Darts and sledgehammers, Sue McCauley

Two Little Boys
Duncan Sarkies
Penguin Books, $28.00,
ISBN 9780143020912

Acid Song
Bernard Beckett
Longacre Press, $29.99,
ISBN 9781877460111

Girlie
Gillian Ranstead
Penguin Books, $28.00,
ISBN 9780143010005

“I thought it was one of those boys’ books,” said a friend when I enthused about Duncan Sarkies’ novel. She’d read a review, plus there was that title. I was indignant on the novel’s behalf. “No,” I said, though I’m not sure she would agree. Another female friend whose literary judgment I value only reads books written by women. Her reasoning is that since she will only ever get to read a modest proportion of the available books she might as well confine herself to those she’s more likely to enjoy. She doesn’t want to debate the logic of this argument or hear about what she’s missing. I think she’s convinced herself that all male authors write those boys’ books.

Regrettable and retrograde as it may seem, sexism flourishes in readerland, and cuts both ways. I remember a male literary editor grumbling about the number of female authors who described, in detail, their characters’ dreams.

The problem with sexist stereotypes is that they are both socially undesirable and fundamentally true. Bernard Beckett could turn this quandary into something profound. He would view it from every perspective including microscopic, present his findings and allow us to draw our own conclusions.

Each of these three books could be said to conform in significant ways to gender stereotypes. Two Little Boys is about young men doing stupid and dangerous things. Acid Song is an emotion-free zone. Girlie is unrestrained, awash with emotion and – yes – dream-laden. Apart from being written by New Zealanders, conforming to gender stereotypes is, in fact, the only common factor in these three wildly dissimilar books.

Deano would see those opening paragraphs for what they are – a rather desperate attempt at an inclusive, chatty yet meaningful introduction. Deano is the opinionated, psychopathic, control freak and bogan in Two Little Boys. Deano and his best mate, Nige, take turns narrating the story, which begins with Nige accidentally running over a Norwegian backpacker, and escalates into a bizarre, tasteless and boisterously inappropriate tale of (among other things) body disposal, jealousy, ineptitude, the Catlins, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and love.

It’s not so much a novel as a sustained performance piece. Nige is Deano’s straight man in more ways than he’s aware of, for Deano is both bent and homophobic. The humour here is in the vein of Ricky Gervais (The Office and Extras) and Australia’s Chris Lilley (Summer Heights High). They present us with awful, cringe-inducing characters, and we laugh; partly in recognition and partly with relief that we don’t have to hang out with these people. But there’s an element of cruelty, or at least superiority, in that mix that isn’t apparent in Two Little Boys. Sarkies’ humour, like the humour of Flight of the Conchords, is kinder than the overseas brand. Kinder and darker. And rather more childish.

There are Conchord connections. Sarkies wrote an episode for the HBO TV Flight of the Conchords series, and Jemaine Clement endorses the novel as “Twisted, surprising and very very very funny.”

Duncan Sarkies’ apprenticeship in being very funny has centred on stage plays, film and live performance. Now he’s used a scriptwriter’s skills, including a finely honed instinct for subtext, to craft a novel. While the narrative presents as extended dialogue that pants to be read out loud (to a selected R16 audience), the plot is classic screenplay. Ever unpredictable, it staggers a jagged path from bizarre misadventure via total disaster to the – literally – cliff-hanging crises. There’s even an aftermath; not quite in the Hollywood mould, but better. A surprising and perfect ending.

And there’s pathos. And satire. “It’s such a beautiful country,” says nice Nige. “Like, cos I’m from here, when I see a mountain I just kind of go ‘Oh yeah’ like it’s no big deal, but for Juergen coming from a country that is like probly a bit shitty in the scenery department … .”

There’s a vein of dark humour running, too, through Acid Song. It’s in the occasional wry sentence, a juxtaposition of content, the schoolroom scenes, even perhaps the selection of theme. Beckett’s humour is darting – a sly stiletto jab to Sarkies’ cheerful sledgehammer. Both novels are fiercely contemporary, and it may be that dark humour has become the only rational way to deal with the here and now.

Acid Song is, in fact, set slightly in the future. At least, the future as I write this. The events in the novel cover 48 hours that end on the evening of an election day that, although no date is mentioned, seems to closely resemble election day 2008. (Cunningly, the story ends before the results are in.) “[A] corrosive song of our times,” says the back cover. It’s a poetic but also accurate description of the book within, and it serves to explain the title. The cover photo shows a rope unravelling. Inside we find a society (our own) unravelling. Fault lines are mentioned a number of times and sensed on almost every page.

