Distracting rhetoric, Janet Hughes

Blowing My Top
Kevin Ireland
Penguin Books, $24.95, ISBN 0 140 25645 8

The opening of Blowing My Top discovers the hero, Darby Fulljames, in full cry, venting his discontent at his bankruptcy, disgrace and incarceration. Reading it, I couldn’t help recalling the protestations of Ewan Wilson, late of Kiwi International — here’s another beneficent entrepreneur brought down by malign chance, a martyr to market forces, except that you have to substitute for Wilson’s disarming mildness a volcanic irascibility.

And let me also say, here and now, that for nearly a whole decade before the stockmarket crash — a worldwide, economic disaster that people seem to forget I did not personally arrange or stage-manage — I made vast numbers of small investors immensely richer and happier than they’d ever been in their lives before. I can claim, in all sincerity, to have brought more joy to the nation than any other single person in our history — and that goes for Aunt Daisy, Selwyn Toogood and Uncle Tom and the Sankey Singers…

…and so on for several pages. Fury and defensive belligerence are everywhere, in his scattershot attack, in his spasmodic syntax and irritable punctuation. For anyone who might have “enjoyed the pleasure of criticising me”, Darby has only contempt: they are “deadheads sitting on their bums”, “prize morons”, “ignorant dribbling cretins” who “yapped endlessly on talkback radio” — you get the idea, or you will if you have listened to talkback, for ironically this is precisely the rhetoric of many of its callers and not a few hosts.

Irascibility is a note Kevin Ireland strikes often, with lively results. In the short stories we hear it in the speech of some engagingly bolshie characters, in assertive narration, in a prose style full of impatience and even in the diction, which contrives to imply contempt for all the alternatives in the thesaurus. The colloquiality has colour, conviction — and an edge of political belligerence. I always imagine Ireland’s narrators looking hard at me and saying: “Now you wouldn’t be the sort of person who would contemplate putting that more formally, would you?.”

At his best he elevates irascibility from a temperament to a take on the human condition and resists its insults with verbal gestures of subversion. Darby Fulljames makes the political implication explicit, refers it to the public arena and inserts the story he has to tell into history. Dismissing the Treaty of Waitangi as “myths created by people who can’t make a fist of things”, he claims our “true” history is defined by our reaction to the 1951 waterfront lockout, epitomised in a Students Association vote in favour of “the total suspension of our civil liberties”. He connects political freedom with economic libertarianism and thereby his own career, in a culminatory eruption:

You think New Zealanders are freedom-lovers? Forget it. Scratch our skins and discover a nation of conformists, yes-men and bullies. Our favourite political posture is bending over to offer our backsides, so our rulers can present their policies to us on the end of a hobnailed boot.

Getting religion in prison has brought Darby not to repentance but to a belief he has a divine mandate to expose the disgraceful events of ’51. The story of his emotional, sexual and political adolescence in the shadow of the strike forms the body of this novel.

Satire in New Zealand has tended to deal in ironic parallels, to be savoured intellectually. Ireland looks to the eighteenth-century tradition of thoroughgoing derision and I’m persuaded his model, conscious or otherwise, is Gulliver’s Travels. Both narrators recount a turbulent period in their lives; both profess to have been enlightened by the experience; and both purportedly write for two reasons. One is to convince an audience of the “truth” of their remarkable fictions, of which they make much — here’s Darby:

I’m not in the business myself of forcing anything up or down anyone’s body orifices. I regard that as a voluntary exercise. I’m just putting forward the plain, simple, honest and absolute truth. As always. Amen.

The other is to proselytise, to retail enlightenment to the reader. Darby again:

My shield is my absolute conviction that I’m carrying out the purposes of the divine will. And those who can’t handle a simple declaration of faith like that can stick it right up their jacksies.

Before you applaud this robust choice of model, think for a moment about the popular reception and critical history of Gulliver’s Travels. It was widely feted as a ripping yarn, much mistaken for a spurious or even a genuine traveller’s tale and humiliatingly abridged as a children’s story. Not all readers overlooked its satire but they have squabbled for centuries over its target and import, generating shelves of wildly divergent readings. And they still disagree. You may well dispute my reading of it.

In both books a delightful complexity consists in the singularly (and in Darby’s case, plurally) flawed natures of the narrators. Gulliver’s name calls attention to his gullibility; he repeatedly half-learns lessons and we shouldn’t be surprised when at the end he surrenders his dignity abjectly while still affecting to stand on it. Darby exposes his weaknesses earlier, betrayed by his style which Ireland manipulates beautifully during the introductory tirade. His allegedly plain speaking is full of windy verbiage, redundancy and overkill, cliches and red herrings and there’s the odd non-sequitur. There are commonplace rhetorical dirty tricks (“at my so-called trial”), vaguely-directed abuse, scatology
which is as irrelevant as Swift’s is usually to the point and a great deal of protesting his innocence far too much.

When Gulliver fails as satire, I think it is because the clues meant to reflect his criticisms back on to Gulliver himself are too few or too subtle for some readers. Swift was attacking the pretensions of the Enlightenment. Through Gulliver’s first three voyages he rips into proponents of reason for failing to live by what they profess. But reason requires that excess be deplored as well as deficiency and Gulliver’s humiliation at the hooves of the Houhnhyms demonstrates that in excess, as a sole principle, reason too is disabling. In attempting to suggest a middle way by default, Swift probably pushed his readers and satire a bit too far. Does Ireland fare better?

Gulliver’s humourless doggedness has arguably a satirical purpose and it is possible similarly to rationalise Darby’s unfocused contempt. You could argue, and I’m inclined to, that this is meant to make us distrust Darby’s espousal of market forces as the only answer to rampant authoritarianism — that, like Gulliver, he has fallen into an error of over-compensation. But it’s hard to escape the suspicion that we’re listening to the language of someone who is simply a verbal bully and habitual self-justifier. When he speaks of “the travesty of a trial that I consider trampled over every human right and basic dignity that a decent citizen of this great country is born to enjoy and expect” I have to wonder whether Darby doesn’t demand for every citizen the right to do just what Darby wants to do and whether the cut of someone’s trousers or an underdone breakfast egg mightn’t move him to equally impassioned volubility.

His faults amount to a deliciously observant account of the irascible character: someone whose blunt, colourful belligerence is a joy, a reproach to passivity when it’s turned upon a deserving target — but then the same invective is unleashed on trivial irritants, matters of taste or in pursuing personal grudges. Eloquent indignation starts to sound like cranky irritability, which quickly palls.

For satirical purposes, Gulliver’s much-vaunted veracity is a red herring. It is his judgment, his supposedly enlightened understanding of the events which need to be scrutinised. Many a reader has been distracted entirely by the issue of truth-telling, however. The recent television adaptation, in which Gulliver’s truthfulness and thereby sanity became the whole issue, put a contemporary spin on an old story but it also sidestepped the crucial question of what exactly Gulliver had learned from the Houhnhyms and sanitised that singularly distasteful ending. His wife and child were now depicted as his beloved saviours from the wrath of the sceptical mob instead of Yahoos whose smell he could not endure in the same room.

Darby Fulljames protests his truthfulness often and luridly and he sounds more obviously flaky with every assertion. But it’s important that he asserts his honesty, not in respect of the tale he has to tell, which anyway we are given no cause to doubt, but in respect of his reaction to its events and his behaviour during the time which elapses between the end of 1951 and the 1987 stockmarket crash. In other words, we are compelled to scrutinise his ostensible enlightenment in the light of his subsequent demeanour. His scatological invective encourages us to examine his conviction that economic libertarianism is the only, the obvious, the sensible answer to 1950s authoritarianism and his personal shiftiness disposes us to find against him.

