Form and dysfunction, Laurence Jenkins

The Ambush
John Parkyn
Quoin Press, $19.95, ISBN 1 877163 23 6

The Diary as a Positive in Female Adult Behaviour
Vivienne Plumb
HeadworX, $16.95, ISBN 0 473 06342 5

baby, is this wonderland?
Jeanne Bernhardt
HeadworX, $24.95, ISBN 0 473 05762 X

Novellas, like hurricanes in those Home Counties, hardly ever seem to happen, but here are three that are quite different from each other, though they all contain dysfunctional characters of one sort or another. In fact, though the characters are not at all similar, they almost provide a binding motif that each author has worked either well or badly.

The weakest by far is John Parkyn’s The Ambush. The hallmark of the correspondent (Parkyn, Dunedin-born, was a career journalist) is engraved on every paragraph, and one imagines the author with camera tracking his characters. Set, as the publicity note says, “in the steamy heat of Nicaragua and Mexico”, it reads like an attempt at cloning Graham Greene via the chromosomes of mystery and intrigue. It merely results in the clumsy telling of a not-very-interesting story. The improbably-named Quentin Symes is busy with the game of self-destruction, having witnessed the rape and murder of a Nicaraguan girl by Sandinistas as he hid shaking with fear in a gully, too cowardly to come to her aid. (Do we hear Victorian manly virtues bestirring themselves?) He lives with this memory and the resulting guilt, becomes increasingly antisocial, and eventually leaps off some scaffolding to end the agony.

The characters who witness his pain and become by degrees involved are all thinly-disguised copies of Maugham and Greene creations: the nasty husband and long-suffering wife – British, of course; and there is Jack Morrison, like Symes a New Zealander, who just happens to know the protagonist from earlier times, and who is keenly interested in Paloma, the Mexican wench who continually distracts him from saving Symes from himself – you’ve read it all before. If the author had been even remotely able to emulate his models, this little book might be mildly entertaining, on the level of secondary school reading, and in fact one wonders what audience Parkyn is addressing with writing such as: “The grey dawn light seeped softly through the aged windows and dusty corridors of the Hotel Hacienda. Morrison was in a filthy mood … he had slept unsoundly and he didn’t like that one bit …”

The Diary as a Positive in Female Adult Behaviour concerns another self-destructive character, the diarist Raminsky, whose immensely complicated and tortured existence is chronicled with a kind of black humour which is difficult to write but delicious to read. A failed relationship with “M” has triggered in Raminsky a manic self-absorption. She makes lists of what she eats:

1 mug of cup-o-soup and an orange juice
6 rice crackers with peanut butter
I mini quiche and 1 Ribena with a little straw in it
1 plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce
4 sugar donuts and 1 cup of tea

In the course of her downward spiral, she leaves a path of ruin, affecting her neighbours, a lesbian friend who fancies her, and an Asian “pen-pal” who turns up on her doorstep as a result of whopping great lies she has written him about her status.

When, as she rifles through the belongings of a neighbour whose flat she has agreed to mind, she glimpses him standing in front of her own apartment door, she records:

[a] young man with a suitcase the size of Godzilla is standing at my door … My body empties itself gently of all breath. I can hear my heart. I can hear my pulse going dud-it, dud-it, dud-it. I must have made a noise, although I thought I hadn’t.

He turns out to be her next infatuation and undoing, propelling her towards a comatose, drunken extension of her already unstable character. She ends up hallucinating about “M” and sea turtles, though, ultimately, we’re never quite sure whether the entire thing isn’t Raminsky reinventing herself. Delightful mischief from Vivienne Plumb.

Pursuing the damned is highly painful but instructive. A tragically doomed woman reappears in each of the raw, short sketches of Dunedin writer Jeanne Bernhardt in baby is this wonderland? A drug culture collection of prose poems, the fifteen sections all concern relationships held together by mutual dependency on various vices – drugs, sex, sado-masochism. The scene shifts from Canada, to Sydney, to Auckland, to Alaska, to the USA, but degradation follows as the night the day. Is the writer in each the same? Is it autobiographical? These are questions always on the periphery but the answers don’t matter. What does is the terrible sense of waiting – for something to happen, for the drugs to come, for the end of the world.

In “outside San Antonio”, for instance, we wait with fear to see whether the drug dealer kills the pair who stole from him. It progresses from the humiliation of “he made us take off our clothes, then he piled them together and went through them with his knife. So … no more clothes, I thought … no more dressing, undressing” to the palpable violence of “‘You fucking cow,’ he was kicking me now, punching me against the chest and face. One of my teeth snapped, my mouth clogged with rust ammonia.”

“valediction” is a catalogue of dead friends: Jimi hung (sic) himself, Rosemary jumped from a cliff, Simone cut her wrists, and on and on. In sum, we “bleat, we wave, we fall out of the sky and history attends us and abandons us and loves us and fails to love us enough.”

Bernhardt’s world is sordid and shocking. No depth is left unplumbed. No sun shines here. A relentless realism pushes on, ending with “him and her” who play ersatz child abuse games, both in and out of bed: “ ‘You be Dad,’ she said. She regressed, she was six.”

There is one bit of, perhaps unintended, irony in “dawson”, where the character says, listening to the bickering of a tourist couple who are awaiting a ferry alongside her:
“I wondered if I would ever get that old or that bitter.”

Laurence Jenkins is a Wellington writer, reviewer and musician.

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