ReadingRoom

Book of the Week: Charlotte Grimshaw reviews Pip Adam

The divided selves of Charlotte Grimshaw respond to the strange new novel by Wellington author Pip Adam.

Pip Adam’s new novel, following her award-winning The New Animals, begins in 1994, as two young women, Peggy and Greta, are living together and trying to stay sober. Terrible things have happened to them, including rape, and now, post rehab, they lead a careful, narrow existence with a single focus: not drinking.  They flat with another couple, Heidi and Dell, and spend their time volunteering in a charity shop and going to meetings.

But something unusual is going on. Hints are dropped, and gradually it becomes clear: Peggy and Greta are the same person. Reading on, we discover Heidi and Dell are also the same person. There are couples on the periphery who used to be one woman too. By the time we encounter Carola and Lotte (a creep and jerk whom Peggy and Greta hate although we don’t know why) we’ve got the hang of it all, and correctly predict that they will turn out to be Charlotte.

The women have split into two during alcoholic blackouts. Their division is seen as shameful, not to be acknowledged. People look away uneasily, and don’t want to know.

So it seems at first this is a novel about trauma and alcoholism, and the effect of ostracism on the human mind. Most interestingly, it appears to be about selves.

It’s a fact that trauma can cause a personality to split. The mind can dissociate from traumatic events, or from a past identity, and in rare cases there’s the phenomenon of dissociative identity disorder, formally called multiple personality, where a severely traumatised person develops a number of different identities.

Having taken an interest in the psychology of selves while writing my novel Mazarine, I thought tentatively (ploddingly perhaps) that this might be where Pip Adam was heading, that this was a fictionally ‘literal’ portrait of the state of the women’s minds following trauma.

As Peggy and Greta struggle through their sober days, they are hopelessly, endearingly inept. Domestically, they are a disaster. They don’t know how to do anything. Their attempts at cooking, in fact all their dealings with food are poignant, tragic, and very funny. They eat carrot sandwiches. Running out of carrot, they resort to broccoli. There is a long and amusing sequence in which they embark, with vast incompetence, on making a quiche. They exist in a world of AA meetings, dank flats, poverty and thrifty tom yum lunches; they are vulnerable, beleaguered, entirely believable and sympathetic.

We think we know where we are with this likeable pair, until things change. It begins to seem we’re supposed to take the literalness further, that Heidi and Dell in particular really are two people who used to be one – separate not just psychologically or figuratively, but physiologically.

So the reader abandons one theory of the case but presses on, still entirely willing, admiring Pip Adam’s lively, competent prose (not a dud sentence to be found) the wry humour in it that’s sharp and humane yet not in the least sentimental. All this is to be enjoyed and life goes on (grimly, narrowly it has to be said) in the dank flats and the AA meetings, until suddenly Peggy and Greta are transformed. The abyss closes over, and they become Margaret, one person again. (Heidi and Dell who were Adelaide remain as two.)

It’s when solo Margaret shows up that the mystery deepens. As journalist Britt Mann noted in her interview with Pip Adam in Sunday magazine, "…you think it’s about one thing. Then, with sudden sinking confusion, you realise it’s about something else altogether." Confusion is the word. But perhaps the disorientation is intentional.  

Margaret finds an old Japanese Tamagotchi phone, and begins to receive garbled messages on it. Who is contacting her so cryptically? Herself? Someone else’s self? Why does a Tamagotchi charger turn up in the letterbox? Did Heidi or Dell or Adelaide leave it there? We might be in the realm of science fiction or fantasy now, but we’re not quite sure.

Older and more competent by this stage, Margaret has found a career writing code. Carola and Lotte make cameo appearances, being hated. The Tamagotchi riddle keeps unfolding. Dell dies – but Heidi is still around, living with her wife and young child next door. Can Dell really be dead?

Around the time of Dell’s possible death, the reviewer felt the beginning of cracks, and suddenly she began to divide. There was Char, the conscientious one, always willing to press on, to be respectful, literary, diligent. And suddenly there were other selves, who could have been called Treuse and Donnay and Cuterie. Selves who complained: "What are these characters like? Why don’t they get out more? Where is the world? What’s going on?"

And Char quelling them, firmly: "Patience. All will be revealed. Pip Adam is playing with issues of identity. She plays with gender, with surface, with ‘reality.’ With the way we ‘simulate’ our own personal truth. Perhaps with the way our electronic devices draw energy from us, keeping us in an unreal world. Note the young child character, who is called ‘they’ not because they are divided but because they identify that way. Adam is writing a story of those society chooses not to see, whose history is sometimes unspeakable. The very fact that she’s divided us shows she’s succeeded brilliantly: her ideas have interested and diverted us, have entered our heads!"

The selves vanished, and the review could proceed, with due decorum:

In Nothing to See, Pip Adam gives us a story of fractured lives, and at the same time delves into deeper mysteries. What lies beneath our surface presentation? Why is society so unwilling to see those who are disadvantaged? Why, when there is suffering, are we told there’s ‘nothing to see?’ And Adam introduces a further, surely relevant question: why would a woman who keeps changing from one to two to one receive messages from a Tamagotchi, messages that could be from someone significant? We’re never really sure, but perhaps, in our era of surveillance capitalism, that’s the point. There is an answer here, and we go looking for it. We’re still searching. There is something for all of us to learn, something to see here, and we read all the way to the end, striving to catch a glimpse of it.

Nothing to See by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.

* For more new reviews of NZ books, visit anzliterature.com 

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