Imagined pasts, alternative futures, Craig Cliff

The Necessary Angel
C K Stead
Allen and Unwin, $37.00,
ISBN 9781760631529

Salt Picnic
Patrick Evans
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776561698

Our Future is in the Air
Tim Corballis
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776561179

When a white male editor commissions another white male to review three novels, all written by white males, in late 2017, after the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of #MeToo, the white male reviewer must be forgiven for thinking about absent voices, privilege and power dynamics while reading the assigned books. Stale, male and pale – that’s what cynics might say. Male and pale are hard to dispute when it comes to Stead, Evans and Corballis, but stale? That’s the crux, isn’t it? Are these books vital enough to warrant the bandwidth we might devote to them? What do they have to say that hasn’t been said before?

Through this lens, C K Stead’s The Necessary Angel seems precariously poised. On one level, it’s a campus romance (the first sub-genre the revolution should have up against the wall). Kiwi academic in Paris, Max Jackson, has been banished to the granny flat, though French wife Louise still expects him to drop everything to help her with research on Flaubert. The marriage looks ready to dissolve with an amicable whimper, leaving Max to pursue his younger colleague at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, Sylvie Renard, with a clear (or clearish) conscience. Sylvie lives with a married German composer, though their relationship is murky and, again, Max doesn’t let that stop him. Then there’s Helen White, the zany young student from England, who seeks to reawaken the poet in our professor-protagonist. She refers to the lithium that keeps her on an even (or even-ish) keel as her “necessary angel” (the first of many references to the title, which itself is a callback to Wallace Stevens, who was talking about reality and the imagination). Besides Max’s somewhat tepid trysts, the drama is driven by the disappearance of a painting. It is probably by Cézanne, and its absence is definitely a big deal, not least because Max took Helen upstairs (Louise’s domain) to see it the day before its disappearance.

Tired tropes and perfunctory plotting earn Stead enough time to talk about what he really wants to: meals in Parisian cafes, jokes about French politics (“the tests are unambiguous. Your Sarkozy is inoperable”), and to set off the flashing lights in the novel’s peripheral vision (Scotland about to vote on its independence; the Ebola crisis in Africa; ISIS) that signal a world on the verge of chaos. But mostly? Mostly, he wants to talk about books. Louise moves from Flaubert to Georges Simenon. Max and Sylvie are teeing up a conference on poets killed in WWI. Helen writes a paper about Edward Thomas and takes Max to Fontainebleau to visit the stairwell where Katherine Mansfield had her fatal tubercular haemorrhage. Max himself is writing a book about V S Naipaul and Doris Lessing, delivers a lecture on Lolita and reads Martin Amis’s comic holocaust novel, The Zone of Interest, and Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. Max admires the cojones of Amis:

It was something about the style of the man, and his refusal to hide the light of his genius under a bushel of green tea. As some writers emanated moral merit, Amis put talent on display.

But how far is this novel of privileged Parisians from that bushel of green tea? The cover, a stock photo of a woman in red flowing dress, certainly does Stead no favours.

It is through Submission, the novel in which Houllebecq envisions an Islamified France, however, that Stead is able to unlock the external action (the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent Je Suis Charlie march) that anchors the novel in the world in which we mourn and rage and accuse and confess in hashtags. Max calls out the march as “such bullshit”, though he weeps all the same. In this way, The Necessary Angel is a close contemporary of Ali Smith’s short but powerful Brexit novel, Autumn. (Both books also spend a lot of time describing the plots and canvases of others.) But where Stead relies on readymade and date-expired structures within which to squirrel away at his bookish musings and geo-political angst, Smith discards plot and contrivance to plunge the reader into the tedium of post office queues and the dreamlife of a dying man. There are glimpses of this in Stead’s novel, when we are allowed to spend time alone with word-tangled Helen White. These moments, however, are too brief and too rare. This is Max Jackson’s book, but one wonders if it’s still Max Jackson’s world.

In the author note to Salt Picnic, Patrick Evans situates his latest novel as part of “a trilogy [also comprising Gifted (2010) and The Back of His Head (2015)] that reflects on the influence of the writing of Janet Frame (1924-2004) on my creative understanding of the world.” This time around, Evans is drawing on the period Frame spent on the Spanish island of Ibiza from November 1956 to March 1957. Though his protagonist, Iola Farmer, shares “some of the historical Janet Frame’s early experiences in London, France, Barcelona and Ibiza Town”, Evans insists “all characters and events in Salt Picnic are imagined”. Hmm.

Iola has all of the social befuddlement of Evans’s Janet in Gifted, though this is now multiplied by the language barrier – Castellano, Catalan, Ibicenco, but also the extreme mid-century American patois of Daniel Bernard, Iola’s love interest, whose favourite exclamation she hears as “Cheeses”. Everything is a mystery for Iola. She has never had sex and knows nothing of Franco or “the Guerra”. About the only thing she is good at is cryptic crosswords, which in the context of her current environment seem painfully obvious.

