A discomforting book, Margot Schwass

Choo Woo 
Lloyd Jones
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 86473 345 3

The roaming narratives of Lloyd Jones – lately of Russia, Paris, Albania and other exotic destinations – return to local ground with Choo Woo. It’s certainly tempting to categorise Jones’s fiction along such territorial lines. There’s the folksy and familiar locales of Gilmore’s Dairy and Splinter (both set in the Hutt Valley) and many of his short stories. Then there are the exotic settings – 19th century Paris, the French Riviera, Russia and, of course, the shambolic ruins of post-Hoxha Albania in Biografi.

For its part, Choo Woo doesn’t take us far in any physical sense: Riversdale, Masterton, occasional forays “over the hill” to Wellington. But just because its geographical boundaries are more familiar and circumscribed, it would be wrong to conclude that this latest novel is a change of direction for Lloyd Jones.

“With one’s imagination, one can go almost anywhere,” says a character in This House Has Three Walls. This idea of imaginative travel is as much in evidence in Choo Woo as in Jones’s more obviously “well-travelled” fiction. The new novel continues his familiar fascination with characters who invent alternative identities or take up imaginative tenancy in other people’s lives, such as the mediocre academic in “Pimping for Heine”, or the Russophile Judith in “Amateur Nights”.

With Biografi in 1993, this preoccupation found its most complex (and controversial) expression. That book, in which a mesmeric blend of fact and invention is used to conjure up a nation constructed on falsehoods, also bought Lloyd Jones something of a battle. Aggrieved reviewers felt they had been duped by Jones’s creation of Petar Shapallo, supposedly the double of deposed Albanian dictator Envar Hoxha and the book’s elusive hero. At issue was the question of literary versus literal truth, and how – or perhaps whether – fictional invention can be used in the service of history.

This issue is also pertinent to Choo Woo, but what is more obviously likely to attract comment is the novel’s explicit and unsparing treatment of sexual abuse. Choo Woo is the story of the prolonged abuse of twelve-year old Natalie by her mother’s boyfriend – a familiar scenario, but which
here has the distinction of being reconstructed and recounted by the girl’s father. I have heard the book variously described as searing, shocking and unsavoury. All these are true, but then paedophilia usually is.

But this is a book about paedophilia in the same way that Biografi is a book about Hoxha’s double. The real centre of attention lies at some distance from the ostensible subject matter. Here, Jones seems most interested in what economists like to call the “trickle down” effect – how the central events are experienced by the onlookers, the bit-players like Charlie and his estranged wife Vivienne.

For Choo Woo is essentially Charlie’s story, his journey to discover what happened to Natalie at the hands of Vivienne’s boyfriend Ben. His aim is not revenge, nor simply expiation of guilt, but knowledge. Only then, Charlie believes, can the lives of Natalie and her parents be repaired. And so, five years after the event, Charlie revisits his daughter’s abuse and subsequent pregnancy, plumbing for meaning the prescient details he failed to see at the time – like his fleeting glimpse of Natalie in the odious Ben’s car, looking “like someone’s wife”.

The story that emerges is a perfect illustration of the point that sexual abuse is not about sex but power. The physical damage that Ben inflicts is sickening, but what haunts you more is his emotional cruelty. His weaponry extends beyond physical domination to deceit (he convinces Natalie that to “tell” would destroy her mother), manipulation and bullying. She is his puppet: he dresses her up like Vivienne, flattering her into a faux sophistication which he can then exploit.

Ben’s depravity crystallises in one of Choo Woo’s most memorable scenes which, fittingly, takes place in a disused railway tunnel along the Rimutaka Incline. Charlie’s imagined version of events tracks each of the key players – Ben, Natalie and Vivienne – on their bike ride through the pitch-black tunnel. This is Lloyd Jones at his very best, the spare dialogue crackling with layers of unspoken deceit and double meanings, the poisoned relationships of this trio contrasted chillingly with the other happy families casually sharing this ride from hell.

Choo Woo, like earlier Lloyd Jones stories, “gets around” to a surprising degree – there’s a lot of vicarious and imaginative travel. Characters assume other identities as both a means of escape and an increase. At Ben’s behest, Natalie takes on the roles of her mother Vivienne, a lascivious Mrs Fonda, a castaway, a hunted animal, an Antarctic explorer. She and her friend Pete gather feathers to reconstruct a dead pet into some grotesque semblance of its adult self, which they keep on a perch. It’s somehow no surprise that Ben, when he’s not being a travelling salesman or a paedophile, is an enthusiastic amateur actor – on stage and in his nasty little games with Natalie in the guise of an African hunter or Captain Scott.

Jones’s prose style serves his subject matter well. There’s no room for lyricism or hyperbole in Charlie’s narrative: he is after facts, and delivers them with brutal directness. In this respect, Choo Woo is more reminiscent of the anecdotal, unadorned style of Gilmore’s Dairy and Splinter than of the slippery, oblique prose and formal subtlety of This House Has Three Walls. And again, Jones shows how a light hand with dialogue and an ear for local speech rhythms can do more to convincingly render New Zealand characters than any number of references to jelly-tips and jandals.

