Hold My Teeth While I Teach You to Dance
99% Press, $30.00,
Mike Johnson is one of our most gifted novelists, yet he has been curiously neglected. I suspect the problem is his bold originality. Each of his novels seems to break new ground, creating a new one-off genre. No wonder critics, not to mention readers, have been baffled. Lear: The Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon was an extraordinary tour de force set in a post-apocalyptic world which, like Joyce’s Ulysses, draws on a parallel literary universe. Thus, the reader is invited to read the world through a double focus. The effect is enriching. In Dumb Show, his fourth novel, he successfully relocated the gothic of the American Deep South to New Zealand in all its cruelty and bleakness. Father, one of the central characters, is granted the grace of redemption.
No such easy respite is offered Mike Smith, aka Jason Argonaut, an investigating journalist. He has already got into trouble with the Chinese government for a damning piece on the Three Gorges Dam project. He is wondering about his second arrow. But local events overtake him. His friend Velvet Reed, a computer hacker, disappears, presumed murdered, and two local cops, “Elvis” and “Haggis” (nicknames bestowed by Argonaut), suspect the journalist did it. We readers know differently. The murder of Velvet casts a long shadow over the novel, and it would be a plot spoiler to reveal the identity of the murderer.
Thus we have entered the thriller noir. If there is any doubt, there is specific reference to the genre on page 55. Argonaut is launched into a helter-skelter ride that involves guns being pulled on him at least three times (he pulls his father’s war time Luger), a couple of murders (mysterious, of course), an Australian gun ship, an illegal plant of pirated discs, two very persistent policemen who seem to believe in his guilt but never make an arrest, a Chinese gentlemen reputedly 1400 years old, a ninja who can render a person unconscious with a gentle squeeze on the back of the neck, and other Chinese people who speak in Delphically cryptic oriental wisdom.
So the noir thriller is grafted onto the oriental fantasy thriller. In the case of the former, everything is in the realm of the real while, in the latter, it is in the world of make-believe: Raymond Chandler meets Alfred Bester. Who else could dare to do this but Johnson? To reinforce the “real” side, the text is dotted with references to songs, films and Jack Reacher – Lee Child’s intrepid hit man. The tough guy quotations from Reacher seem to lift Argonaut’s morale.
The novel is permeated with Chinese motifs and characters – Madame Wu, Mr Wang, the millennial man from the coffin, Paelin (Argonaut’s helpmate in the Three Gorges article). Even some of the Euros have an oriental inflection, such as Blue (real name: Fang Runru). Raised in China, she has an Australian mother and an American father. Naturally, martial arts is a part of her repertoire. But Fang Runru’s abilities pale beside 12-year-old Sparta, aka Jiao Ming, who is well-educated, highly articulate, as acute as a university graduate and who, like ninja, can dispatch anyone with a squeeze to the back of the neck. Films have recently featured a number of these prepubescent super waifs: the latest was Hanna, featuring a girl like Sparta who can down grown men with a few deft blows. There’s a sentimentality at work here – the weak turn out to be the strong, the children are stronger than adults, the frail nerd outwits the larger bully.
As in any noir thriller, the two policemen, Blue, Sparta, Madame Wu, Mr Wang and several others appear and disappear without warning, making sure the pace is kept at a dynamic level. The dialogue is particularly sharp, with Argonaut giving as good as he gets. This is a novel meant to be devoured rather than read, and my only criticism is that some of the characters have a certain similarity.
A review of Michael Morrissey’s latest book, Tropic of Skorpeo, can be found in the New Zealand Books online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.