Books of the Week: Two extremely good novels by male authors (really)
Annaleese Jochems and Paul Little review new fiction by New Zealand authors David Coventry and Carl Nixon
Annaleese Jochems on Dance Prone: David Coventry’s second novel Dance Prone is the story of a post-hardcore band touring through the American Southwest – a roadie novel. Initially its chief pleasures are similar to those of a quick-witted college novel: Sex, stupid fun, philosophical banter, and – maybe most of all - the sadistic pleasure of reading passively while a character says something smart.
Here’s the bands drummer, Spence, "Ugly’s like people on the news… Stupid’s like all the people you ever hated. Except for my father who’s ugly and ridiculously stupid. Ugly’s like, it’s like the swarm on the news. People swarming on the box. Spain. Paris." The characters are animated and intelligent – and Coventry is game to let them disagree, contradict and embarrass themselves, while also giving space to the earnest veracity of their ideas.
Then the rapturous story of protagonist Conrad standing on stages yelling, having sex with his spiky-smart girlfriend, and finding himself as an artist, is suddenly something else: Conrad is raped while unconscious in the back of the band’s tour van. His bandmate Tony is hospitalised the same night after shooting himself in the side of the head. Now the story is about the same things as before – art, sex, music – but everything’s filtered through a screen of trauma and amnesia.
Much of the novel is written in pushing, intestinal sentences. Each word feels carefully chosen; the density and drive of the novel’s language give a great sense of force and urgency. But very occasionally the sentences over-extend and collapse: "I was concussed and vague, unshaven and bearded. My hair as long as it’d ever been and a headache shook me like a great bell struck continually in a tower overlooking a town deserted but for the elderly and sick."
Some of my favorite moments are when the prose slows down, and Coventry writes what his characters see and desire in each other. Take this characteristically astute insight about a friend’s mother: "We love those who let us annoy and frustrate because they know there’s some question in it all – and they know the only way to answer it for us is to be amidst it’s phrasing." Or Conrad’s fierce love for girlfriend, Sonya. She’s first introduced as an idea of animal energy he looks for in the crowd while singing – "a hint of eyes, a lick of mouth." Then later, when they’re reunited after months, "Everything had rushed through me and vanished. We cried, snot and the way she wiped it on my jeans and I put my hands under the soft cotton of her T-shirt."
The novel draws its power from our sense of tender, vulnerable bodies in the harsh environment of thrashed metal and industrial sound. I’m thinking here of the shock I felt at adolescents bashing each other at all-agers gigs, or of the recurrent presence of a baby at different shows, but also of something more nuanced. Conrad tells us, "It takes every part of you to correctly phrase a chord… it’s in the grouping of muscles, how they force the hand to grip just so, it’s in how you imagine yourself fighting, how you imagine yourself running… it’s in how high you can jump and just how your knees take the impact, it’s in the way you respond to fear and anger and anxiety, and that persistent need for sex."
Dance Prone is part whodunnit, and part philosophical voyage, but it’s most striking in its treatment of trauma and rape. The rapist, when they’re caught, is a character we know and feel for. Coventry engages the blind, helpless evil behind the perpetrator’s actions with thought and empathy, at no cost to our sense of the inestimable hurt suffered by the victims, Conrad and Miriam.
The blood, desire, pain and loss – as well as Conrad’s eventual contentment – all of it feels true, because of the novel’s volatile physicality, and the unshrinking vulnerability of its narrator. More than anything I’ve read in ages, Dance Prone feels real.
Paul Little on Tally Stick: There’s a steady relentlessness to the action in the bent fairy tale of Carl Nixon’s fourth novel. In 1978, the Chamberlains, an English family, are taking a road trip before Dad takes up his new job in this country. The family holiday turns into a family restructuring when they crash in a remote part (aren’t they all?) of the West Coast.
Nixon sketches in aspects of his characters’ lives deftly. There’s an early reference to “the woman in Tottenham Julia still knew nothing about”. She never will. And that is all we ever hear about what could have been the start of another novel, but also tells us this family is not doing as well as it might.
The prose is generally business-like and efficient, although there’s a diversion into concrete poetry early on, as the action of the accident is pictured in the layout of the sentence:
Water rocks spinning white light
Dad John, Mum Julia and the baby perish. Older children Maurice, Katherine and Tommy survive. But for how long? Maurice has a leg injury that’s not looking good. Tommy has a head injury from which he seems unlikely to recover. The relatively unharmed Katherine is left to play mother in the reconfigured unit.
There’s something primordial about an early scene in which the accident is described. As the car leaves the road, in the first sentence of Part One, Katherine is “ripped … into darkness and chaos”. A new world must be built out of this.
Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel – there are echoes of any number of stories involving the trope of children who are orphaned or at least temporarily and perilously separated from their parents. Babes in the woods, these abandoned youngsters become a miniature family, struggling to survive with their various impediments. The things that happen in these pages are the things that happen in many children’s adventure stories: making shelter, attempting to heal wounds, planning their rescue.
Katherine lays out a “Help” message in stones, hoping it will be seen by a rescuer. But Peters, the saviour who finds them and takes them to a sort-of safety, ominously breaks up her arrangement before leading them deeper into the bush, where he lives with his companion Martha.
There’s a lot of ominous starting to happen about now. A giant Freudian eel, which Maurice is convinced has eaten his late father, makes the first of several ominous appearances.
Traditionally in such stories, the real parents are replaced by at best ambiguous versions. Those parts are filled here by Peters and Martha, who live in apparently total isolation. Like your traditional witch or ogre they are seemingly malevolent figures who imprison the children and use them for their own purposes. But they also act in loco parentis by helping the children recover and keeping them alive. A cow is milked and wood is chopped, but there is no traditional family to see here. Although they act in many ways like a couple, they live separately. As the novel proceeds new families form from the remains of the original one.
Like many “normal” families this one treats relationships as transactional – Peters and Martha expect something form the children in return for what they have done for them. The tally stick of the title is used to keep track of their debts.
Before long everyone will be starting to wonder how this man and woman alone are actually surviving without outside contact. Are the pair not as isolated as the children are being led to believe? If so, will the children care after spending so long with their new family? Where do they get sugar? How does Peters sell the weed he grows? How did the bus which is his dwelling get in here? The several possible explanations for that can also be found in other works of imagination, including Fitzcarraldo and The Wizard of Oz.
There’s much more, including a present day subplot involving the children’s aunt travelling from New Zealand to the UK in search of her family. It’s this thread that provides a poignant twist near the novel’s end, just before a final scene that takes us back to the beginning and provides a resonant conclusion.
Dance Prone by David Coventry (Victoria University Press, $30) and The Tally Stick by Carl Nixon (Random House Vintage, $36) are available in bookstores nationwide.
*ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*
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