Categories
Author QandA Bug Week - Airini Beautrais Uncategorized

QandA with Airini Beautrais

READ CLOSE: Bug Week is a collection of thirteen pieces of short fiction, meandering through time and the globe. Tell us about the intended links – and some of the unintended, surprising ones – that you think give these stories their shape as a collection.

AIRINI BEAUTRAIS: When I first envisioned writing a collection of short fiction, I wanted it to be thirteen unlucky tales of broken hearts and doomed love. I was about twenty-two when I had that idea, to give it some context! Some people say life gets more settled and less drama-filled when you get to your thirties, but mine didn’t. I think I had a bunch of things I wanted to write about, but when I did most of the work on consolidating the stories into a collection, a strong feminist theme emerged. I ended up with a range of female characters of varying ages from childhood to middle age. Other links might be nature and animals, poetry, museums, history, and small towns. These are all motifs I seem to keep coming back to in my writing. I’m really interested in how the past can shed light on contemporary life.

You’re an award-winning poet and essayist – could you tell us about how you find writing across disciplines, and how each style informs the others?

I think genre is probably overstated because it’s convenient for shelving books in a library, and making categories for awards. There are a lot of good books out there that hybridise or sidestep genres. I did my PhD thesis on narrative in contemporary long poems, and read a lot of verse narratives and verse novels. So I think it’s just ‘wherever the wind may take us’ when I sit down to write. Sometimes something feels like a poem, sometimes it feels like an essay and sometimes it feels like a fictional prose story. Sometimes it could be an essay poem or a story poem. Fiction gives you a kind of freedom to tell the truth. Poetry is helpful for concision and lyricality.

The stories often involve human interaction with animals – a clash between artifice and nature, in a sense. Are you interested in the place of human within the animal kingdom?

I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people and the natural environment, and that includes animals. I did an undergraduate degree in ecology and biodiversity so I’m a bit of a nature nerd. When started trying to write about nature I realized it was quite boring to me on its own and it is people in nature that are interesting to me. I went through a phase when I was about twelve of being a primitivist and thinking we should abandon technology and go and live in the forest. Now I have a 10 year old son who has come to a pretty similar conclusion. Climate change really frightens me. I get upset when I look at things like the fires in Australia and the US. I wonder what kind of world my children will be living in after I’m gone. We’re in the middle of an anthropogenic mass extinction event and I think that is one of the greatest tragedies of humankind. So yes, I am interested in our place in that. But I also think nature is a great healer, and animals can heal people. I’m holding one of my cats, Panther, in my author photo, because he symbolises me living my best life. I live with two cats and two children, I’m ridiculously happy and I feel like I can be who I am without self-censorship. Having non-human animals in the house is calming and reassuring.

There are some incredible short fiction writers working right now around the world. Who do you read for inspiration and influence when you are writing short stories?

Some of my influences, both living and dead, have been: Alice Munro, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx, Jeanette Winterson. Closer to home, Patricia Grace, Emily Perkins, Pip Adam and Tina Makereti are writers I really admire. I’ve also been influenced by poets who have worked with narrative, like Dorothy Porter and Anne Carson. I always feel badly read and like I need to branch out, read more diverse work and keep up with new writers.

Is there a story in Bug Week you might consider your favourite? Why/why not?

I don’t know about favourite but a story I feel I really inhabit is ‘The Teashop.’ It’s about a brothel madam who used to be a science teacher. I got really jaded with school teaching. I hated being called ‘Ms Beautrais’, I hated telling people to remove their nailpolish. I hated the intergenerational distrust between teenage girls and female staff. We should have been supporting and mentoring them, not bullying them into line. We should have been people they could look up to. So I had this dark fantasy about quitting and becoming a dominatrix. I didn’t do that, I just got pregnant and then I got pregnant again. But there’s still time! Esme, the main character in ‘The Teashop’ is really constrained by the fact that it’s the 1960s. She wanted to be a botanist but it was difficult for women to get into the sciences in the early 20th century. So now she’s a middle aged madam and she’s getting to the point where she wants to quit. The only way out she can see is getting married and she doesn’t want to do that either. It’s kind of a story about women and patriarchy and it’s kind of a story about ageing and anxiety. It brings in a lot of threads that are important to me.

In a wider sense, are there other writers or artists that you think have been a major touchstone for your writing career?

Apart from the writers I mentioned above, there are some dead poets I come back to over and over. When I was doing my PhD I read a book based on Dante’s Divina Commedia and I got really obsessed with Dante. I read a whole lot of translations. Although in many ways it’s politically and theologically limited to its time, in other ways, it’s this universal story of having messed up your life, found yourself lying in the middle of nowhere, and needing some help to get where you want to go. Dante is thirty-five at the start of the Inferno. Coming to in a dark wood was something I really related to in my mid thirties as well.

Another poem I keep coming back to is The Waste Land. I don’t agree with Eliot politically or personally but I really love that poem. I did a painting using the lines ‘A woman drew her long black hair out tight / And fiddled whisper music on those strings / And bats with baby faces in the violet light / Whistled, and beat their wings / And crawled head downward down a blackened wall.’ It’s meant to be this dark horror imagery but for me there’s a lot of female power lurking in those lines. Also I love bats.

I listen to a lot of music and play music, and I love visual art. I don’t know about direct influence on my writing. There were a couple of albums I was listening to a lot while I was writing many of these stories. One was Dive Deep by Morcheeba. My heart was broken and the song ‘Enjoy the ride’ made me feel better. (Stop chasing shadows, just enjoy the ride). The other was quite an obscure album, Scatterlings by Johnny Clegg and Savuka. Johnny was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. My parents basically listened to classical music and ‘world’ music. He did a lot of anti-racist work in his life and music. Scatterlings was released in 1982, the year I was born. The song I liked best was ‘Digging for some words’, which is appropriate when you are writing. I think it’s about nuclear war but the lyrics are quite enigmatic.

What are you reading right now? What is on your To Be Read pile?

