Satire and sympathy, Sally Sutton

The Shag Incident
Stephanie Johnson
Vintage, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415019

When the playwright and academic Mervyn Thompson was abducted, branded a rapist, and tied to a tree by a group of feminists in 1984, I was eleven years old. I don’t remember if I was even aware of what had happened, and if I was, I remained indifferent. You might think that now, nearly twenty years later, my attitude would be much the same. It’s not. What Mervyn Thompson endured that day rocked our national psyche. It showed us something about New Zealand we would rather not have seen, and the shockwaves are still very much present. It is said that Thompson never fully recovered from his ordeal. In her new novel, Stephanie Johnson suggests that, as a nation, neither have we.

Of course, The Shag Incident is not Thompson’s story, but that of national treasure Howard Shag, “ex-All Black and blockbuster millionaire”. It’s also the story of Franca, a classy Sydney psychiatrist studying “suicidology”; of Jasper, in jail for drug trafficking and child pornography; of his father Richard, a drunken journalist, and mother Lena, a hippie-turned-lesbian who is now, in the opinion of her ex, a “self-satisfied, homoeopathic, technophobic, holier-than-thou Waiheke dyke”. Shag himself is incarcerated in his Takapuna mansion, his secret torment apparently having precipitated a nasty case of “haptephobia”, agoraphobia, and writer’s block. The woman who is going to bring it all out in the open is Melody, Shag’s unlikely biographer, whose only claim to fame is the biography of a controversial Wellington poet and dominatrix, entitled Blood Curdle. As Melody acknowledges, the transition from this subject to ex-All Black is pushing the limits. But then, as you’re no doubt starting to see, pushing the limits is what this book is all about.

From its title alone, we can guess that The Shag Incident will be funny, wicked, in-your-face and shocking. It is. We also suspect that it will be written in the dry, detached tone of an omniscient narrator – in short, that it will be satirical. The Shorter Oxford defines satire as “the use of sarcasm, irony, ridicule, etc., to expose vice or folly or to lampoon an individual.” Certainly, plenty of follies are exposed in this book: everything from sexual stereotyping and militant feminism to womb burials and colonial guilt; from political correctness, counselling and psychiatry all the way to la-de-da dinner parties. Even vegetarianism gets a ribbing. But when it comes to lampooning individuals, at least where the main characters are concerned, the novel stops short. Their actions may be ridiculed, but they themselves never are. More importantly, they are never overtly blamed. Part of the reason is that with just two exceptions, the characters speak in the first person. This raises an interesting question: is it possible for a successful satire to be told from the perspective of the very people whose follies it exposes? Of course, there are good reasons for Johnson to have chosen first-person narration and, in a book that spins on the themes of guilt and responsibility, there are also consequences.

First, you have to take your hat off to the author for writing this book at all. It’s a gutsy thing to do. Some would say dangerous. Showing events from the protagonists’ point of view is the safest – not to mention kindest – approach. It is also a clever approach, because it absolves Johnson from the responsibility of judging them. It gives her an out. It also gives her characters an out: it wasn’t their fault because they had a bad childhood / were toked up and didn’t know what they were doing / it was a sign of the times and wouldn’t happen now / it’s impossible to blame anyone anyway. However, the very nature of satire implies some sort of judgement on the part of the author, even if it is only tongue-in-cheek. The result is that the first-person narration works against the humour to create two very different tones that do not sit easily together; an uncomfortable mixture of satire and sympathy that borders on the subversive and which, frankly, irritates.

Of course, this is all part of the game plan. Johnson likes undermining our expectations. In fact, she is so conscientiously subversive, so thorough in her overturning of our prejudices, that we are constantly aware of her authorial presence. We soon realise that the first-person narration is not genuine, but yet another device in Johnson’s box of tricks. This is how Richard, blind drunk at a dinner party, can still retain a clear awareness of others, and it also explains why the characters reveal their secrets only gradually – because Johnson requires us to experience sympathy before dislike. It’s almost inevitable, then, that they are painted less in shades of grey than in splashes of black and white: when “drug-fucked” paedophile Jasper slips into the Full Lotus position on the prison floor, we give up all hope of ever really knowing him.

We may be exasperated at Johnson’s blatant manipulation of her readers, but we can’t help admiring her nerve. With the sleight-of-hand of a professional puppeteer, she clears the way for a diabolically clever, detective-style plot with a spectacularly tidy climax. The downside is that the characters are kept at arm’s length. Like all good authors, Johnson covers herself: the implication is that the characters are fooling themselves as well. But the result is that we never get inside anyone’s head for long enough to experience that private moment of remorse or reconciliation which, we assume from the ending, must have occurred. The exception is Shag and, to a lesser extent, Melody. Despite being written in the third person, Shag’s chapters are genuinely shocking, vivid, and intensely human. Shag has an emotional connection with the reader that the other characters struggle to create. It’s rather like watching a rugby match just before a scrum: the teams stand face to face, waiting to engage. But the call never comes.

To compensate, Johnson relies on a strong sense of time and place to make her characters believable; a kind of gritty realism that – surprise, surprise! – flies in the face of what you’d expect from satire. Unfortunately, this means that even the smallest details become important. I am not a rugby fan myself, but the man in my life tells me that a number eight cannot be in “the middle row of the scrum, the meat in a heavy, fleshy sandwich”; a number eight is at the back. I’m not a fan of womb-burying ceremonies either, but I know enough about funerals to find it inexplicable that a grave-digger should drop the offending article into the hole only to decide: “I’ll fill it in later” … unless, of course, a certain dog is about to do something wicked … These are trivial details perhaps, but ones that, yet again, undermine the novel’s credibility.

When the author has such an obvious presence in the novel, you can’t help hoping that she’ll explain why. Is the book intended as a warning, or an excuse? Does it offer apology, explanation, or merely observation? Is the satire there for any other reason than to make us laugh? In short: whose side is she on? I know, I know: you can’t expect a chameleon to show her true colours. This is a hard book to pin down, which is why I like it, and also why it annoys me. As readers, we are teased, exasperated, delighted, confused. But love it or hate it, it’s almost certain that, like Lena, we’ll be left with our heads whirling “with what could easily be the worst and most labrynthal [sic] Kiwi joke ever told: a joke that spins on a tiny population of divided people, a litany of coincidence and old sins casting long shadows.” If The Shag Incident is anything to go by, these shadows will be darkening our national psyche for some time to come.


Sally Sutton is an Auckland writer.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
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