Fernanda Dahlstrom reviews Nothing to See by Pip Adam
Nothing to See
by Pip Adam
Reviewed by FERNANDA DAHLSTROM
Pip Adam’s third novel, Nothing To See, deals with female identity, addiction, digitization and impending climate disaster. Penny and Greta sleep in the same room in a shared flat. They reflect on sobriety, share clothes, receive help from the Salvation Army and get into the occasional fight. In many ways, they operate as a single entity and their flatmates, Heidi and Dell, who they met in rehab, operate similarly. It is some time before this twinning is explained. One night in the early 1990s, a small number of young women, among four avenues in an unnamed New Zealand town, in the depths of trauma and alcoholism, split into two identical women, who share the same memories but have separate thoughts and experiences. The novel is divided into three parts, set at twelve-year intervals, and challenges the reader to reinterpret its protagonist’s dilemma in each decade.
The first part of Nothing to See is set in the pre-digital landscape of 1994. Adam vividly evokes the squalor and monotony of impoverished youth with the women scraping together enough coins for a bus fare, having sex with men for money and eating baked beans for dinner. The language is loose and imprecise, reflecting the ineptitude of the young characters. The women have sex with each other (though they reflect that this is really masturbation) as well as with other women, while receiving a sickness benefit, learning to cook and trying to replace drinking with talking about drinking. At times their shared identity causes confusion, but mostly other people just want to avoid looking at women who ‘looked exactly like each other because they’d been caught being sluts and drunk in a moment when none of their friends had been.’ (p. 128) We read the women’s separation as the legacy of addiction and sexual violence, the physical manifestation of their brokenness.
In the second part, it is 2006, and the internet has encroached on more and more areas of life with simulations increasingly replacing originals. Heidi and Dell’s relationship has deteriorated, and they no longer live together. The general population has ‘perfected its blindness to the women who had divided’ (p.162). The characters’ division now references the difficulties faced by the unclassifiable citizen who falls through bureaucratic cracks. Peggy and Greta have a job in a call centre, where they take turns working as they only have a single tax file number, and where they are required to be more of a machine than a person. They take the train as the transport authorities will not issue a single licence to two people. The language is tighter, the vocabulary more sophisticated. As the women navigate the world of the tech-heavy 2000s, they spend more and more of their lives online. Then one day, returning home after buying vegan hotdogs, Greta and Peggy find themselves back in a single body, though this situation doesn’t last. Their identities continue to morph and take on different configurations.
We then move forward to 2018, when digital technology has become even more ubiquitous. Peggy and Greta get a job classifying content for a video sharing platform, resigning themselves to making money watching nauseating sexually violent footage. They are angry about the government, and go to protests, despite being too old to believe it will make any difference. Heidi has a wife and a child who is referred to as ‘they’, the pronoun that usually signals nonbinary gender also hinting at a possible pluralised self. A Tamagotchi phone appears, through which the women receive text messages from an unknown sender. Dell’s status and motivations become murkier. The women’s identities continue to replicate as questions arise about the nature of the reality they inhabit and who is pulling the strings. The shifts between single and dual existence are at times discussed in the familiar terms of relationships and separation. Heidi has left Dell, but some other acquaintances, Carol and Lotte, are still together.
While Nothing To See hints repeatedly at the identity markers of women who choose women as their sexual and romantic partners, Adam neatly avoids applying labels and does not engage with discourses surrounding LGBT identity. Instead, she explores the subtleties of solo and shared life, leaving the reader to extrapolate meaning from the various permutations. Men are rarely seen and usually play a role that is limited to being a source of income, as clients or employers, or else are potential abusers. The fractured sense of self the women share can be seen variously as the dissociative result of cumulative trauma, as a fabricated and replicable digital self, or as co-dependency in a couple relationship that is never truly over. The resolution of the divided women’s lives back into a unified self is uncertain and non-linear.
Adam’s treatment of the alienated individual in the face of dehumanising digitisation and impending climate disaster is reminiscent of Richard Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (2020), in which the adult children of a terminally ill mother experience the disappearance of body parts, while plugged into social media, with the world burning around them. Characters in Nothing To See elude to the world ending from time to time, but it is only in the final pages that Adam makes this explicit: ‘the beaches were full of jellyfish and things were igniting…the heat felt too slow, like the end would come too slow’ (p. 362).
Ultimately, Nothing to See is a complex and mind-bending exploration of the challenges of staying together. It presents three decades of life on the margins of advanced capitalist society, combining gritty realism and magic realism and deftly capturing the existential despair of the pre-apocalyptic era. It invites readers to consider the many ways the developed world is fragmenting and dividing women.
FERNANDA DAHLSTROM is a writer, editor and lawyer who lives in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Overland, Feminartsy, Kill Your Darlings and Art Guide.