I am a bad reader at the moment because I work too much. I’ve found 2020 a hard year to read in. I can’t seem to sit down for five minutes at a stretch. I am part way through Book 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. I like his writing but sometimes the masculinity gets too much for me. Stuff like where he gets angry at his wife for watching TV instead of cleaning up the house. Come on, Karl. I’m also part way through Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica by Rebecca Priestley. It’s a really absorbing read, I just need some quiet time to contemplate it. My to-read list is global and massive. Here are some local authors that are on it (NZers need to read more NZ writing!). I recently bought False River by Paula Morris. I love her essays and short stories; she really interrogates her subjects. And I am really excited about some new poetry collections, The Goddess Muscle by Karlo Mila and The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia. VUP has published a lot of good books lately and on the top of my to-buy fiction list are The Swimmers by Chloe Lane and What Sort of Man by Breton Dukes. And I am really excited to get a hold of Laura Borrowdale’s Sex, With Animals. I love how brave she is and how committed she is to her projects, including running the journal Aotearotica. We are so lucky to be surrounded by so many talented people, and the best thing is, we can all meet each other in real life and talk about books over a wine.

Categories
Book Reviews Bug Week - Airini Beautrais Uncategorized

Book Review: Bug Week by Airini Beautrais

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00, Short fiction collection

Award-winning poet Airini Beautrais’s short fiction collection, Bug Week, deftly steps from story to story exploring various perspectives – both geographical and personal. Beautrais slides her characters and their lives under her microscope – a young woman trying to move on from heartbreak, a male teacher fantasising about his young student teacher, an older female teacher who has become an ‘object of general revulsion’, an albatross at an open mic night.

I like short fiction. A lot. I enjoy the brevity, the impact of the story. In a collection of stories, the worries and niggles that press on the writer’s mind come through, sneaking and snaking through the characters and the narrations, no matter how diverse. In Bug Week, these are clear – our transgressions and our attempts to disassociate ourselves from the natural world, love and sex, death and birth. Although quite different in tone and setting, the strongest stories from Bug Week reminded me of stories from Claire Vaye Watkin’s Battleborn, particularly Watkin’s story ‘The Archivist’.

Beautrais’s stories are concerned with bodies and flesh and their uses and their decay, pitting humans against and alongside animals. Bodily functions and animal desire give many stories their heartbeat – hands and legs and touching waists and strange naked bodies like ‘peeled crustaceans’. Often the characters dislike bodies, the dirtiness of them. In the story ‘A pair of hands’, the controlled Richard is confronted by the gory reality of our physical selves, observing of the hands that the ‘severed ends were wiggly – lobes of fat, dangling tendons.’ In ‘Bug Week’, the main character likes her lover’s bed sheets clean ‘as if there had been nothing bodily happening in them’. This character is like many others in the rest of the stories, yearning for organisation and cleanliness and purity. ‘I just want some semblance of order in my life,’ she says, but it’s clear containment isn’t possible: nature will burst through any constructs we create to maintain control.

The inevitability of death is the rotting underworld you sense beneath most of the stories. The title story, ‘Bug Week’, is an off-beat entry into the world of the collection. The major themes of fertility, sex, death and boredom are introduced through the unnamed main character who works at a museum. She’s bored in her marriage, disgusted by the banality and reality of her messy life, and embarks on a shortlived affair with an entomologist who spends time in a ‘microscopic daze’. Some charming sentences mingle with the grotesque – the entomologist’s office was ‘piled to the ceiling with filing drawers, each with a little pinned death inside.’

Most of the stories work well, thought a few of them are definite highlights. The story ‘Billy the Pirate Poet’ stood out for its light touch and dirty confessional style. Amy, the main character, remembers a friendship and the summer it all fell apart, looking back from middle-age. She details the way she lived, the intimacies of youth, now replaced with the intimacies of motherhood. Regrets are put under the microscope here, and one sentence drew together the bittersweet sadness of aging: ‘Someday I looked in the mirror and saw lines forming around my eyes, the beginnings of grey, and knew that possibilities had narrowed themselves, that I wouldn’t live forever.’

The biological nature of life hides on the edges of many stories. In one story, pregnancy is described: ‘bodies grew inside our bodies and emerged out of them, and screamed, and fed, and grew’, placing the birth alongside a butterfly’s metamorphosis, an emergence into the world.

Another highlight was the story ‘A summer of scents’. Smells and colours permeate all the stories, but this one uses it to greater effect. Beautrais’s style and confidence abound in this story. Again there are references to microscopes and the rank reality of nature – ‘the lake smelled faintly of microscopic algae’. The story centres on the inhabitants of an apartment block in post-Communist Germany, and gently reminds us that life is forever changing. Herr Rabe knows that change is necessary: ‘The other option was to remain here, and that was simply worse.’

The final story is titled ‘A quiet death’, though the death in the story is anything but quiet. The narrator is able to see her body from the afterlife, and she sees it, already ‘savaged by disease’, now defiled and desecrated. Though this is an awful and sickening act, the narrator isn’t overwhelmed. She sees this as merely another moment in which women are destroyed. It’s a sombre ending to a collection of stories that have moments of softness, humour and gristly detail.

Categories
Author QandA The Swimmers - Chloe Lane Uncategorized

QandA with Chloe Lane

READ CLOSE: The main character, Erin, and both her mother and her aunt, were competitive swimmers. Tell us about why you chose this sport?

CHLOE LANE: I wrote The Swimmers when I was living in Florida. I was a competitive swimmer when I was a teenager, but I hadn’t swum for years. Florida helped me find my way back to it. The pools there are many and stunning, and it’s easy to swim outdoors for nine or ten months of the year, twelve months if you’re a little braver and willing to face the freezing temperatures of the short winter. My life in Florida was simple: I wrote, taught and took classes, and I swam. When I started thinking more deeply about who Erin, Aunty Wynn, and Erin’s mother were, the things they did and loved that helped to make them who they were, swimming was at the forefront of my own heart and mind. In addition to being members of the same family, I wanted there to be something at the beginning of the novel that bound these women together, even if it was only this sport.

I personally love how solitary swimming is. Even when I belonged to a club and trained for hours every day with other athletes, all of us moving up and down the lane with only an arm’s length between us, it was never a team pursuit. Come competition day you’re even more alone. It’s only you up there on the starting blocks. It takes a certain kind of person to be fulfilled by this kind of activity, I think. A self-centered, very focused and determined, maybe even obsessive personality. On the surface the three central women in The Swimmers seem very different, but they all share some of these personality traits: Erin’s mother has lived her life by her own rules, and for the most part done all of it alone, even admirably so; Erin wants to be part of something bigger, but in her heart she’s still too selfish and ambitious to make room for other people; and some of the things the reader learns about Aunty Wynn in the novel reveals how self-centered she can be too. What these women experience over the five days of The Swimmers shakes some of this up, but this is where we first find them, where we begin.

