Time out, Mark Houlahan

Chinese Opera
Ian Wedde
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864735850

When a story by Ian Wedde called “Chinese Opera” was published in Sport 2, readers were informed that he expected to “finish Chinese Opera, his fourth novel, in 1989.” Nineteen years later (the book was published late in 2008), Wedde has made good on his promise. Not that Wedde has been idling in the mean time, for the intervening years have produced cultural critiques and art appreciation, along with books of poetry and fiction. This “final” version of Chinese Opera extends hugely the original sample, yet in its new form clearly absorbs much that has happened here and in the “world elsewhere” since 1989. We move from the single to the LP or extended dance remix.

In the Sport sample, we met Little Frank wandering around Courtenay Place, visiting his favourite entertainment venue, the Chinese Opera of the title, there to be entertained by the beguiling Madame Hee. The novel fills out that picture, accounting for the presence of such a venue, which sounds like a Wellington version of the Kabuki-Za in Tokyo or the Beijing Opera, dedicated to performances of famed national classics. The story works backward from 2081. By then, Wedde imagines a Wellington thronging with refugees from all over Eurasia, drawn to the sanctuary of New Zealand by rising sea levels drowning their homelands, by the 30 years’ terror which followed the 2001 9/11 attacks, and water wars and other resourcing conflicts of the 21st century.

Many of these refugees live in junk-type structures anchored off Oriental Bay. The downtown has become a megalopolis of neon signs and constant helicopter traffic. The swarming streets are multilingual, and the flâneurs who walk the streets feed from noodle stalls which throng the Courtenay precinct. Some combination of Bladerunner, Times Square and modern Shanghai. Pushing the story so far into the future makes it, formally, a kind of dystopian science fiction, and the global disasters which give rise to this 2081 Wellington would in our world clearly be appalling (and all too plausible). Yet this background world is so beguilingly described and richly imagined that it seemed more like the kind of Wellington you might like to live in. I started this review over the Wellington Anniversary weekend, when downtown still drains of life as citizens seek the solace of bach and beach. Compared to that emptiness, Wedde’s vision of an entertainment precinct thronging day and night, sordid, violent, weird, polyglot, has its charms.

The chief wanderer in this urban wilderness is Little Frank, as in the original extract. Chinese Opera is in essence his story. Adjoining Courtenay Place is a murky area wittily called the Barbary Coast. Here many forms of amoral pleasures are available; and here Frank has traded in body parts. Advances in genetic engineering and surgery have placed these at a premium. As in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, “manflesh” (as the Orcs call it in the Rings films) commands a high price.

Frank himself has been modified. He was born on 11 September 1971, and thus 30 on the morning of 9/11. Wedde’s vision of global chaos, the 30-year terror followed by the 30 years of resource wars, makes this also, in part, one of the flurry of post-9/11 novels (such as DeLillo’s Falling Man or Ken Kalfus’ wry Disturbance Peculiar to the Country).These American fictions take the immediate present of the event, and exploit the resources of realist fiction. Wedde exploits science fiction or, if you prefer, magic realism. For Frank is 120 years old, kept alive by elaborate medical procedures. What if he should choose to “time out” as the novel puts it and surrender his immortality? Even if you chose to live forever, it makes sense that after 120 years, your thoughts would be more on the past than the immediate present. You would likely spend your days reflecting on “Hungry Ghosts”, as the third and final section here is called. So it goes for Frank. He tries to recollect his mother, who abandoned him when he was 10; he recalls visits to Raglan where his grandfather ran a Euthanasia retreat above the Harbour; and more commercial drug runs up the Whanganui. Frank’s traffickings have been nefarious, yet these coastal and riverine trips have a splendour about them: “We sped up through fast water in a gorge and came out to cherry orchards in blossom the green of cleared country.” Effectively Wedde creates the novel out of a series of bravura set pieces. This has been his fictional practice since Islands published his first novel Dick Seddon’s Great Dive in 1976. The texture is beguiling, yet if you read Wedde’s novels just for the story you would give up in frustration.

Chinese opera becomes the central motif. The opera house Wedde imagines puts on socialist realist classics of the Maoist period. These Madame Hee, the diva Frank obsesses over, performs dutifully. She is more at home in the orientalising classics of European opera, especially Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and his extravagant Beijing fantasia, Turandot, with its lugubrious deaths and lamenting Chinese princess. Phrases from the opera haunt Frank and recur throughout the novel. The sounds of Puccini gather strength towards the end of the novel; as Frank’s choice is made, the motifs from throughout his long life sound and repeat. They drew me in and made me want to reread, savouring them yet once more.


Mark Houlahan teaches English at the University of Waikato.


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