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Books: The Year of Charlotte Grimshaw

Auckland writer Charlotte Grimshaw’s 2015: Tokyo, Tel Aviv, her novel Starlight Peninsula, ‘solemn and conscientious reviews’ for the Listener, ‘internal chaos’.      

In a narrow street of tiny houses, in a district near the Yanaka Cemetery where the last Shogun is buried, a row of shoes was laid out along the pavement. Policemen stationed beside their bikes wielded glow sticks to move along the passersby, but so politely and cordially that it was possible to pretend not to understand and to drift closer and closer until the crime scene was clearly visible: a tiny, cube-like building, a claustrophobic staircase, a child’s pink bicycle parked at the bottom, and within, the room in which lights were set up and investigators were working, dressed in special overalls, their feet encased in plastic bags. It seemed typical and not: atypical because a crime had occurred, and crime is so little in evidence in Tokyo, and yet typical in its Japanese neatness, its crisp efficiency. The line of shoes was absolutely straight, the emergency outfits were chic and toy-like, dinky-coloured boiler suits with epaulettes and buckles, helmets with straps done up under the chin.

Inside the tiny room, one act of untidiness had occurred, a piece of chaos involving blood splatter and something lying on the floor. One meltdown or blowout in a city of rigid order and control. You hoped it hadn’t involved the owner of the small pink bike.

Tokyo, unreal city, under the iron light of an autumn noon. One day it rained, and a cold wind tore across the vast grounds of the Imperial Palace. Crows sat on the black palace walls, and the black water in the imperial moat had a brooding, sullen sheen. In the shelter of the grounds, the dark green foliage hung dripping over black bridges, and framed the ancient gates. The Palace is grand, imposing, so steeped in the atmospherics of power (beauty and menace) that it makes Buckingham Palace look like a block of flats. Later the sky cleared and turned luminous and the palace grounds became wildly pretty; for days the city glowed with a still, golden sheen, an autumnal radiance that turned the early dusk into a light show, long shadows cast by skyscrapers, low sun glancing off acres of mirror glass.

An app on my phone totted up walking distances: it got up to twenty kilometres a day. It’s a vast city where people live crammed into tiny spaces, a ceremonious city, where a uniformed functionary (boiler suit, helmet, glowstick) bows low and guides you past road works. Such is the mania for formality that the fixing of one paving stone will entail a scene: cordons, signs, fencing, as if you would be lost if not guided around the tiniest obstacle, and you can’t help wondering how New Zealand must seem to visiting Japanese tourists: a wildly unregulated free-for-all presumably, full of people who are friendly but ill-dressed, physically degenerate, staggeringly rude.

*

2015. It was a year when I tried to find a method to quell my internal chaos, where I searched for something elusive that might have been called balance. It was a year when I realised I have only two modes, hyperactivity and exhaustion. With me, it seems, there is no middle way.

I entertained a new idea: slowing myself down. I toyed with concepts like mindfulness and relaxation. I didn’t get very far of course. Maybe in this, as in all things, I was in two minds.

Early in the year, I worked on the final editing of my new novel, Starlight Peninsula. I was pleased with it. I knew it was as good as the last one, Soon. I thought its strands were correctly laid, that it followed the Chekhov formula, ‘a novel must ask the right questions.’ It was a sequel, a thickening of the Soon plot, and it was about our society right now. Is anyone else in New Zealand doing this, writing fiction about our current selves? It was about storytelling, and about the ruthlessness of the artist, among other things, although I knew my ‘large internet tycoon’ would grab the attention, just as ‘the prime minister’ got all the oxygen with Soon.

In May, I appeared on a panel at the Auckland Writers Festival with Philip Ball, Atul Gawande and Xinran. We had been given a mad brief, something improbable like How to Sort out the Problems of the World. In preparation, I read my fellow panelists’ latest books, and entertained myself finding connections between them.

‘There is always one on a panel,’ Atul Gawande said of me, ‘who has done the homework.’ I was the swot; I’d enjoyed getting caught up in the role of physicists in the Third Reich (Ball), the Western World’s treatment of the elderly and dying (Gawande) and the psychological effects of the one child policy on Chinese youth (Xinran.) I was full of ideas but I had a problem, a pain in the neck.

