘the patrician UK female crime writer’ or ‘the South American realist’ or ‘the Ghanaian Booker winner’.
The difficulty that a satirist has nowadays is that such events, organised with military precision by squads of PR people, have an inbuilt irony to them which makes attempts to satirise them seem just tired cynicism. They are too slick for simple caricature. After all, taste, evaluations, discernment and fashion choices are all just a search engine hunt away, as cool hunter updates or hipster tips on smartphones. Naked careerism is a given as well, a cultural condition that’s acknowledged when the novelist writes: ‘By the time [Rae] had gone to university in the late nineties, aspirational greed had displaced the long-reigning pinko sentiments evident in student politics since the sixties.’
The depiction of insecurities, antagonisms, rivalries, favouritisms and backbiting of all kinds surrounding the ‘Opus Book Awards’ also seems old hat. That’s because the culture of ‘awardism’, of singling out ‘winners’ and damning the rest to oblivion is by now commonplace, while bad behaviour is encouraged or at least tolerated in order to attract headlines – or eyeballs. Nothing, it seems, is more dull than the actual discussion of ideas: audiences want melodrama. Here then is literature as a competitive sport, an Olympic event, with all the attendant brouhaha and razzle-dazzle.
Johnson demonstrates a constant nimbleness in gossipy exposition, confirming our worst prejudices about how literary prizes are actually judged; while local writers are shown to be not so much seeking to commend themselves to the esteem of posterity with their noble literary aspirations, as simply seeking to get invited or get noticed or find a publisher.
In The Writing Class, set two years earlier, Merle Carbury was a creative writing tutor made redundant after her creative writing course ‘got divorced from the dying English department and became attached to a thriving new department called Creative Theory. A PhD was imported from UCLA, a humourless, virtually unpublished postmodernist who decided against renewing the contracts of teaching staff without qualifications in CW.’ In this new novel, Merle remains a struggling novelist but also somehow the beating heart of the book, representative of old values that appear to have been swept away.
The storyline itself consists of interwoven pairs of characters and the sparks that fly between them. Rae as the artistic director has to contend with Orla O’Connell, the festival director, concerned to make the Oceania Writers’ Festival a commercial success. Both are in their mid-thirties. Merle’s husband Brendan (known familiarly as ‘Bendonbra’) is a scruffy, shorts-and-jandals-wearing non-fiction writer. Rae’s husband Cameron, a software manager for a private prison company, has left her for the younger and more bubbly Chelsea. Meanwhile there is the shared parenting of their children Nellie and Ned.
The male characters are either older male chauvinists, clumsy hangovers from the eighties, or else younger needy narcissists, or occasionally self-centred and self-contained achievers. Most end up subject to the burlesque of ritual humiliations or become smirking and preening success stories.
Yet even Merle is not without the essential egotism, the self-regard of the obsessed writer, and while the various female characters exist in more subtle shades, the most energised of them, Jacinta, is a glorious cartoon monster, a wannabe novelist ‘cushioned by her family money’ who deploys a thesaurus of insults when it suits her purposes: ‘Irish-smirish’; ‘woman-hater’; ‘What are you? Fucking useless!’
Then there’s the literary psychic and medium Margaret Boon, who puts in an appearance channelling the voices of long-dead literary eminences. A number of other literary cabaret turns, such as the rap novelist Tosh Hendrix, populate the novel briefly, accompanied by nods towards literary censorship in other countries and gestures towards a literary celebration of ethnic diversity.
But as a comedy of modern manners The Writers’ Festival works best when it downsizes, when it deals with the domestic: the nifty pen-portraits of young children, the sketches about the shared parenting of post-nuclear families, the self-deprecating comedy of the home front. Mention of an invited writers’ festival guest – a leading primatologist with a recent book out – The Bonobo and the Atheist – leads to a sudden comic riff that illuminates our common lot like a shaft of golden sunlight on a dull day:
Rae’s mother is a geriatric ape, who survives so long only because she lives in captivity with food delivered to the door of her suburban home and bills on automatic payment. Jacinta’s a jostling young female chimp, and Merle a fading skinny red-haired orang-utan on the brink of old age. And Nellie’s the wide-eyed infant macaque returned from washing her hands to regard the prodigious heap of food.
David Eggleton is the editor of the Landfall Review Online.