I’m Working on a Building, by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press, 2013), 200 pp., $30.
I unwrapped this small novel and scanned it back and front: I’m Working on a Building by Pip Adam, PhD in writing from Victoria University. On the front there’s a photo of the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) superimposed into Westland, South Island, New Zealand. On the back cover are the bio details for Pip Adam and a three-paragraph synopsis with one paragraph outlining the protagonist’s involvement with building the replica of the Burj Khalifa in Westland.
So, brown paper wrapping still in hand, I expected the book to be largely concerned with this replica Burj: a post-earthquake icon for New Zealand that will bring tourists south. The story opens with a brief overview of the concept for the Burj Khalifa: it will be taller than any other man-made thing, an attraction, a flower in the desert, a triumph of money and power over everything else. Then the following line hangs on the page and the story leaps forward: ‘Years speed by like the torn landscape of a train window.’
The scene is Westland’s Tai Poutini National Park, circa 2019, where Catherine is about to embark on her role as chief engineer for the Westland Burj: ‘… matching it, recreating it here, which is to say conquering it’. There has been a significant bout of geological mayhem in New Zealand, and ‘no one wants inner city office space’ any more. Catherine, the best engineer and worst person, begins her work, which soon starts going wrong as the tower sways and bits fall off, and then she hears that the Kingdom Tower has just opened in Jeddah Saudi Arabia (the projected completion date of the ‘real’ KT is 2019). So now the KT is officially the tallest man-made structure at one kilometre high. The Burj is 829-ish metres. Where does this leave everyone, including Catherine, who doesn’t even want to be in New Zealand? What claim to fame will the Burj Westland have? ‘Replica of the second tallest building in the world’ sounds missable, but ‘skyscraper in the Tai Poutini National Park’ sounds unmissable if not obscene. And while the lunacy of striving to build the second tallest building in the world in a geologically vulnerable backwater is not made much of in the story, the suggestions, implications and spin-off ideas as they relate to Catherine’s character, are interesting. From here the Burj fades from the story while also towering in the background as a reminder of the precariousness of Catherine.
Time in this novel jumps around like popcorn for the purpose of showing that Catherine’s past, present and future are equally at work and intertwined in her misery. The language is laden with engineering terminology. In fact, and not incidentally, Pip Adam’s PhD thesis asked the question: ‘In what ways can the language of structural engineering inform, alter and enlarge fiction?’ Surely anything can inform, alter and enlarge fiction if it is made or seen to, but it doesn’t matter what the reasons for the engineering–fiction connection are, Pip Adam articulates a broad idea about humanity, time and place via a symbolic use of the built environment in its capacity as a container and scaffold for humanity.
For Catherine, the built environment and the ground upon which it sits become a prosthesis, a personality extension, even a ‘recipe’ for how to stay alive, and it is the fallibility and beauty of buildings as an expression of human yearning that holds my interest throughout this book.
A small amount of soil mixed with water to a very soft consistency in the palm of a hand. The back of the hand tapped gently. If the soil is silty, water rises quickly to the surface and gives it a shiny, glistening appearance. If the soil pat is then deformed by squeezing and, too, by stretching, the water flows back into it and leaves the surface with a dull appearance. (p. 41)
In plan it is no more than a single room, in form no more than a gabled shed, but it lifts our cold, still hearts to its highest pitch where they stop, pulled back with all the forces by the parade of cross-braced structural frames coupled into the steep roof. Like the opposite of a Gothic cathedral, it is landing rather than flying. (p. 81)
The characters are Catherine, her workmates, one or two workmate-bedmates, Catherine’s husband Dominic (who gets her sister Tansy pregnant with twins), and Tansy (with whom Catherine has also had sex). These people lead self-destructive yet hard-working lives, and their clawing humanity is essential to the story.
They make a wounded, broken, yet invulnerable force that projects its creativity into its buildings – which take on the colour, vulnerability and character lacking in the people. The monster of a failing building or the sheer elegance of an anthropomorphic tower rise up, becoming whole worlds, while the human element is akin to that of a colony of worker ants. Catherine seems most at home when she is a part of a building – as if it breathes for her and provides her with structure. But of course the ants are as necessary as the things they produce: kill the ants and you have nothing.
