A man of the people
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
Two Kiwi lads make good. That’s if you treat noun one and adjectives two-through-three elastically enough. Both these writers “divide their time between….”, say the blurbs. It’s an expression so coy it screams for unaestheticised excision. Does it have any relevance at all to the fiction?
Well, McCarten divides his time among different genres as well as different geographies. There have been the plays, the film script, the short stories, the novels. His prose fiction alone has offered alien abduction in Opunake, cross-cultural widowhood in London, and now the pursuit of fame and filaments in late 19th century America. It’s not so much a body of work as a scatter of limbs. You can say it’s refreshingly varied. You may also wish to say, settle down, son!
This particular Book of Obsessions is a dramatised biography of Thomas Alva Edison – he of the electric light bulb and the electric chair – and his semi-friendship with the agreeably monstrous J Pierpoint Morgan, host to one of fiction’s greatest noses, “a pustuled, bulbous magma of warty tissue with the texture of a cauliflower”.
These two giant, grotesque lives have given McCarten plenty of material, and the novel is full of genuinely memorable minutiae. Edison and his first wife, who learned Morse telegraphy to attract him, nickname their kids Dot and Dash. Morgan makes his entrance at a spa where he’s mauling a woman herbalist. Edison spends two years on a diet where he drinks only milk and eats just a lozenge each day. He wires up his study doorknob to administer electric shocks to importunate creditors, becomes profoundly deaf but can pick up the vibrations of approaching objects by biting on his cane. And so on. And further on. This is sometimes a Book of Lists as well.
You want a Boys’ Primer of Inventors? Try this one. Westinghouse; Swan; Maxim of the machine-gun, who almost beat Edison to a workable electric light; the seriously bizarre Nikolai Tesla passing 250,000 volts through his body and then picking up bulbs to make them glow: they’re all present, along with an assistant whom Edison loses in the South American jungles for years. “A shilling life will give you all the facts,” said Auden. A $26.95 novel does a pretty entertaining job, too.
Indeed, McCarten is most successful where he settles for entertainment. When he tries to analyse, especially the causes, career and casualties of greatness, the authorial voice invades. When he tries to moralise, it gets worse: “Life was merely a minor electro-magnetic phenomenon.” Ouch.
His research sits lightly if tightly, and he makes a deft job of evoking the era. (The greed, arrogance and blithe confidence in market forces of the US during the1880s offer some provocative parallels with New Zealand during the 1980s.) He hates to let a gem go by, and the plot keeps pausing while we hear how factory girls drank the alcohol used to seal vacuum containers needed for light bulbs; or learn every emetic detail down to the boiling urine and faeces as the electric chair gets its first, dreadful consumer test.
You could, of course, regard each of these episodes as an illumination, and I offer the word with no archness intended. Certainly there are moments when you can see
McCarten just aching to get on stage – or preferably on screen: the advertising master-stroke where 200 men march up Fifth Avenue, each with a light-bulb on his head; the experiments with the Edison Memory-capture Device, that lets one hear the dead. Who could resist? Answer: a novelist should resist, if such parts obstruct and obscure the whole.
Other features or choices also interrupt the narrative. The same fascination with the exotic that kept sending McCarten’s The English Harem off into side scenes appears here. There are awkward little lectures on the psyche of the scientist. McCarten’s good ear sometimes turns into a tin ear: the very Victorian Mrs Morgan is “no fan of experimentation”. Add to these the creaky device of Edison constantly looking back from his old age, the sheer improbability of some meetings, and moments of swollen melodrama (Morgan in his yacht almost running down a smaller boat to prove his killer instinct; Edison moping madly in a mountain-top laboratory), and this is a novel with problems.
It’s also a novel with pleasures. The author undercuts people and events with neat irony. His coverage of time and place is full of energy. The motif of How Great Thou Aren’t develops a fair poignancy, and there’s enough popular science here to keep your next three lots of dinner guests fascinated. But it really seems time for McCarten to stop cruising and start focusing.
