Bug Week & Other Stories by Airini Beautrais, (Victoria University Press, 2020), 184pp, $30
The cover of Bug Week is a soft coral pink, faintly reminiscent of one’s grandmother’s fully unrestored bathroom. The hand-painted bugs that crawl among the letters of its title are similarly benign, referencing a gentler time when entomology was as much about fine art as science. Between the covers of the collection, however, lies a darker, more dangerous place, implicitly familiar in its mundane settings and populations, but made noxious by the insidious contaminants of human weakness, disillusionment and betrayal. In these thirteen short stories by Airini Beautrais, we are all subject to scrutiny under the microscope, and no one emerges looking good.
A constantly faltering interface between the interior lives of protagonists and the environments and relationships in which they exist is the prevailing dichotomy that provides a spine for the disparate limbs of this collection. Although characters traverse a full spectrum of gender, age and circumstance, there is a striking commonality in their struggle to align their own troubled experience of life with the world and people around them. With the exception of ‘A Summer of Scents’, which employs an omniscient narrator, and ‘The Turtle’ and ‘A Pair of Hands’, in which narration is shared between the heads of various key characters, stories are told from the protagonist’s point of view, allowing each character’s embattled voice to sound with clarity and conviction.
Among these voices, a curiously prosaic self-awareness emerges. The Tableware Queen is privy to the incongruities of her passion. Moose Shaver Grace knows she does things she cannot resist or remember; even the Psycho Ex cannot deny her subliminal agenda, though her internal voice tries long and hard to fool her. Their fetishes, their obsessions, their jealousies and infidelities and social failures are not inexplicable to them. Instead, it is the social habitat the characters occupy which, inhospitable to the particularities of their species, ultimately fails them.
The cumulative result is a poignant, often painful sense of human isolation, made more acute by the deep familiarity of the stories’ largely unnamed settings, the streets and schools and parks and pubs in which the characters slump or pace, solitary, discomfited, furiously overthinking. Even for New Zealand readers who do not know Wellington, where some stories are more overtly situated, there are many settings are so precisely, minutely drawn that they will ping a taut cord of recognition. Which is not to say these are single versions of a single place; the lack of geographical specificity is just one of the authorial choices that cleverly reinforce the sense of universality inherent in these quirky, angst-riven tales. The path along the (Whanganui?) river in ‘A Pair of Hands’ evokes many such malodorous waterside walks, while the shared flat and its couch-surfers recalled in ‘Billy the Pirate Poet’ are a grungy reality or nostalgic memory for a sizable chunk of our population. The vinyl couches, cocktail cabinets and television test patterns of ‘Sin City’ deliver with horrible veracity the particular brand of ugliness that was suburbia in the Muldoon years, and its Commercial Hotel lives on in iterations littered across the country, and across the Ditch. The Pub Prize, however, I would award to the Stubborn Oyster, the sublimely surreal yet entirely ordinary setting of ‘The Baddest Toroa in Town’, in which a pissed-off southern royal albatross takes over mic night and berates the local fishermen for their pillaging of the oceans. He is a character only eclipsed in my affections by another, barely mentioned visitor to the same seaboard town, an elephant seal who won’t stop talking about his sex life.
Sex looms large and loud in this collection, and none of it is good. It is, in fact, unified in all the diversity of its manifestations by the totality of its failures. Often, the unruly minds of the characters do all that is required to sabotage their chances of satisfaction: in ‘Bug Week’, the protagonist’s lust for her lover’s body is subjugated by her obsession with his home furnishings; in ‘A Pair of Hands’, Helen’s surge of desire for her partner is quenched by her recollection that his fingers are not gainfully employed. In some stories, sex is a tawdry distraction in a life of wider disappointments: the wife-swapping parties in the suburbs of ‘Sin City’ engender little but deception and despair; for the aging, impotent Herr Rabe in ‘A Summer of Scents’, thoughts of sex produce only resentful anger. In other stories, sexual ambition drives a painful wedge between women, making adversaries of those who should be allies. ‘Billy the Pirate Poet’, irresistible in black motorbike leathers, comes between two flatmate friends, despite the antidepressants that mean he cannot come at all; in ‘Turtle’, separate, surreptitious paths towards sexual experience only exacerbate the alienation of a pair of teenage sisters.
It gets darker. In ‘Trashing the Flowers’, the newest occupant of a safe house battles the waves of denial, confusion, guilt and terror that have accompanied her in her escape from a rape-filled marriage. At ‘The Teashop’, a smart and successful brothel owner, specialising in the pleasures of pain and chastisement, seems firmly and cheerfully in control of her own destiny, but while the burlesque storyline tracks her attempts to engineer a secure retirement, a parallel account of her backstory reveals a tragic, spiraling succession of sexual assaults and societal failures. The author frequently elects to unwind separate skeins of the past alongside each other in this way, which at times makes vulnerable the shape and momentum of stories, but in ‘The Teashop’ the strands are laced together as snugly as Esme’s leather corset.
In the end, things get black. ‘A Quiet Death’, the last story of the collection, engulfs the reader in the kind of sealed, suffocating darkness that is the stuff of horror. Rape, mastectomy, terminal cancer, euthanasia, murder, necrophilia, purgatorial assemblies and an out-of-(dead) body experience are all combined in a final dystopian diatribe against the evils wrought by men and wreaked on women. It was at this point I decided not to lend the book to either my daughter or my mother. Interestingly, although there are ample, understandable reasons not to enjoy this final story, the one that tipped the scale for me was a consideration of technique. Since the choice of first-person narration must, under normal rules, preclude any account of a rape of the protagonist’s dead body, the author employs instead the device of the departing soul as spectator above the scene. Somehow, this smacks of a cop-out. Certainly, there is a clear, perhaps obvious irony in the narrator’s powerlessness to prevent her body’s defilement in death, just as women struggle to repel such assaults in life, but given the laudable degree of originality and skill demonstrated throughout this collection, I might have wished for a neater and more sophisticated solution.
Beautrais is well established among the ranks of Aotearoa’s angry women writers, and this collection certainly delivers on its publisher’s promise of ‘a scalpel clean examination of male entitlement’. Yet it is not merely men who are dissected and found wanting; women also prove able instigators and accomplices in the many small acts that, singly and collectively, bring about the collapse of characters’ trust and hope, the implosion of which forms the aching hollow center of these stories. Any lingering traces of belief, in love or in humanity, are discernible only in rare glimmers. The shattered wreck who is the psycho ex still believes in the endurance of first love, if only between baboons. The traumatised children at the safe house name stray kittens, thus laying a small claim to a shared future. Mr Miles, despite his archetypal teacher weariness, acknowledges and accommodates the needs of problematic student Grace. Most crucially, she makes him smile. He sees her; she is real. There lies the sliver of light.
With wry, leavening wit, and the supple, finely honed imagery that may be attributed to her career in poetry, Airini Beautrais delivers in Bug Week a series of characters who do not merely manifest human flaws—they live by them. And they live next door. Hilariously, tragically and eminently real, they are, on close examination, revealed to be not the exotic species they first appear to be, but common garden bugs, and no more weird and wacky than each one of us must admit to being in our most secret selves.
RACHEL O’CONNOR is a writer, teacher and researcher, born in Christchurch. She moved to Auckland in 2014 after two decades in Greece. Her first novel, Whispering City, set in Salonika on the eve of World War I, was published in 2020 by Kedros.