Victoria University Press, $29.95,
In Nigel Cox’s second novel, Dirty Work, Nif, a woman rebelling against the controlling hand of Hendy, the master of her world, has a message tattooed on her back – a message of defiance against restraint and of liberation into a new world: “The Independent Free State of G.I.N.A”. There is no little irony in the fact that Gina, the narrator of the novel, is unlikely to let any state she governs be free and independent in any absolute sense; her government will have its own rigour, but at least it will be a change of some sort, a change from the intolerable. The new will be more tolerable as long as it is new, but how long will that be? Escape is necessary, but will the place escaped to be more than a changing station?
Cox’s writing seems to just “go with the flow”, but to write that scene in Dirty Work, he did research of an unusual kind. He went down to a tattoo shop in Wellington’s Cuba Street and had a message graven on his skin. This is existential research involving the author’s body, his temporal being. A phrase, “The one of it”, was inked into his arm. It is the title of a novel fragment written by Gina’s boyfriend, Laurie, and Gina thinks it “very promising”. When asked why he chose this sentence for his tattoo, Cox responded to an interviewer “that if the words were going to be stuck on me for the rest of my life I wanted something I could think about.”
Liberation from the now into a then that might be no less restrictive, the undammable flow of language and things, painful experience and something to think about – all these motifs or “themes” can be abstracted from Cox’s novels along with several others. There is “art” as well, and the structure it imposes on an energised reality, with the constant risk that the energy will shatter the structure. Nothing, it seems, is permanent.
The most carefully structured of Cox’s three published novels is the first, Waiting for Einstein (1984). The least structured, in the sense of holding energy in a frame, is the third and latest, Skylark Lounge. Dirty Work (1987) is somewhere on the continuum between. The theme of liberation applies, therefore, even at this macro-level, but the question remains: is the state achieved after such liberation really more free and independent that the one that went before? Is the third novel any “better” than the first? (In an interview with Bill Manhire, issued by VUP with the third novel, Cox asks “Better for what? Better for whom?” He is thinking of elite museums as opposed to popular ones, but it is a question that can – must – be turned back on himself and the art of his novels.)
Waiting for Einstein is “structured” partly by being set securely in a reality recognisable to readers, especially New Zealand ones. The “surreal” or “meta-real” is confined to passages marked off typographically by the use of italics. They tell of a future state – imagined by the novel’s protagonist, the painter Ralph Thomson – where art is controlled by functionaries who can provide comforts that amount to luxuries in the depressed, controlled economy, provided that their recipient uses his creativity for the comfort and security of the powerful. The resemblance to Stalinist dictatorships is palpable, but there is also a chilling prophecy (in 1984!) of the intolerance and repression of orthodox Rogernomics – the intimidation of “There Is No Alternative”. The artist will be “tolerated” and “free”, the “Comptroller” assures him – but the freedom is granted by those in control, and “‘You will have to re-think everything,’ he said, ‘You’ve been deeply deluded.’” The artist may create whatever he wants – but then he must “take the completed work out into the courtyard and burn it.” The reason is simple: “We must help you.” This is the kind of help forced onto people by ideologues, elitists who know “better” than the people they claim to serve.
In its “real” parts, Waiting for Einstein paints vivid word-pictures of the Kapiti coast, like those painted by Ralph Thomson and described for us by the narrator. In this setting a complex story of friendship and love is told, a masculine story of a powerful bond created between two men in their youth and then slowly dissolved by the tensions of sexual love and lust as they “share” the women in the book. It is a credibly sad story, unrelentingly grim, with any humour being a kind of add-on, not essential to the story itself. In a mass of physical detail there is something that feels like an authentic picture of its time – the 1970s – but that very physicality threatens to smother the passionate events, which might in fact be more powerful if released, to some degree, from their time and place. The national need for concrete evidence of “identity” tends to work against the novel’s intrinsic force.
Ian Wedde remarked of Waiting for Einstein, “If I was Nigel Cox, next time I wouldn’t explain so much.” In Cox’s second published novel, the world that hovers above “reality” is inseparably interwoven with it. The world of upper Willis and Cuba Streets flows into the Happy World Hotel, whose doors open out onto it. Like the italicised world of Waiting for Einstein, the Happy World is tightly controlled by an apparently fanatic individual, Hendy. However, as the novel progresses, Hendy’s control crumbles. Encouraged, the hotel’s inmates (a more accurate term than “guests”) start a rebellion. What they want is to have the hotel run by Gina, the narrator.
From the beginning, Gina is difficult to assess. She has an escape route from the Happy World because she lives on Mt Victoria with Laurie, the “author” of the book whose narrator she is and which we are reading. This postmodernist game could be cloying but is harmless and even amusing in practice, largely because Gina’s voice is straightforward, unimpassioned and rational. To relax from the rigours of her hotel management work, she practises trapeze dancing and is training Laurie to be her catcher. This is, I suppose, a metaphor for the place of a modern narrator, swinging between the fictional world of the other characters and the world the author inhabits.
At times Dirty Work feels dull – but this is curious, since there is never a dull moment in it. Perhaps it is simply too long. But this, in turn, is a factor of the wealth of fantasies, images, ideas and action that the novel wants to press onto its pages. The dullness is more of a weariness in the reader, as more and more such items are added. Like many Australian writers – Peter Carey, Murray Bail – Cox seems to favour the additive as a structural principle. For all that, Dirty Work is not a book one wants to put down. What on earth will the author think of next? That is one formula, if not the most subtle, for retaining the reader’s interest.
