Monkey business, Vivienne Jepsen

Lulu: a romance
Annamarie Jagose
Victoria University Press
$24.95,
ISBN 0 86473332 1

Concrete
Raewyn Alexander
Penguin
$24.95
ISBN 0 14027377 8

I loved In Translation, Annamarie Jagose’s first novel. It wasnt until about a dozen pages from the end that I began to have a sense of unease about where it was going. Even so, I read on unsuspecting to the last page which left me feeling as if Id eaten my way through a tin of peaches only to find the arse-end of a dead rat at the bottom. For this reason I approached Jagoses second novel, Lulu: a romance, with perhaps more caution than was necessary, reading the subtext carefully, treating that subtitle with a high level of suspicion. Others seem to have found the end surprising. Not me. Not this time.

Okay, so the guy doesn’t get quite so graphically shafted in Lulu. And this time I did at least get to understand why things turn out the way they do in the end – given what they are in the beginning. But where I was deluded, for most of In Translation, into thinking I shared some common humanity with Helena, Lulu‘s married couple of voices are fairly immediately identifiable as those of another species.

Kate and Mitch, an academic (rather than real?) couple, having arrived at their mid-thirties without children, do the sensible thing and adopt an infant chimp for research purposes. Kate, a linguist who considers herself more scientific than her psychologist husband, doesnt want to give the baby chimp a name, but Mitch calls her Lulu, and its all downhill from there.

One of the surprises the novel has to offer is that, assuming Jagose knows what shes writing about (and she writes with such conviction that we never doubt her for a moment), baby chimps are such a breeze to rear compared to human babies. Kate and Mitch (well, Kate at any rate) are able to spend Lulus early years focusing on their research into her ability to understand English and communicate by signing, without the usual all-consuming hassles involved in house-training and civilising her human counterparts. We have to wonder, really, why people go to so much trouble to adopt human babies when chimps are so much easier. Even as a sexually mature five-year-old (more than a handful in anyones terms) and let loose “out of sorts” in a television studio, Lulu is amazingly manageable. She has enough intelligence to tell lies and to get her own way by signing “bite” instead of acting it out – which makes her smarter than a lot of human teenagers – so things never get chaotic.

Kate, however, is not very smart at all. She apparently fails to understand that her claim to have conducted research “which made no distinction between animal and human subjects” (by rearing Lulu exactly as if she were a human baby) does not address the objections of the Animal Liberation Front communiqué which says, “LISTen. cHiMps don’t WanT TO be uS. THey WANt tO BE left iN ThE JungLE.” Kate is not smart enough to figure out that Lulu is capable of telling lies – until she does it so inescapably on television at the ripe (if not old) age of five. The less “scientific” Mitch has, of course, known of (and exploited) Lulu’s potential in this respect for some time. Which gets us into some distinctly slippery territory, juggling undecidable propositions on the nature of science, intelligence, humanness, and (inevitably) sexuality.

Some readers may end up feeling cheated by Jagose’s refusal to actually confront the question of inter-species sex. Others may feel that the few descriptions of sexual acts which do make it into the novel get quite close enough. Kate’s premarital “car sex”, and its engrossing effect on her husband, tells us more than we might want to know. Kate’s account of Mitch going at it (“head down, as against a strong wind”) over her, having “let” the five-year-old Lulu out of her “cot” so she can jealously interrupt the proceedings, is almost off-putting enough to make us forget, for a moment, that chimpanzees are agile enough to swing from tree to tree and are therefore unlikely, at any age, to need to be let out of a cot. As for Kate’s hardly explicable, video-enhanced, encounter with Dr Sharp (as in prick?), and her very oddball decision to carry on with “counterfeited” (and one-sided) “deranged passion” for him – if it isn’t quite enough to make you wonder what planet Kate beamed down from, it is certainly enough to finish the term “affair” for good.

If it slowly dawns on us that Kate’s whole life is her research, and that language acquisition is a lot lower on her unwritten list of priorities than she will ever admit, Mitch’s overly hidden sexual agenda ends up being less “creepy” and “slithery” than some other agendas operating in the novel. The earnestness with which the novel is narrated by both Mitch and Kate should not distract us from the fact that it is, of course, a have, a joke, a clever and interesting con. Well, isn’t that what fiction is all about?

