The grimness of contemporary realism, John McCrystal

Five Strings
Apirana Taylor
Anahera Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780473389482

Iceland
Dominic Hoey
Steele Roberts, $35.00,
ISBN 978094749343I

It’s that time of the three-yearly cycle again. A billboard has gone up near my house promoting the political party that has, for the last couple of terms, been promising us a brighter future. It claims this party is “Delivering for New Zealanders” – which is true, so long as you don’t read it as a claim that it is delivering for all New Zealanders. And, as for the brighter future, well, there is a significant number of people in New Zealand for whom the future can only be brighter, given how bleak their present is.

The poor have always been with us, as have the bereft, the psychologically troubled, the addicted, the homeless, the hopeless. There have been notable attempts to explore this sociological terrain in literature, to open a window into the universe that exists in parallel with the quarter-acre pavlova paradise. But each time a novel such as, say, Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors or Craig Marriner’s Stonedogs has made a splash, it’s come as a revelation to many, who would prefer to believe that there is no depression in New Zealand or, at least, none that its sufferers couldn’t have avoided by making better choices, or having better parents, or paying more attention at school, or abusing fewer substances, or getting off their chuffs and getting a job.

In the unlikely event it will be  widely read, Apirana Taylor’s powerful Five Strings would deliver just such a shock. It’s a work of grim realism, appalling and mesmerising in equal measures, depicting as it does the desperate, minute-to-minute existence eked out by those on the utter margins of society with little or no prospect of escape.

Puti and Mack are alcoholics, living for the moment on a Thursday afternoon when their welfare payments clear and they can hit their local, which Mack has aptly nicknamed Heart Ache Hotel. There, they drink themselves toward oblivion in the company of like-minded others, until closing time forces them to head out into the night to wait a few hours for the early-opening One Way Up tavern to unbolt its doors. Then, they can carry on knocking back beer and gin, as morning commuters stride by, faces averted, on their way to work. Eventually, they’ll stagger back to the filthy room they call home and slump into a drunken stupor in their booze-sweat-soaked sheets, wake up and do it all again, and again, and again, till the money runs out.

It’s not that they’re completely without hope. When, every Monday, they go to the public pools for their weekly wash, Mack is proud that he can thrash and gasp his way one full length of the pool. And Puti has moments in which her spirit writhes in disgust and urges her to claw its way clear of the morass in which they live: she’s been filching money from Mack and saving it up to do … something. But, strictly according to the rules of co-dependency, each is always there to drag the other down. One of the technical accomplishments of this novel is the way in which Taylor shares the point of view around and the narration itself shifts from one mode to another to create a sense of the capricious, addled consciousness of alcoholism and mental illness, the way self-loathing always appears to cut aspiration off at the knees.

Amidst the depiction of the wretchedness of their present lives, Taylor deftly sketches in enough of the detail of their pasts to give us a sense of how Mack and Puti came to be where they find themselves. Poor scarred, damaged Puti was brought up in a gang pad, and her eventual escape came at a terrible cost that put her first in hospital and then in prison. She is prone to savage mood swings and capable of murderous rages. Affable, articulate Mack was rejected as a child and fell through the fingers of the education system. And their present, terrible, folie à deux began in earnest when they had a child together, only for their three-month-old daughter to suffer sudden death in infancy.

He also gives glimpses of their human potential. Puti is dyslexic – a trip to the supermarket is an agoraphobic nightmare for her – but, at one time, she discovered an aptitude for woodwork. She could have made a go of that. Mack has a broad vocabulary, acute hearing, a decent singing voice and a painter’s eye for shape and colour, but none of these talents has been developed. He owns an old guitar which has only five of its six strings, a symbol of what might have been.

Five Strings is a tough read, because the only possible direction in which the protagonists seem capable of moving is down. Taylor offers some hope for redemption – the only unsatisfactorily developed aspect of the novel is the occasional break-out in which a marae elder and the female wairua of the marae itself reach out to Puti – but it is doubtful whether redemption will come at all for Mack, or Puti, or both, or whether it will come too late.

While it’s hard not to admire Taylor’s Five Strings, it’s much easier to like Dominic Hoey’s debut novel, Iceland. Despite the breathtaking scale of substance abuse, and the faintly narcissistic and antisocial attitude of its characters, their lives do not
seem quite so depressing as those of Mack and Puti, their chance to realise their potential not as remote.

Zlata is young, depressed and talented, alternating between doing time in a soul-destroying office job and working hard as a solo singer-songwriter. Her music has been making waves, but her life seems empty nevertheless.

That changes when she meets Hamish, a troubled youth who is keeping body and soul together selling drugs while entertaining himself heading out at nights to tag the walls of slumbering Auckland. He, too, has talent to burn and is on the verge of something bigger and better, as Rapley, a sometime partner-in-graffiti-crimes, has reinvented himself as an exhibition artist and has invited Hamish to hold a joint show.

Zlata is offered a record deal. Hamish quits selling gear and agrees to do the show, and his fascination with the beautiful Zlata gets his creative juices flowing. Things look promising. But their destiny is not entirely in their own hands. Bad blood runs in rivulets in the streets of Hoey’s Auckland. The past, as Hamish observes, “is like a shitty tattoo. Once you’ve got it, you have to wear it.” Both he and Zlata, for different reasons, are tortured souls, and it’s an even bet whether they will complete or mutilate one another.

Hoey brings considerable urban cred to his project. He has published a respectable volume of music under the name Tourettes, and speaks with authority on the music industry (one of the best passages in the book is of the crappy reality that belies the perceived glamour of touring as a musician). He has also worked in poetry, performance poetry and in film, and Iceland was largely written while he held an artistic residency in Skagastrond, Iceland in 2012 (the title of the book reflects a character’s determination to get as far away from New Zealand as it is possible to get).

The book itself is also a child of its times. In order to get the novel over the line of publication, he apparently mounted a crowd-funding effort, offering naming rights to characters in return for support: many of the names in the acknowledgements are personified in the pages.

In the end, Iceland is a reflection on the change that has overtaken Auckland (and, by extension, New Zealand) during the last three decades. Each of the young characters has a set of useless parents somewhere, who have abdicated responsibility for their children, their city and their country. The characters themselves are left to try to make their own way and find their own place in a city that has locked its doors to them, with rents unaffordable, let alone houses themselves. It’s a kind of retelling of Romeo and Juliet in which the social division in the background isn’t between rival clans, but between the haves and have-nots. There is a simmering sense of betrayal. Auckland was conceived and built by people with various dreams and backstories: now it languishes, dreamless, under the yoke of dead-eyed exploitation:

We walked home through Cox’s Creek. The park, which I [Zlata] wouldn’t have set foot in alone at night, seemed to welcome us. The trees shielded the lights from nearby houses. We stood in the middle of the field and kissed, high on the synthetic happiness of reconciliation. We held hands and walked by the creek filled with sewage and the rotting corpses of dead pets. People swam there in the ’50s. They will say similarly absurd things about us one day.

John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

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