You could never have known how timely the topic of euthanasia would be, with the referendum timed for not long after publication. Are you interested in bio-ethical issues, or was this story driven by character?

I wanted to find out what it would look like for a regular Kiwi family to help take the life of one of their own. I wanted to see the logistics of that play out. But more importantly, I wanted to see what kind of emotional toll it would take on the people involved. The first version of this story was a short I brought to Jill Ciment’s workshop at the University of Florida (UF). It was a grainy piece about a fractured family coming together to scatter the ashes of a recently deceased member. Jill was the one to point out I was trying to cram too much into this short piece and that it wasn’t working. She showed me all the places I could begin to “crack it open” and suggested that I should try a longer form, take my time with it, go deeper. So while this is a story about assisted suicide––that’s what gives the novel its forward momentum––I think of it more as a story about family and some of the ways we get each other and miss each other, some ways we can hurt and save. On the journey to helping Erin’s mother receive a peaceful death on her own terms, Erin and Aunty Wynn do some morally questionable things. Though if I’ve done my job correctly, hopefully it’s what they reveal of themselves along the way, the small ways they change and leave themselves vulnerable, which gives the story its emotional payoff.

The Swimmers looks at beauty and ugliness, at success and failure. It’s a fiction that talks about physical prowess, artistic talent, and judgment: tell us about the process of writing a novel to create a world that investigates these ideas with women as the driving force of the novel.

I went to a girls’ high school in Auckland where it was drummed into us every day and then shouted to us from the stage every school assembly that we were exceptional young women and we could do anything we wanted with our lives. Some of the girls I went to school with were exceptional and now they’re out there in the world doing what they do and ruling at it. For the rest of us, this insane positivity was more of a double-edged sword. Yes, we all deserve to feel good about ourselves, to feel supported, to want and to not be ashamed of that want. But it’s also a bit of a shock to step out into the world and realise you’re only mediocre and that maybe your idea of yourself is not quite right.

For Erin, being able to make art and swim, to be able to do these things at the highest level so that others may experience some level of curiosity or amazement, be moved in some way––that was her dream. Through her failure to achieve this she understands that hard work and sacrifice are important, but that they’re not everything, that if you’re without that thing we call talent or natural ability, then it doesn’t matter how many kilometres you swim in the pool every day. At this stage in her life this is something she is struggling with, being what she thinks of as talentless. This is why she can only see herself in respect to someone else’s achievements. For example, her swimming career vs. Aunty Wynn’s, or how little she has to offer at twenty-six vs. everything Karl’s (her ex-lover’s) forty-year-old wife has to offer.

Some early readers of the manuscript thought it was strange to place art and sport side by side in the book, and for Erin to be as moved by witnessing an athlete in the pool as she was by a painting. I don’t believe these things are actually very far apart. I think about what happens when I walk into a museum or someone’s home and there is a painting hanging on the wall that stirs something inside of me. Maybe I just like the colours, the movement of the brushstrokes, maybe it reminds me of something, a room from my childhood, a place I visited once, or maybe it pushes at a feeling inside of me that I can’t quite describe. But why do I watch sport? Because I like the feeling of my pulse quickening when the person or the team I’m rooting for is doing well or not. And how satisfying is it to witness the human body at its best? I also like to remember what it was like to be fit, strong and quick, though I probably enjoy the sadness of losing that too, of the ways my body has since failed or disappointed me. At the end of it, the best experiences of these things make me feel something, good or bad, fun or dark, and maybe help me know myself a little better. Erin gets that too.

What books, film, art or music have influenced your writing?

Probably the biggest breakthrough I had with my writing, and this was something that happened while I was studying at UF, was letting go of the kind of writer I wanted to be for the kind of writer I could be. Jill Ciment helped me a lot with this. So did Padgett Powell. Padgett’s mentor was Donald Barthelme, and his reading lists included Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Flann O’Brien, and Barthelme. But the one author we read every week, his Collected Stories becoming a sort of bible for Padgett’s class, was the Irish author William Trevor. Some of Trevor’s stories are the singularly most devastating things I’ve ever read, likely ever will read. While I’m writing this I’m thinking about a scene from a Trevor story that I haven’t read in years, but that still pulls at me, tears me up. They’re traditional stories, no games. Reading Trevor made me see that style is style, that it’s in you or it isn’t, and even then if those fun and tricks on the page are not in service of a truckload of humanity, then they’re just that––fun and tricks. Fun and tricks can be great, but Padgett used to quote Barthelme here: “What must wacky modes do? Break their hearts.” I’d been so focused on trying to write with style I’d forgotten what writing can do, the best thing about it. So I stopped trying to write in wacky mode and instead I focused on putting the sentences down on the page in the clearest way possible. It started to work then.

I guess if I could only read one author for the rest of my life William Trevor would be a top contender. Up there with him would be Joy Williams, Alice Munro, Anne Enright and, though she has been less of an influence and more of goddess to worship at the feet of, Flannery O’Connor.

I always look at books as part of a wider conversation. Tell me two or three books you would like to see The Swimmers sit alongside in conversation, books that would inform and augment a reader’s experience of your novel.

A couple of books came out while I was working on The Swimmers that I really enjoyed, and that to a lesser or greater extent are narrated by young women at crossroads, while also exploring narratives around difficult families. These are Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. One of my absolute favourite authors is Anne Enright. Her novel The Gathering is one I come back to again and again. She writes about family unhappiness with such unflinching clarity, intelligence, heartbreaking honesty, but also with a humour that is so slight and dark it works like another punch to the guts.

What are you reading right now? What is on your To Be Read pile?

I’m just about finished reading Pip Adam’s Nothing to See, which is so tough and funny and unbelievably moving. I was recently trying to describe Pip’s writing to someone, the often breathless quality of it, and the best I could come up with was that it felt a bit like rolling down a hill where you feel like you’ve lost control, you’re at the mercy of gravity. But before you crash or careen off the edge of the cliff, Pip catches you, and you realise that you weren’t falling, that she was pulling you along and always in control, taking you exactly the direction she wanted to take you. It’s a wild and rewarding ride. Next on my “for fun” list are A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux and Miss Jane by Brad Watson. I’ve also got a few things I’m re-reading in connection to the new novel I’m working on: A Separation by Katie Kitamura, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill and Joy Williams’ incredible travel guide on the Florida Keys.

