Joshua Klarica reviews Nostalgia has ruined my Life by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

Giramondo 

ISBN 9781925818772

Reviewed by JOSHUA KLARICA

 

A technique commonly employed by poets is the announcing of the setting or theme of the piece in its title. Consider T. S Eliot’s poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, whose title functions as a covert, preliminary line that allows the poem to maintain its effective couplet form. This device eliminates exposition in the work, and plants the reader in the thick of it immediately. Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, the New Zealand writer whose first book Autobiography of a Marguerite takes the long poem form, utilises this same tactic in the title of her second work. Before we encounter the first words of Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life, the thesis has already been rambunctiously stated. Butcher-McGunnigle, it seems, insists that we view the impending labours of the unnamed protagonist through this prism, managing our expectations – ensuring we understand – before we read and, inevitably, pass judgment.

At once a dark, meandering comedy, at once a documentary of the stultified millennial, Butcher-McGunnigle’s second work follows the deadpan joys and luckless U-turns of a young woman navigating the trials and illusions of youth in an age where ennui seems a rite of passage. She idles time on dating apps, reads online horoscopes, and attempts to apply for jobs before reaching the cover letter and thinking “I can’t be bothered, I don’t care about this at all”. (p25) Any successes are swiftly undone, while any misfortune is short-lived: this is the recipe for getting by. 

While the denouement of the text revolves around securing an administration job at a bakery through a short-lived ménage à trois, the source proper lies amid a series of events not particularly concerned with forming a narrative at all. The text consists of short bursts of commentary, noting moods, whims, and events, usually little more than a paragraph in length, although on rare occasion these break onto a second page. This book of vignettes, although this is a loose term here, might be an exercise mandated by her therapist. They chart, comment, and record the events of a life waiting to get going. 

It is initially challenging to determine whether this is boredom palpable, or rather a languishing attributable to the rising challenges of mental health. There is dry pathos here: “I’m still experiencing cognitive dissonance regarding the heater I bought” (p8). This same humour is bundled into a cry for help: “I’m trying to stop sleeping with a towering pile of clothes on my bed so now I’m sleeping with a towering pile of clothes on the floor instead”(p48). As the notes pile up, the narrator reports suffering from depersonalisation disorder and depression, the intense feelings of being outside of one’s body: watching instead of driving. This recasts any initial suspicions that this was an entitled, bored millennial moping and milling, but still, dealing only in sharp statements, Butcher-McGunnigle never truly invites the reader to know the subject.

Instead, the collages of text become confessions of one simultaneously trying to appraise and make sense of a situation. Not many can say with confidence that they “want to pick blackberries on a farm and then die”(p8), or that they want, this moment, to have scabs on one’s knees(p39). Yet for all their darkly droll commentary, these confessions give way to more sincere, and serious, realities. If having scabs is proof that we have lived, the gaining of that experience is another case altogether. Later, during an interview, our protagonist suddenly “can’t concentrate on anything” because her intrusive thoughts have inexplicably fixated upon her “ankles (being) gnawed open and bleeding, bones exposed”(p44). There is bravado in these lines, but it gives way easily. 

If one joy of the reading experience can be found in plugging the gaps and discerning what happens outside of the story presented, then there is an entire world that carries on beyond these short monologues, making the task of the literary synapse jump a rather difficult one. This isn’t to say that such a limitation necessarily works against Butcher-McGunnigle here. While the fragmentary, oscillating nature of narration might not appear particularly cohesive, the blunt imagery claiming the protagonist’s days is thoughtful. Late one night, for example, while fending off the internal machines that question what she is doing with her life, she is struck by an ad for a mop. Later, she feels compelled to mop up a mess herself, or sweep dust into a pile. It might seem ridiculous, like wanting to walk down a very long driveway, but at least it is something to counteract, through any means possible, the feeling of uselessness. Throughout the text, Butcher-McGunnigle is deftly at work arguing that almost anything can have purpose, so why is it that we can struggle so much to find it?

