Writing and revenge, Colleen Reilly

A Distraction of Opposites
Sandra Arnold,
Hazard Press, Christchurch, $24.95


The front cover illustration of A Distraction of Opposites is a painting by Heather Busch entitled ‘Look at the Pattern.’ At first glance, what you see is ordinary objects on top of an ordinary table. Look closer and you see grotesquely oversized worms and spiders on the floor. Overlaying it all is the effect of a shattered window  pane, shards of glass sticking out at weird angles.

Go to the back of the book and notice the publisher’s blurb about the novel, saying, ‘…it skillfully explores the abuse of male literary power and should be read by all aspiring writers, especially women.’

The statement of the front cover, then, conveys the novel’s attempt at ‘surrealism’, while the one on the back reveals its ‘realistic’ aspirations. Neither goal is reached in the text itself, instead the result is a confused and confusing hodgepodge that leaves the reader uneasily aware of the author: is this novel, finally, what it appears to be – the revenge novel?

Alan Broadbent is the famous New Zealand writer; Catherine Moss is the aspiring New Zealand writer. They meet, Alan seduces Catherine with his voice and words if not his appearance, Catherine accepts because of what it might contribute to her art, Experience. But it turns out Alan is no ordinary mentor-seducer. He is a psychotic, undergoing treatment, who needs the material of other people’s lives not only for the usual writerly reason but for his own insane reasons. Upon realising this, Catherine tries to break away – with the help of her husband Michael – but the novel’s ending leaves the question of her success open. The story of Alan and Catherine is told through realistic sections as well as dreams, stories, letters and poems. This is the attempt at surrealism, but it doesn’t work: even the different typefaces don’t help the reader get past the fact that these sections are boring.

The novel is full of contemporary clichés, from the style of house each character lives in to the symbolic use of pregnancy/ miscarriage, nascent anorexia, witches and witchcraft. At times it seems the author is on the edge of consciously and ironically using the clichés – from the big one of mentor-aspirant relationships down to the minor ones. But that isn’t realised. When Alan says to Catherine, ‘I can’t have a live child and I can’t write. Could we just meet from time to time?’, the bathos is completely unconscious. Or, when Catherine says to Alan, ‘I’m not impressed by your projections of your own predatory proclivities,’ although there’s evidence the author is aware of the alliteration, there’s none that she’s aware of irony.

Perhaps the core thematic sentence of the novel is Alan’s, ‘Take notice of your dreams, Catherine, or else you’ll live the nightmare.’ This is the excuse for the inclusion of the endless dream recitations in the text. The problem is that Catherine, and the author, take far too much notice of her dreams and not enough of the realities in Catherine’s days. For it’s on this level that the novel works best: in the exchanges between Catherine and her daughter, between Catherine and her husband, etc.

A Distraction of Opposites, then, is about the affair between Alan and Catherine (between life and art, dream and reality, Male and Female, etc.) It is an affair based on mind fucking, not the other kind. A portrayal of this kind of intercourse might or might not succeed better if the method used was ‘realistic.’ It would certainly work better if there was at least some degree of authorial distance.


Colleen Reilly is a writer and lecturer in English at Victoria University of Wellington.



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