MiStory, by Philip Temple (Font Publishing, Dunedin, 2014), 271 pp., $34.99
Political dystopias – extrapolations of worrying contemporary social trends into the near future (or the far distance) – have a distinguished history in English. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (published in 1726) might be seen as the prototype, but Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is probably the most famous example of the genre.
What’s generally required in these narratives is some kind of Everyman protagonist against whom all these monstrous exaggerations of the present can be measured. Thus Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver (a portmanteau version of ‘gullible traveller’) seldom seems aware of the full implications of what he is describing.
Orwell’s hero Winston Smith is a rather more complex case. He is, on the one hand, intensely ordinary (hence the name ‘Smith’), but there’s far less ironic distance between him and his creator than between Swift and Gulliver.
Smith’s strange, wistful yearnings – against a backdrop of malodorous boarding-houses, barking drill-masters and petty discomforts – seem as relevant to 1948, when Orwell wrote it, as 1984, when it was set. In fact, it’s been alleged that 1948 was his original choice for a title.
Fast forward 20 years or so, and New Zealand got its own version: C.K. Stead’s Smith’s Dream (1971) – memorably filmed by Roger Donaldson as Sleeping Dogs (1977). I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Stead’s main character is also called Smith. And, like Orwell’s, Stead’s Smith is a romantic, an unwilling rebel forced into the Resistance more or less against his will, and (eventually) a hapless victim of its casual brutality. Even as played by a vulpine young Sam Neill, Smith is far more of a pawn than a puppet master.
Philip Temple’s choice of a protagonist for his own dystopic vision of the future, MiStory, is therefore one of the most crucial decisions in his whole book. He could, on the one hand, have chosen to satirise him gently (like Swift): to write in his voice, while winking all the time over his shoulder at the reader.
On the other hand – like Orwell (and, to some extent, Stead) – Temple could have written him as a complete (or partial) alter ego: a boiled-down version of the self, whose views he essentially endorses throughout. In which case it would be essential for the success of the story that we too should find him comprehensible and sympathetic.
The narrative problem here is that the more complex and nuanced his protagonist’s character becomes, the more Temple risks diverting attention from what seems to be the central focus of his book: the possible consequences of increasingly intrusive cyber-security, combined with an ever more paranoid atmosphere of real (or feigned) terrorist threat.
What, then, is the reader’s experience of John Maitland, the average Kiwi bloke whose somewhat disjointed diary MiStory is, (there are also a few sections written by his sister Sophie, as well as various transcripts of recorded conversations)? No doubt there will be different answers for different readers, but perhaps some common points can be agreed on.
Well, to begin with, John (to put it mildly) is no stylist. He writes in a kind of deadpan, cursive telegraphese. Nor does he really particularise the events and people he describes. Of course, that could be seen as a way of signalling the cultural degradation, which is a major part of Temple’s theme. It does, however, make it difficult to feel we’re ever getting to know John really intimately.
This, too, could be seen as a deliberate strategy, forcing the reader to ‘construct’ him as a person from a few hints and scraps of data. New Zealand males are, after all, notoriously unforthcoming in conversation. It would certainly account for his comment about a Scottish refugee he’s been interrogating: ‘I think he’s a good man, you could go pighunting with a man like that.’
There are other, less positive sides to John’s character, though. Let’s take the scene early on where he’s having an intimate dinner with his new girlfriend Jenni:
Jenni wanted to talk about where we go from here and I said, Thats a bit sudden, weve only known each other 5 minutes and she said, It feels a lot longer to me and I thought you couldn’t get enough of me. I felt a real wave of resistance when she said that and I didn’t say it but I thought, What a cheek, what an insult it was to you, as if youd never existed, dead scarcely 2 months. But then I thought isn’t it me who is doing the insulting?
Since Temple’s – and, by extension, John’s – book actually begins with him collecting his (allegedly) much-loved wife’s ashes from the ‘cremate section down Cumberland Street’, one might feel inclined to second that last sentence.
When we learn that he’s never troubled to read the book on contemporary politics which his wife, a prominent academic and dissident, spent so much time working on before her death, he does – once again – risk coming off as a completely unsympathetic character. Admittedly, when he does get round to reading her work, it opens him up to the idea of writing down events as they happen, which results in the diary we’re reading.
