The Disinvent Movement by Susanna Gendall (Victoria University Press, 2021), 144pp., $30; Greta and Valdin by Rebecca K. Reilly (Victoria University Press, 2021), 352pp., $35
In the very first, very short chapter of The Disinvent Movement, the narrator reveals a great deal: she lives in France, she is from New Zealand, and the cut on her head shaped like an Arabic letter was not caused by a fall at the swimming baths, despite the carefully rehearsed story to that effect that she recites for her doctor’s disinterested benefit. The implication is obvious: here is a victim of abuse living life in lies. But what is also immediately clear is that the narrator has an extraordinary capacity for distraction (so handy when someone is stitching your head together), which becomes a factor in both her salvation and her suffering.
In eighty-one fragmentary chapters that I found impossible to stop reading, a sassy, irrepressible inner voice, half jejune, half savant, delivers the narrator’s story. Time and place are routinely disordered in this collage; snippets of memory, action, conversation and contemplation fall like scraps of torn paper. Like a very advanced jigsaw, however, the clues are all there in the pieces; you just need to pay attention. In clipped, deceptively simple sentences that brim with clever tonal dissonance, and which convey as much in their omissions as they do in their particulars, the reader is given all they need to figure out what a lifetime of alienation looks like.
Since childhood, the protagonist has battled to gain entry to the closed-off world of the ordinary, yet when she does find a way in, to marriage and motherhood, things go from bad to worse. Her mother’s life, it transpires, was not a good model to follow. But finding a way out turns out to be harder than getting in. Unable to escape, she resorts to diversionary tactics, seizing on anything that will keep her busy, or invisible, working her way along a string of occupations and deviations, always seeking a place or person or situation that might take her from where she is stuck, and offer her a sense of belonging. She takes jobs and lovers; she reads the dictionary, attends exhibitions, makes plum jam and plants potatoes. But as the vignettes accumulate, the chasm that yawns between the narrator’s smart, perceptive inner consciousness and the persona she projects to the exterior world becomes increasingly evident.
Queen of the narrator’s diversions is the Disinvent Movement, an organisation she devises to rid the world, in weekly phases, of harmful human inventions, commencing with plastic, or aeroplanes, or pharmaceutical companies. The plan is not widely embraced and she loses friends she can ill-afford to lose, but she ploughs on, gets T-shirts printed and even gains a handful of members, among them the genuinely radical Maurice, whose agenda involves the kind of activities the movement’s other members have only encountered in news clips and headlines. When Maurice demands actual action, he is immune to all excuses, and in the wake of the surreal suburban sabotage that follows, the narrator finally takes some action of her own. But getting out, remember, is harder than getting in.
Against all odds, The Disinvent Movement is not a painful read. Each failed affair, each flop of a job, each foray into the domains of priests or poets or political activists is related with such consistently sharp observational commentary that it is impossible not to be entertained. Just as a jigsaw makes sense as it grows, the narrative forms an increasingly coherent and cohesive whole as the chapters progress. The dry flaky humour of the inner voice encases but does not conceal the ugly truth of a violent marriage, and its constant deflections and oblique denials become less comforting, and more disturbing, as the story takes form.
The Disinvent Movement is an unhappy but not hopeless view of entrapment. It offers a highly original and moving exploration of the division we all experience between who we are to ourselves and who we appear to be to others, and the consequences that can accrue if we cannot navigate that divide but can only build a shell in which to shelter in place.
In Greta and Valdin, we exchange the streets of Europe for the familiar pavements of central Auckland. So familiar, in fact, that after reading the first few chapters of the novel I started looking over my shoulder as I walked to work. I half expected to catch Rebecca K. Reilly, pen poised over notebook, taking down the details of my life. Not that I bear any resemblance to either Greta or Valdin; the close-knit, perennially perplexed siblings are members of an eclectic, sexually fluid Russian-Māori-Catalonian family far more glamorous than my own. Greta and Valdin are also young and queer and sort-of single, which I am not, though terribly perplexed about love and the future and the past and who they are and where they fit in, which I, along with a far larger proportion of the city’s population than anyone might own up to, still am.
What is disconcerting, yet strangely compelling, is the hyperreal observation of the settings and routines and minutiae of the protagonists’ daily lives in Auckland’s inner city, which are delivered in almost compulsive detail. It is entirely possible, for example, to identify the precise bench at which Greta encounters Ell, her burgeoning love interest, beside the queue for Hari Krishna lunches on the University of Auckland campus. The corridors and course numbers and petty politics of its English department owe nothing to fiction either. The list of clubs Valdin reels off to friend Slava, when attempting to choose a place to migrate to from their perch on the kerb outside St Kevin’s Arcade, reads like a documentary feature on K’ Road nightlife. The effect is at times charming, at others annoying. It seesaws between a convincing manifestation of the pervasive anxiety that brother and sister, dual narrators in alternating chapters, each struggles with, and a serious case of overwriting that somehow limboed beneath the metaphorical blue pencil of the novel’s editors.
This painstaking documentation of the pair’s existence is added to by an equally exhaustive exposition of the intricate exoticism and eroticism that enrich their family’s background and lifestyle. But while the scatter-brained streams of consciousness delivered by the protagonists are often humorous and touching, the relentless bombardment of data about their relatives and their relationships constitutes something of an information overload. Names, origins and connections are so complex and needlessly repetitive that not even the character list, helpfully positioned at the start of the novel, served to keep them straight in my head. Only when we travel with Valdin to Argentina, and to his reunion with Xabi, does the narrative relax; there is still copious ‘telling’, but the barrowloads of detail here are in keeping with Valdin’s voice, the dialogue is taut and confident, and there is space in which the reader’s imagination can flex a little. Some of the novel’s best writing is in these pages. When we arrive back in Auckland, however, things only get busier again, with the planning of a wedding in the family that provides the cheerful climax of the novel, and a whole raft of other more or less intriguing revelations.
The cumulative result is that Valdin and Greta are often crowded out of their own story by the clamouring of other characters. The pair spend so much time as mouthpieces of history, revealing, exploring and explaining the entanglements of their family backstory, that it all becomes contrived and a little tiring, and detracts from the appealing authenticity of Greta and Valdin themselves. The protagonists are likeable original characters, dithering in believable, novel-worthy fashion over degrees, lovers, careers and identities, and I followed their meandering paths towards happiness with interest and optimism. With such an extensive catalogue of personalities in competition for time on the page, however, the protagonists were often simply sharing the sofa in a soap opera or sitcom scenario, instead of shining in their own independent and quirky short film.
Here and there we encounter an authorial nod to the influence of Franny and Zooey, and its literary legacy is palpable in places. But this is not Salinger writing, and the Glass family spread the rich inner tapestry of their angst-ridden lives across nine stories, not one. Perhaps Reilly, a debut novelist, was simply seized by the impulse to crush every experience she recalled and every character she thought up into its pages, just so they would not be wasted.
Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in Greta and Valdin, and hopefully much more to come from its author, whose youthful, funny voice delivers a fresh and entertaining tour of life and love in Auckland’s CBD.
RACHEL O’CONNOR is a writer, tutor and researcher, born in Christchurch. She moved to Auckland in 2014 after two decades in Greece. Her first novel, Whispering City, set in Salonika on the eve of World War I, was published in 2020 by Kedros.