Confessions of a Cockroach and Headstone: two novellas by Mike Johnson (99% Press, 2017) 180 pp., $29.95
‘Mike Johnson is the most underrated of all living New Zealand authors.’ So said Iain Sharp in a Sunday Star-Times review of Johnson’s The Vertical Harp: Selected poems of Li He. There is substance to Sharp’s claim. Johnson has published nine works of longer fiction, two collections of short stories, six collections of poetry, a medical memoir and a children’s book. Despite critical attention and recognition from awards and dispensers of fellowships, in a career spanning over thirty years he has never managed to retain a mainstream publisher and has had only fleeting recognition from readers and reviewers. The reason for this, it seems to me, lies as much in the literary context as in Johnson’s creative predilections.
For the most part, New Zealand’s literary taste still has a preference for realism. Or, to put this point in commercial terms, the small overall size of the New Zealand market means that the sectors of that market that are keen on non-realistic modes – fantasy, say, or science fiction – are too small to sustain local publishing programmes. As a major local publisher said to me recently, ‘Dystopian doesn’t sell, fantasy doesn’t sell, magic realism doesn’t sell, ghost stories don’t sell.’ Even crime seems to be marginal. No doubt there is an element of cultural cringe in this situation. Local writers of fantasy are competing in a global market, and a New Zealand fan is more likely to look to one of the big overseas publishers than to seek satisfaction in the local scene.
Johnson’s problem is that he has never been a realist; his major preoccupation has always been the irrational and darker sides of human experience, into which he sometimes plunges with fearless exuberance. His first novel, Lear: The Shakespeare Company plays Lear at Babylon, involves a carnival of mayhem and madness inspired by the work of Philip K. Dick, in which a performance of the classic tragedy merges into the nihilistic atmosphere of a plague-beset community. When he has written in a more conventional manner, Johnson’s fiction has often approximated to standard genre: Counterpart, in which a business executive comes home to find he is married to a woman he does not recognise, might be read as science-fiction; Stench, which approximates to a horror story; and Dumb Show, a brilliant example of New Zealand Gothic, full of psycho-sexual menace, set in the backblocks of Canterbury. Johnson’s work does not fit easily into genre categories, however. Never satisfied with fulfilling customary expectations, he is always pushing for a truth beyond the conventions. He has produced one of the most original bodies of work of any New Zealand writer, but because some local readers find it strong meat he has, for the most part, flown under the radar.
His latest book consists of two texts, Confessions of a Cockroach and Headstone, which are printed back-to-back in what the publisher, Lasavia Publishing, calls a flipbook, a format made familiar by Fiona Farrell’s The Hopeful Traveller. One might be tempted to call these novellas, but they are more in the nature of free-ranging monologues sitting somewhere in the triangle comprising prose, poetry and drama. Each involves a first-person narrator addressing a second-person audience. Now and again the text makes it clear that the latter is a character present in the narrative. This places the reader in a constantly shifting stance in relation to the text – sometimes the apparent subject of direct address, sometimes an eavesdropper on someone else’s conversation.
Confessions of a Cockroach has the clearer claim to a narrative shape. The genderless narrator – the insect-human of the title – spends its time with a begging bowl on the steps of a disused bank building on the main street of a major New Zealand city. The opening lines of the monologue introduce the central theme:
The moment I sit down … I become … invisible.
… I don’t have to struggle to become [this way]. I don’t have to put up a fight. I don’t have to bear the burden of any action. Exercise any special powers, or utter any incantation. I don’t have to execute any enemies. It just happens …
You might think I had vanished down a man-hole.
My first feeling is that of relief, followed fast by a touch of dread. Dread and relief flow through me like clear and muddy streams that intermingle. Dread, because I know this is my final and irrevocable condition, and relief because I don’t have to look up any more, or pretend to be anything more than I am. Or am not. (pp. 13–14)
From here the text becomes an ironic meditation that uses the social exclusion of the pariah to explore the wider existential condition of the powerless and the disaffected. Other characters come and go: Jineen, who moves across the street to join the narrator on the steps and who is obsessed by ciggies; a Christian man who tries and fails to make the cockroach visible; Boy Blue, who is lost and desperate to find his way back to the world he has come from; and the Skipping Girl, a free spirit who ‘can skip from world to world with that rope but contents herself with a strip of pavement’ – ‘She is not a cockroach. She is a hummingbird.’
At one point the cockroach leaves the steps and follows Boy Blue into an unfamiliar part of the city where it becomes disoriented:
I felt, then, like a very tiny little cockroach indeed. A blind cockroach feeling its way along through a world beyond its comprehension. Imagine a cockroach crawling around inside a guitar. No matter how thoroughly it crawls about it can have no idea of what a guitar is. It might even brush the strings and have no idea. That’s what I was doing. I was brushing the strings. (p. 83)
In its ignorance the cockroach achieves a kind of wisdom. Down Insect Street time has little meaning; it is always twenty to eleven by the bank’s old clock. The legs striding by the cockroach’s possie, which it reads with a subtle intuition, bespeak a busyness that is akin to blindness. Nonetheless, poverty is poverty and hunger is hunger. The text ends with a moment of charity: money falling into the begging bowl: ‘Thank you very much. Have a nice night.’
There follows a diagram of the standard schema for a wormhole: that theoretical cosmological construct that provides a shortcut between different regions of the space-time continuum; a shortcut, in this case, between the two texts that make up the book.
The eponymous headstone stands in a cemetery at the head of a grave and talks to its audience of death and grief. As in the cockroach’s monologue, the locale is sharply evoked: there are lawns and paths; there are children playing and a group having a picnic. The girl with the skipping rope appears, as does a cockroach, which we might assume has crawled through the wormhole from the other story. The person addressed by the headstone has brought flowers in the manner of a mourner and thereby comes face to face with death.
You may flee, but only from one side of the headstone to the other. That’s a huge distance when you come to actually traverse it, in real time. It’s an ecstatic distance. It can hardly be crossed in calm and quiet although we love these things. It may take a moment or a lifetime, there’s no telling. There’s no booking in advance.
You may sing, but only for as long as a tuning fork holds its note.
There’s not much time for anything but necessary singing, even in flight. Weeping gets left behind with the weepers; fear gets left behind with the fearful; dreams get left behind with the sleepers; mountains get left behind in the ocean. Distances are measured in song. Movements are measured in feeling.
But only as long as the tuning fork holds its note. (pp. 29–30)
But the headstone is not merely a monument and a symbol of death; it is also the head stone, the cranium that holds the brain, the seat of consciousness. To be mortal is both to live and to face death; from this confrontation there arises a moment of transcendence:
There’s no longer any home, not as you imagine it. Home is where the headstone lies – but there is something else, something nobody counted on. It’s the hole in the zero. I’m not the first to notice it: the loophole, the sinkhole, the bolthole, and backhole. It’s well-referenced; you can look it up. It survived all the wars through the pages of a book. You may fall through it, tumble though it. A cockroach crawled through it. It doesn’t change. It is in itself the ground zero of change. (p. 77)
This passage, with its embedded quotations from Allen Curnow and M.K. Joseph and its implicit inclusion of the wormhole that will appear on the following page, suggests a metaphor for existential insight and creative endeavour, both grounded in an apprehension of the irrational. This is a crux that marks the spirit of all Johnson’s work.
CHRIS ELSE is a novelist, reviewer and a partner in TFS Literary Agency and Manuscript Assessment Service. He is the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. He is the president of honour, New Zealand Society of Authors 2018–19. He currently lives in Dunedin.