Friends and other strangers, Murray Bramwell

Playing Friends
Marilyn Duckworth
Vintage, $27.99,
ISBN 9781869418694

Trendy But Casual
Paula Morris
Penguin Books, $28.00,
ISBN 9780143006398

It’s that time in later middle age when school reunions have become like a dawn (or twilight) parade of veterans and survivors. Those wraiths from our childish past, conjured up on the OldFriends website, or actually manifest in front of us with glass in hand – just subtract 45 years of subcutaneous sag and add colour to the grey.

In her 14th  novel, Marilyn Duckworth returns to her familiar subject – the lives of “invisible” women. In Playing Friends her central character, Clarice, is widowed and turning 60, her funds are depleting and life is discreetly lonely. In an appealingly off-hand narration, Duckworth opens with Clarice running into her school chum Una at a reunion. In no time, and with very little logistical explanation, they are sharing a flat in central Wellington.

It is a lively account of an odd couple. Clarice is orderly and amenable, Una chaotic, argumentative and full of not-entirely-welcome surprises – including her pierced, sulky (and pregnant) 16-year-old “cousin” Sheree. Clarice’s life seems to have gone into a kind of fatalist free fall as she blithely incorporates each new turn of events. Sheree has moved in, and there are dealings with other tenants in the apartment building, including Kevin, the “downstairs gentleman” with an inconvenient wife conveniently in London. There is also Beryl, same school, but older than Clarice by a couple of years. She is on her own too – or sort of. In a (perhaps) high-risk strategy, the author has provided her with Greg, an imaginary friend from a 1970s soap opera.

Initially, Playing Friends has its share of Golden Summers social history – trams round to Thorndon Quay, Creamoata, Ipana and the Adams Bruce milkbar in Willis Street – and captures well Clarice’s sense that memory, like the fact of her being almost 60, is a temporal improbability – more vision and waking dream  than  reality. No-one really believes they are getting old, but Duckworth is well attuned to the fact that baby boomers, like Clarice and Una, believe it least of all. This is nowhere more evident than in their continuing sex drive. Una dresses tight and curvy and is very much on the look out – so meeting up with Garth at the Newtown Zoo is certainly on the cards, even if the murky and violent events that follow are not. Clarice also has her assignation with Kevin, the man from Customs – a dalliance in his laundry that is wryly described.

There is an easy candour in Playing Friends as Duckworth takes us into the interior lives of three women (if not the emo stereotype of Sheree). The older women are seen as unsettled, vulnerable, and full of teenage yearning still, despite the fact that they are also skilled in cynicism, deflection and keeping very old secrets. That all this makes them strangers to each other, unpredictable in relationships, and admirably defiant, is both comic and disturbing. These are the women you see in Wellington (or any other city in the world) the author is telling us. You look straight past them, and yet so much is going on in their minds, their apartments and even in cordoned-off crime scenes.

But, finally, the novel deals variably with these promising ingredients. There is a lightness in the often random narrative but too many leaps and gaps in motive and detail. Una is too much of a mystery – to Clarice and to us – so that the ending of Playing Friends is less intriguing than confusingly unresolved. Having courted our attention, Duckworth doesn’t need to so abruptly give us the flick.

In her third novel, Paula Morris, winner of the Hubert Church Best First Book award at the Montanas for Queen of Beauty, has not only chosen New York as her setting but there is not a trace that she, or her characters, are anything but American. Morris has had plenty of time to get to know her subject, having spent more than 10 years in New York and London – working, the blurb tells us, as “a record company executive, advertising copywriter and brand strategist”.

Trendy But Casual is the disappointingly bland title of the fresh, witty and delectably readable chronicle of Jane Shore, late of Prince of Russia, Pennsylvania, and resident, variously, in the boroughs of New York City. Jane, as her hummingly well-wrought narrative informs us, is not a girl detective or a student nurse, she is a weary member of the ever-expanding legion of PR operatives, those event managers and epiphenomenologists who lend profile to incipient celebrity and make the famous even more famous for being famous.

Jane works for Crump and Co, with her good friend Susanna and an emerging rival, a hyper-stylish troll named Lee Munroe – who is nipping at the ankles of all of Jane’s clients, including the listings magazine, To Do!, the ivy league educated, black hip-hop pretender RapStallion (and, under separate management and contractual arrangements, his pink-maned horse) and Sam Stone, a porn impresario launching X-rated video games.

Jane’s life of carefully calculated urban single chick anthropological compliance is shaken by a chance encounter with a bag lady on the street, who fingers her with a Macbeth-witch-like curse:

I admit that I spend most of my income on grooming and clothes. It’s not a choice really: I think of it as price of entry into the New York market.

But apparently, when this homeless hag looks at me she doesn’t see fabulous-on-the-outside at all. She doesn’t notice the tailored leather jacket, the jeans that grip in the right places, the Kate Spade black mini-backpack slung over my shoulder. When she gazes into my face she doesn’t observe the results of religious cleansing, toning, moisturizing, exfoliating, plucking, masking, stripping and nourishing. She doesn’t even see the way that – today at any rate – my shoulder length hair assumes that elusive pushed-behind-ears-dipping-onto-face look that only a handful of women successfully accomplish. She sees ugly on the inside.


And, from this auspicious encounter, Jane’s world starts to totter: she loses her apartment, her job is undermined, and she observes that her dysfunctional siblings, Justene and Frank, are respectively doing better and worse in their parallel NY lives. Even long-time slacker friend Jim is on the rise, and Susanna’s on-off beau, the carrot-ugly Fletcher, is being taken seriously in illegal Polish émigré guerrilla graphic design circles. In a series of amusing set pieces Morris dissects a world of nerve, guile, presumption and wafer-thin egos. The ferocious parody of the music, art and chic-culture world is marbled with real-world references and names which will date the book but also place it dazzlingly in a recognisable present.

Trendy But Casual has its identifiable antecedents – Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City, the feckless men come from Nick Hornby and, maybe, the soliloquies on facial cleansing from Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. But what is impressive is how well this carefully observed, richly textured cleverboots of a novel can sustain the comparisons. There is an evenness in the narrative which commandingly gathers satiric momentum. It tapers off, however, in the up-beat finale when Jane and her gang of loyal friends score a PR coup with the hip-hopera version of Mary Rappins in Central Park. The chirpy ending is two parts the final reel of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday and one part Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy on a pink horse – of course, and only a grouch would begrudge it. But downbeat gallows humour always plays better, and Morris is a dab hand at that as well.

Interestingly, having said that there is no trace that the text is anything but American in origin – this is not the case. The great satisfaction from reading this book is realising that, in its curdled perspective, it is so antipodean. This is a great fifth-column account from a deeply embedded PR mole (or is that moll?). The novel has the authentic touch of a seasoned campaigner but the view is from the wary eye of an outsider, with a sympathy for status anxiety, a radar for the bogus and a nose for horseshit – actual and metaphysical. Trendy But Casual is sharp, on-the-money and laugh-out-loud funny. It deserves to be the talk of the season.


Murray Bramwell teaches at Flinders University in South Australia and is theatre reviewer for The Australian and The Adelaide Review.


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