Ambivalence and comedy, Paola Bilbrough

Queen of Beauty 
Paula Morris
Penguin $27.95,
ISBN 0864734425

The book of the film of the story of my life
William Brandt
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0143018418

Queen of Beauty and The book of the film of the story of my life initially appear to be odd review companions. William Brandt’s novel is described as “being in the tradition of Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons”, and the characters are quoted on the back. It’s a riotously funny piece of frivolity with shaggy dog tangents and an over-the-top cast. Queen of Beauty belongs to an entirely different tradition. Interweaving past and present, it spans a number of generations and manages to be poetic without being ponderous. It’s a serious novel with moments of great comic timing. Yet, apart from basic genre differences, the two novels are surprisingly compatible. They share a preoccupation with origins and shifting identity; an ambivalence towards New Zealand is firmly lodged in the psyche of each.

Frederick Case, hero of The book of the film of the story of my life, says in the first couple of pages: “There are only two reasons for going back to New Zealand to live. One, you’ve got kids. Two, you’ve failed. I don’t have kids.” In Queen of Beauty, Virginia’s recollections of her childhood are rich with the complexities of her extended Maori family, but there is also a quality of bleakness, an expectation of an environment more stimulating, more densely populated than reality. The “Nancy Drews of the world”, she remembers, “always ran into other young people in the street”, while in Auckland Virginia and her friend Kim were never so lucky: they might come across a chalked game of hopscotch or see someone’s older brother roar by, oblivious, in a reconditioned Triumph. Otherwise the streets were just empty channels to drift through, the houses blank and inexpressive.

New Zealand’s lack of an international profile is something that is played with by both authors. Observing a ceiling stain, Frederick asks: “Why do stains always look like Australia and never like New Zealand? It’s so typical of Australia to hog the limelight like that.” Frederick, at an all-time low in his life, sees himself of course as New Zealand – not important enough even to register. Virginia, on the other hand, is liberated by this absence of importance. She comments to her uncle that when she is in America she is “just a foreigner with a strange accent. Nobody knows what a New Zealander is, let alone a Maori or a Pakeha. So I can be whatever I want to be … I can be both.”

Queen of Beauty and The book of examine the nature of story; how at times we teeter on the brink of narrative twists in our own lives and at other times feel that we are merely observers rather than part of the central plot. Virginia and Frederick are both enmeshed in other people’s writing for a living. Virginia researches and sometimes ghost writes for Margaret Mitchell, a New Orleans author of bodice rippers.

Virginia’s own family history with her Maori and Pakeha relatives is juxtaposed with, and informs, tales of the American South. Morris’ novel opens with the abbreviated but vivid story of a rescue at sea on the SS Kawau in 1922. This is also, we later realise, the story of Virginia’s grandparents’ first sighting of each other. Related by Virginia to Margaret, this story’s detail strongly locates it in New Zealand. Margaret quickly reworks it, embellishing with words such as “reckless”, “licentious”, “lure” and “sojourn” and then congratulates herself on her subtlety. The story has now acquired an American skin. Transformation of this kind occurs throughout the novel and is both intriguing and disturbing. Morris is posing those slightly tired questions “What is story? What is truth?”. But because of the strength of the characters and the narrative the reader suffers no fatigue.

Brandt’s Frederick – a cross between Bridget Jones and Will from About A Boy with some weary cinema savvy thrown in – has been usurped from the starring role in his own life by American porn star Matt Chalmers. He’s been dumped for Matt by actress wife Sophie Carlisle, star of Bonza Mate and Shag City. Frederick is in the business of script assessment (just until he makes it as a producer), and Brandt’s spoofs of the appalling scripts that he receives are only too cringingly real. This is Brandt’s comic genius, to take something horribly familiar and magnify it. Similarly, what passes between Frederick’s well-meaning parents in Levin and their errant 40-something offspring in London will ring a bell for a whole generation of articulate slacker trustafarians. Frederick observes: “Normally, a forty-two-year-old man doesn’t need money from his parents. A forty-two-year-old may well not have parents. Instead he has his own money. He has children, responsibilities, a career. I’m sweating bricks.” Frederick is simultaneously alarmed and titillated by the way he has become a ham actor in the appalling screenplay of his own life, and the novel is sprinkled with short tragi-comic Frederick-film scenes.

