Books of the Week: Woke fiction
Alec Redvers-Hill reviews two novels by Wellington writers who deliver heavy-handed social messages
In two new books from Wellington independent publishers Lawrence & Gibson, Murdoch Stephens’ Rat King Landlord and Brannavan Gnanalingam’s Sprigs, the messy unbalanced equations of our nation’s inequalities are placed front and centre, and each examines what happens when carefully maintained structures start to fall apart. They’re both set in Wellington, they’re both page-turningly enthralling, and they both have rats.
In the case of Rat King Landlord, this is not a metaphor. I mean, yes, it is a metaphor but there are also literally rats. Lots of them. And one in particular: the eponymous Rat King Landlord. He likes peaches and pasta, he uses Whatsapp, he can talk, and he can legally own real estate. Not only that, he engages a property management firm to handle his portfolio as well as the barristers and solicitors at the firm of Gibrence & Lawson to protect it.
The story starts with a notice for a rent increase and its attendant landlord inspection. It’s served on a nameless everyman narrator flatting in a 1930s villa with Freddie, the girl he’s in love with, and Caleb, the guy who stays in his room all day. Our narrator meanwhile spends his days mooning over Freddie at the Broviet Brunion, a café-cum-bar where hipsters play at being socialist revolutionary philosophers. Although he complains about class warfare and economic oppression, he’s also a middle-class boomer’s kid who’s taking the benefit while killing time until he takes up “a PhD position in Munich in August”.
Before August can roll around, however, mysterious posters pop up around the city announcing The Night of the Smooth Stones “when the debts we have overpaid come back to life and are made good”. At the same time, the rat that used to live in the compost bin eating scraps has started climbing the property ladder and is fast becoming a looming force to be reckoned with.
From here Stephens takes us on a thrilling, surreal, often hilarious ride through a series of staccato chapters each snowballing into the next as mayhem descends upon (or is it rises up from?) the capital, culminating in a heart-thudding climax.
Rat King Landlord is a fable about social hierarchies and, more specifically and explicitly, landlords, rent, and what Stephens, an active social campaigner, clearly thinks of them. If by the end of the story you still hadn’t gotten the message, you’re treated to a post-epilogue postscript that’ll explain it to you, like a child being told a fairytale in some future idyll: “When I was young there was such a thing as rent…. Each week we paid more and more money to someone who we called ‘a landlord’…. History has advanced and renting is finished.”
Heavy-handed moralising aside, Rat King Landlord is great fun. There’s pace, humour, and the surreal thrill of fire-toting mobs stalking through a Wellington engulfed by revolution, burning it slowly to the ground.
Brannavan Gnanalingam’s Sprigs, set in and around Wellington’s elite private schools, is decidedly and determinedly not fun. It even posts a trigger warning in its preliminary pages: “This book is about sexual violence and features frequent discussions of sexual violence, suicide, violence, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. Please take care. At the back of the book, we have listed a number of organisations who provide support.”
After a three page “character list” which names every person in the novel, “Part 1 – The Game” fills 75 pages with excruciating detail about a high school rugby game. Gnanalingam uses the anchor of the game to take us around and introduce us to perhaps a third of his listed characters. However, the cavalcade of generic Pākehā males we’re trotted through – Twyford, Pritchard, Tafty, Thompson, Denver, Damo, Gladstone, Burt – leaves the minority characters (particularly Priya, the sweet Sri Lankan girl with protective parents who wants to fit in with the cool girls, and Richie, the poor Māori at the rich white boy school) as the only couple you actually have a handle on by the end of it. Maybe it’s intended as a meta-commentary on the insularity and lack of diversity in this particular slice of New Zealand society, but for the most part it just means reading through, hitting a name, and thinking, “Who’s that? Have we met him already? Is he that same guy from before?”
In “Part 2 – The Party”, the stage is set for the novel’s central incident: a rape occurs. We never see it happen, but we know it does. No-one wants to talk about it, admit it, or think about it, but it won’t stay locked away, out of sight and out of mind. It’s on everybody’s mind and it lingers menacing on every page.
From here, Gnanalingam gets into his stride and with greater depth and specificity of focus he shifts his lens deftly across his huge array of characters. Each time it lands on a different one, they and their concerns, their views, their anxieties, fears, and beliefs about their place in the world – how this rape incident that happened to some girl affects them – becomes the absolute centre of our world, the incident only made important in the ways it affects that person in that moment. There are some clichéd characters and staple scenarios, but the scenes are so well drawn that you’re kept right there in the moment with them.
Who we don’t see or hear from is the girl herself – until Gnanalingam makes a dramatic narrative gear change into first-person monologue in Part 4 and the story is retold entirely from her perspective. She gets the final word, even though it’s a first-person account of female rape written by a man. It’s poignant in its telling, unrelenting in its construction, and it ends with heart-aching release.
Like Murdoch Stevens, Gnanalingam can’t resist a “looking back at it all now” wrap-up. It gives him a platform to deliver a message of survival and solidarity, but its blandness waters down and separates us from the emotional power of his fiction.
Rat King Landlord by Murdoch Stephens and Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam (both published by Lawrence & Gibson, $30 each) are available in bookstores nationwide.
*ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*
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