Another equally dark and unnamed heroine suffering a similar anxiety can be found in Otessa Moshfegh’s much appreciated 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Only, where Moshfegh’s protagonist ends up losing a year, Butcher-McGunnigle’s is so helplessly aware of each ridiculing second as it takes an age to pass. This is a take on modern anxiety that exceeds Moshfegh’s effort, in part (and noting that the heroines are separated by two decades), because Butcher-McGunnigle makes it clear that life, irresistibly, goes on elsewhere. One of the great strengths of Butcher-McGunnigle’s subtlety is the way the external cast – a host of nostalgic-laden folks including ex-boyfriends, high school bullies and siblings – become osculating matter in the protagonist’s orbit, whose episodic appearances work to chastise her own effort at getting on with it, while reinforcing the absurdity of doing just that. Butcher-McGunnigle unveils the hilariously twisted idiosyncrasies employed to handle the increasingly native experience of lackadaisy, like scamming Airbnb or securing one’s place in an elusive pyramid scheme.

This mode of commentary is calculated, refined so it reflects a persona under siege of review and hyperaware of its own subjectivity. It is life in the internet age – bite-sized content that excels at the entertaining and the forgettable. In an endemic example, our protagonist is ovulating, and laments that

[n]o one’s giving me any attention so I make an apple pie at midnight. I spray multi-purpose cleaner on the pie and it shines and then it gets soggy. Last week I had sex with an orphan. But we fell out before I could give him his birthday gift. (p38)

Beyond the jocular and the intimate, for better or for worse, this is how she wants to be seen. Reading these episodes becomes an exhibition, and so hints at the works compelling theme: in what spaces do we exist, and what dictates them? Horoscopes, Tarot readings, Myers-Briggs personality tests, and a litany of online chats informs Butcher-McGunnigle’s protagonist of a particular sense of self, and how she and others view it. 

There is much space between these episodes to which we are not privy, meaning these episodes, their scarcity, their intensity, is highly selective. As a result, Butcher-McGunnigle’s work tussles over the roles we should be performing, but not necessarily those that we do. Sure, there are the more obvious episodes Butcher-McGunnigle wants us to note on the matter: “When he’s fucking me I am thinking about what would be an easy but nutritious lunch option for him” (p15). Then there other, subtler evidences of her poor, somehow inaccurate performances of being, like when the Mystery Shopper she is sleeping with insists they can’t both be INFP’s, or the interviewer for a teaching role suggests they instead brainstorm some other vocations for which she might be suited. Yet our heroine has all the attributes that suggest she should be, or at least can be, successful. A writing career, even though it has stalled here; pregnancy, though not seen through; a deep and very mixed bag of suitors that find her attractive and endearing but succumb themselves to obnoxity and online currency; her own intelligence, in spades that can’t find the matching outlet – she is sharp and useful as a blade kept behind inch-thick display glass. So, it isn’t so much a matter of finding someone to say I love you to, but rather in finding a way to value the act itself. 

Before we begin Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s second work, we are asked to assume that nostalgia has to some effect shaped the story that follows. Be it warm liminality or useless retreat, we are immediately called upon to approach the text with our prejudices for or against nostalgia in hand. But by works end, this initial outpost seems rather ham-fisted, for nostalgia in these pages cannot simply reference halcyon throwbacks. Rather, it reflects a time when we were unencumbered by the dictates of our performance. 

Nostalgia emerges when we look back. It is difficult to unsee. “I just want to be in a ball pit in a McDonald’s playground,”(p80)admits the young-but-too-old female in the closing passages. Yet the way is shut, and now even the longing for this kind of easier, familiar passage becomes its own performance. But everything is fleeting, we know this much, which has both a kind of crestfallen truth and surprising optimism to it: this too shall pass.

 

JOSHUA KLARICA is a writer who lives and works in Sydney’s Inner West. He has a first class honors in English Literature from The University of Sydney, and has been published in Backstory Journal and Bluebottle Journal, among others.

Brenda Saunders reviews Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray

by Anita Heiss

Simon and Schuster     

Reviewed by BRENDA SAUNDERS

 
 

In the ‘Prologue’, to her novel, Heiss introduces us to Aboriginal tribal life at the onset of colonial expnsion in southern NSW. This is Gundagai in 1838. She provides the historical setting for the action and events to follow. At this time Wagadhaany, the central Aboriginal character in this novel, is a small child living with her family along the Marrambidja Bila (Murrumbidgee River). She hears the adults complaining about the changes, the loss of their land, the clearing of their hunting grounds. They don’t understand why the settlers won’t listen to their advice. Heiss introduces the reader to Wiradjuri words and names, which give greater authenticity to her description of the river people and their culture. There is a glossary of Wiradjuri words and reference notes included at the end of the book.