Categories
Book Reviews The Swimmers - Chloe Lane Uncategorized

Book Review: The Swimmers by Chloe Lane

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00, Fiction

Content warning: spoilers

Chloe Lane’s debut novel, The Swimmers, follows Erin Moore over the course of one Queen’s Birthday long weekend. The annual Moore family lunch, usually held at her mother’s house in Wellington, is up at the family farm this year – because her mother lives there now. The five days in the novel are a heady, crushing family drama full of mistakes, small glories, loss and love.

The novel begins with Aunty Wynn driving Erin from Auckland, where she now lives and works as an intern at an art gallery, to the family homestead near the Kaipara Harbour. Erin’s life is a classic mid-twenties mess: a fledgling career, a messy love affair, a relationship with her mother that is fracturing further every day. Her mother, Helen, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease a year earlier, and now her condition has deteriorated significantly. So much so, that she’s moved up north again, to live with her sister and brother. Erin is perplexed at the decision. But as the next five days play out, Erin realises she knows only the woman as her mother, and that she knows nothing about her mother as a sister, as a daughter, as a woman. This is a dynamic that most of us come to comprehend as we grow older: no matter how close we are to someone, they remain unknowable and mysterious even to the end.

The family dysfunction and odd interplay is familiar to most people – aren’t all families dysfunctional in some way? The characterisation is lightly drawn yet compelling, the scenes in which Uncle Cliff and Aunty Wynn have their toast – cosy and alienating at the same time. Erin feels like a loner, but she discovers over this weekend that she’s never alone, that she has a family, whether she likes them or not, that she’s one of the ‘necessary cogs in the one family machine’.

The crisis at the heart of The Swimmers is Helen’s decision to end her life. Wynn tells Erin the plan on their drive north, and the reverberations from the shock of this send Erin into meltdown. She finds herself enlisted to carry out the small details, and the large ones too, that will help her mother’s ‘Final Frolic’ go to plan. Erin is devastated and yet composed. Despite her grieving journey for her mother that began with the first signs of MND, Erin is able to help pull together the necessary ingredients – Nembutal and all.

The first-person narration is hypnotic and engaging. Erin describes the world and herself with punchy language: ‘…whenever I see photos of myself from this time, I think of the expression ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ and how much I looked like the opposite…More like I’d been through the wash too many times. Faded out. Less there.’ The prose continues like this, fuss-free and unassuming, which makes the violence of the emotional punch all the more powerful. It’s not a long book, but it pulls you into the lives of Erin, Helen, and Wynn with such force that you cannot escape The Swimmers draft. The ‘Tuesday’ section, the day Helen has chosen to seal her fate, feels much longer than it is. The events of that Tuesday featured several uncanny moments that resembled episodes from my own life, so that I read it sobbing, my whole body upset and reeling. Thinking about it now, my head tightens and I feel overwhelmed with sadness. One simple sentence, ‘We bore it out together’, tightened the moment perfectly with five ordinary words. Lane has captured such depth and heartache, sorrow and truth – I cannot remember the last time I was so moved by fiction.

The main character, Erin, is a failure and a success. These two ideas are what the novel grapples with, in many aspects of life – sport, artistic endeavours, relationships. Erin is worried about making the wrong decision, repeating the idea that ‘I didn’t trust myself to come out on top. And that’s what I was afraid of most: losing more than I already had.’ She’s worked hard all her life – trained hard for her swimming races, practicing her art, studying art history, curating her first show, trying to find love – and yet she’s failing at it all. Working hard doesn’t guarantee success. Success doesn’t make someone, or something, good. Wynn, Helen, Erin and her cousin Bethany are all struggling with fear and confidence, ambition and reward. They feel brave, and they make mistakes. They take a chance, they lose. The women – and this is a book populated and interested in women – work stubbornly toward their goals. Some are mundane goals like following the black line up and down the pool, others are considerably more frightening.

The Moore women in The Swimmers are a case study in how we behave under pressure. How we flail around in life when we don’t know how to live. The Swimmers explores beauty and ugliness, in art and in life; it’s a close study of the perfect imperfection of life. The necessary grotesque; the fleeting moments of happiness.

Categories
Author QandA Sprigs - Brannavan Gnanalingam

QandA with Brannavan Gnanalingam

READ CLOSE: Sprigs is set in the world of Wellington private schools. Although there are plenty of characters who are adults, the novel focuses on teenagers – tell us about your research into teens in 2018, and how you created a world full of their concerns and their behaviours and their speech?

BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: My starting point for the teenagers was that the differences across generations of teenagers aren’t as stark as older people think – there are the same concerns and same desires, but all that changes is the technology / media and the argot. So I thought very hard about my teenage years and how we behaved / thought / talked.

I read a lot online, listened to YouTube videos of teenagers, eavesdropped on public transport, and listened to how a lot of younger people talked. That said, I knew I’d never get true fidelity to contemporary teenagers’ language, so I created dialogue that felt real to me and real to the story, and hoped for the best.

I credit contemporary teenagers with being a bit more aware of the world than I was, but I was also conscious that exclusive environments, like the schools in question, have their own rules / logic, that helps shape people.

This is a novel that is deeply concerned with big issues of Aotearoa in our time, sliced through with humour that leans into the absurd irony of life. Do you have any writers, books, or TV or film that you look to as influencing or informing your writing?

I think the biggest influence would be the Ukrainian filmmaker Kira Muratova. She made deeply political and black films until relatively recently when she died. I saw a retrospective of her films in 2013 and it basically reshaped how I thought about tone and empathy and anger. A good starting point for her films would be Melody for a Street Organ, which is about two orphans wandering the wintery streets of Kiev looking for food / shelter, while the adults around them try to rip them off.

Another big influence is the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who wrote about big events and trauma and politics in such personal, harrowing ways. They’re written so gently, but so devastatingly.

In terms of writers from Aotearoa, the biggest influences on this book itself would have been Tina Makereti’s The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke (particularly in the way she shows how a subject is constituted and re-constituted via trauma), Pip Adam’s The New Animals, and Carl Shuker’s The Lazy Boys. I’d also add a new generation of Māori writers are absolutely inspiring in their refusal to compromise their work / politics – I’m thinking of the likes of Tayi Tibble, Anahera Gildea, essa may ranapiri, Hana Pera Aoake etc.. I think they’re showing how to hold true to oneself, while also making radical art (without caring what people like me would think).