Her father says he hates her and her mother wouldn’t wake up when Catherine said she was leaving home: ‘“Diane!” she shouted and her mother didn’t move an inch. “Diane, I’m leaving.”’ (p.188) And after a brief stint as teenage prostitutes and junkies, she and her sister Tansy, now squatting legitimately in an ex-office building, decide to stay at school because they’d get proper jobs that way. Catherine even packs their lunches, in a strange little allusion to domestic harmony:
Tansy played it over in her head while she watched Dominic shouting at Catherine, just to check if there were any signs that anything of significance was going to happen tonight. It looked unlikely. Dominic was still talking and Catherine was still nodding her head and smiling like she was trying to break her head in half. She kept swapping her beer can from one hand to the other so she could scratch each arm in turn. The man Tansy had given a blowjob to had cut their drugs with quinine. Tansy tried it out in her head: ‘The man I had sex with in a public toilet cut our drugs with quinine.’ She tried it out with one of the girls in her class: ‘That’s sad about your mum not letting you go to the party, Cat and I have sex with men in toilets for drugs and sometimes they cut them with quinine.’ (p. 197)
The author is not trawling for shock effects, or trying to drum up sympathy. She is dealing with morally loaded and emotionally complex relationships but without pointing a finger or fixing people’s issues. The people are awful (with the exception of Catherine’s friend William) to put it plain and simple. But the subtext is that the past might take over any minute with a Shakespearean-style redress; something like a shallow magnitude ten earthquake for example might shake the truth about Catherine and change her reality, bringing everything down around her once and for all – ‘might’, because I don’t feel that this author is being preachy in the slightest.
Catherine has climbed ‘high’ but it is all a wafer-thin fiction, hence the difficulty she has with the Burj Westland in the beginning-but-really-the-end of the novel. She is ‘sure of herself, angry at everything, more qualified than anyone’. And the last pages of Chapter 1 feel like the end of the story, and in many respects it is:
It was the wrong bolt. It would need replacing. She bent to it again, then stood and leaned on the column once more. She looked out over the darkness and imagined a fire so hot it would fix her to the column, to the steel, kill everyone else but keep her here and everywhere always. Dismantle her to countless alternate worlds and the very end of time, and to every moment that had already been all at once and forever. Burn and burn until she was melted to the permanence of it, the pieces that had always been: mountain, rock, tower, and at the very end somewhere there would be a building left that still stood alone in the darkness under a red sky – ash floating, and that’s where she would be, her face still broken and her body remade over and over – as tiny babies … (p. 24)
I hoped I would care about Catherine, but it wasn’t going to happen. Despite the few moments where her vulnerability is glimpsed, such as in Chapter 14 when she’s talking openly and gently with William, she remains hard, flat and unlikeable. So it was the concision of Adam’s writing, the evocative metaphorical descriptions of the internal workings of buildings and the human quagmires thereof that drove me through the book. But Catherine’s unlikeability is important. Her character is dependent on the built environment; is estranged from the human, and lacks a well-functioning involvement with either:
He was far from her mind, so was the building. She was at work, dismantling him, some kind of controlled deconstruction that left him and the moment in pieces that she could cull to build herself some small, secret place where she could go alone. Anton would never learn anything and he was inside her and what she knew was of no use to him and he didn’t think he liked her and soon he wouldn’t care and he came and everything ran cold. There are engineers everywhere, he thought. Right now. There are plenty of engineers. She had nothing they didn’t. Maybe she wasn’t even an engineer, maybe she was just a slut. (p. 187)
In the scene in the Pompidou Centre when Catherine’s sister Isabel and their father are looking for her and then see her: ‘She treated everyone as if they were made of the same material – sister, teacher, mother, stranger’, Catherine’s father says, as he watches her standing/hiding like a vertical column as part of the Pompidou Centre where the family is visiting (p. 213):
Catherine was standing very still. “Like stone,” said Isabel as they walked toward her. “Did you not know we were looking for you, Cathy?” Isabel asked.
– And Jesus’ answer to a similar question comes to mind (despite the tension in the comparison): ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I had to be in my father’s house?’
TASHA HAINES is a Wellington-based writer with a background in fine arts and education.