Early in Dance Prone, the new novel from David Coventry, two members of the post-hardcore band Neues Bauen, Conrad Wells and Tony Seburg, both experience trauma – on the same night, at the same time. Different trauma, although Conrad circles around and around the idea that these events are connected, and the rest of his life is weighed down by the burden of finding peace. Healing is a step too far, for the boys in this band, for the women they abuse and neglect, no matter the depth of their artistic desires and their philosophical interior lives. Dance Prone is a novel that interrogates music and it’s capacity for producing societal change, the bonds of friendship and family, and the manner in which we avoid confronting ourselves with the truth.
Conrad is the guitar player and the driver of the band’s dirty, run-down van, navigating them through snowstorms to each new venue on their 1985 tour. Concerts are described in brutal language, and this vicious vocabulary creates a vivid and clear sensation of a post-punk concert. In these scenes, and everywhere else the music or the songwriting talents of the characters are described, Coventry’s energetic and multi-layered skill with words rises to the occasion. His disjointed and disordered style perfectly suits the themes of destruction and reconstruction explored by the musicians in the book – the breaking down of art’s ideas and meanings. Paloma, the Moroccan artist who moves on the periphery of the novel, when she meets the band at one of the artist colonies run by the academic enigma Joan George-Warren, says they make the ‘music after music after music.’ Dance Prone isn’t a clear cut narrative, either – it’s an attempt to create the novel in it’s essence: looking for the new, resisting the obvious, denying the familiar.
This ambitious desire to resist familiar forms and structures makes for a challenging read at times. Glorious detail (young women in the street: ‘Kiss-me mouths and boots, black lipstick and a kind of low-core goth’; the mention of a goat in the audience at a concert lifted to bleat into the microphone) sit beside sentences that sometimes drift into semantics, deep dives into the meaning of things sometimes as meaningless as cars changing lanes on the LA expressway. A long conversation between Conrad and a minor character named Blair should slow the pace later in the novel but instead becomes the glue to piece the puzzle together – who was raped, by whom? Can one experience be compared to another? Why do we remember and why do we forget? – and I found my concentration was held during these slower, opaque sections because of Coventry’s unflagging dedication to language and literary risk. When a cryptic sentence looms, deliberately vague and elusive, avoiding clarity the way Conrad avoids his feelings and his memories, I had a sense that if I could unlock this one sentence, then I might discover the meaning of the whole novel, or perhaps the meaning of life. So I continued to read, following the words to the next page.
David Coventry’s first novel, The Invisible Mile won the Hubert Church Award for Best First Book at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His author biography explains that this book was described as ‘one of the most gruelling novels about sport ever written’. Dance Prone is also gruelling. Violence, loneliness, blood and sex fill the pages, and between the two novels, it’s clear that Coventry is committed to writing fiction that’s gritty and raw and true. The back of the book is packed with quotes from Carl Shuker and Kiran Dass and Alan McMonagle, all testament to the esteem in which Coventry is held.
Like the band members of Neues Bauen, the novel resists the easy option. It resists an easy read. The structure and language create a story that sits inside itself like a Matryoshka doll; only the dolls are cracked and reordered into a nest that takes time to stack. For those who persist, the novel splits open to show friendships decaying from deception in multiple locations, a haunting read that leaves you feeling desiccated and hollow.
The idea that punk, and many other art movements, is not about destruction, but reconstruction, weaves through Dance Prone. These men (and this book is about men, really, with the women supporting the action from the shadows) believe they can change their world with their music. Only it doesn’t. Conrad is the witness to the devastation, and the beauty, in the attempt.