A complicated relationship, Thom Conroy

The Ice Shelf
Anne Kennedy
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776562015

What role does a book invite me to accept as its reader? I need not comply with a book’s request, of course, but I’m bound to recognise or, at the very least, consider the question when beginning a review. Never an advocate of unnecessary terminology, the critic Wayne Booth used the term “friendship” to describe this relationship between what a book asks of us as readers and our response to that request. Anne Kennedy’s latest novel, The Ice Shelf, makes some strenuous demands on its readers and promises an intense – if intensely muddled – friendship in return.

And yet, at first glance, the demands are not so arduous. Janice Redmond, The Ice Shelf’s protagonist and unreliable narrator, achieves the awareness of a masterful satirist, in spite of the fact that she is a clueless loser. The satire in The Ice Shelf is most delicious when it pokes fun at the insularity and pettiness of the New Zealand literary scene:

In a small country like New Zealand, everyone knows everyone in the literary community; in fact, you are probably related to them, and, if not, you’ve probably been married to them at some point.

This is the same sort of wholesome mockery driving Janice to retweet the author “Dean Cuntface” and to pen her insipid review of Roderick the Dick’s new book which concludes with a favourite Kiwi bromide: “Roderick Lane is a National Treasure.” In spite of Janice’s admirable knack for ridicule, I accept that she remains profoundly baffled when it comes to more pedestrian aptitudes regarding, say, the appropriateness of transporting a full-size refrigerator through the pubs and restaurants of Wellington’s CBD on a hand-trolley. Sorrell, Janice’s mother, affectionately calls Janice a monster as a child, and the members of the book club that Janice unintentionally sabotages intend a bit more venom when they compare her to the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But both depictions are valid. That we accept this incongruity only speaks to the charisma Kennedy finds in the character of Janice. The Ice Shelf is a satire, and Janice is a lovable anti-hero, a tragi-comic figure we love to hate and hate to love. In the company of Janice Redmond, I laugh; and laughter is an invitation I can live with.
The Ice Shelf begins to make more strenuous demands when I consider its metafictional tropes and tone. Strictly speaking, The Ice Shelf doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist because we read of Janice disposing of the only final copy of the manuscript of The Ice Shelf during the interminable Wellington night in which the novel is set as, page by page, she edits the manuscript into oblivion. Some passages are binned, one dropped in a Chinese vase in the Kōwhai Reception Room of the Turnbull Library, another is flushed down the toilet, and one even “sails up and out over the sea to join the lonely gulls and the clouds”. The Ice Shelf also doesn’t exist because the text of the book that we read when we purchase Kennedy’s latest is not, strictly speaking, a novel at all, but an extended series of “Acknowledgements”. At the same time, Kennedy has written 317 pages of something, and this fact is a tension in the reader’s fundamental experience of the novel: The Ice Shelf is a book that asks us to believe in it against the evidence of its own tropes.
Why does The Ice Shelf demand that we, as readers, accept that it doesn’t exist? I laboured long and hard, conjuring up theories to account for this metafictional mystery – the reader is, in fact, the “dishevelled but good-looking” researcher who finds the original manuscript in the Turnbull in some imagined future – but, in the end, I found myself uninterested in the idea that the manuscript of the book I was reading had been lost. Why not simply edit Janice’s edits and leave us with a book that doesn’t wish itself away? Likewise, I was distracted by a form that couldn’t stop reminding me that what I was reading was not a narrative, but a “crot”-inspired series of sarcastic thank yous. The motive for the device seemed to be to call attention to the fact, that, no, Janice, should not have been thankful for the unfortunate, neglectful and, in some cases, tragic circumstances of her life. Why, I wondered, structure 317 pages as a series of acknowledgements to drive home a point that amounts to an overworked pun?
I don’t mean to suggest that, aimed at the right target, Janice’s sardonic gratitude isn’t delightful. The scene in which she thanks her professor Big Julie the Pig for immersing her in the “literature of white men” is irresistible: “If this hadn’t happened at university, I have no idea where I would have encountered this particular group.” When this same scorn is turned on more serious subjects, however, the tone jars. Thanking a fellow creative writing student for calling your work self-absorbed is one phylum of irony. Thanking your rapist for violating you as a child is another. Stirred into the strident tone is the inconsistency of the narrator’s expectations vis à vis the reader’s relationship. Am I invited to serve as a sympathetic friend who peers through the veneer of satire to see a character who is both genuinely persecuted and obviously talented (the novel is rife with passages of undeniable lyrical beauty, after all)? Or, is our relationship meant to be closer to the one Janice maintains with Mandy, a childhood friend driven to turn Janice and her retro fridge into the Wellington night like Frankenstein’s monster, who at the end of Shelley’s novel leaps upon his ice raft and is “lost in darkness and distance”?
Writing of Dame Bev’s bleak review of her 49-page first book Utter and Terrible Destruction, Janice claims that she’s “completely in favour of reviewers who don’t flinch, who engage in robust discourse rather than heaping praise about in a generalised and namby pamby fashion”. Janice is deluded regarding her expectations for a review, of course, but I’ve decided to take her at her word thus far and, accordingly, have remained steadfast in my robustness. Even so, I reckon she’d permit one teensy parting shot of namby pamby, and here it is: I’ve never made a literary acquaintance quite like The Ice Shelf. Self-absorbed, contradictory, droll, heartrending, Kennedy’s novel can also be tedious and tone-deaf. And, yet, the acquaintance of Janice, while perhaps not wholly welcome, is one I’m not sure I would have chosen to do without.

Thom Conroy teaches creative writing in the School of English and Media Studies at Massey University.

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