One Question Quiz
Duncan Sarkies (Image: Archi Banal)
Duncan Sarkies (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksOctober 19, 2023

‘It’s appalling… hasn’t aged well’: The book Duncan Sarkies does not recommend

Duncan Sarkies (Image: Archi Banal)
Duncan Sarkies (Image: Archi Banal)

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: writer and co-creator of The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium, Duncan Sarkies.

The book I wish I’d written

I have never had the experience of wishing I had written a book that has already been written. I have certainly experienced it when watching a movie though. It happened most recently at this year’s film festival watching a movie called Fremont, by Babak Jalali, about a former translator in Afghanistan who was now working for a fortune cookie company. It’s a strange sensation, when you feel like someone has communicated so deep to your soul that your chameleon brain has a sensation of “it’s something I could have written”, giving yourself a cheap dopamine hit without any actual work being involved. I have never had that sensation with a book though, and I’m hoping I never do, as the whole premise is riddled with masochistic flagellating regret.

The book I want to be buried with

The hippy in me doesn’t want to cause any more environmental damage than is necessary. Unless an edible book could mix with my juices to feed the worms, I think I’d like to reduce the harm caused. That said, I will buy into the spirit of the question and choose my favourite short book, as at least that may have a minimal environmental impact. I choose The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, because I am fascinated with the ugliness that lurks under the surface of beauty.

The book that gave me sanity

The Dice Man, by Luke Rhinehart. I was in Cannes and I was depressed at how cynical the film world was. I read this extremely questionable book and I felt like I was an outsider to it all, a sensation of someone ready to find a way to tear it all down. The book itself is not one I would recommend to many. It’s appalling on so many levels, has not aged well, should possibly be put in a glass case and kept out of reach of the easily horrified majority. It’s so dodgy I’m not sure if I would like it if I re-read it, but it fulfilled a purpose at a time in my life, plus it really appeals to my general belief in a random universe.

From left to right: the book that Sarkies wants to be buried with; the horrifying book that gave him sanity; and a book by the author who features in his author encounter.

Favourite encounter with an author

A friend of a friend told me that when they are overseas they make an effort to meet their heroes. I had never thought of the concept as viable. Something seems desperate about it, yet I thought of those (few) moments when a stranger has met me and it has meant something to them. So I tracked down Samantha Hunt when I was in New York and sent an email that was gushy without being stalky. She kindly offered to see me and I went to the campus where she teaches. She made me a cup of tea and we chatted for about an hour. I asked her all about the inspiration that sparked her to write The Dark Dark, a set of short stories that really blew me away. We both swapped stories about visiting decommissioned missile sites. I saw the kindness in her eyes and wrinkles around her mouth that are lasting evidence of her impish sense of humour. I said goodbye knowing I will never see her again, but it was actually OK meeting a hero. I knew she was human ahead of time so it’s not like I had an illusion dashed. She was cool.

Greatest New Zealand book

“The same night our fowls were taken, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.” So starts the opening line of The Scarecrow and Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s devilish sense of humour that had me hooked from start to finish. It’s full of amazing lines, like the octopus ink one… ugh, I want to find it to quote it but I have loaned it out to someone. It’s a real sign how much you like a book when it is never on your bookshelf, because every time you get a copy you loan it out…

The book that caused a paradigm shift for me

I had a friend who was into graphic novels, who educated me into the wonder of them, something for which I am extremely grateful. Two stand out to me, both non-fiction, that altered the way I see the world. My friend told me there was a name for a state where you start seeing the world in comic book farm. When I walk around Cuba Street I experience this sensation frequently. I wish I knew the word, but I’ll resist the urge to google it. So I’ll give a shout out to Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

The first is a documentary account of the characters who are imprisoned by a political situation in the middle of the Croatian war. Joe Sacco captures it more vividly than either a film documentary or a prose piece could. His images push up the intensity and insanity of the situations almost lapsing into caricature but always staying truthful and authentic, riding a line. Alison Bechdel’s is a really thoughtful piece of work, an examination of growing up in a funeral home and the mystery of her father who may have died in an accident or may have died by suicide. Oof, it hits you in the heart.

Best audio book to listen to

This has been my year for discovering George Saunders. I’m pretty late to the party. I listened to Pastoralia, a set of short stories, all read by George Saunders himself. Without being ridiculously performative, his dry delivery is very, very funny, and a searing satire on life in modern, soulless America. The first story in particular, set in some strange theme park where the lead character has to simulate a caveman, while being under pressure to submit a negative performance review for his colleague, is deeply funny, both unfamiliar and deeply familiar. So yes, everyone MUST read that one. Or listen to George Saunders read it, preferably using a non-Jeff-Bezos-owned audio book service (like Libro).

From left to right: Sarkies’ greatest New Zealand novel; one of the books that caused a paradigm shift; and the George Saunders title that makes the best audio book.

The book that inspired a project

Over The Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, by Laurence Bergreen. This book (non-fiction that reads like fiction) was a forerunner to writing a giant radio series turned podcast (The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium). I have no idea of its historical accuracy but it is a real romp of a book. Everything you could want in a hideous adventure: a cold war, a race for spices, an unlikeable leader orgies, religious zealotry, mutinies, grotesque corpses hanging from masts, skeletal survivors riddled with syphilis and locked in a prison, … A brilliant read. And of course, as a companion read, Anne Salmond’s magnificent books (in particular The Trial of the Cannibal Dog and Aphrodite’s Island) also inspired us greatly.

A book with an altered perspective

I am writing a novel (Star Gazers will be published next year, he said, plugging) about the collapse of democracy in a society of alpaca breeders, and I have some sections that are largely written from the perspective of alpacas. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise, but I do relate to them, you know, mammal to mammal. I took some inspiration for this kind of writing from 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, which is a great existential accompaniment to the movie. The first section follows the ape that will be the first to use a tool, and is written really well, marking the incredible intelligence of this creature, despite the writer’s awareness that the reader has evolved well beyond it.

The book that opened up possibilities

When you are a young writer you are fed with examples of “good writing” which carries with it all kinds of limiting dogmas if you let it. I found it freeing when I listened to William S Burroughs tell a story about a man who taught his asshole to talk. That this could be published, considered literary while at the same time being so base, so infantile, was a revelation for a version of me that needed writing to be less lofty, more vital. The feeling of liberation continued when I discovered Irvine Welsh’s books, reading Trainspotting when I was in Edinburgh, loving the vernacular approach, and then later discovering Filth, a book that contained whole sections encased inside a tapeworm inside the character’s body, a tapeworm that has a personality of its own, as the main character eats himself from within, an internal conflict externalised hideously. Yes, that was liberating.

I would feel awful if I didn’t mention

A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor and Cruising Paradise by Sam Shepard. Great, dark American short stories. Flannery O’Connor’s is so bleak, the way she forces you to see from the points of view of some deeply disturbed people. Bruce Springsteen wrote his brilliant Nebraska album (the only album of his I truly love) after reading her stories. As for Sam Shepard, he was an amazing writer. I once saw a play of his in New York with Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C Reilly, and about 20 pop-up toasters. A unique voice with a unique point of view.

You can listen to The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium on RNZ created by Duncan Sarkies, James Milne and Stephen Templer; and starring Jemaine Clement with original music by Lawrence Arabia.

Keep going!