Walking in the real world, Owen Marshall

Dad Art  
Damien Wilkins
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776560561

Acoustic engineer Michael Stirling is divorced, in contact through a dating site with apparently grieving Chrissie, tending a father in a dementia unit, living in Wellington’s Sanctum Apartments having lost his house, coping with a minor surgical procedure, learning te reo Māori and providing temporary accommodation for his daughter Samantha who has arrived from Auckland roped to a young Māori man as an artistic experiment. Enough to be going on with. The mid-life crisis is a well-worn theme in modern fiction, but Damien Wilkins gives it a welcome and spirited outing.

It is very much a contemporary novel and a New Zealand novel, with references to such issues as the flag debate, the sacking of John Campbell, and the WWI exhibition at Te Papa. The language is also contemporary: people zone out, piss off down town, and fuck the missus. Grammar, punctuation and syntax are relaxed: “Kerry was about thirty and a good teacher, fun and sharp. Political. She was Ngāti Kahungunu.”

Dialogue is one of Wilkins’s strengths, and he uses it to good effect, having a receptive ear for New Zealand idiom and knowing well that short, individual contributions often work best. There is a lot of clever and amusing verbal sparring among the characters, and humour also in Michael’s wry reflections, including running gags about Sanctum and the cartoon contest in the New Yorker. Here are Michael and Chrissie at an early stage of their relationship.

“You never asked my surname.”
He thought for a moment. “You never asked mine.”
“Saw it on your credit card at the cafe.”
“Shit you’re good.”
“I’m just suspicious. And sneaky.” Henry was halfway up the crowded ladder. “Acoustic engineering. Do you think about acoustics all the time”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, I wondered.”
“Like a dentist is always judging someone’s smile or – ?”
“But is that even right?” she said. “One of my friends became an embalmer, true story, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t going around imagining us all dead –”

Wilkins has the language. He is also a keen observer of the world; accomplished with authentic detail that by accumulation builds character, mood and setting far more successfully than glib generalization: “The Zip had begun its long slow sonic build-up – at the start it was like someone who couldn’t whistle but kept on in the hope the trick would make itself available to him.”

The arresting opening chapter, in which Michael is having a post-operation wound cauterised, well displays such skills. Convincingly conveyed are the fluctuating, non-sequential rush of thoughts, the surgery room, the Polish doctor and the comforting nurse:

“You all right down there, love?” said the nurse. She hummed to the radio they’d turned on the minute he’d crawled onto the bed-like thing. He felt the tight cool cover-sheet against the skin of his bare ankles, reassuringly as if someone kind had placed her slender fingers there to hold him in place. Some people probably tried to run.

From experience, Wilkins understands the shifting dynamics and varied personalities within formal groups, and he takes advantage of opportunity in the novel to present a cavalcade of idiosyncratic minor characters within that setting. The Applied Maths Club, the te reo class, the planning meetings at the university, are all dissected for the reader’s education and amusement.

The story has a meandering quality, but perhaps that is an appropriate acknowledgment of Michael’s life at this stage, and some of the best sections are those which are digressions. Michael’s recollection of witnessing an incident of severe bullying at secondary school is one of the most powerful pieces of writing in the book. As is another section in which Michael remembers breaking into the empty house of a friend during school study periods. Risky, needless, selfish, bizarre, and yet so true to the time of adolescence.

Michael’s senile father is a character employed often for humorous effect, but it is sympathetically done, and there is also deeper exploration of the relationship between them, such as the son’s realisation on one visit of his father’s innate egotism:

Michael understood he was still following his father’s life in its details and trials. There was no question of his own life becoming more prominent in their conversations. They seemed to have skipped that phase. It was all Derek, as it had always been. He was losing his mind and he was dying – how could the son compete with that?

That dementia’s effects on individuals and families is one of the themes of the novel is another indication of the story’s contemporary nature. Increasingly, we see this consequence of extended life-spans becoming a subject for film, poetry and prose, as its impact grows.

Various other concerns are explored in Dad Art. One is the relationship between Māori and Pākehā. Kerry, the feisty te reo teacher, voices issues of historical Māori grievance and present unease, Michael is drawn to consider his own ties to the Hutt river, his turangawaewae, and the rope that ties Samantha and Matiu together in a fluctuating relationship is an obvious symbol of our bi-cultural nation. Associated with this concern is the more specifically socio-economic question of income disparity in New Zealand. Thomas Piketty is a name that comes up often in the novel. Piketty is a French economist whose 2013 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, focusing on growing wealth inequality in developed countries, has aroused international interest. Fiction can walk in the real world, and is often called upon to do so. Wilkins shows awareness of that.

But the dominant theme in the novel, that with most conviction, seems to me a more fundamental one. The existential struggle we all have to make sense of the world and cope with the vicissitudes of everyday experience. In particular, to find other people we care for, and who care for us. It is the reader’s readiness to identify with Michael in this quest that marks the essential success of the novel. The ending is neither dramatic, nor particularly redemptive. Much remains unresolved. Derek is still dying, and Michael still in his Sanctum apartment, but Samantha and Matiu have managed to remain roped together despite times of disharmony, they have returned to stay with Michael, and Chrissie is coming to have a meal with them all. So we are left with a sense of realistic, tempered optimism.

What of criticism? Often the better the book, the more a reader, or reviewer, wishes to grapple with it. Time spent on a bad book is wasted. Wilkins does need to resist the temptation to step in front of his characters. For example, his protagonist twice makes a complimentary reference to Bill Manhire. Let me be clear about my intention here, for I know Manhire and like him. My point is that the sentiments expressed are so obviously Wilkins’s own, and so tenuously attributable to Michael,   that the puppetry of characterisation is revealed at the expense of the fiction’s authenticity. In a somewhat similar way, much of the unsophisticated political satire concerning the present government is insufficiently subsumed within the fiction. I think, too, that sometimes in the pursuit of the amusing pratfall, or clever bon mot, Wilkins neglects the opportunity for more serious and telling disclosure, of which he is eminently capable.

Overall, however, Dad Art is a skilful, insightful, relevant and rewarding novel. It is also welcome proof that Wilkins has not allowed his considerable responsibilities at Victoria University to silence his voice in our fiction, and for that we should be grateful. The reference to the university prompts me to say how impressed I have been in recent years by the quality of the fiction published by Victoria University Press.

Owen Marshall’s latest novel, Love as a Stranger, is reviewed on p.14 

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