The Straight Banana by Tim Wilson (Victoria University Press, 2016), 202 pp., $30
Novelist Elmore Leonard once laid down 10 rules for writing. Rule Number 5 was: ‘You are allowed no more than two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words.’ Curiously enough, some patient soul has counted the exclamation points in his novels and found that Leonard did not follow his own advice. Nor did Tom Wolfe or James Joyce take heed. And neither has the much talented Tim Wilson, who has either not read Leonard’s rule book, or heroically decided to disregard the advice. His opening page has 14! – they come in multiple salvos – and page 47 has the record at 23. He flings them around in this short novel with wild abandon, as if ratatatting away with a ‘Chicago typewriter’ (also known as a Thompson sub-machine gun): a Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre by exclamation.
What does this mean? Can it be the central character Tom Milde’s hysteric personality? Is it an expression of the excessive ‘exclamatory’ quality of New York life? Or is it the influence of comics that began in New York?
Obviously Superman, Batman, Spider-Man et al are influences.
The beginning of the book would register with some readers as quintessentially kinky New York: ‘There is no bad time to be drunk, nude and tied to the load-bearing column of an agreeable stranger’s agreeably déclassé pad on New York’s Lower East side, but perhaps the very best time is 3.38 am …’
After that, we must be prepared for anything – though mainly for journalist Milde’s frenetic inner life.
This certainly is a Big Apple novel – a city where Wilson was TV One’s anchor man for ten years. The novel has the hectic hustle and the bustle of that great city. Wilson has spent most of his professional life in TV; Milde, more of a newspaper man, has had connections with the New York Wolverine (New York Times?), New York Civet (New York Post?) and the Remora (Village Voice?) and back in New Zealand The Possum (NZ Herald?). It will be noted that all the newspapers have the names of unattractive or savage animals. Milde is asked to write a feature of 5500 words at $3 a word, netting him a tidy $16,500 from the Remora. For some reason he fails to deliver, which means he doesn’t get the money, nor an invite to a fabulous New York party where he would be bound to meet Tom Wolfe.
So there’s your Tom Wolfe, that quintessential New York writer whose influence hovers over the book, admittedly in satiric overdrive.
Other passages are a bit like James Joyce on P:
Tuesday: Callbacks. CIA: No comment. Doj: Nuh-uh. FBI: Fuggedaboudit. Etc., etc. I feint. Call the CDC, talk to their media guy, then watch YouTube outtakes from Sing Bubba sing!. Twenty million views. The outtake is now the take. Actually watching more YouTube than cable, or broadcast. Googling ‘Come to the edge…’
To a degree, the entire book is a neo-Joycean romp, rich with puns and giddy word play: ‘A Passchendaele of pages’, ‘not a lick of English’.
Then there’s the arcane vocabulary – dolchstosslegende, mangent, Rhadamanthine, sheetrock, chuntering. Rhadamanthine is a neologism, the others might exist.
Let’s move onto the colourful Pynchonesque names:
Whitlyn Woobley aka VB
Would that one could meet such notables at the next dinner party. In New York, nothing surprises. Alas, like Pynchon, the names are often the most colourful aspect of the characters.
For in truth, most of these exotically labeled characters don’t loom large in the plot. (In fact, the plot is largely the vibrancy of New York and its urgent imprint on Milde’s consciousness.) Apart from Milde himself, and his sporadic tussle with the newspapers, it is mainly New York-savvy VB that figures most prominently.
Several other repeated stylistic mannerisms manifest:
I’m only speculating, but I believe they’re expletives. Blank rectangles and other diagrams echo postmodernist literary magician Donald Barthelme.
On page 94, Milde is asked about PLC = Plucky Little Country = New Zealand. He lets fly a satiric blast of some four pages. Obviously this cannot be quoted in full though it’s packed with gems: ‘Everyone knew everyone. The young departed never to return. The old were old at 30. For each person 100 sheep and ten cows. The cows paid for everything.’
Recognisably New Zealand.
It gets trickier: ‘Besides curling, the national sport was essentialism.’ Frankly, I’m unsure what this means. Essentialism has a plurality of meanings, one being that according to St Thomas Aquinas, essence precedes existence, while Jean Paul Sartre reverses the equation. The text continues: ‘What was real was prized far and away beyond the unreal, however those that did prize the unreal made structurally very similar arguments for its valorization, as those who prized the real.’ Valorisation, like jouissance, is one of those 1980s English Department words that makes me want to reach for my gun (thank you, Marshall Goring).
A sentence later, Milde tells us we are obsessed with cheese.
So it goes.
There follows rain, politics, guns, violence, then Raha. Raha? Said to be the ‘native people’ – then the text says ‘nor Maori’. My wikidictionary says Raha is money in Finnish and Estonian. Go figure, because I’m none the wiser.
I’ve saved the best though highly necessary item till the end – Straight Banana.
Let us consult one of the novel’s many lists:
- Dangerous! Smoke em outta their holes!
- Prepared to sacrifice some civil liberties to protect against them
- They’re just a long fruit, yo!
- Inconclusive and poorly-managed metaphor
- Prefer Granny Smith as motif for Dolchstrosslegende
In fact, none of the list items quite covers the squashy fruit. Elsewhere we are told banana-ingesting lions lie down with lambs; that they are an attack on manhood; better than blow (cocaine); that they calm down Navy SEALs enough to have them building houses; that they were found in a White House fruit bowl. But most tellingly of all, we are informed that the fruit contains Mitragyna from Malaysia. Wikipedia informs it is a tree belonging to the coffee family that has opoid and stimulant properties. It has reputed pain-easing qualities though no proven medical benefit. It can cause vomiting, constipation and respiratory difficulties. In recent times, it has been used for recreational purposes … But really this has nothing to do with Tim Wilson’s use of ‘Straight Banana’, which is an open-ended multiple metaphor for something that has fictively caught on in contemporary New York. The multiplicity of shorthand and wide-ranging, mainly satiric explanations should warn us against any specific account or content of its properties. So the novel perplexes and engages us with its rich language.
Here’s a gorgeously phrased sentence:
Thus a grown Thomas Milde at his computer keyboard on this early June afternoon in Erewhon in TV’s Spanish Harlem Bureau, smelling his own breath, testing his noggin for cobwebs and spiders, and finding none, rather feeling he has dodged, if not a bullet, then at least several Hendrick’s dirty Martinis, extra dry.
Note the shrewd shifts that surprise, the references that test our knowledge. This book is a Solomon’s feast.
At my local supermarket I went looking for a straight banana. Not one left.
They had all gone.
MICHAEL MORRISSEY has been active as a novelist, short story writer, essayist, feature and book reviewer. He has published 22 books. His 23rd, Poems from Hotel Middlemore, will be published by Cold Hub Press later this year.
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