The fact, though, that he’s started a sexual relationship with Jenni so soon after his wife’s death seems a little more than surprising. And when his first reaction to her question about where they might be going is to see Jenni as being ‘insulting’, he sounds positively hypocritical. Hypocritical and self-serving, and thus – by extension – potentially alienating to most readers.
At this point one begins to wonder how consciously Temple is setting out to question his hero’s motives: his right to be regarded as the ‘moral centre’ of his own narrative? The (so-called) ‘alienation effect’ – beloved of Bertolt Brecht – is of course a tried-and-true response to the fact that audiences tend to identify with any charismatic protagonist. Brecht’s plays deliberately set out to introduce jarring, distancing moments which (allegedly) allow us to judge rather than simply empathise with the characters we’re watching.
Is this Temple’s intention for John? His complete lack of interest – until and for some time after the beginning of his diary – in his wife’s (and his sister’s) intense political and intellectual engagement with the erosion of freedom in their society does not really tend to endear him to us either. Why didn’t he read her book? It’s not as if he’s described as having anything better to do, and it might have prepared him better for her judicial murder.
There’s no doubt that Temple sees this potential unlikableness of his hero as a problem, because he’s careful to preface the reprinted set of notebooks that constitute John’s testament with some parenthetical remarks by his sister Sophie on how wonderful he was and (therefore) how important this piece of writing is:
But MiStory is not just about my brother and me. It is also YourStory, all our story, and fit to be kept in a safe place until everyone can read it.
John’s apparent lack of curiosity about the forces behind the sinister police state he lives in is dealt with more obliquely, further on in the story:
it took [Sophie] long enough to tell me that she and Annie had kept me in the dark for my own good, but also as a good cover. Glad I was of use.
That little sarcastic aside in the final sentence sounds typical of the man we’re gradually getting to know: those women deliberately chose to keep me in the dark as a cover. It’s actually quite noble of me to forgive them for encouraging my lack of engagement with anyone but myself …
Can the novel survive this failure to win us over to the point of view of the somewhat callous and self-serving John Maitland, or must this be seen as its Achilles heel? The decision to write it as a diary, deliberately restricting us to John’s point of view (albeit with occasional supplementary sections by Sophie, complete with frequent rave reviews of her brother) does mean that there’s very little chance to escape from him.
The choice, too, to write it as almost a full year’s worth of diary entries – it begins in early January and ends in late November – removes much of the element of suspense from the plot. Clearly it was designed to build slowly, presumably to match the growth of John’s political consciousness, but the result is a certain lack of conciseness in the author’s otherwise very telling exposition of this future surveillance state.
It’s important to emphasise here the unrelenting bleakness of Temple’s vision: most of the rest of the world seems to be a glowing radioactive cinder, while even in New Zealand the North Island has been lost to ‘armed refugee groups that … have been kept going by eastasian arms drops and by forming an alliance with Ngapuhi who are using the situation to try and get independence’.
The Resistance fighter who is filling John in about the present state of affairs in Godzone is quick to add magnanimously that he doesn’t see that last development as necessarily ‘a bad thing’. John, as usual, puts it more succinctly: ‘Again? They never give up do they? You have to hand it to them.’
MiStory then, far from being ‘our story’, as his sister Sophie claims, is clearly John Maitland’s story – and, by extension, Philip Temple’s. Like Orwell and Stead before him, he’s taken all the things that most irk him in modern society and projected them into a brutal and off-putting future.
His book may lack some of the charm and rapier wit of its predecessors in the genre (due mainly to the complicated nature of our feelings about his narrator), but it’s hard to deny its timeliness when it comes to the probable consequences of our present narcissistic, web-based self-scrutiny, combined with the growth of casual violence for nebulous political ends.
Perhaps, then, it’s true that each age gets the heroes it deserves. While I continue to maintain a sneaking preference for Orwell’s and Stead’s twin Smiths over Temple’s John Maitland, I can’t deny that so uncompromising a view of what’s coming to get us may fit more closely with the realities we face.
So, while I can’t say I’m eager to go pig hunting with Maitland anytime soon, I do see Temple’s point in not cushioning his ugly points with a pretty prose style and a more noble and sympathetic set of characters.
JACK ROSS works as a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University’s Auckland campus. His latest book A Clearer View of the Hinterland: Poems and sequences 1981–2014 appeared last year from HeadworX in Wellington. He also edits Poetry NZ.