Like Gulliver’s voyages, Darby’s 1951 can be enjoyed as a story independently of any satiric understanding and, unlike Gulliver’s, this one is credible. Even on this level it’s a splendidly crafted novel. Ireland gives us an entertaining interpretation of the coming-of-age story. Darby is drawn unwittingly into serious skulduggery related to the waterfront dispute by way of a series of accidents, while he blunders about, motivated principally by lust and an ironically futile inclination to keep out of trouble. The comic touch is sure and the politics observed with a cynically exact eye and ear. And — no mean feat, this — the characterisation is equally mordant yet manages still to engage our sympathy for the central character.

The plot includes neat variations on sundry comic commonplaces and proceeds with a sureness of proportion and timing which would do credit to a veteran novelist. Then, when it seems about to resolve itself conventionally, if satisfactorily, the old Fulljames volcano starts to rumble again and the irascible post-crash Darby begins to irrupt into the narrative sporadically with pungent comments, as though he can’t endure the constraints of story-telling and keep his grievances pent up any longer. This happens increasingly often through the closing chapters and eventually he settles into abusive mode uninterrupted for the last three pages.

Delightfully, this is more than a chronological framing device, such as Swift and many others have used to give shape and illusory credibility to a tale couched as a testament. For, as the eruptions become more frequent, the hitherto linear scheme of the plot becomes more intricate. The distant past returns to haunt, affect and explain the recent past, coincidence and causality unravel with comic or tragic inevitability and at last we get some inkling of the process that has turned the blundering but amiable young Darby into the top-blower we have come to know. The technique is masterly, unfolding with an implication of elegant inevitability while yet springing some surprises.

It is also a joy to encounter this period depicted in a rambunctiously vigorous style. We are more used to having it rendered in a uniformly impassive tone which is traceable to, I think, a mechanical and selective reading of Sargeson with a tincture of Mulgan. It was a time of drabness in many respects, both interior and external; but Ireland reminds us that much of the drabness was a fearful reaction to past or impending turbulence and reminds us also that style doesn’t have to be slavishly mimetic — it can react as well as reflect.

Darby the top-blower gets in the last word and I think his behaviour to his public warrants further scrutiny. He addresses, of course, a fictional public which inhabits the same fictional world as his characters, a public which has condemned and convicted him, and he insults it often and memorably. A favourite trick is to affect to decide the reader is too stupid to grasp the import of a rhetorical question: “No, on second thoughts, don’t strain your addled brains trying to work that one out. I’ll tell you.” Or: “And what have I got? No — once again — don’t strain the circuits of your tiny brains by trying to answer that one. I’ll tell you — nothing.”

It’s the rhetorical posture of the narrator which compromises this book for me, even though it entertained me mightily. The problem wasn’t indignation at being repeatedly insulted along with everybody else “out there”, for in well-written satire it’s not hard to distinguish the fictional from the actual audience. And this is singularly well written satire.

No, it is a question of regrettable associations. I’ve come across various exponents of this brand of bullying by condescension but the most memorable and conspicuous was Sir Robert Muldoon. I have only to encounter this rhetorical tactic to see the smile of pity alloyed with contempt and the pose of exaggerated patience with which he met disagreement. He was not an extraordinary monster but a just representative of the spirit of his age — and I remember the 1960s about as fondly as Ireland seems to recall the 1950s. This involuntary response does not dispose me to listen receptively to anything Darby says. Which is a pity, because, even when he’s indulging in vulcanism, he says many things which are observant and trenchant and serve directly rather than obliquely the political point I think Ireland is using him to make.

Perhaps this is a subjective reaction which will bother no-one but me; but I suspect there is a little more to it. For the purposes of satire on a grand scale and in a grand tradition (for Ireland certainly earns himself a place) irascibility as a governing temper lacks in the end the authority and dignity of a savage Swiftian indignation.

Janet Hughes is a Wellington writer and critic.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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