All-seeing but poorly briefed, Linley Boniface

John Tomb’s Head
Stephanie Johnson
Vintage, $28.00,
ISBN 1869418263

You have to admire The Rev Mr Taylor, whoever he might have been, for chronicling, in the manner of Nigella Lawson discussing the preparation of a steak and kidney pudding, the method by which Maori heads were preserved. In brief, the heads were emptied, wiped out, steamed several times, sun dried and smoked. It seems an awful lot of trouble to go to, but then I suppose that was the sort of thing people spent their time on in the days before television. Whatever: The Rev Mr Taylor’s account, extracted from H G Robley’s 1896 book Moko, or, Maori Tattooing, is a rip-roaring start to John Tomb’s Head. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.

Johnson’s ambitious concept is to imagine that one of these heads is rediscovered 200 years after it was lopped off its original owner’s shoulders. When the head is found buried beneath a meeting house in a Chicago museum, its spirit is mysteriously reawakened. It has no significant physical presence, so can’t go around enacting utu on the descendants of its killer – and what pulpy fun that would have been – but is able to zoom around the world observing the assorted ratbags and lame ducks who lay claim to the gruesome body part.

The head in question belonged not to a Maori but to a Pakeha: John Tomb, an English chancer and scallywag who, in the early 19th century, is transported to Australia for theft and eventually washes up in New Zealand. Originally destined to be lunch for the Maori who find him, Tomb uses his advanced knowledge of medicine and muskets to rise through tribal ranks until he is slain on the battlefield. It’s a thrilling life, followed by what turns out to be a rather humdrum and ineffectual afterlife.

In the first 50 pages – which amount to nearly one-fifth of the book – Tomb’s newly-awakened spirit introduces us to a mind-numbing 10 central characters, while leaving us none the wiser as to what, if anything, might eventually constitute a plot. A delegation from New Zealand – the Prime Minister, her husband and teenage daughter, the Minister for Maori Affairs, an historian, Tomb’s Maori descendants and various other flotsam and jetsam of the diplomatic circuit – have arrived in Chicago to reclaim the head. Later, it transpires there are several other factions who want the head for themselves. These include a wealthy amputee nutcase who fancies adding the head to his collection of stomach-churning curiosities made out of human tissue, and Tomb’s English descendants, left-wing white nationalists who regard the head as “a mascot for the lost diaspora, the lost pride of our empire”.

Perhaps aware that things are getting sillier by the minute, Johnson abruptly darkens the mood. There is kidnapping, corruption and, of course, sexual abuse – where would New Zealand fiction be without sexual abuse? The tone becomes bleaker, more dangerous and unexpectedly violent. Johnson’s previous books have shown her to be a gifted satirist, but here her targets are caricatures. There are no prizes for guessing, for example, who the mannish female Prime Minister might be based upon. Woman characters tend to be defined by their physical appearance, while Maori characters self-consciously toss kia oras and kei te pais into conversation.

Least convincing of all is Bruno Boyd, who, in the tradition of fictional reporters, is venal, drunken, lecherous, rat-like and a transparent liar. In real life, a reporter with these qualities would never convince anyone to open up to him; excessive charm, rather than excessive pugnaciousness, is the hallmark of the successful hack. And certainly no-one who had ever been within sniffing distance of a newsroom would have written the news reports scattered throughout the text: news writing is a technical skill that Johnson apparently saw no need to research.

More problematic is Johnson’s handling of John Tomb himself. Handily, whoever awoke him from his long sleep also saw fit to acquaint him with “the notion of cars, aeroplanes, factories” and “the ways and means men have to travel the planet, to warm themselves, to heal diseases, to communicate instantly by text and tongue, via satellite”. And yet this knowledge is strangely patchy. Tomb makes reference to space shuttles and remarks that the Hilton Towers was once the largest hotel in the world, but hasn’t heard of the Treaty of Waitangi and boggles when a female character removes a contact lens. The undead may be all-seeing, but they are remarkably poorly briefed.

While having much of the action narrated by a mummified head is a challenging and engaging concept, Johnson seems undecided on Tomb’s role. His observations on the differences between 19th and 21st century attitudes are insightful, but his function in the text is never made clear. Tomb doesn’t appear to have been reawakened in order to learn any lessons he failed to pick up when he was alive, and his impact on other characters is minimal. Only at the very end of the novel does Tomb directly intervene in the lives of any of the people he watches so intently, and that reaction seems driven by petulance rather than by a convincing rage against the injustices of an alien age.

Then there’s Tomb’s voice, which wavers between the contemporary and the likes of the following unfortunate passage:

The squirrel, though she startled me and made me topple from my branch, was a fortuitous piece of pettifogging, allowing me time to roll under a leaf and dull my filament, until I was as undetectable as I am now, flying east towards the lake towards the Essex to see how my little girl fares.

 

Yet there are moments when the writing is simple and moving, giving a frustrating glimpse of what this book might have been. In one lyrical scene, Petra, the Prime Minister’s 15-year-old daughter, remembers with longing the night she crawled into bed with her sleeping mother in a hotel room:

What had her mother been reading about? Petra couldn’t read the long words yet, but it was probably something to do with running the country, or wanting to. One cotton-sleeved arm bent over the duvet and there was just enough space for her seven-year-old self to climb in, pull that scented arm around her and relish the warmth of her mother’s belly and breasts against her back. It went some way to soothing the pain in her spine, in her head, in her joints, which went on even through the sound of a siren and hurrying feet and the orders of a man who sounded Indian. She couldn’t open her eyes to see him.

 

Johnson’s flaw as a satirist is that she mixes tenderness with the viciousness. Evelyn Waugh enables us to keep laughing at his cast of ill-fated high-society chumps because he has no interest in attempting to make us empathise with them: Waugh never allows a chink of compassion into his stony heart. Johnson, however, brings out the vulnerability of characters like Petra, only to either dismiss them from the story without explanation or treat them with extraordinary inhumanity in a flippantly-written epilogue.

John Tomb’s final remains eventually come to a grisly end, but by that point there has been so much sadistic cruelty it’s hard to care. Ultimately, what will rankle with the reader is not the headlessness; it’s the heartlessness.

 

Linley Boniface is a Dominion-Post columnist. 

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