Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens (Lawrence and Gibson, 2022), 240pp, $25
The title of Murdoch Stephens’ new novel refers to married couple Jacqui and Scott and their teenage son Axle, who live in a house down a path from Upland Road, the main thoroughfare in the well-to-do suburb of Kelburn, Wellington. We’re in the Land of Privilege, but also the Bureaucrat-race—Scott works in alcohol policy for the Ministry of Health; Jacqui is a non-sworn official for Police—which means no privilege can escape unremarked upon by the characters for long.
Stephens reveals in the Acknowledgements section that this book was ‘first conceived and written under the title, The Undrinkable Light Beer of Bingeing’. To me, that conjures up a sophomoric hybrid of Kundera and student magazine cover stories, which isn’t a world away from Stephens’ prior output, beginning with On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover (2005) under the pseudonym Richard Meros, through to Rat King Landlord (2020), the first novel published under Stephens’ own name. This time, however, we enter new territory, and the long, punning, metafictional title was rightly ditched in favour of the more sedate, title-in-minor-key Down from Upland.
Another clue to the shift in style and intent comes on the back cover. While the blurb of Rat King Landlord declared, ‘Colossal rats invade from the town belt! Your rent is up but everyone is calling it a summer of love’, Down from Upland’s back cover features no exclamation points or second-person pronouns, pitching instead ’a kitchen sink, domestic novel set at the precise moment the first Millennials find themselves raising a teenager’. While, thankfully, this isn’t quite 50s/60s kitchen sink realism (we’re a long way from working class ol’ Blighty), there’s a restraint and dedication to domestic and quotidian affairs (making curry, dealing with colleagues) that feels new for Stephens, who might previously have included everything and the kitchen sink between these covers.
As the phrase ‘find themselves raising a teenager’ implies, Jacqui and Scott both seem to have woken from a twenty-year slumber and are eager to make up for lost time. Scott is full of ‘dull hopes’ and regularly lusts after younger colleagues. Jacqui’s friend has been conducting an affair with a Brazilian named João but is leaving New Zealand with her diplomat husband and offers to hook Jacqui up with her lover. Scott and Jacqui fumble into an openly open relationship. Scott does most of the openness, talking himself in knots, while Jacqui quickly develops a relationship with João.
Meanwhile, Axle has left Wellington College due to bullying and started at the more liberal, co-ed Wellington High School. He finds a friend group and drinks too much in the novel’s opening chapter, which prompts an excruciating, stop-start, self-censoring talk from his father. Not long after, one of Scott’s younger female colleagues mentions the growing range of low and zero alcohol beers and Scott does two things: he spectacularly fails to begin a romantic dalliance with this colleague and winds up being called in to HR; and he decides to supply Axle with a six-pack of low alcohol beers each week as a kind of medium-trust experiment in induced moderation.
This one stimulus/two responses dynamic recurs many times in Down from Upland, as Jacqui and Scott try to push their marriage out into new and more exciting waters while trying not to rock the boat of their home life and negatively impact Axle. The heart of the joke is that the teenagers are often more mature, and certainly better friend-material, than the adults, with the novel’s most tender moments reserved for interactions between Axle and his mother’s lover, the twenty-something João.
Scott, bless him, is not totally oblivious. At one point he berates himself: ‘Even his inner monologue had been set to doofus’. It’s the fact he can readily see other perspectives that makes him incapable of decisive action. After being reprimanded by HR, he has ’a sleepless night picturing slanderous words about him in the women’s toilet … Theoretically, he agreed with women supporting each other to protect themselves from men. He just struggled to see himself as that man people should be cautious of.’ Not long after, Justin from HR puts the moves on Scott and he goes along with it, if only to provide 1) a teachable moment for Axle and 2) a spot of open marriage brinksmanship with Jacqui.
Down from Upland’s exploration of Millennial parenting seems to revolve around the thesis that there is an inverse relationship between how woke you are and your ability to provide effective parental guidance. That seeing the world as a mire of bad choices might just make it difficult to provide the sense of stability children and teenagers need. But one of the novel’s strengths is how resilient Axle is to his parents’ behaviour.
Axle’s story begins in similar territory to Sprigs (2020) by Brannavan Gnanalingam, Stephens’ partner-in-crime at publishing collective Lawrence and Gibson: teen parties, laissez-faire parents, and an air of foreboding. Stylistically, the early chapters of Down From Upland don’t have the same pop or precision as the rest of the novel. The writing often feels like writing, with phrases like, ‘The party ambled into new directions’ and ‘He was not coherent enough to register that his earnest promise of future sobriety was a tender cliché’. At one point, Axle’s point of view is pure Scott, comparing his feelings toward his parents to ‘an old cat that’s been with you all your life and you can’t bear to have it put down even though it dribbles everywhere. Yeah, the vet bills get up, but they’ve done their years of service and that bedrock of affection isn’t going anywhere.’ Even if it was faithful to Axle’s perspective, it’s a million miles from the verve of classic Meros/Stephens. Fortunately, the gift of the light beer unsticks Axle’s plot and his friend group experiment with how to possibly get drunk on 2% lagers. We still have the confusion of youth, but it is coupled with a vitality and fraternity that distinguishes it from the experimentation of the adults in the novel.
If Scott and Jacqui have one thing in common besides their average parenting, it’s that they both seem a bit shit at their jobs. Scott is wildly ineffectual, while Jacqui is disengaged. For the first half of the novel, her working life barely rates a mention, but then a new boss starts who is hard to read (read: strangely alluring) and they begin working together on NZ Police’s response to the recently announced Carbon Neutral Government Programme. The boss, Rothman, comes up with a harebrained scheme to let frontline officers keep their greenhouse gas spewing squad cars and neutralise their environmental impact by arresting ‘climate criminals’ and claiming credit for the resulting reduction in emissions. This is the closest we get to Richard Meros and-the-kitchen-sink territory (think: the pitch to nationalise and then privatise love in 2011’s Private Parts). It’s a welcome bit of colour and doesn’t sideline the domestic elements, so in that respect it’s successful.
However, harking back to the blurb’s claim about representing a ‘precise moment’, I did wonder about the choices Stephens made regarding what to include and what to exclude from the period in which the novel is set. In actuality, the Carbon Neutral Government Programme was announced in December 2020. The novel doesn’t provide any dates but does depict the day of the CNGP announcement: public servants dance in Midland Park and many take the afternoon off in celebration. I was working in a government department in Wellington at the time of the real announcement and reactions were more subdued (those who took any note either viewed the programme as an additional burden or thought the commitments were so vague as to not be worth worrying about), but I’m happy to allow Stephens his poetic license. If the events of the novel are happening in 2020 or a little later, it seems Stephens has made a deliberate decision to include the climate crisis but exclude the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps the inconvenience of masking when trawling for extra-marital relations and the emergence of a lunatic fringe felt too much like plot points from Rat King Landlord (or a book befitting the title: The Undrinkable Light Beer of Bingeing), but had no place in Down from Upland. Whereas Meros/Stephens previously seemed to delight in what he could fit into his books, perhaps this time the pleasure is, partly, in what is left out.
Just as the content of the novel revolves around maturity, how teenagers seek it and Millennial parents shirk it, Down from Upland feels like a confident stride towards a new, fully-fledged form for Murdoch Stephens.
CRAIG CLIFF is a recovering Wellington bureaucrat who now lives in Ōtepoti and leads the University of Otago’s Net Carbon Zero programme. His most recent novel is Nailing Down the Saint.