To sleep or not to sleep, Iain Sharp

Not Her Real Name and Other Stories
Emily Perkins
Victoria University Press, $24.95
ISBN 084673 2891

Since I first clapped eyes on it Anna Miles’ cover design for Not Her Real Name has puzzled and intrigued me. The front cover, I mean. I have no problem with the caricature of Emily Perkins on the back which makes her look like a youthful Martin Amis trying on a Katherine Mansfield wig. I don’t know how close this is to the author’s actual appearance but it’s an appropriate image for the book.

Not that I wish to suggest Perkins’ fast-moving but often sloppy prose style is an amalgam of Amis-like pyrotechnics and Mansfieldian acuity. When did Amis or Mansfield ever display such a blithe disregard for grammatical niceties? When did either of them submit for publication sentences as graceless as the pair describing the game of patience in Perkins’ story “Some Common Mistakes”? (“It’s automatic seeing where the cards will go, if there’s a place for them to move to or not. Seeing as each new card is turned up if it has its partner waiting for it on the floor, ready for it to be laid in place and continue the chain down.”)

Nevertheless, in its general tone, its overall attitude, its willingness to subject he author’s own milieu to satirical scrutiny, Not Her Real Name is not too far removed from The Rachel Papers and Success or In a German Pension and Je Ne Parle Pas Français.

That front cover bewilders me, though. Seven head-and-shoulder portraits are set against pastel shades of blue and yellow (like a washed-out Swedish flag). The preponderance of male faces (four men, three women) is strange, since Perkins’ stories are written mainly from a female perspective. What’s more, with their baggy eyes and wrinkles, all of the sextet on the front cover look quite elderly. Yet all of the central characters in Perkins’ stories are under 30, with the possible exception of the “boss” (we never learn his real name) in “The Shared Experience”. Single, childless, moving from one short-term relationship to the next, most of Perkins’ creations are in their early 20s, although their petulance and continual attitude-striking frequently makes them seem younger, like surly 15-year-olds.

At the beginning of the 1960s John Cheever published a collection of short stories called Some People, Places and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel. Perhaps the drawings on the front cover of Not Her Real Name ought to be entitled “Some People That Will Not Appear Inside This Book”. Gaunt and wearing an enormous pair of dark glasses, one of the cover septet might be intended as a representation of the mother who is mourned in “Local Girl Goes Missing” but she looks remarkably like a caricature of Joan Didion I once saw in the New York Review of Books.

Perhaps the cover depicts Perkins’ youthful characters at a later stage in their lives. Are these the people they are hoping to become? Or does the cover imply that in spite of all their little acts of wilful defiance Perkins’ characters will ultimately turn into replicas of their careworn, respectable, middle-class parents?

While I remain uncertain about the wrapper, I think the book’s title is well chosen. The immediate reference is to the protagonist of the opening story, Cody (a suspicious-looking appellation borrowed from Kerouac). Beyond this, however, Perkins’ characters are generally more concerned with appearances than with anything that may pass for reality. Obsessively image-conscious, determined to create a striking impression (that is, one which will provoke the envy of their friends, the libido of sexually attractive acquaintances and the admiration of passers-by), they speak in husky tones that are not their real voices and voice views that are not their real opinions.

About to interview a prospective flatmate, Cody hides her pile of Woman’s Weeklys under the bed and leaves books by Milan Kundera “lying casually on the kitchen table”. Spying an ex-boyfriend in the supermarket, Dorothy in “You Can Hear the Boats Go By” stops purchasing her real groceries and chooses instead items calculated to produce a reaction (condoms, an expensive bottle of wine). The unnamed narrator of “Let’s Go” frets about finding nature beautiful because this is “not fashionable”. Doris in “The Shared Experience” is worried much less about sleeping with her boss than about becoming known as “the sort of woman who sleeps with her boss”.

Why is Doris attracted to an older man? Perkins’ explanation is illuminating not just within the context of “The Shared Experience” but for the collection as a whole:

But surely she should be looking for someone from her own peer group? Well, it’s obvious why she isn’t. They’re all fatuous, self-obsessed, undirected, confused, emotional retards.

As portrayed by Perkins, the urban young are also a pack of moaners, endlessly complaining about their jobs, their lovers, their cronies at the classes they attend. Three of their favourite adjectives are “fucking”, “stupid” and “gross”. They’re snobs, too. Dorothy is aghast at the prospect of being “reduced to banter with a supermarket worker”. In “Some Common Mistakes” Cherry “almost gags” when a derelict old man sits next to her on a bus.

Charity is not a virtue found much among Perkins’ characters. “Fat bitch, why don’t you get your jaw wired?” Diana yells at her boss in “After McDonald’s”. In “Local Girl Goes Missing” Catherine and her mother snigger together about a diminutive lover whom they dub “the dwarf” (pronounced “duh-warf” by the mother to add to the hilarity). Thinking of a next-door neighbour who had jaw cancer, Tricia in “Some Common Mistakes” remembers being “disgusted by how ugly the woman looked after her operation. Her parents used this as an example of what would happen to Tricia if she ever started smoking.”