Sitting in the green room with the suave Dr Gawande, I’d been tempted to seek his advice. Hey, um, Atul…. I had a tumour on my thyroid and it was swelling, and hurting like hell. (Later, I found out Gawande is a thyroid surgeon.)

I kept quiet about it, pulled off the panel, then, after two needle biopsies on my neck – a horrifying experience – I went in for surgery to have half my thyroid removed. The surgeon, Nick McIvor, charmed me by saying, ‘Nothing terrible is going to happen.’ (Because haven’t we all met the odd medical person who keeps you guessing, who cherishes power.) The excellent Mr. McIvor does nose jobs as well as thyroids (he has a website with amusing before and after shots) and is terrifically neat with his stitching. Already, I have virtually no scar.

On July 1, Starlight Peninsula was launched at the Women’s Bookshop. In a generous and hilarious speech, Steve Braunias was extravagant enough to tell the crowd that the book’s author ‘owned Auckland.’

The Owner of Auckland (cue Tui Billboard), neck wrapped in a scarf, tottered over to SPQR and partied with friends and whanau – happy! Starlight Peninsula got excellent reviews, entered the New Zealand bestseller lists and stayed there, and I was pretty happy about that too.

But I didn’t hang around. I flew off: to Dubai, Istanbul, to southern Turkey, after that to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In a hotel room in Dubai, I listened on my phone to a rave review of my novel on Radio New Zealand. After that, feeling fortified (happy!) I went out and confronted the terrifying beauty of the Arabian Desert.

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On day two in Istanbul I got food poisoning, and lay sick as a dog in a hotel near the Blue Mosque. It was one of those appalling experiences that assumes a dreamy richness in memory: the extremes, the suffering, the delirium.

In Turkey, I walked in the dusty mountains, in Israel I marveled at the ubiquity of guns, the plump youth in Tel Aviv, for example, who propped his military assault rifle against the table in the breakfast room, and then toted it to the beach: towel, sunnies, book, AK47.

I wrote a piece for the New Zealand Herald, a Ramadan Diary, in which I described the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, army checkpoints, the brutal security wall, looking across the Dead Sea to Jordan, being stranded on a bus inside the Palestinian Territories, near a West Bank restaurant called the Déjà Vu. I made a few baleful references to Israeli crimes, and received rebukes in the mail from supporters of Israel, although family friend Marti Friedlander generously emailed to endorse the piece.

These journeys: they have to become fiction. I’m going to write a novel that takes a trip; this will be the project. After Starlight Peninsula the New Year’s resolution: to leave this country for a while, to take my imagination offshore.

*

I returned to Auckland, and went on looking for peace. I frowned over notes on ‘being grounded’, on ‘living in the Now.’ I read articles online about meditation. I marvelled at things: the collapse of journalism, for one thing. I could scarcely believe what passed for a column these days, especially among some women journalists (oh for God’s sake Ms Nicol Reed, Ms Hill-Cone.) The dizzy move towards This Week I Thought Shit About Nothing and beyond, to its sister column, This Week I Thought Shit About Me.

Every morning I walked my dog (wise Philip!) through the mangroves, around the bay. At high tide Philip swims; every day we play fetch. He is a honed athlete at fetch, always in training, always working on his technique. We walk home together through the Auckland rain, talking humourlessly about fetch.

I toted Starlight Peninsula about: to the Waiheke festival, where I did a Q & A with actor Johnny Givens, who proved to be a perceptive and clever reader. I took it to the Book Festival in Whanganui, where I met Nicky Hager and Jarrod Gilbert, the expert on New Zealand gangs. It was a weekend of wind and icy rain. One evening the authors, Hager, Gilbert, Rachael King, Paul Thomas, holed up for drinks in the hotel, while the rain lashed down outside. It was a good group. Hager (warm, charming, enigmatic) maintains a Zen-like calm (what is his secret? What are all his secrets?).

During free time in the hotel room, I was reading the autobiographical novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard. I knocked out a piece about Knausgaard for The Spinoff. Later I read, with increasing fascination and respect, the entire works of Elena Ferrante, and constructed a Spinoff piece about her, in which I managed to weave in witty journalist and editor Finlay Macdonald, and a possibly fictional character called ‘my psychotherapist.’ I wrote about the self in literature, and the search for new ways of writing narrative. I confessed, perhaps rashly, that I thought a lot of contemporary fiction was shit.