What happens in the novel? Not a lot. Iola takes up lodgings in La Casa de las Liebres, the house of an absent German doctor, run by Magdalena and Concepción, who may or may not be sisters but definitely don’t speak English. A fifth of the book is gone before Daniel Bernard appears on his yellow Vespa, though he seems more interested in the German doctor than Iola. The doctor, Almond, turns up around the three-quarter mark, shortly after Daniel has absconded. Almond is British, not German, though soon enough he is admitting unpopular sympathies and antagonising the island’s fishermen, who he says are “Rojos, every one of them.”

It is through Bernard and Almond, both foreigners, both male, both morally suspect, that Iola comes to understand some of the island’s past and its present. The snippets of history Iola learns, like the fact the nearby salt island of Formentera housed a prison camp, function in much the same way as the truthful titbits in a crime novel – it’s something to make the reader feel smart for already knowing, or smarter for having now learnt. But Iola is no Rebus or Reacher. There is no clear crime to solve or hostage to save. Iola is too weighed down by words, by language, both her superpower and her fatal flaw. But she is our hero, alright, if only because it is such a pleasure to see the world as she does: incomplete, jumbled, but with moments of brilliant focus.

The problem is that Evans has not just taken inspiration from Frame’s time in Ibiza. He has taken more from her to build his Iola, though it is most telling what he leaves on the workshop floor. In both Gifted and Salt Picnic, his ciphers for Frame are disempowered, green, girlish. Iola, like “Janet” and the real Frame, is a writer. She has published one book – a novel about a former teacher, Miss Furie, whose name Iola didn’t change, which she believes led to the real Miss Furie’s suicide – and has another manuscript which spends most of Evans’s novel in a lost suitcase. Despite Iola’s talent with words, she is shown to be as clueless about the creative process as she is about sex or the Spanish Civil War. When she writes well, she is under the power of “It”, a scary thing, uncontrollable. As one reads further into Salt Picnic, one becomes more and more unsettled by what this portrait presents. As if Frame’s books have nothing in them in the way of wisdom or hard-won craft, only feverish language and a naive beauty.

It seems strange and even a little creepy that Evans should spend so much time doing this to a writer that has influenced his writing so profoundly. It’s the Frame-ness of the language, the gameplay and musicality, the childlike rush of it, that make Salt Picnic so readable. But upon closing the book, and capping this loose trilogy, one can’t shake that feeling of condescension, however inadvertent.

Our Future is in the Air by Tim Corballis describes an alternative past where technological breakthroughs in the late 1960s allow images of the future to be captured though a process known as Temporal Contour Lensing (TCL). Unfortunately, among the early wave of images are scenes from September 11, 2001. To avoid this catastrophe, the aviation industry is grounded almost overnight and poor wee New Zealand is faced with the tyranny of distance once more. Soon, another breakthrough (Temporal Contour Forcing – TCF) allows people to travel 33 years into the future, though only for short periods. TCF is outlawed (partly to protect financial markets) and pushed underground.

Corballis, the author of four previous novels and currently a lecturer in the science faculty at Victoria University, revels in the description of TCL and TCF, which is told entirely in dialogue between unidentified speakers. There is very little science fiction published in New Zealand, and even less of it so-called “hard” science fiction, but these sections, differentiated from the rest of the text by a thin black border, are gloriously, unashamedly hard (though Corballis is not above making fun of such rabbit-holing; see the list of illustrations at the back of the book).

Interspersed between these disembodied voices talking about TCL/TCF and the macro consequences, we get the story of a missing man, Penwyn (Pen) Evans, and the partner and friends who try to track him down. Chief among these part-time, half-arsed detectives is Marcus; now a hospital psychiatrist, he and Pen were once part of the radical leftist clique centred around Wellington’s Resistance Bookshop.

These sections also lean heavily on dialogue, though it is largely banal and stripped of exposition (echoes of our current surveillance culture abound). Pen’s partner and son wind up moving in with Marcus and his wife, whose house is already a kind of low-key urban commune. Pen may have been experimenting with TCF. Pen was definitely doing TCF. Pen may have been involved with the Fedorovians. Pen may have been working undercover for the SIS to undermine the Federovians … It may sound interesting, but we never get close enough to Pen or any real rabble rousers for the drama to escalate.

Corballis’s doctoral thesis, “Aesthetics and its Antipodes: Distance, Debt and Perceptible Form” (2014), underlies much of what is dramatised (to use that term loosely) in Our Future is in the Air. The end of air travel brings into stark relief the “spatialised debt relationship” the antipodes has with its metropolis, while also allowing greater freedoms if people are bold enough to act. At least one section in the novel (proposals on page 118 for how New Zealand society might be reshaped in the event of a nuclear war) matches the thesis word for word. This is a novel, then, that is underpinned by a lot of thought – not merely the chin-scratching of one white dude in an office in Kelburn, but a deep dive into the work of countless others. Its generosity comes from its cargo of ideas, not the characters it develops.

But does it make good fiction? While I found the hard sci-fi expositions a treat and the search for Pen Evans a bit of a slog, many others would find the boxed sections inscrutable/tedious, but might lap up the slow-burning, barebones story of urban hippies in an alternative 1970s Wellington.

Hard to recommend, but impossible to dismiss, one thing is for certain: Corballis’s ambition leaves Stead and Evans in the dust.

Craig Cliff was the 2017 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago.

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