Something nobody counted on, Murray Bramwell

Mike Johnson (graphic art, Darren Sheehan)
Titus Books, $39.00,
ISBN 9781877441134


Emma Neale
Vintage, $29.99,
ISBN 9781869794859


Hamish Clayton
Penguin Books, $30.00,
ISBN 9780143206491


Like many futuristic nightmares, the naming of the nihilistic Gaia colony of Travesty is both literal and metaphoric. Mike Johnson’s grim tale begins in a crummy tenement called the Rathouse where we meet the seedy principals of this sci-noir yarn. They have names reminiscent of William Burroughs circa the Naked Lunch trilogy – avatar tags like Drunk Len, Glow Harvey (aka Harvey Evensong), Nisa Michaelangelo, Dilly Lily and (the classical Freudian) Dr Reingold. These names are not quite up to the Burroughsian standard of Benway, Lee the Agent, Steely Dan and the Factualists perhaps, but Johnson is also reminding us constantly of the metaphysical banality of this outpost.

It is a jurisdiction presided over, with dictatorial vigilance, by Universal Products and its genetic enforcers, the Biology Bureau. There is a supreme authority figure called Walt, who lives in a Dark Fortress that resembles the castle of the Wicked Witch in the 1956 version of Sleeping Beauty. This Disneyfied wasteland has its own version of bread and circuses with the Day of Delight, when small fantasy creatures – Mickeys, Donalds, Johnny Rottens and Pooh Bears – are released in their many thousands to be hunted down and disembowelled by the populace in search of the lotto tickets, credits or “zings”, secreted in their entrails. The lucky winner of this “Dumbo Delight” gets enough zings to acquire every blandishment and distraction Travesty has to offer.

There is a counter-insurgency of course – confusingly, also drawing from the Disney cosmology. Led by the Lion King, the Beagle Boys, Sleeping Beauties and Scrooge McDucks are set to use the Day of Delight to turn loose the dogs of chaos. The question is: will former mathematical whiz Glow Harvey follow his lovely maiden guide Hermes, or be caught in some sinister double-cross?

Johnson has written an intriguing and often frustrating novel which has so many narrative lacunae and conceptual whimsies as to almost disappear into esoterica and private reference. At best, it has echoes of J G Ballard and Philip K Dick, but mostly the book mires in self-regarding detail. It is described as a graphic novel but Darren Sheehan’s black-and-white illustrations are sparsely and somewhat abstractedly connected. Travesty’s dance of the many veils would have been better served had its reflections on terminal consumption, social dislocation and the nature and truth of art been pared back wholly into the full-frame of the picture novel format; then it would have been brisker, more coherent – and more graphic.

Fosterling, Emma Neale’s fifth novel, offers a most welcome addition to the crowded genre of the Monstrous Other. From Frankenstein’s monster to King Kong and ET, we have previously considered the fate of the gentle alien, far more at risk of harm from the mob with its lanterns and pitchforks than it was ever going to, or could, cause.

In Fosterling, a seven-foot creature with the pelt of an animal is found wounded in thick Westland bush. He is taken first to a Dunedin hospital, then a psychiatric facility and then out into the hands of sympathetic friends and hostile strangers. He can speak but chooses not to, reads poetry by Ted Hughes, and can mend the electrics in traffic lights. His name is Bu (short for Phubu, but Boo for Radley also comes to mind), and he is said to have come from Nepal, a foundling, spirited back to New Zealand by born-again travellers, Andy and Lillian. There, in the isolation of the South Island bush country, he is raised away from prying eyes and in co-dependency with his increasingly troubled mother. Is it inevitable that this calculated isolation will fail? Are Andy and Lillian, like Clark Kent’s parents in Smallville, doomed to lose their prodigy to the uncertainties of Metropolis?

The book artfully, and most specifically, places Bu and his predicament into the larger discourse of the child in nature – whether Rousseau’s Wild Boy of Aveyron (subject of Truffaut’s fine film) or the Kaspar Hauser story (memorable subject for Werner Herzog). It also canvasses the theories of the yeti, sasquatch and the Polynesian Maero – all giving increased credibility to the circumstance of the Dunedin phenomenon.

Typically in this trope, there are sympathetic individuals – one is the young woman journalist, Sandrine Moreau (echoes of the Doctor and his island perhaps?), drawn to Bu in part because of his charisma, but also because of his empathy for her congenitally deformed ankle; another is the psychiatrist Keith Peterson, who finds himself in a kind of reverse transference with his noble, hairy version of the Elephant Man. And also, true to the myth, they each betray Bu – Sandrine by an indiscretion to a former lover (now a TV current affairs celebrity) which, predictably, results in crass tabloid news saturation of the case. As for Peterson, he is momentarily lured by the prospect of international scientific fame.

Fosterling is an engaging account, managing this often familiar material with a freshness and lyricism which is often beautifully poised. Neale deftly locates her story in a recognisable Dunedin, with an array of locally specific characters and situations, while everywhere the implausibility of her fable is kept lightly at bay. It is a refreshing, absorbing and thought-provoking achievement.

Hamish Clayton’s impressive first novel, Wulf, takes its title from a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem about a warrior and another – his beloved? His other self? His sworn enemy? “We are apart,” the poem goes: “Wulf is on one isle, I am on another/Fast is that island set among the fen./ Murderous are the people who inhabit/That Island“. But the setting of the book is New Zealand in 1830, and its subject is the incident concerning the brig Elizabeth, when the legendary Kapiti chief, the Napoleon of the South, Te Rauparaha, bargained with its drunken captain, Stewart, to use his boat to go to the South Island and capture unawares his long-standing enemy Hara-nui (Tamaiharanui) and slaughter his tribe.

The story is told by a sailor on the brig. He is never named, although late in the book he admits to the alias Radcliff. Although not young, his account is that of a neophyte in a new land, on the first day of the world: “the country lay like a gift from the open sky before us,” he exclaims. He also extensively recounts the tales and insights of Cowell, the ship’s trading master, the youngest on board but worldly in matters of New Zealand lore and language and knowledgeable on the brilliant and terrible exploits of the Great Wolf Te Rop’raha [sic]. He is a European man already much altered by this landfall in unknown seas.

These sailors bring old conceptions to this isle full of noises, bright air and “blue sun” – the image of the wolf, for instance:

In the time we were there we made that country from stories of creatures which had never set foot upon it, had never stalked its black valleys. Had never preyed on its lambs or children. Had never dampened their paws in its Roman rivers. We were on our islands: wolves were on another. We were new islands, anchors at the bottom of the world … . I stared until I felt as though I was made of fire.


This is a powerfully imagined novel – assured, crisply poetic and spellbinding in its unfurling narrative. It is a Conradian sailor’s tale told by a Marlow, describing his young Kurtz, but it is a journey not only to darkness but also into light. Clayton has cast a cold eye on familiar colonial themes of injustice, unspeakable cruelty and treachery, and shown the complicity of both Maori and Pakeha. But it is also a fresh eye, as a gifted writer for a new generation looks again at our island history – still unfolding, still contested – and memorably reminds us, in Allen Curnow’s unhistoric words: that it was something different, something nobody counted on.


Murray Bramwell is the Adelaide theatre critic for The Australian.

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