At the Nelson Book Festival a woman approached holding out a photograph. I peered at it and said, ‘That’s Mrs Saleem!’ She said quietly, ‘Yes, that was my name back then.’ It was a photo of my first year at Parnell School, and she had been my teacher. She said I’d always asked her to staple pages together to make books, so I could write stories in them. I remembered more than I told her: that I’d liked her very much, that I remembered her clothes, her hair, her nervous voice.

In Nelson, I took part in a panel with Phil Wallington and David Slack. Afterwards, David asked, ‘Do you have a son named Conrad?’ He related to me a mystery: as a judge, he had picked my son’s column to win a student journalism prize (it was, he said, exceptional) but someone else was named winner. When he asked repeatedly how this could have happened, he received no answer. Prizes. Sometimes they’re right; often they’re a mystery or an injustice. As Kingsley Amis jauntily noted, ‘Prizes are obviously only any good when you win.’

Literary life: I took a ‘master class’ in fiction for young people, on behalf of the Michael King Writers Centre. I appeared at the wonderful Carole Beu’s Ladies Litera-tea, and gave a talk to a large crowd of women. Along with admirable women like Alison Mau and Jacinda Arden, I sat in the window of my favourite shop, The Women’s Bookshop, for New Zealand Bookshop Day. I wrote some solemn and conscientious book reviews for the NZ Listener.

I squeezed into a comically cosy booth in a studio with Paula Morris and Mark Broatch, and reviewed two books for a Book Council podcast, an entertaining morning’s work during which I discovered Paula and I share an interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder.

And then I left again, and went to the place where my new fiction will begin. Tokyo, because it’s unbelievable. Tokyo, because it’s like the self, orderly on the surface, yet seething and divided within…

Near the end of 2015, still in search of harmony and peace, yet unable as usual to keep still, I flew east, and into the beginning of my new novel.

*

In Tokyo, no one is fat. Everyone is thin and everywhere are features we’re seeing less of in our 2015 Western selves. Cheekbones, collarbones. The average-sized Westerner can discover what it’s like to be really big, squeezing into seats, stooping, trying not to be in the way.

Everyone is decorous and charming. No one, unless they are a tourist, is not Japanese. The racial homogeneousness is so total as to be eerie. The one African person to be sighted was an American tourist. The only piece of racial profiling possible occurred at the Tokyo Sky Tree, where an Indian family of tourists was apologetically singled out for a bag search.

It’s an extraordinary phenomenon that takes some getting used to. In a city of contrasts, where you walk from plush and affluent districts like Ginza into ancient and picturesque ones, race is a constant, the culture is consistent, and the social mores must exert a powerful influence over the whole of life. Whatever chaos lurks within is deeply hidden, and overlaid with an order that is beautiful, impressive, and as faintly disturbing as the deep black moat below the Palace walls.

What lies beneath? There are hidden social phenomena like hikikomori, a Japanese term for acute withdrawal, where a person, often a young man, retires to his room and refuses to emerge for a decade or so, an obvious reaction to the cultural urging to conform and succeed in the urban pressure cooker. The suicide rate is high (25,000 people in 2014) partly for historical reasons – it’s honourable and not a sin – and also, you suspect, because the conformity doesn’t allow room for difference or failure. It’s all or nothing, sink or swim. There are economic pressures too. Japan used to be famous for its culture of lifetime employment. These days, forty percent of young people can’t find stable jobs.

And even such a safe and orderly city as Tokyo is not immune from terrorism. The large black birds, known as jungle crows, have been labelled ‘feathered terrorists’, and accused of various crimes, including attacking people. More seriously, there was the sarin gas outrage in 1995, when a fanatic religious sect poisoned people on the subway. And in response to threats from Isis, the Japanese Foreign Ministry has just set up a new Terrorism Task Force to monitor international hazards, and to prepare for upcoming events, the G7 summit next year, and the Olympic Games in 2020.

None of this is apparent. In the streets all is grace and order. In Tokyo, cyclists and pedestrians share the pavement. It’s an admirable method that’s probably beyond us here at home, with our unbridled impatience and inability to share nicely. Tokyo mothers cycle on the pavement with two kids in child seats. No one wears a helmet or sports gear, no one speeds, everyone manages to steer around, and this is a place where all pavements are crowded. Things like this work when there’s such a strong social contract.