Perkins refrains from passing judgment on her characters; their bilious comments on one another are sufficient. Some of the funniest moments in Not Her Real Name consist of sudden pretension-exposing shifts of perspective. Fearful of being considered unattractive, more than a little crazy anyway, Cherry in “Some Common Mistakes” rushes out to meet the postman naked except for her socks and a few daubs of lipstick applied to her nipples to enhance their prominence after the fashion of the Folies-Bergère. She expects the postie to be inflamed with lust. A level-headed chap, he merely observes instead: “Well, Cherry, you’ll catch your death out here with nothing on.”

While travelling as a passenger in her boss’s car, Doris in “The Shared Experience” decides to let his choice of cassette to be played on the audio system help determine whether or not she will sleep with him. When it comes to music Doris has many firm dislikes. “If it’s ‘Eric Clapton Unplugged’ she’s definitely not going to bed with him. In fact the list of tapes that would put her off him is potentially endless. ‘Yodelling Favourites’. Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. ‘Twenty Big Band Hits’. Anything played by Kenny Gee.”

He makes her do the choosing, however. The available cassettes consist only of classical music, an area in which Doris is woefully ignorant. She doesn’t know the difference between Haydn and Handel. She’s not even sure what an opus is.

Reviewing Sheridan Meredith’s Zoology (winner of this year’s Montana fiction award) with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm in Landfall 191, Perkins called for “a moratorium on novels featuring artists”. As far as I can see, there’s only one painter featured in Not Her Real Name (Trudi in “Running Around With You”), but many of Perkins’ protagonists, in spite of her protest, are budding artists of one kind or another. Trudi’s friend Helen is a would-be screenwriter. Rosie in “Rosie and Some Other People” goes to ceramic painting classes and her boyfriend Mark composes songs and wants to be a rock star. Billy in “Barking” and Marcelle in “After McDonald’s” are trainee actors. Marcelle’s chief confidante, Diana, is a fledgling poet. Cody also writes poems — or, at least, dreadful rhyming affairs (perhaps they’re actually song lyrics).

None of the characters Perkins writes about seems to be particularly talented. It’s hard to imagine any of them enjoying the same kind of early success that Perkins herself has. As I’ve already noted above, they’re much more likely, after a burst of sleeping around and posing as bohemians, to settle into comfortable bourgeois existences. They curse a lot and they’re heavy smokers and drinkers (top shelf mainly — vodka for Cody, gin for Helen, cognac for Doris), but apart from Cherry and Billy, who are clearly deranged, they don’t upset the status quo too much. They stick, for instance, to legally obtainable drugs. It’s not as if they live in squalor and commit robberies to support their heroin habits, like the addled crew in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. They are ordinary, generally law-abiding young people who are flatting for a few years while completing their university studies and identify with Perkins’ characters while probably feeling morally (and intellectually?) superior to them. My guess is that they recognise their friends in Perkins’ satiric portrayals rather than themselves.

Cody, however, is an exceptional case. Almost alone among Perkins’ creations, she is someone we laugh with rather than at. Far and away the most likeable character in the book, she’s a dreamer rather than a pretender. Left with only $54 to meet all her household expenses, she goes out and blows more than half of it on a bottle of vodka. Faced with a welter tasks which clamour for her attention, she devotes her time instead to compiling a list of ideal dinner party guests. (Overwhelmingly American in flavour, although Cody lives in Wellington, the list includes Susan Sarandon, Al Gore and Anita Hill.)

Yes, of course, Cody would like to make a favourable impression on the people around her, but that’s not her only priority or even her chief one. Heterosexual herself, it’s not for reasons of political correctness or in order to make some kind of statement that she has a lesbian, Thea, as her best friend. She and Thea simply like each other. Infuriated by confusing signals from Francis, her flatmate and occasional lover, she marches into the bookshop where he works and, oblivious to the customers, unmindful of the scene she might cause, she kisses him passionately. Yes, she intends to startle Francis into making some decision about their future together and she enjoys, as a kind of victory over him, his befuddlement in response to her initiative, but the kiss is not just a ploy; it’s also an honest declaration of her needs.

Cody has not only a warmth but a complexity which the other characters lack. In comparison with her they seem two-dimensional and difficult to distinguish. “There’s nothing more boring than people telling you their dreams,” Cody observes at one point. In general, I share her aversion, but I think it’s pertinent at this point to divulge a dream I had while working on this review. I was a competitor on the television quiz show “Mastermind” and the subject I chose as my specialty was Not Her Real Name. Peter Sinclair kept shouting the names of characters at me (Lucinda, Lynn, Carol, Marc with a “c” instead of a “k”, Toby, Martin, Maria and so forth) and I had to identify which story each of them came from. I didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t remember any of them. I had to pass.

