Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan (VUP)
A friend – himself a novelist with four published works notched up on the Macbook – mused a year or two back about the dearth of comic novels in New Zealand literature.
It is not a new lament. The lack of humour has often been commented on, and on this issue it is difficult to go past one of the most magnificent philippics ever written on the state of local literature, with particular reference to its inward looking sombreness, penned by Quiet Earth author and academic Craig Harrison in the New Outlook.
Some of Harrison’s polemic was the shriek of agony from a soul who, in a moment of negligent folly, had agreed to judge a short story competition.
This is not the sort of thing most people look back on without some stabbing regrets, but the experience seems to have seared Harrison.
There were 125 entries, he reported, and the overall impression left was “life in New Zealand constituted of an uninterrupted parabola of misery…a notable feature of many stories was the retribution meted out to characters who momentarily gave way to happiness: sexual, aesthetic or social. They were nearly all killed on the next page.”
That, and a general attitude from the country’s literary community that sees `”artists'” as special, sensitive souls tormented almost to madness by the angst of living in a nihilistic universe populated by morons (i.e. people who can’t understand their poetry)”.
Harrison’s essay, though, rises to a serious conclusion of its own, urging the need for writing that captures “vigorous, resilient, witty, defiant and even triumphant feats of the imagination…. as well as entertaining, or suggesting means of confronting and coping with (rather than despairing of) the problems of existence, especially in an age increasingly devoid of traditional and religious consolations. It means we are being deprived of something important in the truest sense.”
I thought of this essay – admittedly more than 20 years old now –when Radio New Zealand interviewer Kim Hill asked author Danyl MacLauchlan if he was going to do a serious book.
There was more than a hint, in the question, of ‘well this humour thing is all very well, but when are you going to do something worthwhile?’
Humour – intelligent humour – is a serious business. It is not all cheap yuk-yuks. Unfortunately too much of what passes for laughs tends to be produced by the intellectual and moral 10 year olds of radio’s ‘whacky morning breakfast crews’. Either that, or superannuated Pommie immigrants who have somehow convinced people of their wit despite being about as subtle and funny as a claw hammer.
It doesn’t need to have an overt “point” either. Perhaps it is a legacy of the ‘A Week Of It’ tv show of the late 1970s and the spin off McPhail & Gadsby series; maybe it is simply a function of New Zealand’s historical statism, but there is a tendency to see satire through an almost exclusively political lens.
Humour doesn’t have to have a “point”and nor does satire, except to throw the light of laughter on human foibles and more generally on the human condition. Politics is a subset of this human condition– but only one of them, and certainly not the most important.
What it needs, most of all, is an antic spirit, illuminated by intelligence and not only a sense of the ridiculous, but a positive, exuberant enjoyment of that ridiculousness.
So, does ‘Unspeakable Secrets’ deliver?
If any part of New Zealand were to be treated as a strange separate world, with overtones of access to an alternative universe, then – with the possible exception of the Auckland property market – Wellington’s Aro Valley would have to be it.
The main character is named after the author and McLauchlan has stated this follows the practice of several well known literary lions.
However, instead of making his namesake an all powerful hero, admired by men and irresistible to women, the Danyl character spends most of his time running around Aro Valley with no trousers on due to accidents and not due to excessive bedroom action.
It is a nice postmodern touch: the Debagging, rather than the Death, of the Author.
The essential hopelessness of Danyl and friend Steve is established early on: in the opening scene a frail old man beats up Danyl while Steve refuses to help (“I’m a scholar…I can only observe.”) and they engage in those quasi-academic discussions of the terminally over-educated deadbeats (“Let’s see your medical doctors do that. They’re just shills for the Enlightenment.” “I like the Enlightenment. I like living after it.”)
Steve is, by the way, a magnificent comic creation: deep in discussion around the emerging mystery of what actually is going on in Aro Valley, he muses they need to “Take a look a the big picture here. Start with the basics. First we need to ask ourselves, what is the greatest mystery in all of human history? A mystery so vast and yet so obvious few even know it exists?”
Ah, yes. Some of us have flatted with people like Steve.
The emerging mystery, around the comically menacing figure of The Campbell Walker, keeps
reader engaged enough in the plot line and the mystery to pull the book along.
There is a tendency for some of the battier characters to talk in expository style, in the way people never do in real life but often do in very bad novels.
Apparently one of McLaughlan’s inspirations is the work of Dan Brown and I think this might be the Dan Brown stuff some reviewers have referred to: I have to confess I am not a close student of the Brown oeuvre and will have to defer to superior knowledge in this area.
Other influences are plain: the character of Danyl is in the fine tradition of hapless naïf heroes which run from Voltaire’s Candide through Waugh’s Paul Pennyfeather and Pratchett’s Rincewind,
while the mysterious building in which The Campbell Walker is preparing…..what, exactly?…for humankind reminded me of something out of Scooby Doo.
There are probably other influences, in-jokes and references which passed me by. In fact, I’m fairly sure of it.
But that doesn’t matter. The trick –and it is a difficult one – is to sprinkling those sort of nuggets through a book but making sure the book works even if readers do not get them.
And Unspeakable Secrets succeeds brilliantly at this.
More please. And don’t get too serious.