I’ve not encountered many novels with a content warning – the closest I’ve seen perhaps would be a copy of American Psycho wrapped in plastic in the bookshop – and plenty of novels I have read include rape. Do you think this should be standard in books, like a classification rating on films and TV?

It’s funny because this has seemed to be a major talking point, and I don’t really understand why! I think the literary community is way too snooty about these. It’s not as if people used to walk into video stores and complain about the warning stickers there. I’ve included content warnings in all except my first book, but this is by far, the most detailed / necessary I think in all of my books.

I think they should be par for the course. The function of art is to manipulate your audience. If one of the ways you’ll be manipulating your audience is via something that is traumatic, then it’s only fair that you give people a heads up, so they can decide whether they want to read it or not. Given this book is about sexual violence, readers should feel more than welcome not to read it, or if they want to read it, they know what they’re in for. People make decisions about what they choose to read or not to read all of the time, and I think this is simply part of helping someone make that choice.

I also don’t see it as a big deal or a free speech issue. I didn’t change what I wrote about in the book. I don’t think I pulled any punches. If you’re not going to be affected by the subject matter or don’t care for the content warning, then you could treat it like how everyone treats the ISBN page and just ignore it.

Almost all the adults characters in Sprigs are flawed, leaving them incompetent and unhelpful for the teenagers who need their care and guidance. Could you tell us about how you see the dynamic between secondary school age children and the adults who run the world they are attempting to navigate, and how it succeeds and how it fails?

I have commonly written about incompetent and ignorant adults, and the way these adults collude with, or create, unequal power structures. I think it’s an obvious point, but just because someone is a buffoon, it doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. I also think one of the major ways structural inequalities are actually and actively maintained is because when adults are put to the test, they end up falling back on self-interested, stereotypical ways. They look for the easy way out because they think it’s the only way to react.

I’m interested in how much someone is shaped by an institution or a particular discursive framework. I think certain types of masculine ideals in particular are very well established for boys by the time they’re teenagers, and they aren’t too different from what adults have also helped define. I remember how much idiotic stuff I believed / understood to be true when I was teenager and young adult (and how I still have to continue to unlearn things).

I was really interested in exploring whether there is room for people to escape these frameworks and if there is agency. And how much the worst of the teenage behaviour is simply a reflection of adult behaviour. There’ll always be gaps and space for people to resist (ideologies have to be constantly re-won, for example), but it will require people to be aware of the frameworks in the first place. And people not to rely on the ‘easy’ way out. While the title sprigs obviously refers to the sprigs on a rugby boot, the part of the boot that allows you to run while in the mud, or to ruck an opponent, I also had in mind plants and growth and buds.

If Sprigs were to be made into a TV series or a film, would you want to be involved in the casting and the screenplay? Would you have any preference for actors or directors?

Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. My background is film (I have an MA in it) so scriptwriting is something I’ve done in the past. However, I’ve often treated my books as something that is done, and I move onto the next thing. I struggle to get myself back into the book once it’s finished.

If this was made into a film / TV series, then I would have requirements though – Priya would have to be played by a Tamil actor, and the director or directors would need to be non-white. This is because the book is also about white supremacy and how non-white people are able to move in such spaces.

I always look at books as part of a wider conversation. Tell me two or three books you would like to see Sprigs sit alongside in conversation, books that would inform and augment a reader’s experience of your novel.

I think it’ll sit very nicely alongside two recent Wellington novels – Pip Adam’s Nothing to See and David Coventry’s Dance Prone. Both are brilliant books that similarly deal with trauma and memory and toxic behaviours, and I’d like to think my book touches on similar ground.

What are you reading at the moment? What is on your ‘To Be Read’ pile?

I’m enjoying being able to read for pleasure at the moment! I’ve just finished Dance Prone [David Coventry]. The next books I’ll read, I think, are Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy, Necropolitics by Achille Mbembe, and Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu.

Categories
Book Reviews Sprigs - Brannavan Gnanalingam

Book Review:Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Lawrence & Gibson Publishing, RRP NZ$30.00, Contemporary Fiction

Content Warning: spoilers and graphic content.

Trauma in fiction is commonplace; conflict is the driver of story. Sexual assault and rape have become entrenched in fiction of all kinds – an online search brings up articles titled ‘Why is there so much rape in Fantasy Fiction?’ A search for Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee bring up an online search result list of several academic essays with titles like ‘Rape and Silence in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace’. It’s almost a trope: only it’s far too brutal and too damaging to be reduced in that way. At the beginning of Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam there’s a content warning, letting you know what’s coming up. I know a few people might stop reading then, and I believe that’s the point. Gnanalingam is asking for your consent to tell this story.

This sensitivity and insight are characteristics only a few of the characters in this novel possess. The story is set over a few weeks in September, 2018, and the novel is broken into four parts: The Game, The Party, The Meeting, and The Trial. The Game section starts on a Saturday afternoon, with a Prem 1 final between two fictional Wellington secondary schools, Grammar and St Luke’s. We dive straight into the world of the St Luke’s team, weaving through the minds of their coach, the players, the parents, the principal, the girls from sister-school Simeon College watching from the sidelines. The scholarship player, Richie, poached from the state school for his rugby skills, stands out from his private school peers with his considerate nature – and his ethnicity. It was his mind that I wanted to inhabit in this part of the novel, but it sweeps from one perspective another, moving from character to character like the rugby ball is passed between players. The game ends, the after-party begins.

I recognise the party. I was at these parties ten years earlier than Priya and Liv and Jess, but they don’t seem to have changed much, only the cell phones now have cameras. The same boys drink and leer, the same cars park in the paddock. The same rumours the following day, too – who did what to who, which girl ended up comatose in the shower after simultaneously vomiting and shitting herself. Boys from these parties who once barked at girls they thought were unattractive are now married with children.

At Gnanalingam’s party, the teenagers drink and feel out of place. Nobody seems sure of themselves – the curse of adolesence. They mingle and hook up. A young girl, drinking for the first time, blacks out in the corner. This is how The Party section ends, with a young girl who ‘felt sleep taking over, a brief respite while another upheaval took place in her stomach’. Then, something happens. A violent, masochistic sexual assault. The details of the actual assault are never told directly – it’s described, obliquely, later in the book through differing viewpoints, so as a reader we don’t understand how the situation went from a sleeping girl to a gang rape. And does it matter that we don’t know how it happened? Do we need to know the details, who did what when? Gnanalingam’s novel makes clear that these facts are unnecessary. The rape happened, and there are no excuses.

