An essay by Carl Shuker in response to the shoddy response of most reviewers to the new novel by Wellington writer Pip Adam. Why, he simmers, are so many New Zealand critics so lazy, so patronising, so cheerfully ignorant, and just plain wrong?
The finest piece of writing in New Zealand fiction this century happened and you may not be aware of it, four years ago in the “Featherston Street” chapter of Pip Adam’s first novel I’m Working on a Building. Adam is the author of a book of short stories and two novels, including her latest, The New Animals, released last month to breathtakingly flawed reviews, of which more later. Significantly more later.
I want to quote at length from the “Featherston Street” chapter because this is Adam in magisterial form.
Catherine, an engineer, arrives with colleagues to examine a crack that’s materialised in a half-finished building (the Asteron Building opposite Wellington Railway Station). When they’re high in the concrete skeleton an earthquake begins.
“She found herself close to the crack. It opened a little, then folded over itself. The crack was fine, she thought, with a laugh – here it is, being fine. None of them needed to be here. She turned to show the site manager. He was a metre from her, smiling in terror. She smiled back, trying to say with her smile and her eyes, ‘Shit, eh? Shit!’ Like she knew what to say, like when she was talking about weather and aggregate, like even now, in all this, it was important to him and to her that she didn’t look like she shouldn’t be there. Shit, she smiled as she was thrown backwards, looking quickly to see where she was going.
“There was nothing to hold onto, she grabbed at the flat concrete but there was nothing to hold on to, below her she could almost feel the beam of a moment frame; she looked down and imagined the roof plate moving over it, she could see the bending moments around the rigid joints between beam and column by rotation. The regular shape of the frame like a handle for her as it resisted the shaking by bending and shearing action. She reached for it and caught hold of a length of steel casing pipe but it wasn’t attached anymore and instead of anchoring her it came effortlessly with her hand as her whole body was pushed back from it again, forcefully toward where it used to be attached. She looked up and saw all the men again, fighting the jolting rock of the concrete slab, the ladders, the scaffold falling. Most of them down flat on their stomachs, grasping, reaching, some shouting, holding their hard hats with their hands, flapping around, some private part of them all on display to all of the rest of them. She tried to get up again and one of her knees came down hard on the slab again and she tried again to reach for something that would hold her still. She looked over a concrete parapet to the sky, and followed it, big and over them, all the way over them. She felt suddenly ill, dry-retched, threw up and everything was still again.
“Catherine was thrown to the ground. She grabbed again at the flat floor which again offered no purchase. In her mind she anticipated it all, what would happen: she would hear the columns finally shear at their midsection then pull the beams with them, then the floors, like a train pulling out from a station. Every second from then, the building would be something new and the new thing would finally twist the floor open and pull her down so she was falling and watching the building coming down on top of her exactly as she expected it would. Look at you, she thought, watching all it would become. Be monsters, she said, and it was.”
Catherine is an engineer, a woman doing all the extra work of excelling in a male-dominated profession. She’s here to examine a crack that yes, operates expertly as a symbol for those so inclined but is also just literally that, a crack. She is brilliant. She is difficult. In this small section alone there is Catherine’s awe for her work (“Look at you”) and watch her tiny exhausting sensitivities and concessions to the resolutely gendered nature of her job. Male colleagues, friends of hers are here, too, by their own choice but exposed on this building site, because of the flinches she’s learned to make as a woman in her gendered job. “[S]he thought again and suddenly of Paul and William and how if she’d been different, more certain, they wouldn’t have been here.”
The novel is told backwards, and so this scene is also the revelation of the reason or occasion for Catherine’s breakdown, which we’ve already encountered, back when we were still trying to understand why Catherine is drunk and crying in a basement flat in east London. Back when we thought we were reading a lit-fic novel about someone’s emotions. A novel told backwards is constantly working to control and reveal relationships and effect and cause — in every chapter, for those paying attention, are sudden, eerie losses of gravity as the contexts for earlier episodes are suddenly made clear. A collapse becomes a crack. We assemble the novel, we assemble the story and do so on every reread. You have to do this work to get this thrill.
“Shit, she smiled as she was thrown backwards, looking quickly to see where she was going.”
And this is all here and available in what’s in fact a pacey, surprisingly obvious action scene. Adam sets us up with ease: in a few conventionally realist paragraphs her characters are plausibly placed in an incredibly fraught and tense spot, atop a half-finished building in howling Wellington wind – with some pitiless foreshadowing: they’ve come to investigate a crack, after all – then she literally throws everything at them.