David Geary’s divided time is “between the parallel universes of Vancouver Island in Canada and the North Island of New Zealand”. Yes, “parallel universes” is another phrase that blurb writers use so witlessly they deserve smacking. Plus it has absolutely no bearing on the book.
This is Geary’s first published collection. I mention it with surprise, since he’s written so much for stage and page. Whether the delay is intentional or not, the result is good. These 10 short-to-medium stories (“Foxglove” comes in at 15,000-plus words) are confident in their craft and adventurous in their art.
They fizz with strutting energy and edgy insecurity. Testosterone and disaffection drive them. So does the bounce and bound of language. Sometimes the bounce can become puppyish: “You’re looking at the wall, at what you’re doing, moseying sideways …. your foot drops from one plank to another. That’s the two-inch cliff. For a moment …. falling …. thinking you’re going to suck the big K, the big kumara. Pikelet on the pavement.” Yes, yes, enough already.
The author of these stories is determined to identify himself as Kiwi lad. “(L)anding in Wellington is bad sex …. It’s rough for no reason, and everything is all over the place, and you think you’ll never get there”. Hamilton? “It’s like a great clot on the highway.”
A couple of pieces, especially the excellent “Foxglove”, are rural New Zealand down to the dead hogget in the water tank. More are emphatically urban. Typically, as in “The Jaws of Life”, it’s a cityscape of pokies, towies, Sallie Army food stalls, cheap circus sideshows.
There’s a fetchingly forlorn air of retro failure-cum-defiance (indeed, one story is called “Retro”) to Geary’s protagonists. They’re male protagonists, except for a seen-everything teenage girl in “Appropriate Touching” and an older, been-everyone’s voice in “soft rock”. They can name all the 70s pop groups and can’t do much else. They tend to have a pregnant ex-partner and know about a dead DJ. They also tend to have “sad wives and slaggy girlfriends”. They knock themselves and others around, but it’s out of incompetence rather than inhumanity.
The stories are built from short, shouldering scenes, packed with chopped sentences. Sometimes they’re too chopped, in style and in structure, but mostly they judder with energy.
They’re also commendably subversive and full of wolfish humour. It’s not black comedy; it’s too dark for that. Death or intimations of death glint through in various unpleasant ways. “Brand Loyalty” packs in HIV, throat-ripping dogs, a bus-driver who removes a top deck and its passengers in an underpass.
Social complacency, language, self-image (“It’s a strange day when you find that you are the nutter on the bus”) and sexual mores all have the skids put under them. So do comic conventions. You snort with appalled delight, then glance round guiltily. A chippie leaves his electric drill up a ladder. The drill falls on his head, and “he had to turn it on to get it out”. You gotta laugh. You gotta because Geary makes it part of his worldview of life’s marvellous mess. And it doesn’t always work. This guy has this chick in the back of this 4WD and this alarm goes off. Gosh and yawn.
The dialogue goes snap, crackle and pop. In “Duty Free” and “A Man of the People”, conversation virtually is the story. This is your dramatist writing. At times he writes too much; there are pages of talk here that are a collection rather than a selection. There are jaunty interior monologues – how to scan a suburban bus without being noticed; the temptations to record one’s wife’s snoring patterns – and you can enjoy Geary enjoying the silliness of words. He’s delighted that plastic surgery is now called “appearance medicine”; he mutters about whether a nasal polyp resembles a muscle or a mussel.
Doris Lessing in her 1972 introduction to The Golden Notebook claimed that critics are conditioned to conform; writers to challenge. It’s as true and trite as any generalisation. After reading these two books, you feel that McCarten is seeking a mould to conform to; Geary is seeking one to kick holes in. You’ll probably know which approach you prefer.
David Hill’s latest young adult novels are No Safe Harbour (Mallinson Rendel) and Journey to Tangiwai (Scholastic).