Nothing to See by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press, 2020), 380pp, $30
Pip Adam is one of our most innovative writers. She is one of a group of accomplished stylists to come out of the International Institute of Modern Letters but she also has sufficient grip on standard narrative conventions to successfully play around with them.
Her first novel, I am Working on a Building, is told backwards from narrative present to past and turns on the idea of constructing a replica of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, on New Zealand’s West Coast—I guess, in defiance of the Alpine Fault. In The New Animals she twists the expectations of conventional plot structures. The first two-thirds of the book are tightly focused on a group of disparate characters preparing for a fashion show, shifting point of view in a claustrophobic exploration of intergenerational attitudes; the last third dives off in a new direction as one of the characters, barely mentioned up to this point, swims out to sea and keeps on swimming through the Waitematā Harbour into the Hauraki Gulf and on. The shape of the novel feels like an apostrophe or, perhaps more aptly, a flea with a compact body and a pair of long back legs that propel it suddenly in a new direction. In Adam’s latest novel, Nothing to See, the convention she explores is unity of character.
Peggy and Greta are young recovering alcoholics. They go to meetings and get help from their sponsor. They reflect on their dissolute past when they drank themselves unconscious and ‘slept with men for money’ to get more drink. They mix with fellow addicts and try to get by on benefits and hand-outs. All their energy goes into their struggle against alcohol. As she did in The New Animals, Adam paints a thoroughly believable and compelling picture of a milieu and the preoccupations of its inhabitants. There is something odd about this couple, however. They do everything together; they are never apart, not even in different rooms. Gradually the reader comes to question whether there are actually two people here, and to wonder if the pronoun ‘they’ is in fact a plural and not a genderless singular.
Having reached this ambiguity, Adam changes tack. Peggy and Greta are two people, she insists. Their friends and associates see them as distinct but identical. However, they used to be one. On a night sometime in the not-too-distant past, the single person split into two like an amoeba. Moreover, they were not the only individuals to suffer this fate. On the night in question, several other alcoholics experienced the same bifurcation. It’s not clear exactly how many people were involved but there are now at least two other couples, Heidi and Dell and Carla and Lotte.
What are we to make of this conundrum? It is tempting to see it as a metaphor, for double vision, say, or for the divided self of the alcoholic struggling to give up booze while at the same time yearning for it. Adam allows no such interpretation. Heidi and Dell are at odds with one another, but Peggy and Greta are good companions—and Carla and Lotte even more so. The dual identities are not used as a means to explore the experience of an individual. The experience of the duality is explored as if that duality were real. Just as Elodie in The New Animals swims out of realism into a world of speculative fiction, so Peggy and Greta and their fellows are alien dualities in an otherwise ordinary world. Their doubleness has no purpose and no meaning; it is just the way they are. One thinks, perhaps, of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, except that the revulsion that its cockroach protagonist, Gregor Samsa, inspires in those around him can be interpreted as a metaphor for existential alienation, whereas Peggy and Greta’s transformation has no significant consequences. People who know them are surprised by their bifurcation but they get used to it; strangers look at them oddly but for the most part there is nothing to see.
The story moves slowly, with rhythmic repetition much like the impoverished and obsessive lives it describes:
They caught the bus down to the supermarket. They were pretty sure they could catch a bus home but also Dell and Heidi had a taxi chit left over from a late night they did at the shop. While Heidi had been away, their boss had started to tell them to take a taxi home and they’d left a taxi chit in the till. It was there every week, even though now that Heidi was home they were fine to walk. They were all fine to walk anywhere they wanted because there were always two of them. They didn’t need the taxi chit for late nights so they could, theoretically, use the taxi chit tonight although it wasn’t exactly what the taxi chit had been given to Heidi and Dell for. There had been a lot of talk about the weekly taxi chit ever since Heidi came home and started going to work with Dell again, but they hadn’t broached the subject with their boss, so the taxi chit kept being there. It wasn’t necessary and maybe Heidi and Dell should have pointed that out—like when you get too much change—but, also, they weren’t paid very much and maybe Heidi would go away again. (pp. 134–35)
The novel is in three sections, each twelve years apart, starting in 1994. The first, at 150 pages out of 380, felt a little long. It ends with Peggy and Greta about to take a course that might lead to less menial work.
In the second part, set in 2006, they are employed on the fringe of the IT world and have achieved a modicum of respectability and independence, although they still go to meetings and sometimes need help from their sponsor. Then, out of nowhere, between one room and another, they cease to be two and become a single person: Margaret. This is not an improvement. Margaret’s life is arid and lonely but she can do nothing about it. She finds an obsolete cellphone that sends her cryptic text messages and includes a Tamagotchi electronic pet that becomes a kind of secret surrogate for her lost duplicate.
Twelve years later and, in the third part, Margaret is still alone but has become a successful programmer working in the fluid world of freelance IT on the fringes of surveillance technology. Something goes wrong with the contractual arrangements and the project falls apart. Perhaps as a result of the stress of this, Margaret turns back into Peggy and Greta. The book ends with a full acceptance of this state of affairs:
The waitress arrived and they looked up and ordered tom yum noodles and then they looked over the table at each other and there they were. (p. 380)
Adam is a member of what seems to be a tight-knit group of Wellington writers. The fly-leaf of Nothing to See includes three endorsements. Carl Shuker talks of ‘brutal minimalist depth’ and ‘making literature subversive fun in this country again’. Anna Smaill describes Adam’s previous novel, The New Animals, as ‘steely and self-delighting’. Brannavan Gnanalingam says of the same book that he ‘marvel[led] at Adam’s fearlessness’ and that it left him ‘stunned and heartbroken’. All three commentators are novelists themselves and all three live in Wellington. Shuker and Smaill are married, and Smaill was one of the judges who awarded The New Animals the 2018 Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2018 Ockham Book Awards. Gnanalingam was short-listed for the same award in the same year and Shuker in 2020. The blurb for Shuker’s novel A Mistake includes one endorsement, by Pip Adam, who describes it as ‘visceral and emotional’ and ‘a masterpiece’.
Literary coteries are as old as literature itself and are, no doubt, inevitable. They are not necessarily a bad thing. One thinks of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, or the Bloomsbury Group and, in New Zealand in more recent times, the poets who gathered round the magazine Freed in Auckland in the early seventies. The members of a coterie share tastes and judgements. Their work is subject to mutual rapid and intense feedback, which generates common features while, at the same time, encouraging originality, at least to the extent that those features are clearly distinguishable from the surrounding literary environment. The result can be experiment and innovation but also the development of common features.
Blurbs are by nature hyperbolic, but they are rarely entirely vacuous. The words ‘brutal’, ‘minimalist’, ‘steely’ and ‘fearless’ used to describe Adam’s The New Animals can be equally applied to Shuker’s A Mistake, a story about a female surgeon involved in medical misadventure, which is written in prose as cold and sharp as one of her scalpels. The common feature here is what Andrew Paul Wood, writing of Adam’s contribution to Monsters in the Garden, a new anthology of New Zealand speculative fiction, calls an ‘affectless manner’ (NZ Listener, 14 November 2020), the avoidance of all explicit emotional expression and a reliance instead on rhythm, repetition, connotation and selection of detail. Adam is a fine exponent of this style. The publisher’s blurb claims Nothing to See is ‘a compelling, brilliantly original novel’. Making the usual allowance for exaggeration, that seems to me about right.
CHRIS ELSE is a writer and manuscript assessor. His seventh novel, Waterline, was published by Quentin Wilson Publishing in 2019. He lives in Dunedin.