Strange worlds, Heather Murray

Song of the Brakeman
Bill Direen
Titus Books, $29.95,
ISBN 0958258678

The Assassin of Gleam
James Norcliffe
Hazard Press, $29.99,

Departure Lounge
Chad Taylor
Jonathan Cape, $34.99,
ISBN 9780224075047

Southern Style
Craig Marriner
Vintage, $27.99,
ISBN 1869417100

It never ceases to amaze me how often writers forget that they are dependent on the goodwill of readers who must be captured early, secured, tied in to the work and keen to follow it through. Yet some who play fast and loose with readers, ignore many of the courtesies which should exist between writer and reader and blunder on, wilfully obscure and devious over the essentials of narrative and language. Such a one is Bill Direen in Song of the Brakeman. His post-apocalyptic novel begins in as alienating a fashion as possible:

I was clipping alligators on the vital nodes when the scent of forgotten moments, embedded, recoverable, tickled my blind spot. She drew me near, bringmaking, inspeaking, like a fever or a fear …. Pearls flung in the love-god’s ocean, we were logiclost and plummeting.


In a futuristic novel, the reader expects some dislocation and strangeness, and possibly some reshaping of language to accommodate new terminology, but the shrewd writer should realise that quick bridges between the known and the strange are needed to help the reader get a grip. Direen does not bother. Upending the reader’s equilibrium seems to be the modus for Direen and his co-writers at Titus Books. Their website reveals they exist to “menace existing categories”, while maintaining good relations with those pursuing “situationist theory, personal anarchy or approaches to existence or representations of ‘reality’ we have yet to learn about”. Perhaps someone has to operate on these lonely margins, but, if this novel is an exemplar of the philosophy, successful novel-writing and personal anarchy are irreconcilable bedfellows.

The situation is a common one in post-apocalyptic fiction: survivors trying to make sense of a ruined world in which everyone is a potential enemy. If Direen had not used language as barbarous as his plot, he might have found more readers willing to go along, but most will not bother.

James Norcliffe does not make this mistake. As an experienced and popular writer of children’s and young adult fiction, Norcliffe draws on his experience as historian and poet to create a logical, believable and exciting story out of a similarly alienating and threatening world, the ancient fiefdom of Gleam where good is taking a thrashing from evil, and a particularly nasty villain, the Markgrave, keeps his people enslaved.

A rumour is abroad that hope lies in a promised “Maiden” who might free the people and banish tyranny. Young Johanna, her brother Tobias, their musician uncle and a stout-hearted aunt (tormented by a feckless husband and far too much housework) represent the “good”. But it is not as simple as that: Tobias, while intelligent and promising, is also easily seduced by power, and the traditional dichotomy of good and evil is mired by the ambiguous monks who live mysteriously independent of the Markgrave through their higher learning and access to books. There are many promising lines in plot and characters which will no doubt be developed in sequels to this first of a series. There are excellent descriptions of the cold hostility of the town, the menace of the corrupted blackhearts, and the random viciousness of the totalitarian state. There are some great set pieces, such as the horrors of a snake kept inside a jeroboam of wine.

Though both Direen and Norcliffe create frightening fictional worlds, one in the past, one in the future, only Norcliffe grounds his story and characters in acceptable reality through using known language, and even if he does operate at the mandarin end of it, The Assassin of Gleam challenges young readers in ways in which teachers tell us they should be extended. Direen might attract more readers if he put aside the false gods of chaos and anarchy and used more of the conventions of the novel form, a point reviewers have been making to him for some time.

The novel form dies hard as a middle-class concept, written by and for the middle-classes by well-educated writers, who, if some of them show signs of youthful rebellion, usually evolve into the well-wrought mould. Mostly the working class has been too busy working, or coping with 6.5 children to write on their own behalf. Frank Sargeson tried to buck the trend with a change of name and life-style, using an acute ear for plebeian language and drawing on the tales of low-life brought home by his working-class lover from pubs and racetracks. The fictional results, while striking and refreshingly different at the time, seeming to be the genuine article, now creak a little and appear overlaid with middle-class condescension.

Maurice Gee has moved in genteel fashion from the provinces, where his traditional subject-matter has lain, towards the cities where the middle-class are under siege from low-born criminals. It is a rich field and one does not need to be too inventive since newspapers offer as many plots and kooky characters as a writer needs. Chad Taylor, now 42 and well into his stride as recorder of city life, has published five works since 1994 which, with more naturalness than many older writers have yet achieved, focus on the criminal underbelly of places such as Auckland. Like Direen and Norcliffe, he uses fantasy, obsession and an other-worldly quality which is often the stuff of nightmares.

