Milk Island by Rhydian Thomas (Lawrence & Gibson Publishing Collective, 2017), 256 pp., $30
This is a very strange book. I like it. I like it very much. It’s fair to say that this was not always the case. When I first picked it up I found it quite difficult to force myself through the opening pages. It’s a particularly repellent set of scenes that Rhydian Thomas paints, and he does so in a kind of sub-argot of political knowingness: a distillate of hard-bitten journo and Evelyn Waugh. If it hadn’t been for a faint curiosity about the real reasons behind his protagonist Nina’s presence in ‘the funfair of Kiwiana … the core of Kaikōura’s rebuilt civic centre’, I might not even have persevered with it. That would have been a mistake.
The year is 2023. Milk Island is the new name for the South Island, rebuilt by private corporate interests after the disastrous earthquakes of 2018. ‘We were in the shit last year for referring to Milk Island as a “correctional facility”,’ remarks one broadcaster early in the book. ‘I usually call it: a suite of public-private correctional, agricultural and tourist initiatives,’ replies another.
The opening section of the novel, ‘Witness’, climaxes in a terrifying account of a New Right theme park, full of bizarre references to minor political events of the past couple of decades (a ‘too-fast limo ride’ in reference to Helen Clark’s not-particularly infamous faux pas; a ‘man dressed as Stalin who suddenly appeared at the end of the hall, mumbling to himself: “Five New Taxes … Nanny State … more communist ISIS death-camps”’, and so on).
What struck me most about this first of the four stories that make up Thomas’s novel, was the element of planned obsolescence in all this. Setting your eco-catastrophe one year from your narrative’s publication practically guarantees it will go out of date almost immediately (even Orwell allowed himself 35 years for his ‘prophecies’ about 1984 to be fulfilled). Also, it’s hard to imagine anyone not from New Zealand – what’s more, anyone not obsessed with virtually every detail of local pop-culture, politics and day-to-day trivia – even being able to follow some of the more intricately knowing riffs indulged in by Thomas’s characters.
This must be deliberate. How would anyone not from around here, for instance, be able to make any sense – to take one obvious example – of the endless references to ‘Sir’ Richie McCaw (the Mock-McCaw-spunk milkshakes on sale at the Kiwiana funpark, the constant speculations about the effect of security camera footage of supermarket flirtations on his love life)?
So what is the point of this book? Is it anything more than a spewed paroxysm of rage at the ignorant imbecility of Kiwi Kulture in general? So expert a ventriloquist is Thomas that it would be possible for someone who had read only Part One of his book to see him as just one more left-leaning political satirist, a few steps above the media hacks he satirises but essentially of their column-writing genus. Which is where the true brilliance of his book kicks in.
The second section is narrated in the voice of a prisoner locked up in the vast private-enterprise penitentiary that now appears to occupy much of what once was Christchurch. Not since Jean Genet’s early poem ‘Le condamné à mort’ (‘The Man on Death Row’) has there been anything quite like this strange half-poem/half-rave. And, while Genet had the advantage of writing from inside the belly of the beast, at least his prisoner had the consolation of not being comforted in his despair by a virtual simulacrum of Billy T. James.
Horror and pain without dignity: that is the dominant note in the book up to this point, and certainly an impatient reader (or, for that matter, an unsympathetic reviewer) might remark that little of the pleasure principle has leaked through its pages so far.
The third section, depicting the woes of one of the pettier capitalist entrepreneurs leasing space at this prison, is similarly lacking in the milk of human kindness, though it does contain a fascinating set of instructions on how to smear the reputation of a political opponent with a few cunning keystrokes in the digital age.
But if the book has been gradually moving from a jazzed-up version of Waugh’s Scoop to similarly syncopated updates of Genet and American Psycho, we break through, finally, in ‘@HUTRUNNER’, the last section, to something closer to the prophetic books of Blake. The sheer outrage and horror at the environmental devastation perpetrated on our country by the giant collective pig farms reaches almost apocalyptic levels here.
Nina is back, her mask has slipped off, and she ranges the land like a latter-day Kwai Chang Caine, tweeting images and film-clips of the brutishness she sees, until the narrative’s final consummation: the meeting of the eco-terror-journalist with the nation’s literal sacred cow, Milky Moo herself.
The blurb for Milk Island describes it as ‘absurd and unhelpful’ and ‘100% pure fiction’. Both claims are untrue. Anyone courageous enough to persevere through its merciless pages will find a lot more than a Green Party election manifesto here. There’s no doubt that Rhydian Thomas has ‘a dark turn of mind’ (to quote from the HBO series Deadwood), but his book is not pointless, nor (unfortunately) can I even persuade myself that his concerns are particularly time-bound.
He’s an angry man, so much is obvious, but he has a lot to be angry about – and, what’s more, he has the literary skill to force anyone prepared to commit to his pages both to understand and to participate in this rage.
So, while it’s true that future readers might require a few footnotes (who is this … Dave Dobbyn? Why do we keep on hearing duh duh duh da da echoing out from every sound system?), the same might be said of Swift or Orwell.
Like theirs, Thomas’s message is harsh; and like them, however ‘distant’ or ‘futuristic’ what he writes may be, it always turns out to be about the realities of here and now. Just as Orwell’s 1984 is far more about 1948, when it was written, than the year it’s ostensibly set in, so the 2018 earthquakes Thomas begins with have already happened – and anyone who’s tuned in lately to watch the ‘progress’ of the Christchurch ‘rebuild’ will not find it difficult to identify the source of his inspiration.
There are no real heroes in Thomas’s vision, and the few fumbling attempts at human contact – between Nina and Jack Paheke, for instance – are so perfunctory as to lack all conviction. Only the travails of the unfortunate Milky Moo, as she stumbles from disaster to disaster like a bovine version of Sade’s Justine, might move us to accept even the possibility of feeling in a world so devoid of warmth and beauty.
I wish with all my heart that Rhydian Thomas wasn’t describing Aotearoa New Zealand circa now, but it’s increasingly hard to persuade myself that he isn’t.
JACK ROSS is the editor of Poetry New Zealand. His latest work of fiction, The Annotated Tree Worship, is due out in late 2017 from Paper Table Novellas. He works as a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University’s Auckland campus, and blogs at http://mairangibay.blogspot.com/.