Pitiless, because Adam, though often hilarious, is above all deeply unsentimental. Yet again and again her reviewers demand sentiment of her fiction. Demand “poetry”. They complain about difficulty, innovation and experimentalism but cannot see the classic fictional verities when they are built and shaken beneath their feet.
So let’s quickly gloss the hopeless incapacity of this country’s ability to muster anything resembling a reviewing infrastructure adequate to how fucking good this is. Adam’s latest novel is called The New Animals, out now. In the Listener, Anna Rogers’s review, salted with bemusement and condescension, was with stupefying banality entitled, “A Novel of Two Halves”. In NZ Books, Sue McCauley’s review of I’m Working on a Building had this to say in the fifth sentence: “I was in the mood for pleasure and familiarity.” She adds, ponderous and patronising: “A curious designer morsel, attractive but unfulfilling.”
A morsel? A mood? William Gaddis published The Recognitions in 1955. It took ten years of limpwristed, hamfisted condescensions of this order before it began to be understood. In the meantime, a pseudonymous genius named Jack Green wrote a 79-page unpunctuated diatribe called Fire the Bastards (reprinted as a book by Dalkey Archive Press in 1992). Fire the Bastards taxonomised the various ways in which reviewers are lazy, are lax, are patronising, performatively superior in the face of vast superiority, cheerfully ignorant, overconfident, plain wrong.
Nothing’s changed. McCauley in NZ Books on I’m Working on a Building: “So, this is the novel as a scientific experiment and on that basis it may well work. There is plenty of structural engineering language, informing and altering the prose in rather predictable ways (sterile, unbending, dense, calcified). Enlarging? I don’t think so. But definitely tedium-inducing.”
Rogers on The New Animals in the Listener: “The book would have been helped by more attentive and thoughtful editing at all levels, from overall shape and narrative balance down to such needless irritations as several characters whose names start with ‘D’.”
We expect and even love brilliant, merciless takedowns. But when the out of touch adopt a pose of weary condescension in the face of styles and material they’re not equipped to judge, why do they waste their time? Why waste ours?
The tensions in NZ between reviewers and reviewed are very real. This is a country where a friend of mine can eviscerate another friend in print and I must walk a line between them or choose a friendship to lose. I see one or both usually once a week. There’s a compromise available, between critical judgment and living in a village. There may be violent differences based on taste, ability and division of just desserts, but there can also be an appreciation and a salute, however mute, to those who get work done. Who are in the trenches and getting work done and producing despite the myriad pressures and difficulties; despite the various lacks of time, money and attention. I understand that many writers are not reviewing New Zealand books because they can do without the hassle and the bitterness. Because the scene is too small and intimate and there is fear and the tension is powerful, between what we feel to be true and ought to be spoken and the person we know is real and who is on the other side of the room, or curating a festival or publishing a magazine or someone’s actual sister, and staying that way. This is New Zealand. We can’t fire the bastards because they barely have contracts let alone jobs. I understand that reviewing is constantly in search of decent reviewers. However, when a writer of this talent is repeatedly misapprehended with such self-confidence we know something is very wrong.
Adam has written in brutal minimalist depth about prisoners in NZ jails getting hairsprayed and set on fire. About super-hetero NZ Army soldiers in post-demob orgies having complex bisexual epiphanies – on Bealey Ave, Christchurch. This is the woman who is making literature subversive fun in this country again and we’re ignoring her. The least likely to write an historical novel. The most wired-in to the seething discontent below the housing bubble and above the poverty line.
So welcome to The New Animals. Welcome to fun. Limply dissed by Rogers in the Listener, point comprehensively missed by James Robins at the Herald who appears to have reviewed the blurb. Not even reviewed at The Spinoff.
It’s a deadpan satire and love letter to hairdressing. It’s a novel that sets a major plot point around the nape of a model’s neck, FFS. Big brutal dogs. Drugs and T-shirts. It employs the term “fuckstruck” several times. It finely delineates faultlines in long-term friendships. It finely delineates faultlines generally. A New Zealand pitilessly and unsentimentally represented, seething with frustrated sex and unfairness and betrayal and silence, like all the best soaps. It’s about fashion but it’s completely unfashionable. Its final coda features a character whose damage is so inscrutable no one is aware of it. People sleep with her and talk with her and like her and recommend her for work while unaware she’s beginning to think she’s a mermaid. And she is the PRIME MINISTER’S DAUGHTER. We need to talk about this. What the fuck are we doing in this country when we are not reviewing and talking about this book?
The New Animals by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press, $30) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.