Departure Lounge covers the years from 1979, when Air New Zealand’s sight-seeing flight collided with Mount Erebus, to the present. Was a girl missing in the city and known only as Caroline May, 16, a passenger on that flight? It is a question which has been an obsession with her family, the police and her school friends ever since, and gives them no peace. In particular, Mark, a petty criminal who has done time for burglary and who narrates the story, is obsessed by his missing friend. The lives of all have been ruined by the mystery; no matter how much slim evidence is conjured up, no-one is any closer to explaining where she went. As someone said at the time: “we’re all connected … if someone leaves, it means we all lose part of ourselves”. The investigating police officer, now a drunk, says for them all, “[there is] one thing that shapes us all”. They are doomed to lead desultory, incomplete lives until they know what really happened.

Taylor seems well informed about petty crime (a theme also of his 2000 novel, Shirker), and Mark operates only within its confines, but as the novel moves on, we realise that entering houses and stealing goods is simply a means of spying on the inhabitants, the better to find clues about Caroline May. Taylor is good on the existential loneliness of city life. Mark’s plain, straight style of narration suits the clinical evocation of scene, action and the interweaving of the bare facts of the past with the present.

So much of modern life is gimcrack and ruined; how did the promise of an idyllic New Zealand youth end up so? It was an outcome foreseen by Bill Pearson in his prescient 1952 essay, “Fretful Sleepers”. The influences of cheap American crime programmes and the language of the dominant culture pervade the novel:

Poolside sounded like a fight. The warm air stank of chlorine and sweat. The swimmers were pounding down the lanes so close they were hand to toe, churning the water white. Breakfast radio was playing over the indoor speakers, bouncing music off the low ceiling. Up top in the gym people on machines were slamming weights up and down. Exercycles whistled in unison as their riders pedalled towards the TV sets hanging from the ceiling. Everyone was rushing to get fit before they left for work.


Scenes at the Erebus site are memorable, revealing some serious authorial research of material not known to the general public. Mark, the tragic obsessive, is that rare creation, an unlikeable character who is redeemed by the extent of his suffering as a man gripped by “euphoric recall”: “You remember her endlessly, don’t you? You can remember her clothes, her hair. You remember how she smelled.” Action moves to a climax where what happened to the girl may be revealed. An “artist” (Taylor is devastating on the pretensions of the art world, and on the self-serving clap-trap of grief counsellors who ask the bereft, “How do you feel?”) assembles images developed from the cameras found on the snows of Erebus and stages a showing which may or may not reveal the truth. Taylor’s writing is at its most oblique here, and this reader was left puzzling, perhaps part of the theme that ultimately we understand very little, and truth remains elusive, but perhaps a fault in exposition.

Unlike Taylor, Craig Marriner seems not to have enjoyed the blessings of tertiary study, to have arisen from the less salubrious parts of working-class Rotorua and to have pursued a rather shifting and rackety life until finding a voice in fiction with his first novel Stonedogs (2001). If Adam Dudding’s interview this year with the young author (now 32) is a true record of Marriner’s style and speech, he looks and talks like one of his own characters. Like Barry Crump in 1960, he arose suddenly playing an alien tune and setting the literary world a-twitter as he carried off the 2002 Deutz medal for fiction ahead of such luminaries as Knox, Gee, Grace and Jones, pocketed a good bit of the sparse monies available to writers in the country, and, in ungrateful fashion, shot through to the UK where he has lived since and found the subject of his second novel Southern Style. 

Readers who might have thought the criminal gangs of drug dealers in New Zealand were strong meat will have to readjust their sights for this latest trawl through the criminal underworld of London. Three southern hemisphere flatmates pit their southern initiative and nimble-footedness against the old experienced crime lords of London, themselves threatened by worse offenders from Eastern Europe.

A few novels rocket out of the blue the way Marriner’s do; perhaps Frame’s first, and Keri Hulme’s only. Major talents have power to change the way we read. It was hard to resist the energy and linguistic flair of Marriner’s first, the narrative drive, the disregard for polite life as the conventional topic. He owed no one anything. In the earlier narrative and in the latest, he can stop the breakneck pace and loose off a metaphor or a considered sentence of stunning newness and beauty to stop the reader in mid-flight, and you know you are in the power of a natural writer.

Poor old London, it is as good as shot. Like Direen’s world and Taylor’s desolate Auckland, Marriner’s London is a virtual post-apocalyptic city where crime is the only answer in a perennially unjust society, surely a lesson to us in New Zealand. The three anti-heroes, imbued with the southern spirit of initiative and independence, at least have a ticket home where they may ponder what they have learned.


Heather Murray is a Dunedin reviewer.


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