Bluffworld by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press, 2021), 371 pp., $35
Bluffworld is a fable of fractious friction, a different kettle of fish to the typical shoal of Kiwi fiction. Yes, I deliberately cast cliché here, for Evan’s wordy novel is like playing a flashy computer game where the reader is constantly grasping at several streams of multicoloured aquatic life all at once: generally, with some success, but not always snaring the prime catch, if indeed there is such in this multi-layered novel. The saga is heavily embedded in Evans’ own experiences of academic life, where there is an endemic requirement to be as obscure and oblique, as pretentious and pedantic as possible regarding the involuted literary pursuits prevailing. I am not certain that the ‘author(s)’ quite know where to complete this fuliginous frolic, but eventually their ‘scriptor’, Patrick Evans, does end the volume with a satirical ‘Author’s Note’.
There is black humour and cynicism seeping through the pages of Bluffworld as the ‘author’ recounts often ludic and ludicrous daily drivels of university life, as well as the exigencies of contemporaneous university departmental closures—recent British philosophy division shutdowns, for example. This is a process whereby soulless, anonymous, neo-liberal-engendered administrators/managers ultimately reign supreme over the Humanities.
In a direct mimicry of academic pondering, almost every page has a footnote—each as cynical as the text, which leads to the inevitable question: Who, then, is the real ‘author’ here? Is it the rarely named protagonist Thomas Flannery—a compulsive bullshit artist who manages to prevail in a university environment despite scarcely ever reading a book, never publishing academically and never completing his doctorate? Or is it the obsessive footnoter, who seems to have the Doppelgänger compulsive lack of sensitivity that Flannery displays throughout? Is it perhaps ‘Patrick Evans’, himself navigating ‘the infinite sea of the already written’?
Accordingly, Barthes (but not Barth and Bataille), Bellow and Benjamin intermingle here among a pulsating panoply of titles and other writers, of litanies of discarded library books and multifarious quotations from them bobbing in this ‘great Ocean of Literature’. Tom all too often buggers up his references to this flotsam due to his never having read anything, relying instead on his being ‘full of shit and [knowing] it’ and therefore taking advantage of delay, hommage, bunkum, allusion and illusion. Indeed, latrines and toilet humour are smeared everywhere across the pages, illustrating this ‘coprophagous world’.
Even during the early events in the novel, Tom’s department head, the caliginous Gotch, confuses Tom with his mentor Manatine, and also with one of the brilliant doctoral candidates, Hamish Cocks, to the extent that Tom segues into being all three simultaneously and has all their name plates mounted on his door. Later, the gun-toting Americano Houston strikes Tom as possibly being JD Salinger. Or is that Pynchon? Individuals are often interchangeable, featureless—unless pictured as somehow physically askew, or possibly pure figments, mere holograms. Then there is the non-existent Robert Byng, the supposed subject of Tom’s doctoral thesis. Of course, Baudrillard and simulacra flow in early on, ‘whereby the material world … is increasingly hollowed out with the result that content is replaced by form’.
This is identity problematics personified. Who is who and when are they who anyway?
Manatine (also a large water creature?) ducks and dives in and out, yet is never clearly defined, while his visage melds and quite literally melts during the final stages of the book—as does Tom’s own as he stares into a mirror in the downstairs men’s toilet facility where he has so long been attempting to write, perhaps, a book, after the demise of the English department. He morphs into something innominate as he tears off screeds of toilet paper that has been generated from massive piles of unwanted library classics and embossed with the name Glastnost Boutique Toilet Paper. This crapulent scene fugues into Evans’ ultimate credo, depicting our soulless modern age, a digital dystopia where manners, mirth and morals are drowned by corporatisation, globalisation and conglomeration.
Relatedly, one wonders: where does all the action/reaction occur? This is never really apparent, given that some snippets of Kiwiland do swim by, as for example infrequent references to Cathedral Square. Then again, nations nowadays are also merging one into another.
I found this work rather compulsive reading, although I was driven to distraction by seeking more information on such interesting titles such as Faking Literature by K.K. Ruthven (2001), in which the author ‘remorselessly revealed … the inherently factitious nature of the entire literary project … bluff and bullshit are irretrievably at the heart of Western humanism’s great literary project’. I also laughed out loud in places, as I recalled the pretentious malarkey and posturing of my own university days way back last century, at a time when Evans began his own tertiary career. The plunge into Bluffworld reminded me strongly of later twentieth-century American novels, especially Luke Rhinehart’s Dice Man, with elements of Pynchon (again), De Lillo, Vonnegut—and Hunter S. Thompson.
