Remind me where we are now, Nicholas Reid

Secret City
Vivienne Plumb
Cape Catley, $24.99,
ISBN 090856189X

Shot
Sarah Quigley
Virago, $34.95,
ISBN 1860499635

What country am I in here? Characters get ideas from watching “5.30 With Jude”, there’s a reference to “old Maori guys”, and one of the women working in a brothel is called Moana. So I guess it must be New Zealand. On the other hand, there are places with names like Makeshift Road, Entrance Road and False Lane; there’s a thing called the Department of Function; and the whole tale opens with a description of the symbolically named Knife River, which apparently is blue like a three-day-old bruise. Chapter headings consist of gnomic statements like Chinese proverbs (are they?). So is this New Zealand or is it some fantastical dream country of the author’s own devising?

Vivienne Plumb has in abundance the ability to write clean, clear, precisely-detailed prose. But the conjunction of precise detail with this vague, dreamlike setting gives Secret City a quality that can only be called surreal.

Here’s the set-up. Antonella is divorced from Frank. Freed from the shackles of domesticity, she now lectures in the Department of Sexuality and has done a doctorate in “evolutionary post-gender sexuality studies”. She is hitting on one of her students, Rupert, or maybe Rupert is hitting on her. Meanwhile sadsack Frank, a failed journalist, lives with his cat Shoehorn, whines about how he lost his job as a primary teacher and imagines he is writing a novel. There is a third main character, Qin Qin, a young Chinese prostitute conned into the brothel by a loan shark who kindly offered her “help” when her mother was dying of an STD. Antonella’s and Frank’s stories are told in the third person, but Qin Qin gets to tell her own tale in her own voice.

Vivienne Plumb is a sharp and witty satirist. There are genuinely cringe-inducing accounts of Frank’s encounters with creative-writing classes, and the type of inane, self-conscious questions that are asked in poetry discussion groups. There’s a grisly description of Antonella’s foray into a singles club for the over-35s. Qin Qin’s deadpan précis of the musical South Pacific is a fine piece of destructive-deconstructive piss-take, and I assume piss-take figures largely in Plumb’s account of a Sexuality Department that lays such heavy emphasis on masturbation.

The difficulty is, though, in bringing the separate characters of Antonella, Frank and Qin Qin together. They are brought together, to be sure, about three-quarters of the way through the novel. But until that point Secret City reads like a series of discrete vignettes or short stories. Indeed the opening chapter really is a short story (and a very good one) as fabulating Antonella is attacked by her seriously depressive sister Marie Therese, who then proceeds to disappear from the novel. Matters are complicated by the way we are given the dream-life of each character (including their masturbation fantasies), further alienating and isolating them from one another in the reader’s mind.

Such disjunction is not necessarily a fault in a novel. If memory serves, Virginia Woolf made a modernist classic in Mrs. Dalloway out of a couple of storylines that had absolutely nothing to do with each other. Plotting is only one of the novelist’s skills. Wit and sardonic observation carry Secret City far. When at last the separate characters are brought together, however, the novel becomes even more misty and dreamlike with Pirandello-esque questions about the nature of reality and representation. For it transpires that everything we have read could be an academic experiment in false recovered memory. And it was at this point that I felt – as I felt when I staggered out of the Matrix movies – that if nothing is real, then nothing is at stake. So there’s little point in my being concerned for these
characters, is there?

Another bother. What exactly is this “secret city” jazz? What does it symbolise? Why is it important enough to give its name to the novel? At one point, it’s identified with the shady black-economy part of Kowloon where Qin Qin and her mother first learnt whoring. At another, it’s a childhood mind-game Antonella used to play. Eventually, it’s a shining distant vision of the characters’ inmost selves – a place that might explain all their problems. Of course, it does nothing of the sort, so what is it?

I have the uneasy sense that it’s really a device to hold together the shining, entertaining bits of an uneven novel. Page for page, though, a bloody good read, in case I didn’t make that clear.

2

And is it vulgar of me to ask what country I’m in here, too? Shot is written by a New Zealander who has been resident in Germany. But it is set entirely in the United States (California and Alaska) with an American main character of Polish descent. How much is this a world Sarah Quigley knows and has experienced? Or how much is it one she has imagined, read about or seen at the movies? I really don’t know. But I do know this sort of thing can set some people off. A recent interviewee on Linda Clark’s morning show chirped that it just shows how sophisticated and mature we are, now that New Zealanders are writing books not set in New Zealand. Well, golly gosh. Meanwhile an article by Patrick Evans, reprinted in the New Zealand Listener, muttered that young New Zealand novelists are becoming globalised and internationalised and homogenised with their French angels and vintners and American widows under ash and so forth. Bloody young New Zealand novelists! One whiff of that poncey writing-school success and the cunning little blighters are pitching for the big American market!

I note that the nationalist-literary question will loom large with some readers. But I didn’t say that it necessarily loomed large with me. Most of the time I was too diverted by this novel to be thinking about the issue.

Shot. A punning title, of course. As in shot with a firearm and shot with a camera. A bullet can freeze (or stop) a life, but then so can a photograph. Photographs are artificial. They let us believe that time can be stopped. But time can’t be stopped. Memory and desire move back and forth, but time marches on. Photographs are traces of something that has happened and passed, like tracks in the snow. Yes, in the (Alaskan) last third of the novel, there are tracks-in-the-snow images too. One of the characters is a hired tracker.

Let’s get specific. Stand-up comedian Lena Domanski (stage-name, Lena McLeonard) is revisiting her childhood stamping-ground, the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, when she is the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting. The first 100 pages of the novel are the time it takes for a stray bullet to whizz along one side of her head, mash her ear to a pulp, and thud into the building behind. While this is happening her whole life flashes before her and us. Time crawls in the slowest of slow-motion. Shades of Ambrose Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Shades (as a Germanophile might perhaps know) of Georg Kaiser’s play Die Sorge, which all takes place in the time it takes a woman to shoot herself. These first 100 pages are written in the past tense. But Lena is no suicide. She survives. She renounces stand-up comedy. She takes to photography. Life moves on in unexpected ways. The last 150 pages are written in the present tense, a voice which always implies the primacy of the present moment over all past experience.

Stylistic devices hold this busy and episodic novel together. All those symbols of time, memory and persistence – not only bullets, photographs and tracks, but also taxidermy. Lena’s sister stuffs animals, which is surely yet another way of freezing a living thing into a dead image. Lena’s father is always waxing nostalgic about Poland, a clinging to the past that has little to do with present realities.

There are many specific markers in Shot to tell us it is set in the very late 20th century, not least the publishing talk, and the hip showbiz talk introduced by Lena’s Italian agent Jay Antonelli. But the Polish immigrant ethnic stuff (mainly Lena’s recalled childhood) seems to belong to a much earlier age. This is where I ask how much Sarah Quigley knows about these things, and how much she is drawing on received immigrant stories from the very early 20th century. To dispose of all my grumbles at once, I also admit to getting a bit lost with the new characters who are introduced in the last third.

One theme held my attention fully, though. This is Sarah Quigley’s intelligent insistence that comedians are not people who find the world funny, but people who have their own skewed perception of the world. And that perception can be a fairly tragic one. Shot has a vigorous strain of very black humour, and even violent slapstick in the Smollett-Dickens tradition. Personally, that is what I found most readable about it.

 

Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian and critic.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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