Apart from interviews based on his Falling for Science: Asking the Big Questions, which was published last year, and a couple of reviews, this is my first encounter with Beckett, though Acid Song is in fact his ninth book of fiction, and his literary ascent has been meteoric. His area has been the young adult market, but his last YA title, Genesis (“35,000 words of genius”, says his UK publisher, Quercus Books) is being republished in both YA and adult editions.

The genius claim could be true. Acid Song is a formidably intelligent novel: layered, thoughtful, intricately crafted and well written. It’s also a dense and rather difficult read. Old-fashioned in the stern way it doesn’t stoop to entertain or be unduly accessible. And old-fashioned, too, in being about something. Not only is there a theme, but it’s a theme of substance. At the core of this book lies a question: when scientific truth and social responsibility are incompatible, which one should we choose?

The example devised by Beckett concerns scientific research that seems to prove a correlation between race and IQ. Publication of the research findings in academic journals has deeply offended the anti-racist sentiments of liberal academics and students. In the interest of social responsibility, they argue, the information should have been suppressed.

But isn’t higher education a search for truth? Richard Bradley, scientist, liberal, failed politician and friend of the research scientist at the heart of the uproar, is Acid Song’s central character and mouthpiece for philosophical debate. But Beckett doesn’t settle for theory or polemics. He injects his theme into a sort of sociological cross-section of our society through a selection of characters and events relevant to issues of race, rage, education, truth and deception.

On a first reading I found Acid Song a brittle, chilly, fragmented novel – and took the style to be a justified comment on our times. But I knew that I needed to read it again, and on second reading I saw that, far from being fragmented, the novel is, in fact, intricately woven into a pattern of cleverly engineered interconnections. It provides no answer to the question it raises but it gives us a discomforting portrait of our “life and times”.

It’s an impressive and provocative novel – but at a cerebral level. My heart didn’t give a damn. It was waiting for Girlie. 

Girlie is Gillian Ranstead’s second novel and the outcome of research into the author’s family history. Just how much is based on fact isn’t clear, but the story is preceded by a couple of pages of “Family Notes” – a sort of selective family tree, stretching back to Scotland and 1698, without the simplifying visual links. It’s a great sprawling meander of a novel – 402 pages – which centres on Mara (also known as Girlie) and her extended family. These are mostly Scottish, but some are Maori and they’re there in the family notes, but I never quite got the hang of who was who and after a while I gave up flicking back to check.

The first half is set in an isolated North Island valley, beneath towering hills. Ranstead’s descriptions of landscape are simply wonderful and the detail of rural life in New Zealand is accurately and finely observed. The story begins in the late 1950s but it feels more like the Depression years. Though a TV is set up in order to watch Cassius Clay fight on its flickering screen, the social conventions and soaring wool prices of the 1950s seem not to have touched the Scottish Duine family and their Maori neighbours and friends.

The story is told in distinctively lush prose. You could call it lyrical, or mannered and self-consciously “creative”. I never quite managed to make a decision on this; but the style did distract and distance me from the content, especially in the earlier chapters where the narrative voice slides into the perspective of the child Mara:

They came from somewhere else, Papa D said, and that might be the other side of the world and it might be the other side of thinking. There was a this-side of thinking, Papa D said, where everything you saw or heard around you could be taken inside of you and thought; and there was the other-side of thinking … .

 

I didn’t believe passages like this were Mara’s thoughts and not the author trying for cute. I needed to like Mara, who’d been abandoned by her tough-minded journalist mother and left to the mercy of her complicated extended family, and who was, after all, the central character in this sprawling story.

Too sprawling for me. Too many characters, too many tangents, too many words, and a fuzziness of focus. We’re whipped off to Washington DC where journalist Eva is reporting on the civil rights movement, and whizzed back to the aftermath of the battle of Culloden, and we’re given all kinds of extraneous detail and characters better suited to the family history that spawned this book. I kept wishing that an editor had persuaded Ranstead to do her readers a favour and whittle away all that was over-ornate or simply superfluous.

But I remember having the same kind of thoughts about The Bone People. And despite all my irritations and reservations, Girlie eventually captured me. Caught me up in that overblown prose and held me in thrall. Moved me to tears.

 

Sue McCauley is a Dannevirke writer and reviewer. 

 

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