Penguin Books, Auckland, 1991, $24.95
Grievous Bodily, subtitled A Very Funny Novel, has been written with the film in mind. Not any old film, but a very funny film with enough references, cross-references and sight and sound gags to recall nearly every movie you might have seen or heard about including silent movies, French comedies, musicals (‘Singing in the Rain’), spaghetti westerns and ‘Mad Max’.
Most of the action takes place in the fictional New Zealand university town of Pendleton, described as also having a Maori name which roughly translated means ‘the place where Tamatea trod in something’. The first lawns were mown in 1889. Within fifty years, the first social workers had arrived. By the 1980s there were two pizza parlours and multifarious ongoing situations’. It doesn’t require a university degree to recognise this as Palmerston North – or just about any other New Zealand town for that matter. Not surprisingly, the author runs courses in art history and film studies at Massey University. Besides other novels, including The Quiet Earth, adapted for the screen in the early 1980s, he has written several film and television scripts.
Harrison’s first aim in Grievous Bodily is to satirise academics, but he manages pot shots at just about everybody else including poets, critics, feminists, homosexuals, heterosexuals, chauvinists, racists, the police, Maori, Aussie criminals and Malaysian Chinese with the surname Ng (how do you pronounce Ng?). As for the university community, no-one escapes unscathed, not even employees of the university staff club and especially not visiting American scholars.
When Max Sherpe, senior lecturer in philosophy and renaissance history lecturer Ken Armitage find a stash of money under the floorboards of the university bach at Lake Taupo they set in motion the sort of mayhem which leaves few characters wealthier or wiser. Instead, cars crash, houses catch fire, dogs bite, puddings and police stations explode to the tune of three car chases, eleven grievous bodily assaults, one Maori welcome and several bungled and some consummated assignations, until a house ‘deconstructs’ and a thesis becomes a bestseller in the finest post-modernist manner.
As is proper in a novel with a university background, Grievous Bodily can be analysed for its consistent motifs and recurring themes such as ‘pudding’, ‘grievous bodily’, ‘tax return’ and ‘blancmange’. Perhaps the best metaphor for the book itself is the description of one academic couple, a Tasmanian-born geology lecturer and his ebullient wife. The Prannocks are described as ‘a kind of life-force in overdrive, a mutation of suburban dementia, a moveable theatre of the absurd’, who ‘fell into things, caused the demolition of free-standing objects, went to sleep during performances of Waiting for Godot and snored aloud at concerts to drown out the 1812 Overture’.
Much of Harrison’s malice at the expense of the university community is to show just how like the rest of us its inhabitants are, with not much more than a better vocabulary to distinguish them from their neighbours. There is something appealing, too, about a book which uses everyday words like ‘knackered’ alongside theories of Cartesian duality and the second law of thermodynamics. The effect is rather like farting in Church.
Harrison has lots of fun in this novel. The vice-chancellor, ‘like most members of the university staff, academics and administrators, had the sort of job which enabled him to decide how busy he would be at any given moment’. A senior lecturer on education produces articles entitled ‘Goal-oriented Behavioural Interactions in the Classroom Situation’ and ‘Ongoing Factors in Educational Delivery Modes: An Affective Correlate’. A woman poet wonders ‘what it would be like to strike a real blow instead of a metaphorical one’. At the same time Ken Armitage concedes that ‘us blokes tend to be lazy buggers by and large and sod all would get done if there weren’t a few females hovering around’.
Occasionally the writing is clumsy, the humour heavy-handed. In places Grievous Bodily could have done with tighter editing. These are minor quibbles concerning a novel which exhibits more concentrated energy and irreverence than it can decently contain. Be careful when you pick it up – the laughs could cause you a grievous bodily.
Diane Moir is presently working for the Department of Internal Affairs and also facilitating workshops. She has worked previously as a television journalist, parliamentary press secretary and writer for the United Nations and UNICEF in New York. She has a BA from the University of Canterbury.