Hendy sets up rules and regulations. Gina, however, subverts them, and as cracks appear in the rigid surface, ultimately turning into open wounds, letting the restrained life fluids flood out, Hendy cracks up too. His love of control and order gives way to a surprising ability to think “outside the square”. Gina, the liberator, undergoes the opposite change. The regime she wants to put in the place of Hendy’s will ultimately be almost as rigid as his. When deregulation becomes an orthodoxy it is as much an enemy to freedom as the tightest of regulations. The enemies to freedom are not on one side or other of the divide but are the extremists of all kinds.
Dirty Work is enlivened by its wide range of characters, as they come in from Wellington streets and go out into them again. In a Dominion interview with Iona McNaughton at the time the book was published, Cox explained that he had seen his characters walking the streets. Despite imaginary transformations, the inhabitants of the imaginary Happy World were people who inhabited the deregulated, private-greed-driven streets of a New Zealand city. They are those who suffered what the powerful imposed. Hendy’s world of regulation gives way to Gina’s world of each-for-yourself, and the effect is a movement from dependence to dependence. But this is an oversimplification: in any system, whether “controlled” or not, concern for others and its ultimate form, love, will free people up, and there is much of this in the novel too. Even Hendy finds love in the end – it doesn’t make him happy but it does make him a much freer personality.
After Dirty Work, Cox remained silent, as far as readers of his published work are concerned, for thirteen years. In fact, it appears that he wrote a great deal but was never sufficiently satisfied with it to let his readers in on it. He also had a great deal to do in his personal and professional life. The latter carried him into the frighteningly empty halls of Te Papa, and in the interview with Manhire he makes a spirited defence of that workplace. His arguments are differently expressed but basically the same as those of all its defenders: the popularity thing and the numbers thing – two arguments that are really one. He believes, for instance, that Te Papa’s “Parade” is “one of the country’s most successful art exhibitions ever” because of the numbers of people who ticked it on their response cards.
The implication that artistic “success” can be measured numerically is astonishingly naive for a writer of such sophistication. In fact it is the war between Cox’s intelligence and sophistication and his yearning to be “popular” that threatens to undermine his work as a novelist. Both the novels discussed so far imply a “particular niche audience” in the sense that the reader is asked to do something more than while away the time skimming across the surface of, say, a romance or a thriller. Like the tattoo on Cox’s arm, they are enigmatic and leave one with something to think about. If time were unlimited, our thoughts would be too. That makes for literary success (which is not to suggest that the books are unflawed), and it remains a success even if the readership turns out to be small.
Skylark Lounge makes compromises with “popularity” but seems less concerned with numerical success than with the other kind. It plays with science fiction and with myths of abduction by aliens, but it uses them for quite subtle, metaphorical purposes. The aliens in question have no bodies, no fixed form, and communicate with Jack Grout, their abductee, by assuming human voices, such as that of Dusty Springfield. Popular songs and singers accompany the action throughout, a kind of background music. There are references to well-known New Zealand icons, too, such as Kim Hill. Unlike the objects in Waiting for Einstein, however, these borrowings from a “popular” reality outside the book do not weigh down its texture. The blending of reality with surreality, meta-reality or sheer unreality is taken a stage further and, on the whole, succeeds in giving an enigmatic design to the material fed to the reader’s imagination.
It is doubtful, however, whether this material is enough for the author’s purpose. In the interview with Manhire he remarks, “I guess a decent idea for a novel is one that will carry 50,000 words or so without strain.” This disconcerting return of numerical definition prompts a reader to see whether the idea of Skylark Lounge meets that criterion, and, unfortunately, there are signs that a few passages have been added to reach the requisite length. At times I felt that a point had been made, but was being made again, elegantly perhaps, and yet redundantly. Half a dozen pages on tennis seem only vaguely related to their context. Other reminiscences of childhood and youth seem to have little to do with the action they are embedded in. The structure might be tightened by cutting such things, but then the length would probably be “wrong” – too short for a novel, too long for a novella. At present the first half of the book has a “lumpy” feeling, with thin patches and substantial ones, like broth with good pieces of meat.
As the tale progresses, however, it becomes meaty for most of the way and the last sequence, a kind of man-alone passage set on the central plateau of the North Island, is full of poetic writing and high symbolic drama. Interestingly, its strength lies in its detachment from “reality”, even though “real” landscapes are used. The language of the novel makes them increasingly strange and “alien”. At the heart of the landscape itself is something alien, just as Jack finds increasingly that the place to look for the aliens is inside himself. Realistic elements, such as a sceptical and interfering policeman, are less effective than the surrealistic ones. More and more one feels that Cox’s populist compromises with some shared reality are a weakness rather than a strength and that the core of his writing may well be – like Janet Frame’s – a series of images suggesting the internal workings and conditions of an individual mind.
Jack carries the alien elements within him, and to a great extent he is the alien. They abduct him when he is alone, looking deeply into his own mind, starting when he is only nine. The reactions he gets after speaking to his parents and others lead him to say, “So I stopped telling anyone about the aliens. I saw that it had been a near thing, that I’d nearly become a weirdo, a kid that other kids called names.” He draws the consequences – acting out his social role as expected but retaining the aliens in “a cube in my head”. Read as a metaphorical account of a mental condition, a condition of alienation, the book makes a great deal of moving sense. Read as a work of science fiction, it makes very little sense. If Cox’s novels are concerned with escape from restriction into freedom, the solution offered here is a radical one – the escape route is inwards, into the strange individuality of the human mind.
The most exciting thing about reading all three of Nigel Cox’s novels in sequence is to see the way his style and manner progress and lead him to new, exotic worlds, rising from the real world of New Zealand landscapes – the Kapiti Coast, urban Wellington and now a remote, barely populated place. The use of the real “out there” to suggest a reality elsewhere, deep in the mind, is an invaluable skill, too important, surely, to be compromised.
Nelson Wattie co-edited the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature and is now working on a biography of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell.