Five Strings by Apirana Taylor (Anahera Press, 2017), 246 pp., $35
In Five Strings Apirana Taylor tells the story of Mack and Puti, a pair of alcoholic drug addicts living on the sickness benefit in an unnamed New Zealand city that’s likely Wellington. Mack, a street philosopher with a deep sense of Marxist scorn, is fond of surveying bustling thoroughfares and making proclamations on the wellbeing of his gainfully employed neighbours, as in the following passage from early in the novel:
Look at those people in the city. Scurryin’ around like beetles and bugs. Cut loose from the great cog. You are all lost fools … And where’s it all going? We weren’t created for lives of meaningless toil and drudgery, slaves to the satanic wheel. Wake up and look! Not a thought for the bigger picture. No thought for tomorrow. It’s a celebration. Live. (p. 10)
For all his poeticising on the celebration that is life, Mack is intelligent and self-conscious; during his more cognisant moments he understands that his own existence is as marked by failure as it is by liberation: ‘He was an aging man doing nothing and going nowhere.’
While not capable of the same rhapsodising as Mack, Puti lives under the weight of a traumatic past and often views her life in terms at least as bleak as those of Mack: ‘Another day, cold and dead and she had a bloody tombstone in her head. What was there to get up for?’
Trapped in a hopeless cycle of poverty and drunkenness, Mack and Puti have only each other, and, in part, Five Strings is a story of their troubled but epic love. Though marred by violence and desperation, Mack and Puti’s relationship not only allows them to survive, it provides them with comfort and, at times, genuine happiness. In the world of Five Strings, however, happiness is a fleeting and bittersweet compromise. If there’s one constant amid the turbulent emotional fluctuations of Mack and Puti’s existence, it’s the sound of Mack’s battered five-string guitar, which emerges over the course of the novel as a trope for the persistence of the human spirit in the face of the worst kind of destitution. As Mack says to Puti after yet another round of squabbling, ‘We play our guitar and sing when we’re happy and we play our guitar and sing when we’re sad.’ Along with an incalculable quantity of beer, whisky and marijuana, the music from Mack’s five strings provides just enough delight to persuade us that the lives of the protagonists are not as hopeless as they may first appear.
For the most part, Taylor writes Five Strings in something close to documentary style. The present of the novel is narrated in real time, and scenes consist mostly of extended dialogue and interior monologue, with almost no authorial commentary. Perhaps the most persistent reminder that there is any controlling narrative presence at all is the tireless dipping in and out of minds: paragraph-to-paragraph and sometimes line-to-line, we go reeling from one consciousness to the next. In an oral story, flitting about from head to head is necessary, but on the page I found it nothing short of maddening. What’s more, I couldn’t unearth a reason for it – it ended up seeming more like an authorial tic rather than an intentional aspect of craft. The straight-ahead storyline is interspersed with the heartrending backstories of Mack and Puti as well as occasional vignettes featuring Te Whare Nui O Hine Rongoā, the Great House of Healing, which figures as both a mythological and a literal location.
As much as the documentary-like approach to scenes might suggest gritty realism, I would describe the style of Five Strings as an uneasy mix of realism and parable. This blend works best when it’s put into the service of humour, as in the following passage, depicting a fairly typical altercation:
Mack pirouetted past Puti, whirling about like a drunk ballerina. He toppled over and fell into the bed, lying there for a moment. He tried to sit up and then collapsed back with his eyes closed and his head slumped on his chest. He began to snore. (p. 19)
Here the stylised behaviour suggests a narrator who doesn’t take his protagonists too seriously. In the interests of poking fun, he’s happy to exaggerate or simplify their behaviour. While this approach may nudge character toward caricature, for the most part an agreeable reader will go along for the ride. The peril of this kind of stylised language, however, is that it strays easily into cliché –‘his jaw dropped’; ‘he almost shot through the ceiling’; ‘he could no longer paper over the truth with his feigned bravado’. Examples of this kind of familiar and unconvincing language are persistent (Puti is called a ‘tart’ throughout the novel, for instance), but they never manage to overpower the genuine emotional force of the story. In Five Strings, the drawback of the parable approach is not its effect on the novel’s style so much as the pressure it puts on its plot.
Taylor sets out to combine gritty realistic events with a morally edifying fable in a way that calls to mind Maggie, a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane, or Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t disclose the details of this tale, but – roughly speaking – the plot explores the possibilities for redemption via Māori healing. Taylor explains Māori healing thus:
Māori healing tried to take everything into account. The welfare of mind, body and soul. Healthy food and fresh herbs were important. It was more than just swallowing a pill and filling in a form. You took your time with people and gave them as much time as they needed. You listened and talked with them about everything – including dreams. Sickness often came from within a troubled mind, and it all needed to be considered. There was mirimiri, massage of the body and wairua and there was honohono, revitalisation of the life force. (p. 241)
A culturally based and holistic approach to treating the physical and psychic damage of characters, Māori healing is a desirable and life-affirming outcome for any character, especially ones as sympathetically drawn as Mack and Puti. One can see why the author of a fable would favour the all-encompassing plot resolution suggested by Māori healing. In a parable depicting the hopelessness befalling marginalised Māori characters, this kind of resolution has an undeniable appeal. This appeal belongs to the purpose and structure of the fable; it does not, however, sit so well in a realist novel.
Taylor’s most daunting structural challenge in Five Strings is to balance conflicting expectations of genre, and any narrative blending realism and allegory is most likely to run aground in its ending. The structure of a fable allows for unbelievable outcomes – indeed, it dictates them. A fable must end with a clear moral. Otherwise, it’s not a very good fable. What’s more, the unlikelihood of events unfolding in the way they must is part of the pleasure of parable. When the lion releases the mouse in Aesop’s story, the structure of the fable dictates that they will meet again, regardless of how likely it may or may not be for a specific mouse and a specific lion to ever cross each other’s paths twice in the vast territory a lion inhabits. That realist detail about territory is irrelevant, as it doesn’t reflect a reader’s expectations of the genre.
A realist work of fiction, however, implies a storyline that resists packaged moral instruction. Indeed, in the same way that a fable demands a clear moral, a realist novel insists on an ending that is muddled, messy – a morass out of which it’s tricky to extract a distinct ethical principle. Imagine, for a moment, if Anna Karenina decided that throwing herself under the railway carriage would set a bad example for other women and joined a convent instead. We would feel pretty confident that Tolstoy had wasted our time! In the blending of realism and fabulist elements, then, Taylor set himself a challenge of genre that seems bound to err on one side or the other. In the conclusion of Five Strings, I think Taylor negotiates a compromise between the two genres. However, in the way of all compromises, it’s in danger of delivering frustration and satisfaction in equal parts – an outcome as bittersweet as the sound of Mack’s five strings.
THOM CONROY is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University. In 2017 he edited Home, a collection of personal essays from Massey University Press. He has had two novels published, The Salted Air and The Naturalist, both with Penguin Random House, and his short fiction has appeared in journals in New Zealand and abroad, including Landfall, Sport, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review and Agni.