2

Raewyn Alexander’s Concrete and Jagose’s Lulu are as unalike as any novels by fellow New Zealanders could be – even though both concern themselves with the nature of realness, communication, deception, sexuality. Concrete, like Lulu, has a dual narrative, but where the alternating voices of Kate and Mitch neatly balance Jagose’s novel, there seems less purpose in the short sections of third-person narration which interrupt the first-person voice of Alexander’s big “By-by” (bi?) Byron. Byron and her sisters, Shelley, Keats and Frost, were all named after poets by their mysterious Dad who wanted them to be “clever”, but abused them like crazy. Except, hang on, wasn’t that the “stepfather”? Well, I’m confused.

But then, so is Byron. Confused. And what does it matter? Dad? Stepfather? Boyfriend X? Boyfriend Y? Aren’t all guys the same anyway? But hey, women are as bad. Even Byron’s best friend, Esmeralda, is a shallow bitch, “a mermaid stranded on the edge of a sea of flesh and fashion statements”, a woman who makes nasty comments about her friend’s size because she wants her to “remember to be uncomfortable”.

If Lulu seems determined to make us wonder why women and men are ever attracted to each other, Concrete seems, at the outset, determined to go one step further and call into question the reason for humans to want human company at all. We might find, in both novels, a sort of inevitability about the outcome. In Lulu, from the moment on page 1 where we’re told that Mitch has torn his wife out of the photo of Lulu he keeps in his wallet, we have to suspect that if the guy has to make a choice between a supposedly thinking woman and a sexually frustrated female chimp, he’s always gonna run off with the chimp.

Alexander’s novel is never so focused, and it lacks the overtly meaningful subtext that makes Lulu so positively sleazy at times. As a consequence, the outcome of Concrete isn’t quite so predictable. But the image of men takes a battering early on. Byron expects men to hurt her. She used to have a boyfriend who burnt her with cigarettes, but left, she says, because “He wanted to hurt me, but for me not to like it.” One of the few halfway human males in the story is an endearing fellow called Wolf who plays with dolls, but when Byron’s temporary obsession with him seems to be going nowhere and she toys with the idea of giving up on men, a reader might be tempted to think she’d be better off with a big friendly dog than with anyone from the pool of bitchy humans around her. We can be pretty sure she’s gonna end up with the girl. Then again, she does have that masochistic streak.

Unlike Jagose, whose prose is so urbane, Alexander seems to be able to handle only short sentences, limited syntax, the interminable “I”, If Byron has to look at mirrors all the time to make sure she hasn’t disappeared, she seems to have to say “I” for the same reason. When she finally does get laid on page 153, it’s a relief to have the “I” abate and the sentences get marginally longer – for a whole paragraph.

Byron is a real human – even if she is all over the place physically as well as emotionally. The other characters (including the concrete city itself) are never really allowed to emerge from behind their heavily made-up personas. But Byron has a hard time seeing through the cardboard cutouts so why should the reader see it any differently? Alexander can’t write long sentences, but she is a poet, and quite often the whole structure of Concrete, with its cast of spray-painted characters, seems hardly more than a convenient wall to carry the poet’s almost brilliant, almost epigrammatic observations where words make unexpected collisions to stop us in our tracks.

Both Alexander and Jagose have an interest in the way people relate (or don’t relate) to each other. Their characters have in common a difficulty with making sense of themselves as social animals, an almost compulsive tendency to misrepresent themselves, and a high level of mistrust of others. But where Jagose’s modulated, controlled, but highly suggestive prose never lets down its guard for a moment, Alexander’s unrestrained and hyperventilated writing never holds back enough breath to manage a sentence capable of subtlety, but still has a heat and life lacking in Lulu. Jagose’s is an elegantly conceived novel with an interesting idea, but it may leave us unmoved by its refusal to meet passion (or whatever drives the human animal) head on. Concrete is a chaotic novel, which often (especially at the start) seems unbelievably bad, but grows on us as we become immersed in Byron’s pre-stressed world.

Vivienne Jepsen is a Wellington novelist.

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