The novel opens and ends with two dramatic events, two tragedies caused by the great river. In 1853, Wagadhaany is now a young woman working as a domestic for the Bradley family. She is allowed to visit her family camp on Sundays, where she joins in celebrations by the river, speaking her own language freely. In English her name means ‘dancer’ and she readily joins in camp celebrations. The river becomes a metaphor for the power of the natural environment: respected by the local clans, misunderstood by the white settlers, it is both a danger and an essential element for survival.

In the first chapter, Heiss takes us to the historic great flood, when the small trading town of Gundagai and low-lying properties were completely inundated by rising river currents. Many people drowned, but several were rescued by the bravery of local Aboriginal men.

Wagadhaany and two Bradley brothers are saved by her father Yarri during the flood, but their parents and siblings are lost. During the town celebration, when Jacky Jacky and Yarri are given breast plates in recognition of their bravery, she wonders:

‘why… don’t they give the people on the river some more blankets and food. The breastplates will not keep them warm from the frost that continues to settle each night and early morning…hunting does not always bring enough for the entire camp.’

After the tragic flood the younger son James, becomes infatuated with a young widow, Louisa, a Quaker with strong views about women’s emancipation and Aboriginal dispossession. After their marriage, she is kind to her young servant and the two become unlikely friends. Unfortunately, she has no capacity to see the devastating effects on Wagadhaany when she is forced to leave her Wiradjuri family when the Bradleys move to a new property near Wagga Wagga.

Although a work of fiction the story of Wagadhaary is told in a narrative style, following the results of historic events due to the expansion of the pastoral industry in NSW. Heiss has brought into focus the struggles and the dignity of this Aboriginal woman, trying to survive between two cultures. Her character is intelligent and lively, her observations on the White community both wise and at times amusing.

She has become increasingly aware that White people live very separate lives to each other, and even simple sharing of food among families is not common.

Away from the problems at the cold Bradley homestead, Heiss shows us a different world at the Wiradjuri camps along the Murrumbidya, at Gundagai and Wagga Wagga; camps with many children, old aunties, cousins and a warm sense of belonging.

The introduction of Louisa’s character into this story serves to highlight the great dichotomy between the two cultures; between white middle class values and traditional Aboriginal customs. This lack of understanding, of listening is the grit of the novel. Louisa seems unaware of the social mores of the town, who regard Aboriginal people as uncivilized. Rather, she imposes her own high ideals of racial equality on her own terms. One example is the scene at the river when Louisa demands a visit to the river to see the children, suggesting they learn to read the bible!

Wangadhaany is the observer, registering the gradual changes, the conflicts and domestic violence in Louisa’s marriage. Louisa however does not observe the changes in her friend. She is unaware of her relationship with the successful drover Yindy, from the local river people. So when she becomes pregnant, Louisa is devastated, as she herself is childless.

Louisa drops the cup she is holding and it smashes on the hard floor. Pregnant? How can you be pregnant? You and Yindyamarra aren’t married!

For many years Wagadhaany has been grieving to return to her Wiradjuri people, so she tries to flee her situation. The NSW law gave the settlers complete control over the Aboriginal clans along the river, who were bound to them for life, as stockmen or domestics (The Master and Servant Act, 1848). Despite this, Yindy, Wagadhaany and their three small children decide to travel along the river to her own ‘miiyagan’.

But the journey ends in tragedy. While they are enjoying the freedom of river life, their baby daughter Miimi drowns on the strong current. Once more the Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray has become a Bila Mayilgan, a river of death.
 
 
BRENDA SAUNDERS is a prize winning Wiradjuri writer and artist. Her third poetry collection, Inland Sea was published in 2021 (Ginninderra Press) and her poetry and reviews appear regularly in anthologies and journals both on-line and in print, including Australian Poetry, Plumwood Mountain, Overland, Westerly, Best Australian Prose Poems 2020 (Melbourne University Press) and Best Australian Science Writing 2020 (NSW Publishing). Her prose poems and microfiction have featured as short films, (Voices of Women 2021) and audio projects such as ‘Sonic City’ (Spineless Wonders 2022). Brenda is Convenor of Round Table Poets at Writing NSW.  

