The Demolition of the Century
Penguin Books, $30.00,
The Mannequin Makers
Random House, $38.00,
The Wind City
Steam Press, $30.00,
Traditionally, the gothic is a northern genre. The tormented families and evil spirits of that genre seem instinctively at home in the ruined castles and pine forests of Europe. That said, New Zealand has a rich gothic tradition of its own, dating back at least to the stories of Katherine Mansfield. The grey beaches of the South Island and the urban alienation of Wellington amply provide the dark and dank necessary for the gothic to flourish, as three new novels by New Zealand authors prove. These are The Demolition of the Century and The Mannequin Makers, set in the hinterland between rational and fabulous and populated by fevered narrators whose perceptions are often disconnected from reality, and The Wind City, a fantasy of monsters and hauntings.
The Demolition of the Century is the second novel from Duncan Sarkies, best known for his bleakly comic screenwriting. As with his iconic film, Scarfies, The Demolition of the Century features characters steeped in human weakness and petty crime, but ultimately sympathetic. The book’s apocalyptic title seems initially unearned. The Century is an historic cinema, scheduled for destruction by a society unheeding of its heritage, but the building becomes a symbol for the vulnerability of memory. Place and memory are shown to intersect irresistibly, and to destroy one is to destroy the other. The struggle to rescue the Century is a parable for a family’s choice between acceptance and rejection of the past.
Tom, having fled from his former life after his involvement in a cover-up, must return and reconcile with the family he abandoned. A demolition man ruthlessly descends upon the Century with a wrecking ball. But these characters are not whom they seem to be; their histories and relationships startle. Tom is revealed as the ultimate unreliable narrator, a man whose perception of the world is so skewed that the driving conflict of the plot becomes the reader’s struggle to decipher between Tom’s observations of life and the reality around him. The Demolition of the Century is a moving fable about memory, families and the passage of time. However, the story is a little slow-paced, and the reader has worked out every twist and revelation long before the final page.
Craig Cliff, author of the award-winning short story collection A Man Melting, also writes about damaged families and unreliable narrators. His novel-writing debut is a work of historical fiction ‒ or, to use his preferred term, romanzi storici ‒ set in New Zealand between 1903 and the early 1970s. The Mannequin Makers imports the drama and melodrama of old world gothic to the Antipodes, bringing the familiar motifs of sinister patriarch, the beautiful and unwholesomely close brother and sister, the insane, the grotesque and the fantastical, to a setting of Edwardian department stores, shipwrecks and lonely beaches. Cliff vividly evokes small-town New Zealand’s journey through the 20th century, grounding a surreal story in realism with vivid descriptions of urban and rural landscapes. In Marumaru, an ambitious and recently widowed window-dresser trains his twin son and daughter to become living mannequins. In a reverse Pygmalion, he seeks to turn human into statue. A brutal upbringing succeeds in producing two perfect teenage window dummies, who spend hours standing costumed and utterly still in the tableau of two young lovers, impressing the local population. Cliff goes to great lengths to detail the near-supernatural mental and physical discipline the twins require for such a task, imposed upon them by their father, who effectively trains them to objectify themselves.
As a central premise, the concept of living mannequins occasionally strains the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. However well drilled the twins were, it seems impossible that they could force their bodies to endure long hours without sneezing, fainting or even blinking. But The Mannequin Makers is not meant to be read in a strictly literalist tradition. The novel belongs to the fervid space between magic and realism. With his story of carvers frantically trying to create a perfect reproduction of the human form, Cliff blurs the distinction between subject and object; in other words, the distinction between mannequin and man. Later scenes feature a lonely sailor conversing with a ship’s figurehead who seems far too strong-minded and articulate to be a mere construct of his mind. Cliff is an author not afraid to stray off the path of realism.
Thematically, The Mannequin Makers is bold and dark. Bodybuilders and carvers are prominent among the large cast of characters, all thematically united by their doomed struggle for absolute control over the human body. The Mannequin Makers of the title are ultimately the human race, fighting to create an ideal image out of a messy reality, with devastating and inevitable consequences for such hubris. The novel packs a great deal of plot into just over 300 pages; the story is, by turns, an adventure on the high seas, a family drama, a magic realist tale and a literary exploration of what it means to be human. Cliff suffers perhaps from first-time novelist’s compulsion to cram every possible image, experience and idea into a too-small space. However, such a tendency towards the convoluted is fittingly gothic.
Contrasting with such a sombre vision of New Zealand’s past is Summer Wigmore’s debut novel, The Wind City, a vibrant and contemporary depiction of a version of modern Wellington under siege. When the iwi atua, giants, fairies and nature spirits of Aotearoa, come into contact with New Zealand’s capital city, full of buses, pigeons and hipsters as it is, the inevitable result is a bloody and supernatural war, told in a style that weds the pacing and edge of urban fantasy to the epic scope of myth. The human side of the war is championed by the ironically named Saint, who finds himself on a dubious crusade to protect Wellington’s human population from flesh-eating giants and other predators. On the side of the atua is Tony, a young woman who finds herself reluctant heir to a powerful supernatural legacy. The novel’s vivid cast also includes the ghost of a Maori warrior, a student determined to study and befriend the atua, a Backstreet Boys loving ponaturi and a rain goddess seeking her destined true love amongst the humans at all costs.
However, The Wind City’s most important character is the city of Wellington itself. The novel is first and foremost a love-song to New Zealand’s capital as an advanced, open-minded metropolis where individualism flourishes. In a Kiwi answer to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which gave London a supernatural community living in the Underground, Wigmore fills Wellington with pockets of magic. A hidden café where ponaturi and patupaiarehe sing Flight of the Conchords songs can be found in the civic square, a tipua with rainbow-coloured hair frolics in the bucket fountain or walks arm-in-arm with the genius loci of Cuba Street, who takes the form of a busker with a teapot for a head.
Wigmore’s style is rapid-fire and peppered with pop-culture references, made-up words and run-together speech like “gigglesnorted”. The effect is disjointed at first, and the author’s winking at the audience is occasionally jarring, with remarks like “I’m thinking you’re kind of a mythological folklorey thing? Like, the books where people fall in love with vampires or fairies or turn into werewolves or whatever” proliferating, but the 19-year-old author’s sheer enthusiasm for the story makes such clumsiness ultimately forgivable and invites the reader to throw aside disbelief and enter a fantastic version of a familiar world.
The Wind City is fiercely contemporary, perhaps a little too much so for its own good. Wigmore’s characters, human and mythic alike, quote Doctor Who and The Princess Bride, talk about their love of superhero comics and quip, pun and bicker their way through life-threatening peril. Keri Hulme’s brilliant but all too short story “Getting It”, another tale of atua coming into unpleasant collision with modern New Zealanders, shares a great deal of mythological borrowing with The Wind City, but seems far less brightly-coloured, electrically lit and generally safe. The timeless place where myths are born is a dark and blood-stained one, and perhaps one cheapened by excessive references to Joss Whedon. Nevertheless, with New Zealand’s fantasy market dominated by American and European imports, Wigmore’s un-abashed celebration of Aotearoa’s landscape, history and culture is inspiring, and will hopefully fertilise future imaginations and cultivate the continuing tradition of New Zealand gothic.
Eleanor Toland has recently completed an MA in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.