The mess we’re in, Anne Kennedy

Damien Wilkins
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776561025

In the opening scene of Lifting, Amy, a department store detective, is pursuing a “Person of Interest” (POI) – a ubi-quitous, parka-wearing woman who is probably about to nick the wallets she has in her hand – when the POI stops to gaze at the indoor fountain, and the cat-and-mouse game pauses. Amy has noticed that lots of people hover at the fountain in Cutty’s store, not just because indoor water has “a terrible magic … might flow out and wreck things”, but for the opulent statue at its centre, a bronze Mercury, the Roman god (we are reminded) of “commerce, poetry and theft”. Despite the poor guy having been puritanically castrated years before, he remains focal in the store, with his winged feet and helmet, his attendant serpents. And so, making their way around the market-place of the petit-bourgeoisie, detective and thief alike are lulled by a kind of opiate. What seems to be established here – and is perhaps pivotal to how this, Damien Wilkins’s ninth, novel unfolds – is the way ordinary folk, people on the shop floor, respond when confronted with a greater power.

Amy is “ordinary folk”: 34, married, with a baby she worries she hasn’t bonded with, responsible for an ageing mother (a Wilkins running gag), mortgaged to the eyeballs. She used to have a different life, but didn’t everybody? Fresh from five months maternity leave, she is back at work, going on the bus, trailing POIs all day, returning home to solid Steve: “World news happened at a huge distance from their nappy bucket.” She will lose her job with the imminent closure of Cutty’s, and there’s been a mysterious death in the store (providing the narrative framework for the novel) but, mostly, Amy just gets on with it:

Amy went to the drier and found a new singlet for the baby. She paired socks for the three people in the house, still surprised at this number. She cleaned the lint from the filter, rolling it into a ball and putting it in the kitchen rubbish bin. Then she took the singlet, and a pair of the baby’s socks – hardly bigger than the ball of lint – into the sitting room and packed them into the baby’s crèche bag, checking again that Steve had put more nappies in. He had. One day he hadn’t.

The very ordinariness of things caused me to ask myself a confronting question: why care about Amy and her world? On first acquaintance, I really don’t know, but something about the state of unknowing keeps me engaged. I am reminded of the last time I had this dilemma – reading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. (As it happens, the late Robin Dudding had the same thought about Tóibín and went so far as to write to Bill Manhire for a diagnosis – as recounted in Adam Dudding’s My Father’s Island. I would like to know Bill’s reply.)

Why is Amy a character of interest?

The answer seems to be partly in the measured details – of domesticity, of milk-soaked breast pads, of Mrs T from Bedding and Bathing – that allow us a privileged, respectfully distanced intimacy. Is it that, having established the kind of trust one has in someone who chooses their words carefully, when Amy does open up, we listen? “People asked, Have you ever been tempted yourself, Amy? / Often, she answered. We’re in the temptation business.” And: “When she was young everything was more exciting and personally worse for her than it was now.” What seems so beguiling about Amy is that an apparently simple surface is just that, a comfortable, readable skin beneath which much goes on. This doesn’t just happen. Wilkins’s up-close third-person interiority is alert, sensory, carefully economical and – perhaps most important, but you can’t put your finger on it – loving.

The superb verisimilitude of Lifting (aided by Wilkins’s famous pitch-perfect dialogue) isn’t there just for the pleasure; it’s our door (in Tóibínesque fashion) to a bigger story – in this case, the end of work as we know it.

One of the pleasures of good fiction is discovering what people do all day – the glove business in American Pastoral, shearing in Bulibasha: good job! – even if it is to be creeped-out Assange-style by the notion of in-store surveillance. We learn that Amy was once a St John’s Ambulance paramedic, but hurt her back, that Steve cleans up after road accidents – meaningful tasks that help people. The chilling arbitrariness of Amy’s current job is central to her own inner conflict, and also to a deep, Kafka-beetle worry in the novel: “ ‘I love my job,’ she said. ‘Do I? It’s bloody boring a lot of the time. Plus I end up causing people to be ashamed, and that’s a good result. Sometimes I ruin their lives.’ ”

Like Amy’s inner discord, the setting for Lifting is deceptively complex. Cutty’s has been peddling gentility to the masses for generations, and its closure is mourned, but it is also a time for revelations. Of course, part of the pleasure of this novel for Wellingtonians will be likening Cutty’s to its real-life twin, Kirkcaldie and Stains, but the analogy goes much deeper than mere nostalgia. As the store unwinds, Cutty’s employees are seen to be players on a stage. The bawdy twin greeters in top hats, the blind human piano roll and, famously, the sisters who worked at Cutty’s for 60 years, and Amy herself – all are overseen, at least in name, by Gertrude Cutty, the unfortunate last heir of the empire, a Miss Havisham figure if ever there was one, with her memories of a golden age, at least golden for some. The closing of Cutty’s, as Wilkins reminds us (spectacularly in the end), is death to a mirage in which shoppers, observing the Mercury fountain and eating a cream bun in the tea-rooms, pretended for an afternoon that they had more than they did, where the plush, musak-filled atmosphere was a veneer for dysfunction and heartbreak.

Wilkins is concerned here, not just with the disruption to people’s lives when socio-economic shifts happen outside their control, but with complexity, with burrowing down and taking a core sample of change. As with his 2013 novel Max Gate, in which Thomas Hardy’s maid is in the last of the “service” class, Cutty’s staff are servants, too – as are the shoppers, the thieves.

Amy, as a lower-middle-class worker in need of nationalist structures, could be a Trumpist, but she isn’t. What we have discovered is that, in her youth, she and her friends were “radical feminists”, would-be pig-farm saboteurs. Story-wise, Wilkins deftly duets the two strands, of Amy’s settled present and her activist past (the pig-farm sequence reminded me of Stephanie Johnson’s The Shag Incident), constructing a political yin and yang, feasible on one level because age and responsibility make people cautious. But Amy’s transition from activist to agent of the rich encapsulates something more insidious than growing up and changes to employment contracts – it arcs the death of radicalism.

What is so endearing and brilliantly rendered about Amy, though, is that she trudges through her young-activist years (as “Ames”) with the same stolid approach she has at Cutty’s. In Wilkins’s 1993 novel The Miserables, the hapless protagonist Healey searches for tenderness. In the metonymically titled Lifting, Amy doggedly pursues the light-fingered, and some kind of ascent, while everything around her wanes.

The element of surprise is intrinsic to storytelling. If the spectacular event that brings Lifting to a close is surprising, given the novel’s prior fidelity to the real (I want to say it’s a bit like being roped into a bizarre art experiment, but that’s going too far), the signs have been there all along: in the elemental (the indoor fountain that might “wreck everything”), the metaphysical (the absurd god), in the Miss Havishams. We are Kiwi and we like our gothic. The first and last words of the novel – surely no accident coming from a writer as knowing as Wilkins – are perhaps key: “On the ground floor”, and “Never!”

But it is Amy’s resolution that is quietly and utterly thrilling. In the words of Arundhati Roy, fiction is not about issues, but “the air we breathe” (The Nation). Amy is our air. She tells a story about the mess we’re in, but which is somehow tender and uplifting. As such, she is one of Wilkins’s most exhilarating creations. I am hoping for a sequel.

Anne Kennedy’s most recent books are The Last Days of the National Costume and The Darling North. She teaches creative writing at Manukau Institute of Technology.

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