Four decades after holding a mirror up to Kiwi masculinity with the sensational play Foreskin’s Lament, Greg McGee is back with Necessary Secrets, a new novel that asks the same question: whaddarya?
At a time when we might feel we’ve reached peak old privileged white bloke, it’s a brave writer who devotes the first 61 pages of their novel to an old privileged white bloke indulging in a pity party. It’s the day of Den Sparks’ 70th birthday, to be held at his large villa in Herne Bay. His mind is failing, his wife is long dead, he’s estranged from two of his three children, his lucrative career was ruined by millennials and technology, and though he’s stashed a snub-nosed Walther PPK in his roll-top desk – his exit strategy – it seems unlikely he’ll have the guts to use it.
Despite his nice line in self-deprecating humour, it’s hard to feel sorry for Den. Good news is we’re not supposed to, because this is a novel written by Greg McGee, who has never gone easy on the dude-bros. By opening with the lament of old Den, Necessary Secrets feels like a bookend to McGee’s 1981 play, which ended with young Foreskin’s famous “Whaddarya?” challenge to New Zealand’s destructive sports-obsessed masculine culture. McGee’s 2015 novel The Antipodeans also explored the damage caused by men unable to connect emotionally, and how Kiwi resourcefulness can mask a callous disregard for other humans. McGee has spent nearly four decades reminding us that how men present may be socially approved of, but it’s a rug under which lasting hurt and harm is swept. Whaddarya? That is the question. And do our men have the courage to look closely enough at themselves to give an honest answer?
The irony of this novel is that Den Sparks is only half-able to take a long, hard look at his life. Dementia is catching up with him, and he’s in that terrible position of being aware of the decline but unable to do anything about it. He relies on his daughter, Ellie, who lives with him as housekeeper, financial controller and old man minder, while working for a domestic violence charity and undergoing the emotional process of fertility treatment. In her mid-thirties, Ellie has no partner, and is reviewing potential sperm donors, trying to judge their worth as decent human beings on the basis of a short written profile. She has no illusions about the gap between how men present and who they are.
Ellie is the moral heart of this novel. She keeps the family connected and ensures her brothers, Stan and Will, come to their father’s birthday. She minds Den and babysits the children of Will, whose wife has kicked him out for his refusal to give up drugs. She provides a safe place for Jackson and Lila, troubled teens fleeing a violent father. She’s a good daughter, sister and friend, and most of her effort is taken for granted, a point that isn’t ignored but could have been given more emphasis. McGee dumps the lot on her shoulders with what reads like a sense of relief. But just because Ellie can carry that weight doesn’t mean she should.
Brother Will is the opposite, the dark Sparks. A meth user, who thinks he has it all under control, Will is fighting to keep solvent the advertising film business he bought from Den. At his father’s birthday, Will announces that he wants to sell the Herne Bay property, and that he doesn’t much care what the rest of the family thinks. Will doesn’t much care for people, full stop – even his children get in his way – but he is under more pressure than his ego will admit. McGee plays it well by not making Will a total monster. Monsters we can hate without question. Those we have flashes of sympathy for are infinitely more dangerous.
Stan is the third and youngest brother. We meet him briefly as a reluctant attendee at Den’s 70th birthday, and don’t see him again until the final part. Gentle Stan has fled to a commune in Golden Bay, where until recently, he’s managed to shut out most evidence that the environment is going to hell in a plastic hand basket. Now, the tentacles of commerce are tightening, forcing Stan back to a family who, apart from his sister, Ellie, he’s never felt he could trust.
Stan is not as well developed a character as the others, and while the short trip to Golden Bay gives the novel some welcome air, it seems like Stan’s main purpose is to be the stooge for a rather good ending that will not be spoiled here. Suffice it to say there’s a rug, and McGee yoinks it out from under you.
The novel is in four parts – four seasons – and each is ostensibly told from the point of view of each of the Sparks. While McGee doesn’t want us to let old Den off the hook for being a shitty father, unfaithful husband and willing exploiter of capitalism, he does seem to want us to like him best. He certainly gives him more page-time than any of the other characters – Ellie’s part in particular feels Den-dominated – and all the humorous lines, right to the end.
Fair enough, given that McGee and Den are of similar age, and McGee has mined some of his own career and business experiences for Den’s back story. If you can’t use your own novel to get stuff off your chest, then what’s the point of the thing?
And Den is likeable enough to carry you through white old-dude narrows and into open sea, where there’s plenty to enjoy. McGee is a fine writer who isn’t afraid to let his anger out on the page, muzzled only by a blackly comedic touch. When it comes to the women, this novel perhaps could have done more, but it gets points for keeping its foot on the neck of destructive masculinity. Four decades on from Foreskin, the question remains, and it’s good to know McGee hasn’t given up trying to answer it.
Necessary Secrets, by Greg McGee (Upstart Press, $35) is available at Unity Books.