Throughout Charlie’s grim and patient reconstruction of his daughter’s abuse, we realise that his aim is less to understand than to know – not just what happened to his daughter, but when and how. How did Natalie feel when Ben first raped her? How did she feel when he dressed her up in her mother’s clothes and makeup? How did she feel during the terrifying ordeal of giving birth, alone and ignorant?

In the absence of alternative versions from Natalie (a shadowy, unformed presence) or Ben (a cipher, smooth and bland as soap), Charlie takes it on himself to present events from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator: “Ben picked his spot well. Natalie still didn’t know what shape the day would take … she does as he asks. She does so without knowing why or what next.”

But I was left unsure about what exactly drives Charlie’s insatiable need to know, and to know so much. Why isn’t he satisfied with sticking to the predictable impulses for rage, for violent revenge? These do provide him with some short-lived satisfaction (and for the reader too, there’s a certain animal pleasure in observing Charlie beat Ben’s head into the concrete, “a dull pumpkin sound in case you were wondering”). Or, like his ex-wife, maybe Charlie could simply forgive and forget a little.

But here he is five years on, still teasing out the details from Natalie, revisiting the sites of her seductions, burrowing into her past. His explanation is that: “You need to know. You have to know … This is information that stays with you forever, clouding everything. The world is not quite the same place any more. Ben opened a door to a room I never asked to look inside.”

Undeniably, the blow-by-blow unveiling of Natalie’s abuse ensures the novel’s pace never slackens as it builds towards complete and sickening disclosure. But the proposition that the more graphic Charlie’s knowledge, the more complete the healing just didn’t bear the stamp of imaginative truth for me. Also somewhat unpersuasive was the fact that neither Natalie nor her parents recognise she is pregnant. While a quick glance at the headlines of our major dailies assures us that such things do happen, I felt unconvinced that this would have happened to this particular girl, with these particular parents – however preoccupied in their own miseries they may have been at the time.

Choo Woo is a discomforting book, and not only because (like Charlie) we too are forced to open a door we wish had remained shut. The narrative stance itself – in which the father is both a spectator and commentator on his daughter’s seduction – is the novel’s most disturbing feature and, perversely, one of its most successful.

By locating the central experience of the novel not with the victim, nor even the perpetrator of the abuse, but with Charlie, Jones shifts the centre of attention away from the events themselves to their collateral damage. Some might say this distancing of the crime, and the victim, does both a disservice. While that may be true in a politically correct sense, it’s a potent argument for what fiction can achieve over straight reportage. Unlike non-fiction, a novel can explore an abhorrent crime by viewing it obliquely and from several viewpoints, provoking reactions beyond the predictable.

Doubtless there are those who believe that sexual abuse is too grim, too significant an issue to “trivialise” by fictional invention. In his recent book Too True, the English writer Blake Morrison has identified a current popular predilection for narrative non-fiction (the memoir, the diary) over the novel. He observes: “There’s a veneration of first-person truth-telling – and fiction, because it tells lies and/or does not allow for a simple conflation of author and narrator, has lost some of the prestige it enjoyed.” Morrison goes on to describe how some subjects (and sexual abuse would doubtless be one) are regarded as too sacred to be entrusted to the untrustworthy care of novelists, who simply make things up. The popular view, Morrison suggests, is that such intimate, shocking crimes can only be “truthfully” recounted in the first-person by the victim (or maybe the repentant criminal), or given the stamp of journalistic objectivity.

But who’s to say that the journalist’s report or the diarist’s memoir is any more “truthful”, and any less selective or partial, than the novelist’s version? As Morrison remarks, “Without art, confessionalism is masturbation. Only with art does it become empathy … Sincerity is a trick like any other. The process of being ‘truthful’ as a writer is not unlike that of constructing a narrative voice in fiction.”

In Choo Woo, Lloyd Jones’s choice of narrator and his decision to view the central events from without rather than within, amply demonstrate the novelist’s “art” that Morrison writes of. Charlie’s story circles around the central events before closing in, pulling us nearer, forcing us to look at what Charlie, Vivienne and finally Ben himself see one stifling summer afternoon in an abandoned house where a
thirteen-year-old has just given birth.

While Choo Woo cannot be described as a book to be enjoyed – its subject matter rather militates against that – it is a novel to be appreciated, and disturbed by and talked about. That these responses are possible is due in large measure to Jones’s selective and skilful shaping of Charlie’s narrative, which allows us to be moved rather than simply enveloped in disgust. How often do we hurriedly pass over a newspaper report of a story like Natalie’s, too jaded or repulsed to read beyond the headline?  In this sense, Choo Woo is something of a triumph for the novel over factual reportage or the confessional memoir – a triumph for literary over literal truth.

Margot Schwass is a Wellington reviewer.

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