Hipster pulp, Dougal McNeill

New Hokkaido
James McNaughton
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 978 086473 9766

James McNaughton’s New Hokkaido is not the “adventure that thrills and disquiets at every turn” promised in its blurb, but it does qualify as a page-turner: I read on, eager to finish and be done with this novel. Artistic failures work according to quite different rules to the failures the rest of us experience in life, however, and this immediate readerly frustration and boredom needs unpacking. Some bad works serve good ends, after all, operating as a kind of aesthetic compost: without M K Joseph’s novel A Soldier’s Tale, no Curnow poem “Dichtung und Wahrheit”. But what kind of a bad book is this?

Japan, in McNaughton’s novel, won WWII and, by 1987, New Zealand has endured decades of “being bled dry” by a ruthless, buck-toothed occupation of miniature Tojos straight from the pages of Commando. Chris Ipswitch, an English-language instructor and brother of a notorious and retired international sumo champion, is a drifting, gauche everyman charmer, familiar from male first novels the world over. He slips into plans for insurrection and conspiracy, and must (of course) investigate a murder. The authorities warn him to look no further (naturally); the conspirators face complications; an ordinary man must find himself, given help by a figure from the past and an improbable sexual affair, in order to win justice for his family and freedom, perhaps, for his people. How do the novel’s many coincidences and narrative gaps and meanderings come together? Never mind; no matter. McNaughton’s writing is so awkward, his plotting so plodding and his deployment of genre formulae so poorly formulaic that, by the time of the real insults to the reader’s imagination and patience towards the novel’s climax, one is too wearied to care much at the slight. The pacing, like the hero’s predictably mad-cap racing across the country, is erratic, but never fast enough.

New Hokkaido is a kind of hipster pulp, forever indicating with knowing winks clichés it never works hard enough properly to explore. From a university press, and with the odd literary pretension stuttering through from time to time, it offers none of the satisfactions of unashamed trash. There is none of the splendidly paranoid right-wing vision of Rising Sun (1992), Michael Crichton’s American tale of Japanese corporate invasion. But neither are the ideas interesting enough to compensate for the shoddy writing. McNaughton toys, unenthusiastically at best, for a few pages with some complex and unsettling details to his insurrectionaries, but, once this account of a drunken racist house party is out of the way, the Action Adventure stencils return: “the so-called Lost Generation who were born in the most brutal phase of the occupation” offering a suitably righteous backdrop. The best counterfactual and future history science fiction loosens our own complacent sense of historical justification and inevitability, as with Philip K Dick’s masterful The Man in the High Castle (1962), a vision of a Japanese-run California perhaps better than its author’s pre-Civil Rights Act contemporary America. New Hokkaido, instead, contents itself with reinforcing the most familiar of national fantasies. One could find more complexity and sophistication in Speights’s advertising campaigns.

McNaughton’s tradition is not the counterfactual science fiction of recent years, however, but a much older literature. This is a Yellow Peril novel, a companion to Arthur Ward’s Dr Fu Manchu, Ettie Rout’s fears of race-mixing, Australia Calls and Tomorrow, When the War Began. Japanese flags turn “imperiously”, false-hearted women “walk pigeon-toed and speak inanities in a helium voice” or irritate with their “fashionable high-pitched giggle”. The love interest – a series of brief encounters in which Chris’s every moment of orgasm is registered and recorded, while the thoughts, feelings, and responses of his partner Hitomi, one “guttural cry” apart, are all inscrutable Asian mystery and kink – is the purest Orientalist fantasy, sex scenes so cock-sure in their badness Ian Fleming would have squirmed reading them. The Japanese conquerors, bandy-legged, conformist and cowardly, are a bad lot. The Kiwis, rough language and strong liquor duly noted, are good, keen, honest pony-tail-pulling man-aloners.

And the Māori of this other history? Theirs must be a fitful presence because, like all Yellow Peril fantasies, New Hokkaido never knows what to do with its own colonial history. The Japanese are a beastly bunch, certainly, but their Pākehā opponents, while undoubtedly manly enough, are never more than cartoonish. It is when the novel strains for its literary effects that these defects, stylistic as much as political, become most galling. A later chapter attempts some “serious” and literary set-piece openings, offering a vision of Karori where “the rentals are very low and few people work …. Winter is tough. Cases of rheumatic fever, skin infections and respiratory illnesses spike, and there are annual outbreaks of whooping cough.” One need not, in our own reality, drive too far past the Ngauranga Gorge to find just such a world today. The novel knows this, and registers that knowledge in an unease about its own implausible characters, but cannot do anything with this knowledge or that unease.

New Hokkaido is symptomatic of a whole social imagination, one found across the country but with its political and creative capital in Wellington, the most self-satisfied of cities. This is urban liberalism’s disavowed xenophobic charge. It is the world of the Green Party advertisments featuring beautiful not-quite-Aryan children staring from untouched, and empty, natural landscapes, of the anti-Chinese talk of all opposition parties, of “born here” t-shirts worn by people who are no doubt horrified by the language of Europe’s xenophobic right. The Yellow Peril has always been New Zealand liberalism’s nightmare and yet, somewhere between the start of the nuclear ships ban and the Black Seeds’ first LP, this liberal self-image became so confident in itself and its own self-evident benevolence that these older strands no longer made themselves felt. Keep it Kiwi, the Greens’ slogan ran; New Hokkaido, if it offers few literary pleasures, at least serves the political purpose of reminding us what else comes along for the ride once that train starts up again.

Dougal McNeill teaches in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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