Norman Mailer too. Because this novel is unashamedly sexist. Women are consistently detailed as mere interchangeable sex chattels, as ‘wymmin’, in one instance as ‘flat-chested’, while the air hostess/pilot whom Tom dallies with when he is attempting to elude his marital vows as well as his trysts with a colleague’s wife remains nameless. Ultimately his extramural couplings with this latter lady—who is characterised as nymphomaniacal—terminate. When she later commits suicide Tom does not display any empathy. And his later non-uxorious, unctuous claims that he is sorry about his profligate ‘womanising’ behaviour are further examples of his congenital baloney, his hopeless hyperbolic. The ‘auteur’ of Bluffworld—whoever they might be—may once have held not dissimilar views regarding Women’s Lib, especially when they cynically allude to not having undertaken any ‘background research that might involve … any online text lacking sexual images’.
There are elements of cultural blindness here too. Again, whether this is deemed to be part of the mordant portrayal of the racist myopia of some lecherous English lecturers or are the sentiments of the ‘narrator’ is unclear. Perhaps both?
For example, ‘silly old’ Pat Hazard the postcolonial is trashed throughout the pages, most markedly by Tom, yet also in league with some of his teaching peers. At one point when Tom is invited to become a second-hand book dealer on the premises of his former campus, he declares Pat ‘was [a] bit of a joke—he kept trying to bring postcolonialism into the English syllabus!’ Later in the text, but earlier in the time sequence, when the professorial staff were still employed prior to the corporate takeover of their Arts departments, Tom states, ‘he became friendless, a pariah’ when ‘Postcolonial Pat’ ‘kept pushing his African and Indian writers’; and further on, ‘Lately he’d been pushing Pacific writing, for God’s sake!’ Hazard, of course, is not the only scholar so sarcastically skewered in this novel, but these putdowns are more markedly visceral than most. As to where Evans himself stands as regards such biting barbs between academic staff, let alone the overall societal value of these men, this is unclear. He captures well the internecine bickering that trawls through university establishments, yet ultimately never offers up any positive protagonist. Indeed, the anti-hero becomes more inauthentic and, as noted earlier, ever hollower and less human as time elapses and he grows only older.
Meanwhile, there are no macrons on several kupu Māori—Maori [sic], Nga [sic] are two repeated examples in the text—while the tabulation of Māori and Pasifika titles and their creators during the caustic interrogation of another hapless academic comes across as more spurious entertainment than serious consideration, a further facet of the intentional (?) unreliability of any of the scripters of Bluffworld. Again, this ignorance reflects certain academic reactions to bicultural and multicultural validities, not only from last century, but—worryingly—as still articulated by professors emeriti today.
Don’t get me wrong, eh. I found Bluffworld enjoyable, although evanescently so. It is sardonic, eminently clever, yet rather callously cold. Which is the same disquieting attribute of the cipherable management non-personages and their mechanical machinations as so well evoked in the endzone pages, ‘the inevitable terminus ad quem’.
When Tom parrots Walter Benjamin and delivers his final words, ‘I am an agent of History at last’, I am reminded immediately of Benjamin’s description of the Angel of History helplessly turned the wrong way while gazing at the wreckage of the past, in a pessimistic view of history as a recurring cycle of despair.
Despite the priceless pastiche, the tenebrous comedy, Bluffworld is in the end, then, rather a bleak house.
VAUGHAN RAPATAHANA (Te Ātiawa) commutes between homes in Hong Kong, Philippines and Aotearoa New Zealand. He is widely published across several genres in both his main languages, te reo Māori and English, and his work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Italian, French, Mandarin, Romanian and Spanish. Additionally, he has lived and worked for several years in the Republic of Nauru, PR China, Negara Brunei Darussalam and the Middle East. He earned a PhD from the University of Auckland with a thesis about Colin Wilson, and has qualifications from Te Wānanga o Raukawa and the universities of Waikato, Canterbury, Massey and Cambridge (UK). His New Zealand Book Council Writers File is here.