Overall, I think Not Her Real Name is best absorbed in small doses — a story a day, perhaps, over a fortnight. Consumed in one go, the sameness of Perkins’ narrative strategies become apparent. Most of these stories hinge on the question of whether or not X will sleep — or continue to sleep — with Y. Most are related in the present tense and feature flurries of short sentences (no more than 20 words apiece) which begin with the same pronoun, like this (from “Some Common Mistakes”):

She goes into the kitchen and comes back with a large bowl. She picks up a piece of pizza and lifts it to her mouth. Time is standing still. She is salivating. She opens her mouth and puts the end of the pizza slice around it. She bites and chews.

Other reviewers have praised the authenticity of Perkins’ dialogue and I’m happy to concur. As well as capturing the competitive little putdowns that pass between so-called friends, she has a good ear for all the stutters, repetitions, evasions, hypocrisies, lies and non-sequiturs that constitute a large part of everyday conversation. Dialogue-driven, featuring characters who are prepared to discuss their sex lives ad nauseam, her stories read much of the time like Rl8 versions of “Shortland Street” and “Friends”. But the trouble is everyone sounds the same. There are no idiosyncratic speech patterns, no individual quirks. Perkins has a splendid grasp of contemporary slang, but her anxiously fashionable young heroines and their consorts tend to favour the same pet phrases.

Amused at first, I grew weary, as the book progressed, of the word “thing” used in combination with other nouns to signify a syndrome, a trait, a preference or just a vague state of affairs. “I thought you’d gotten over that ‘Brideshead’ cheekbone thing,” says Thea (not supposed to be an Americanophile, in spite of her choice of past participle) to Cody in “Not Her Real Name”. “I’m more into guys for the dick thing myself,” announces Lynn in “Rosie and some Other People”. “You know why he did that crazy night school thing?” asks Anya later in the same story. “This work thing came up,” says Helen in “Running Around with You”. And so on and so on.

If Billy, the disgruntled anti-hero of “Barking”, is one character who can be identified by the way he speaks, it’s only because he swears a bit more frequently and more viciously than anyone else in the book. His furious tirade against the clown class from which he has managed to have himself expelled is convincingly rendered but Perkins seems uncertain what to do with the character after the broadside is over. I think she should simply have stopped. By this time most readers will have deciphered the various layers in the punning title. Billy, who chooses “Dog” when asked by his teacher to name his clown persona, is barking mad. But we can also see that behind the deliberately horrid exterior (his “bark”) he’s vulnerable, pathetic and very lonely.

Perkins elects, however, to continue. We meet Billy’s sister, Carol, with whom he seems to have an incestuous fixation. She claims that as children both of them were sexually abused by their parents. At first we might suspect that Perkins is satirising current obsessions with repressed memories, but as Billy’s behaviour becomes increasingly odd Carol’s explanation begins to make sense. Or at least it makes sense in a B grade thriller kind of way as a quick and convenient means of explaining away the lunacy of a menacingly psychotic figure. Not that Billy is all that menacing, judged by the standards of B grade thrillers. He’s more reminiscent of the misfits and weirdos who populate the short stories Ian McEwan was writing in the 1970s.

He follows a young woman he has met in a cafe, breaks into her house and locks himself in her wardrobe. Exactly what this betokens, I’m unsure. Perhaps Billy represses his homosexuality as well as his childhood memories and incestuous inclinations. He could be making a symbolic retreat to the closet. Although nominally straight, he becomes suspiciously enraged, in a manner that seems out of date in the 1990s, for suggestions that his idol, James Dean, was a “fag”. I guess it’s appropriate, by the way, for a loser like Billy to show no imagination whatever in his choice of role model, but I wish he had selected someone less obvious than James Dean. Any of the trio of actors Cody includes in her dinner list — Daniel Day-Lewis, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp — would have been more interesting, since their mannerisms have not yet been analysed to death.

“Barking” seems to me an unsatisfactory tale. The plot goes nowhere and the mysteries of Billy’s unpleasant psyche are left unresolved. Perhaps he will re-emerge later as the focal point of a full-length novel, wherein his dementia will be probed in depth but personally I hope not. Having dragged myself through works by Bret Easton Ellis, Joy Fielding, Kit Craig and Martyn Bedford, the last thing I need is another gloomy saga of a traumatised loner whose psychosis is a result of an abused childhood.

I would rather see Perkins move more in the direction of “Thinking About Sleep”, the story which I think cuts deepest in Not Her Real Name. In this brief study of the effects of a suicide on a circle of friends (the debt to Big Chill is acknowledged in the text), Perkins reins back her satiric instincts (although humour is not entirely absent) and reveals a hitherto unsuspected delicacy and tenderness in her descriptions of the friends’ interactions, while still being alert to all their jealous rivalries. This story seems the work of a more mature writer than the others, with Perkins showing a fine awareness of how a sudden death leaves one mourning not only a physical absence but a swarm of lost possibilities.

Iain Sharp is an Auckland writer and critic 

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Posted in Literature, Review and Short stories
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