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Frederick and Virginia are both at a crossroads in their lives. She’s approaching 30 and her time in America has shaped and freed her but also cast her into limbo: “She was still here, homeless, rootless, unsure of what to do and afraid of what came next.” Frederick’s dilemma is the same only more so and he’s in one hell of a flap about it. Rather than monitoring his weight à la Bridget, he monitors his blood pressure and worries about his fading looks. His biological clock (or in this case, his blood pressure monitor) is getting pretty noisy. Brandt has neatly repackaged mainstream chick panic re marriage and kids and given it to Frederick: “An ad for nappy cream is enough to reduce me to tears.” Refreshingly, in Morris’ novel it is also the blokes who appear most keen to commit. On her return to New Zealand, Virginia’s drippy ex-boyfriend is wistful about a past plan to marry. Virginia insists that they were never going to get married.

In both novels it is someone else’s celebration that shapes the course of the narrative. For Frederick, it’s a 40th birthday bash on a luxury island. Also attended by his wife Sophie and her new lover, it’s a potential ordeal for Frederick. In an act of total adolescent/prima donna insecurity, he decides he can’t go alone and hires Melissa, a hooker who also happens to be gorgeous, smart and from Levin. It’s the ultimate fantasy of the dumped: retribution through parading an attentive new partner in front of the rejector. Frederick schemes to get Sophie back, but things turn out rather differently.

For Virginia, it’s the wedding of her younger sister Julia. Alone and just back from America, Virginia is the exotic outsider, admired, envied and misunderstood. In terms of perspective, Queen of Beauty is panoramic, containing the viewpoints of a vast array of characters, ranging from Virginia’s grandparents to Kim, the girlhood friend who once slept with Virginia’s boyfriend. We are briefly privy to the viewpoints of, amongst others, Margaret the American writer, Jake (Virginia’s housemate), and her eight-year-old half-sister Alice, who is awed by Virginia yet also feels sorry for her because she’s unattached and childless. Virginia is seen from many angles and for the reader it is an oddly intimate, satisfying experience. We often wonder what our families, friends and acquaintances really think of us and, reading Queen of Beauty, we are suddenly vicariously in the know.

The multiple viewpoint is a bold strategy, of which I was initially suspicious. I didn’t think I would be able to keep up or that my interest would be sustained. But, on the whole, I did and it was. This is a tribute to Morris’ good writing: her ear for dialogue and her convincing evocative of different characters’ thoughts. Also, much of the comedy in the novel relies on the disparity between the characters’ perspectives. Jake, as seen through Virginia’s eyes, is “vacant and boyish as ever” and “unknowing as a dairy cow”. Jake, on the other hand, is frustrated by his female housemate’s sexual indifference: “And then Virginia was on the scene, just arrived from wherever the hell she was from, suddenly Bridget’s best buddy, and the two of them were more interested in his welfare than his dick.”

Brandt’s novel is populated just as densely as Morris’,  though viewpoint belongs solely to the neurotic Frederick. There’s a cast of absurd and/or recognisable archetypes, including “The Irish Brothers” (successful twin film dudes), an elderly landlady called Mrs Traversham, who has a King Charles spaniel which shares Frederick’s name, and Tamintha, Frederick’s sympathetic, slightly older boss, who has a crush on him. There’s even a disturbed prison inmate with “bomb-site eyes”, from whom Frederick reluctantly accepts a script. Seemingly random events and characters all have a comic/crazy dream logic, and Brandt manages to make most connect back to New Zealand. One suspects he had a ripping good time plotting The book of.

Many reviewers tend to regard first novels rather like experiments, implying that, even if they are glowingly successful, this success is due as much to fluke as to skill. Brandt’s and Morris’ respective débuts are fully fledged, so satisfying that it feels entirely irrelevant to mention words like “first” or “fluke”. If I have a gripe with either novel, it is with the endings. Brandt’s novel, for instance, descends unapologetically into schmaltz. Though even this “fault” is hard to nail down, as any fluffiness and self-indulgence can all too easily be attributed to the fact that the whole novel is a piss-take or to the fact that Frederick himself is totally self-indulgent and schmaltz-prone. I rolled my eyes but have to admit it was an ambivalent eye-roll.

Queen of Beauty ends with Virginia telling the story of her great-great-grandmother’s voyage to New Zealand. Throughout the novel, the title resonates, elusive and chameleon-like, collecting meaning as the narrative progresses and Virginia’s character develops. At the end, there the title appears in Virginia’s story. The symmetry is fitting and beautiful but almost too much so. It would have been elliptical to finish without this flourish, but in some way perhaps more satisfying.

 

Paola Bilbrough is a New Zealand writer who lives in Melbourne.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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