Glam Rock Boyfriends: An imaginary memoir, by Raewyn Alexander (Brightspark Books, 2014), 426 pp., $65
The title of this novel and the yellow, red and black cover are arresting, and provoked comment from several friends and family members as I was reading it. The front cover image is part of the torso of a supine or side-on bloke in a colourful jumpsuit; flip it over and the back cover reveals the top part of the same jumpsuited person with a stylised, almost clown-like androgynous face.
The subtitle is ‘An Imaginary Memoir’, which then made me query the genre: it turns out to be a novel written like a memoir. The story follows the life of Patricia, written from her point of view. It’s more or less chronological, proceeding through her childhood, adolescence, youth and early adulthood. Three quarters of the way through – Part Two – it jumps to a later point, when Patricia is now Athena: older, wiser and reflecting on her life.
Patricia grows up in what seems like an outwardly ‘normal’ suburban family, apparently in Hamilton although it’s not named. Childhood is a world of marbles, lamingtons, Chinese burns, bulrush, a glamorous picture theatre. From an early age Patricia’s sensitive personality emerges: a girl who talks to fairies, escapes into art, a bit of a loner who is nonetheless desperate to be liked; who is teased and terrorised by her older brothers and develops protective mechanisms.
As she grows up she displays teenage gaucheness and naïveté but also pluck and outspokenness. Her insecurities and lack of self-esteem lead her to negotiate the tightropes of a series of unsuitable or downright destructive relationships, teenage pregnancy and anorexia.
This all unfolds against the backdrop of the music of the era, starting with sixties pop, going through glam rock to punk to electronica, and all the associated fashions. I assume the author draws from personal experience of these eras; the sartorial detail alone displays a familiarity that would be hard to authenticate otherwise. Lots of readers will recognise the times Patricia grew up in, and aspects of her life may be reflected in theirs. Music and fashion were two of the most important things in her earlier life, but maybe they overshadowed – or provided a distraction from – self-discovery, friendship and love.
Raewyn Alexander has a distinctive writing style, vivid and poetic, a lush mish-mash of Kiwi vernacular, playful onomatopoeia (rinky-dink and jingle-jangle) and flamboyant adjectives frolicking across the page. The often verb-free sentences pour forth in a confessional stream of consciousness. She lets it all hang out:
Fashion in rapid flux: geometrics, paisleys, brights, then whoosh, everything black, and thigh boots, ankle boots, high heels, textured tights, coloured tights, long socks, fake tans … Someone joined a cult, overdosed, found Jesus did save, left town, started a band, went to university, had an affair with their lecturer, built a teepee, tattooed their back, refused their meds and went on the run, married in peach silk on a beach in Bali, ran amok at a gig, or invented a gadget to out-widget anything.
We dared expand our collars with our minds, glooped buttons, flaunted bright over-sized jewellery like monsters’ eyes and turned into painted operatic sights, we stalked down Ordinary and faced it off … ‘Yah poofters,’ someone would call predictably from a passing car when we walked yet another small town’s main drag, or upon our leaving a pub after a Majesty gig to walk over to the staff quarters.
What some might find fun, others will find self-indulgent, especially layer upon layer of this sort of thing:
Late eighties fashion grew overwhelmingly funereal in the end, despite eruptions of stunningly lurid flapdoodle earlier.
The density of the ideas and descriptions, along with the sometimes painful exposure of a young woman struggling to make her way in life, makes for an intense read. I started off open to the possibilities of this novel but gradually felt worn down by the relentless negativity of the relationships. Patricia’s boyfriends specialise in sarcasm, abuse, belittling and occasionally violence, alternating with deep conversations and declarations of love. I longed for some respite. The story sagged here and there, sprawled with extraneous passages, and at times I had to make myself continue reading.
Finally Patricia emerges from the melée as Athena, living a peaceful life alone in a seaside bach, reflecting, and shedding light on her life. Happily this provides a sense of hope and resolution at the end as she starts to like and accept herself and come to terms with some things in her past.
From time to time throughout the novel the older, wiser Athena drops in comments as she recalls her life, interpreting her feelings with the benefit of hindsight, naming them as depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome. But what caused this post-traumatic stress syndrome? The narrator frequently says she was bullied and teased by her brothers, but apart from a couple of fleeting mentions, she never describes the exact nature of the torment. The brothers are not even named or described until the end. At least one powerful scene of torment would have carried the emotional weight necessary for readers to understand the impact of the brothers’ actions on Patricia’s life.
Often the book felt more like a diary – confessional, cathartic, therapeutic self-exploration – than the memoir it purports to be. But at the same time, Patricia is writing for an audience, not just for herself, as seen in the explanations of things: how to play bulrush, for example, or ‘a ready mixed, orange, sickly concoction called Screwdriver’. Possibly this is true to a memoir style but it seemed unnecessary to me.
Glam Rock Boyfriends is a wild ride, exhilarating and exhausting, a trip down memory lane from the 60s to the 80s particularly. Patricia is an idiosyncratic character, but the novel failed to elicit in me a deep understanding of her, or much sympathy.
Philippa Jamieson’s youth was misspent in the Dunedin Sound era of the 1980s. Now she is the editor of Organic NZ, and a marriage and civil union celebrant. She is the author of The Wild Green Yonder: Ten seasons volunteering on New Zealand’s organic farms.