Audition by Pip Adam (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023), 208pp, $35
Alba, Drew and Stanley are three giants on the spacecraft Audition hurtling we know not where at the start of Pip Adam’s newest—and strangest—novel.
In her acknowledgements section, Adam writes: ‘This book is about the abolition of prisons and our present punishment-based justice system. In my personal life I am committed to this end and believe an urgent and imperative part of this work is Land Back in the hands of rightful owners.’ For those readers, like me, who read the acknowledgements first, or to anyone who has heard, seen or read an interview with Adam to accompany the release of Audition, such statements build the expectation that this will be a polemical book.
The first chapter of Audition, however, is far from a direct, critical attack, consisting only of dialogue between our mysterious trio. They seem to have grown since boarding the ship: Alba is wedged between the floor and ceiling in the basketball court, Drew is in a hallway, Stanley is in the last room he could fit into. And yet they can hear each other, even when they whisper, thanks to the Audition, which the giants suspect turns their ‘noise into speed and steering’. Alba, Drew and Stanley allude to other crew, other giants, but only these three are speaking now. They surmise that their recent growth spurts and the fates of their crew members are linked to them stopping talking earlier in the flight.
For more than fifty pages our giants prattle on in the hopes of staving off more growth, more catastrophe. For a novel’s opening salvo, it’s a bold move. The conversations veer from off-kilter, George Saundersesque comedy of dunces to tedious Trumpian strings of empty signifiers.
‘But our breath,’ Drew says. ‘The story is—our breathing.’
‘Yeah,’ says Stanley. ‘Our breathing is huge—powerful and loud.’
‘Eventually though,’ Alba says. ‘The breathing won’t be enough.’
‘They made such a good job of the spacecraft Audition,’ Stanley says.
‘We are so lucky that they made such a good job,’ Drew says.
Readers familiar with Adam’s work will likely give her the benefit of the doubt: that the dim-wittedness of the giants will be explained, and the spacecraft will actually go somewhere, though probably not a classical science fiction destination. Readers new to Planet Adam, however, may need some reassurance early on that it’s not all going to be like this.
By way of reassurance, let us survey Planet Adam. The surface of stripped-down language and life-blunted characters was established in Adam’s first book, the sardonically-titled story collection Everything We Hoped For. From these stories through the three novels that precede Audition, Adam’s characters’ world-weariness and struggles with language are subtly, slowly unpacked like nesting dolls to reveal first the emotions they are suppressing, then the trauma that lies beneath.
Below characters and language, the plate tectonics of Planet Adam are always in motion. I’m Working on a Building, Adams’ first novel, is told in reverse, with a large earthquake at its epicentre. The New Animals takes structural innovation further: the final third of the novel veers away from what could have been a long story in Everything We Hoped For (older, poorer stylists clashing with younger, richer fashion designers), to follow a minor character and an unruly dog into the Hauraki Gulf on a late-night swim that morphs the story and swimmer into something new. Nothing to See, Adam’s next novel, takes the surrealism of this swim and splashes it throughout: characters are literally split in two by addiction and inciting trauma. A dozen years later Greta and Peggy merge once more into Margaret, only to split again in another dozen.
The tension between the stultified language of Adam’s fiction and the high-concept innovation is like the difference between weather and the climate. While in the midst of a chapter it can feel claustrophobic and muted, with every page and every book the world is getting a little weirder and the stakes are being raised.
The inarticulate trio of giants in the opening of Audition is another riff on damaged characters in the aftermath of trauma. The anticipation lies in both uncovering what sits at the centre of our author’s latest matryoshki, and what structural pyrotechnics we will get along the way. In this respect, Audition does not disappoint.
The second chapter of the novel jumps back in time to Alba, Drew and Stanley walking across a field with their ‘teacher’, Torren, to reach the Audition. It is one of ten such craft, each to be crewed by eighteen giants. We see this event, and flashbacks to the giants’ time in the classroom, through Torren’s eyes. We are drip-fed information about what is going on here, even if the big picture remains elusive. Some people are growing. Those who are not growing are not impressed. Structures are put in place to box up their minds and jettison their bodies. But why did they start growing? And, given the expense of building interstellar craft and sending these massive miscreants into space, where exactly are they being sent?
The clearest answers come outside the novel in ‘Ghost Story’, published in The White Review in 2021. A woman is getting an ultrasound. She and others are growing.
She had been to an endocrinologist. She suspected they all had. Hormones made you grow and something had turned on all their hormones. Everyone was trying to find out why. It was a multimillion-dollar business because it was throwing things off in an uncomfortable way. All the people that were getting bigger were normal people. None of the rich or powerful people were getting taller.
We get all this in the first paragraph of a story just a tick over 1400 words. It’s difficult to say whether this piece was written before or during the composition of Audition, but it is consistent with the world of the novel and helps explain Torren’s ambient antipathy towards her charges, the lengths powerful people are taking to get rid of the giants, and—later—what might have turned on Alba, Drew and Stanley’s hormones.
Any suspicion that Audition might be another novel told in reverse is scuttled in the third chapter, ‘On the Edge of the Gates of Hell at the End of Space and Time’. We are back on board the Audition as it approaches a black hole. This short section is Audition’s version of the earthquake in the chapter ‘Featherston Street’ in I’m Working on a Building. While the latter still ranks as the most thrilling, visceral 15 pages in New Zealand fiction in the 21st century, in terms of narrative chutzpah it is eclipsed by sending your main characters across the event horizon.
And what awaits us on the other side? Again, Adam’s increasing mastery of structure and pacing is evident. Instead of answering the immediate question, we are thrust back before the classroom, specifically into Alba’s perspective, and begin to get some of our other questions answered. Not just what happened before they started growing, but meta-questions, such as is one of the giants the main character? We find out Alba knew both Drew and Stanley before the classroom, before anyone started growing. That Alba went to prison for assaulting Drew and, while incarcerated, met Stanley, a transgender male sent to a woman’s prison in a mix of bureaucratic ignorance and spite. The two become romantically entwined until Alba commits a different kind of assault. She believes she is bad. That she belongs in prison. Sadness, rage, impotence—it seems a cocktail of these emotions is what sets off her hormones. From what we know of Drew and Stanley, it’s no wonder they start growing too.
Prison, classroom, spacecraft: these are all carceral structures, governed by fear, jealousy and mistrust …
Here comes the polemic …
To describe much more risks undercutting all the thrills that are baked into Audition. Suffice to say the chapters that follow return to Alba, Drew and Stanley after they have crossed the event horizon. Both structurally and thematically, the closing seventy pages feel akin to the nocturnal swim in The New Animals—we are pulling a thread of strangeness and following wherever it may take us. Sometimes psychedelic, sometimes just plain stoned, but always surreal. Free of earthly forces and pre-eminent Western ideologies, might there be a chance for Alba, Drew and Stanley to remember and reconcile the past, heal, and move beyond?
Audition remixes the tricks and conceits of Adam’s earlier books in such a way that it’s hard not to think about it as a kind of capstone. The big question for those of us who’ve visited Planet Adam in 2010, 2013, 2017, 2021 and now in 2023: What next? Is there more gas in the tank for the nesting dolls plus structural pyrotechnics plus exponential weirdness formula? Or might Audition be a kind of intergalactic base camp from which Adam launches into something truly new? Whatever the case, it’s going to be worth the ticket price.
CRAIG CLIFF lives in Ōtepoti. His most recent novel is Nailing Down the Saint (Random House New Zealand, 2019).