The Meeting section continues in the same way, swinging from one character to the next. We never hear from the victim in this section, the longest of the book. We work our way through more characters – journalists, a police officer – and wade through more from the teachers, the principal, the students of St Luke’s. The omniscient voice is competent and gives the sense of the rippling effect of any action. The use of this style is particularly effective in certain scenes, such as the Fight Club created by the Year 13 students at St Luke’s, although at other times it isn’t as compelling, and more than once I found myself thinking how Gnanalingam could’ve structured the book slightly differently. The Slap by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas came to mind, where eight characters all tell a single story, giving us differing and raw narratives that maximise the personal, because this is when Gnanalingam’s writing is strongest – in the moments his writing pierces the skin of the characters.

And then: The Trial. The final section of Sprigs. Here, in a marvellous spin, the point of view drills right into the voice that we have been waiting for the entire time – the victim. All the noise and information gathered in the first three sections has been gathered like wood to build a bonfire and when she begins to speak, the spark is lit. The victim says, ‘It’s my story,’ and in this section, and only this section, is that true. When writing in first-person, Gnanalingam’s writing flows and grows incandescent with heat. But you can’t put it down, you must read on, and be burnt. The victim reclaims her story, her power, and the novel comes alive.

Even in a serious and dramatic story, Gnanalingam navigates the subtle ironies of life with an acerbic and dry wit. A joke about trying to fit in another fundraising for St Luke’s through the Old Boys’ association was a great example of his comedic timing: how to add another to the long list that includes the ‘…old boys’dinner, old boy’s darts night, old boys’ newsletter, old boys’ foundation, old boys’ midwinter dinner, old boys’ spam email, old boys’ bingo night, old boys’ spring dinner, old boys’ pool night, old boys’ commemorative annual jersey, and old boys’ autumn dinner.’ The joke is both bitter and also works to reinforce the issue with certain schools and how they raise boys. When the principal, Denver, looks back on his poor performance in a television interview, he thinks, ‘He should have said something about the school and its tradition and its aim to raise good, decent men.’ Denver means this statement. He believes this is what the school is attempting to do, and if the people in charge are so blinkered, then it seems that only something revolutionary will create change. Throughout Sprigs, the questions around masculinity and New Zealand’s culture are raised, but the novel doesn’t moralise. It examines and interrogates, and finds only slivers of good, so fine they are almost non-existent.

Categories
Author QandA The Girl In The Mirror - Rose Carlyle

QandA with Rose Carlyle

READ CLOSE: Your debut novel The Girl in The Mirror is a racy, pacy thriller – could you tell us about the writing of this book?

ROSE CARLYLE: I feel as though this story fell out of the sky fully formed, and I had no choice but to write it down. I’ve heard other writers (such as Elizabeth Gilbert) describe the feeling that the story chooses the writer, and although I don’t believe in supernatural stuff, there was something a bit spooky about the process.

My sister, Madeleine, and I were both trying to write novels and both considering trashing them and starting fresh with new ideas. One day at lunch, Maddie mentioned she would like to write a twin story. I felt as though I knew what she was going to say before she said it, because I wanted to write a twin story too. When we put our ideas together, the magic happened. We had the key plot points planned within an hour.

So it was as if the story was floating around in the sky, and half of it fell into my lap and half into Maddie’s. We had to put the halves together to make the story complete. Fortunately, Maddie wanted me to write the story, but she has put an enormous amount of energy into it, too. She’s like a pre-editor, helping me shape the story before, during and after the writing process.

Twins are such a fascinating pairing in a novel. Could you tell us why you made your protagonists twins and how that doubling and symmetry works in the novel storytelling?

To me, the special thing about fiction is that it allows you to inhabit someone else’s mind. I don’t know any other art form that creates such a deep experience of living somebody else’s experience. Movies come close, but in a movie you are usually still watching the characters from the outside. When you finish reading Jane Eyre, you feel that you are Jane. Sometimes that feeling persists for a long time.

I wanted to take that idea one step further. If readers love being somebody else, what about a story about a character who tries to become someone else for real? I wasn’t drawn to writing sci-fi or fantasy, so a way for me to explore that idea was with identical twins.

Iris and Summer sail across the Indian Ocean, and you write this part of the novel with such clarity and evoke the feeling of isolation and beauty so well. You obviously have an affinity with the sea and sailing: do you think the ocean and its latent danger will feature in future work?

Yes, I think I can safely say the ocean will feature in future work, because I never plan to write about the ocean, but it always manages to sneak in. I wish I could have depicted the ocean as less dangerous, though. In real life, sailing is not scary. Perhaps one day I will write a book in which the ocean is better behaved.

If The Girl in The Mirror is made into a film, who would you love to see in the role of Iris and Summer?

My kids have been fan-casting the novel since I read them a sample chapter back in 2018. One son votes for Samara Weaving, the other for Margot Robbie, but the running joke in our household is that one of them could play each twin. My daughter, Florence, wants her namesake Florence Pugh. I can only tell you who is perfect for the audiobook and that is Holly Robinson. When I heard her audition tape, I felt as though they found the real Iris. I’m told the audiobook will be ready in August and I’m extremely excited about it.

If The Girl In The Mirror was sitting on my bookshelf, what two or three other books would you hope to see stacked beside it?

I would hope to see War and Peace, The Best American Science Writing of 2019, and The Day My Bum Went Psycho, because I hope that people read all sorts of books—and, like me, don’t have time to organise their bookshelves. I didn’t learn how to write a thriller by religiously reading other thrillers. I believe that everything you read influences your writing somehow, so you’ve got more chance of finding your own voice if you read widely and randomly. I’m a big fan of picking up some forgotten treasure at your friend’s uncle’s bach and reading it in order to learn what was once popular. Or just read it because it’s a book and you’re a reader.

Tell us about some of the books and the writers who have been influential in your writing.

I know I’m meant to list other thrillers, but honestly, some of them are too scary for me. I’m sure there are writers who have influenced me, but I don’t know who they are, because I’ve read thousands of books in my life and they’re all blended together in my brain like a soup that’s been cooking too long. So, my all-time faves include Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, the Russians from Tolstoy to Nabokov, and Marilynne Robinson. How you get from there to writing a thriller is beyond me.

What are you reading now? What is on your To Be Read pile?