On the famous ‘scramble crossing’ in Shibuya, the largest, most teeming pedestrian concourse in the world, an urban cauldron amid skyscrapers and towering neon signs, it’s useful to be a head taller. You can view the enormous convergence, the swarm of the masses. This a district of young people, students, shoppers, schoolgirls in their cartoonish miniskirts, young men glued to their electronics and everywhere the ubiquitous facemask, an affectation that is, to the outside eye, faintly suggestive of neuroticism, so clammily therapeutic, so reminiscent of bandages or nappies. Odd, in a chic and decorative population, that it’s the done thing to wear a white sanitary pad on your face.

In the fish market, where giant tuna are auctioned at dawn, in a street crisscrossed by ancient, sagging black power lines, you can buy seafood cooked in a large scallop shell on a roadside burner, the whole tasty dish given a final blast by a man wielding a blowtorch. There are stalls selling a huge array of seafood, and crowds crammed into a maze of narrow streets. Entering a café, we were startled by raucous shouts from the staff, as if we’d caused some outrage; but soon it was apparent that every entrance and exit was marked by this loud chorus, and the cooks, the sushi-artists, were a bunch of jolly brigands who yelled and joked and tossed their knives about expertly, delivering elaborate and delicious food over the counter. No one, as usual, was not Japanese. There wasn’t much English spoken but there was unlimited charm and goodwill, and a lot of pointing.

All over Tokyo we pointed and signaled and eventually got what we wanted. It was like being a giant toddler in a land of friendly and indulgent adults; they were so tolerant, so kind to us, ridiculously clumsy and inept and speechless as we were.

This cafe, and even the most modest and ramshackle noodle house, was equipped with that impressive phenomenon: the automated Japanese toilet. You’d fight your way through the beaded curtain, down the dank corridor with the posters, open the door and there it was, gleaming, futuristic, its knobs and dials dauntingly winking, its instructions all in Japanese, so that once you’d negotiated the most basic functions, and perhaps inadvertently activated the bidet or massage option, or caused it to perform some other alarming trick, the problem was working out how to flush. To not flush would be an appalling breach of etiquette, and so many minutes might go by in the back of the tiny bamboo café as you pushed buttons, while it whirred and shot out jets of water – you get the idea. The Japanese toilet, it’s a marvel. Once corrupted by it, you really don’t want to go back. Why has it not taken off here? And how disappointed must Japanese people feel by our grimly Spartan loos?

Back at the hotel, the big business was weddings. The bride would arrive at the foyer to a waiting line of guests, the older women in kimonos, the younger in chic dresses, the men in suits and ties. The bride and groom processed through the line to applause from guests and staff. These were moments of extreme etiquette, as if any sudden movement or uninhibited display would be indecent. The tiny footsteps of the women in kimonos, the dainty, fluttering girls, the respectful bowing. There was a quality of stillness, a total respect for form, that had echoes in the huge city: an ancient bridge over the black moat, a crow motionless on the roof of a shrine, the moment when the investigation team stood to attention outside their crime scene, as if in silent homage to the child’s pink bike.

*

My mind kept returning to the street of tiny houses. This was the story, an ending in the last days of 2015, the year of searching. It was the beginning of something new.

Beyond the row of buildings that day, the Yanaka Cemetery stretched away under a sky that was as high and hard as a blue bowl. A policeman carrying a glow stick waved us on towards the cemetery, and once we were inside the maze of paths, the roar of the city receded, sounds were muted in the thin air, and the graves cast long shadows on the stones. Cats slipped between the gates and lounged in the sun on graves. It was a place of tricks and illusions: no matter which way we turned the same man, a ghost I realised, appeared silently at the end of the row and then turned away, and was gone.

At the grave of the last Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, in an image of Japanese symmetry, a big-clawed tomcat lounged right next to a giant jungle crow. The feathered terrorist and his friend were at rest among the peaceful dead. They were biding their time, going nowhere for now. At the grave of the warrior, in the centre of the giant metropolis, there was sun and silence, two predators matched, a harmony of forces, balance.

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