Now I’m going to contradict myself because I just advocated for serendipitous reading, but I don’t have much time for it these days. As a Kiwi author who is published in Australia, America and the UK, it’s almost part of the job description to keep up with the latest thrillers from all these countries, as well as other notable fiction from anywhere in the world. I also feel that I want to keep delving into the past. There are still some classics I haven’t read, like Don Quixote. Right now I am halfway through Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg and All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Then I want to catch up with the latest thrillers by Chris Hammer and Ruth Ware.

Categories
Book Reviews The Girl In The Mirror - Rose Carlyle

Book Review: The Girl In The Mirror by Rose Carlyle

The Girl In The Mirror, the debut novel from Rose Carlyle, billed as one of those books you can’t put down. One of those special books that come along every once in a while and whisk you away to another world, the intrigue and the drama capturing your attention and not letting go until you turn the last page. Often, I don’t find these sort of claims pan out. I like to sleep. I own a lot of bookmarks, and I’m happy to slip one into the pages of even the most enthralling of novels.

But, it turns out they might be right. I read this book – a racy, pacy thriller about gorgeous Australian twins and their battle for their multi-billion dollar inheritance in two sittings. I opened the book in the afternoon and read the first few chapters. ‘Very professional, very slick, very fun,‘ I thought. I wrote some of my own novel after that, drank a late afternoon coffee, and watched an episode of Unorthodox before going to bed. I will read some more of that book, I thought, and then I will sleep.

Was it the coffee? Maybe. But I didn’t go to sleep until 2 am, once I made it to the very end of the book. I couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t put it down. The promises made on the blurb were true.

I have read that Carlyle set out to write a novel like this, one that is ‘unputdownable’. She’s clever with her plot twists, heavy-footed on the adrenaline. The prologue explaining the circumstances leading to the extraordinary ‘mirror-twins’ Iris and Summer was gripping and led straight into the incredible story.

The plot is full of money and glamour and sex: I can imagine the film this will make. Almost a love-child of Dead Calm and Succession, if Logan Roy made his successor dependent on procreation, and his daughters were twisted versions of Jessica and Elizabeth from Sweet Valley High. Locations are exotic – Thailand, the Seychelles – and the women are beauty queens. Ruthless beauty queens.

To describe the story would be to give away spoilers. And this is a book you need to read to enjoy the twists. The twins scenario is ripe for manipulation and deception, and Carlyle deftly sets the stage for their devious behaviour. First-person narrators like Iris provide wonderful opportunity for untrustworthy tales, and when you have twins so identical no one can tell them apart, there’s plenty of scope for tricks. As a reader, you feel you are in safe hands – Carlyle writes as though she’s been at this work for many years and knows all the tricks. As a recent graduate of the University of Auckland’s Masters of Creative Writing course in 2017 (Carlyle was in the same class as Amy McDaid, author of Fake Baby), it’s a remarkable display of both tension and playfulness.

The Girl In The Mirror has been published with a splash. Carlyle has an international publishing deal; the US rights sold in a bidding war. The film rights have been sold. What incredible success! It’s exhilarating to see a writer from New Zealand enjoy such a welcome with her first published novel.

It’s not a novel with a ‘meaning’ – unless it’s ‘Enjoy the ride’. It’s a thriller; an escape from reality, pure entertainment that might keep you awake until the early hours of the morning, unable to put it down.

Categories
Author QandA Dance Prone - David Coventry

QandA with David Coventry

READ CLOSE: Dance Prone is your second novel and is concerned with friendship, trauma, and music. Tell us about your musical tastes and how this novel connects and intersects with other art forms?

DAVID COVENTRY: My music tastes run all over the show, but lean towards those termed as punk, post-punk, hardcore, post-hardcore, post-rock, on and on. But then again they don’t. I love all the music that appears in this book. But there’s a lot of music outside of the novel love too. I also adore some terrible, dreadful bands, just because they tickle me.

But to name some, my life feels in debt to bands and musicians like Big Star, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, The Gordons, Nico, Wire, John Cale, The Stooges, PJ Harvey, Nick Drake, Blondie, Steve Reich, Joy Division, Lou Reed, NEU!, Slint, Judy Still, Codeine, Galaxie 500, New Order, Television, Minor Threat, Cate Le Bon, The Replacements, Swans, Suicide, Can, Talking Heads, Hüsker Dü, NWA, Brian Eno, Jim O’Rourke, Cat Power, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Dirty Three, The Fall, The Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, The Enemy. All the music that was boiling up in NZ when I was a teenager. So many bands, the Flying Nun explosion that was an almost un-trackable phenomena of greatness during the 1980s. Tanker by Bailter Space is an album still does my head in. I heard it the week it came out and I still remember the moment sitting in my flat with my friends going: How? What? What is that sound? It was so heavy but so pretty and strange. I still ask these questions. Things like that were life-changing. But near to every weekend from the age of 18 to near 40 I was in some stinking bar listening to bands – so to name any falls short of the gamut of acts I have loved for a night and never seen again but felt changed by. 

Then there’s Bowie. Then there’s lots of folk music. Then there’s Neil Young, the Beach Boys and the Jesus Lizard. Then there’s masses of experimental stuff, electronic stuff. Then there’s Dylan and Led Zeppelin, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, the Skeptics, and, um, Supertramp. Big Black, Siege, Stevie Nicks and Nina Simone, Mayhem and the Staple Singers. It doesn’t stop, not really. But as an art form, I desire music, and I guess we’re talking rock music here, to aggressively challenge itself to maintain the hard simplicity of what was shaped into rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s, but also not kowtow any perceived rubric of what rock ‘n’ roll is. I like the sound of guitar feeding back. Especially if it is out of tune. That has always been more rock ‘n’ roll to me than any rock hero guitar solo.

How this relates to art in the novel is this: writing about music in a fiction setting, the conceptual, emotional and intellectual yield of the form, is near impossible. Hence, I wanted to construct several mirrors of the punk rock scene. So, Paloma and Joan George-Warren. In the novel, Joan is constructing a society that attempts to deliberately mimic the culture of religious institutions, and she does this, she claims, as an act of art. It’s an attempt to understand in a secular setting the effects of the sacred and – let us say – tribal religiosity, its rituals and affects. Which is a kind of narcissistic reflection of what’s occurring as the band travel through the U.S. Punk and hardcore, they kind of operate as a wider art form than what is just on stage, the culture that forms around it might be considered the real art form, a mechanism of societal change and enlightenment. Hence, Joan comes into the text to mirror this and show this idea. And Paloma, she is trying to rectify the historical revisionism occurring in archaeological sites and so on. Which is kinda what punk, in my mind, should also be trying to do if it ever finds itself imitating previous versions of itself. I want punk to be taken seriously as an art form in the novel, hence the multiple mirrors of form. Though, you create mirrors and who knows what people are going to see in them.

Your novel moves about in time – 1985 and then post-millennium, 2002, 2004, 2019. We’d love to hear about how you believe time, especially two decades, shifts a person’s dreams, their fears, and their beliefs about themselves.

Hmm. Time shouldn’t do anything to your dreams, not really. Just fine-tune them. Myself, I have the same drive to make art as I did when I was a young twit with absolutely zero right to be dabbling in any form. In fact, the drive is much stronger now than ever. I don’t feel hindered in any way at all expect by health problems and so on. But fears, yes, that’s something else. They grow stronger as the body weakens, I think.

But certainly, the focus of the intent to make art has shifted. I remember when I was a 16 I told my girlfriend I was going to be a writer. Which is hilarious to me now as I didn’t even read books! I didn’t know the first thing about anything to do with writing except for this belief that I would be one, which is nuts. I didn’t even write, but I was going to be a writer! I decided, too, I’d also be a musician, despite having zero ability until I was about 22 or 23 when I actually began to be able to play the guitar. The drive is a very strange and mysterious thing, but vital. Without it and the crazy belief that goes on alongside it, I wouldn’t have ever done anything. I still have a ridiculous urge to play music, despite having a long career as a failed musician! Only time and energy hold that back.

If Dance Prone were to be a film, would you have any ideas about who should be cast or direct?

This is the silliest, silliest question, but, yes, fun to play. Firstly, the thing about writing a book in first person is that only the author ends up knowing what the main character looks like. The narrator hones in on the looks of the other characters but leaves himself out of it.

However, I was re-watching Twin Peaks: The Return a few weeks ago and there’s the nutso scene with Sam and Tracey in New York, in a room, with a glass box. I was looking at Sam (Benjamin Rosenfield) and I thought: Oh, oh, that’s Conrad. Rosenfield seemed to have the correct disposition of detached forcefulness to play Conrad Welles. 

To direct, I think maybe someone like Kelly Reichardt or Andrea Arnold. Definitely a woman. I find myself very tired of men after writing this book! Maybe Crystal Moselle who created and directed the brilliant HBO series Betty. I freaking loved that series.

Let’s say Dance Prone was sitting on my bookshelf, tell me what two or three other books you’d like to see beside it?

The Names Don DeLillo.

Stone Arabia Danna Spiotta

Airships Barry Hannah

The United States of America is a character in its own right in this novel the book is about road trips through college towns and wandering walks through small towns and sprawling urban cities. We’d love to know more about your own relationship with the USA and your experience of writing about it from Wellington.

I wouldn’t say it’s specifically about any of these things as such. Rather, I’d say these are settings for the book that goes searching for answers to questions of memory, art, trauma, ritual and a very specific moment in punk rock history and how it has echoed through decades. But yes, the USA and Morocco are very powerful settings. And they are the only settings I could think of for the novel. I tried setting it in NZ, but that didn’t work. I thought about the UK, but that didn’t feel right. I needed a much larger geographical and cultural space for these outcasts to move about in. I needed the possibility of heated deserts and whiteout snow.

But yes, I spent a couple of months driving around the USA about 15 years ago. It was great, magnificent and appalling. An immense country full of stupid and great things. It’s always an honour to travel through other people’s lands and you have to pay that back in some way. The thing you learn, obviously, is that it’s very hard to know things about the country. It’s so divisive and diverse in its physicality, in peoples, in dialects, in modes of thought, in sensations of self, tribalism, religiosity, of ideology. I found that the language there of my – if I can say (and maybe I can’t) ­– peers to be vastly different to how I, or the people I know here in NZ, would approach difficult topics. It puts you on the outside, which is a place of comfort in some ways. I guess it’s the not knowing that draws me to a place. Of always being an outsider. It feels dangerous and danger is always the best trigger to start writing.

Could you let us know the writers and books that have had the most influence on your life and your writing career?

I have a dear friend, now rightly a lecturer in the US, who one day, close to 30 years ago, turned up at my flat in Mount Vic and handed over two books and said: Read these. Tell me what you think. Those two books were Vineland by Thomas Pynchon, and White Noise by Don DeLillo. While I loved the former, it was the latter that changed my life. I was 22 and didn’t really know how to read, as in really read, and it was that book and then Libra by the same author and several others that taught me what literary works were all about. So, yes, Don DeLillo and Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah. That was the initial burst that launched my reading and all, each of those writers had a huge influence, but DeLillo most of all. Then another wave during my thirties. Another in my forties. These day folk like Dana Spiotta, Elif Batuman, Rachel Cusk, Sally Rooney, Jamie Quatro are having life-altering effects on me. Miranda July’s first novel got me in a weird place. 

What are you reading now? What is next to be read?

For the last several years I haven’t been very well (I have ME/CFS, really messes with basic cognitive stiff) and I haven’t been able to read except in very occasional and small doses. That changed a couple of weeks ago with a surprise reduction of symptoms. I woke up and discovered I could read. I picked up the first book on the nightstand. It was Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. It has been a magnificent experience. Literally, I have been discovering reading again, and it’s like being a kid and seeing your first movie. What a joyful thing. The sudden and beautiful explosions of intellect you didn’t know you had the capacity to grasp. So I’m in the last pages of that and it’s been wonderful. Next up I’m going to read Nothing to See, by Pip Adam. It sounds like a blast and Pip is an excellent, excellent person and I have been looking forward to reading her for the longest time but haven’t been well enough to do so. Then, maybe Sado, by Mikaela Nyman. The release of her novel came at the moment of the lockdown and got lost; it deserves some love. I read an early draft of it two years ago and really look forward to seeing how the book completed itself because it was all there, just waiting.

I would assume Dance Prone would have a playlist – what songs would be on it? Is there somewhere readers can listen to your ideal playlist?

Yes, there is indeed a playlist…..It has near every song or band that is mentioned in the book, plus a few more who the band might’ve been listening to over the decades. Hence, it is really, really long!

Categories
Book Reviews Dance Prone - David Coventry

Book Review: Dance Prone by David Coventry

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.