Sophie Cunningham launches Daisy and Woolf by Michelle Cahill

Daisy and Woolf

by Michelle Cahill

Hachette

ISBN: 9780733645211

Launched by SOPHIE CUNNINGHAM

I felt some trepidation when I heard that Michelle Cahill had written a novel about the Woolfs because I’ve been researching a book about Leonard Woolf, but, inevitably, about Virginia and other Bloomsbury sorts, for more than 15 years. I, like Michelle, began my novel because I’m interested in postcolonialism, in race, but over the years of writing had come to realise that unlike Michelle, the experience of, the story of, the colonised body was not mine to tell. And that her book, Daisy & Woolf, is not ‘about’ the Woolfs. It’s about Daisy Simmons, an Anglo Indian woman, one of the ‘silly, pretty, flimsy, nimcompoops’ with whom Peter Walsh spent time with while in India, and in the case of this particular women, had fallen in love with. Her name, unless I’m mistaken, is first mentioned as an aside, in brackets. Michelle has undertaken the task of giving Daisy Simmons a voice and body. Retrieved her from erasure.

My trepidation disappeared as I read Daisy & Woolf and got to revel in the glories of its language, its confidence and control. None of us can write a story which considers all angles, which gives voice to all experience. Yet none of the stories we tell are whole if there is not a body — that word again — of work that, collectively, gives voice to the experiences of those that have, historically speaking, been written out of history. Virginia Woolf ’s racism, and, frankly, the racism of the British in general, cannot be allowed to stand, unchallenged. Being brilliant with words does not excuse Woolf. In fact, it makes one even angrier — that a woman, so intelligent, so extraordinary with words, was uninterested in even attempting to release Daisy from the brackets that imprison her.

My delight — perhaps counter-intuitively — grew as I began to read Daisy & Woolf and, in its opening pages, read Mina’s description of her mother. (Mina is the contemporary narrator, of sorts, of the novel. She’s wonderful). ‘She [the mother] was like some ancient still-breathing artefact locked in a long glass cubicle in a dusty room in the British Museum – before it became corporatised, before they added the café and the souvenir shop –‘ (p14 ) Mina’s creative journey and her personal journeys dodge each other, weave together, they blur, sometimes in the same sentence, always in the same paragraph, with research, with stories of Virginia Woolf ’s writing. For Mina, for Michelle, are not just connected to Daisy through heritage but to Virginia Woolf herself. They share a writer’s heritage. Woolf can be cruel and dismissive. Mina interrogates herself for similar qualities. She talks of history waiting to fault her for writing Daisy’s story. I understand that here Michelle is describing is a specific experience — that women, that women of colour, — have to tread more warily when taking risks, when being audacious. That they are more likely to be attacked (literally, as Mina is, but also using words) but in that phrase, and indeed in Michelle’s description of the writing and creative process Daisy & Woolf is just wonderful at capturing the complicated narcissism and ruthlessness of creative process, a process that sits alongside a requirement that the writer erase the self, their selves if they are to succeed. . .

Mina pursues narrative and the cost is high (a loss of relationship with her son, the loss of her job, the guilt of not being there for her mother at the end). Daisy is attempting to make her mark on the world by pursuing love. By insisting on herself as a romantic and sexual being as well as a mother, and a wife/servant. The losses that Daisy endures in this pursuit are profound and the description of her voyage from India to England is harrowing. The loss of her daughter takes us deep into grief. Showing us the poetic power, the control that Michelle, always a poet, has over her writing in this novel. This is the quality, indeed that a poet can bring to a novel.

This can be harder to read because we know that Peter Walsh, the man she loves, doesn’t just love another (Clarissa Dalloway) but does not, in fact, register her being with much more interest than Dalloway, or Woolf do. Daisy’s attentions irritate him. He follows women randomly on the street. Walsh’s shrugging off of the relationship in Daisy & Woolf is masterful: Daisy has lost her children, her old life, to work as a governess.

I loved Daisy and in Daisy’s yearning and longing and optimism I could feel my much younger self. Of course Daisy’s future would be far more constrained than mine will ever be.

Daisy also has a self-awareness; a presence of mind, that makes her heroic. Her chaste acceptance of the attentions of men on the voyage over speak not to fecklessness but to wisdom. An understanding that she will need a protector. An intuition that Peter Walsh cannot be trusted. Daisy is no fool. Michelle, Mina, make it clear that Daisy’s story— including its trauma and tragedy — does not belong to Mina and most certainly not to Virginia Woolf . We lose sight of Daisy towards the end of the novel because she belongs to herself and will, bravely and boldly, wrestle her fate to the ground.

‘A meditation on art, race and class in a postcolonial world, Daisy and Woolf is a masterpiece of postmodern fiction to rival The Hours or Wide Sargasso Sea. Powerfully reentering those in the margins of Anglo-centric histories and fictions, its exquisite telling demands we listen.’ The comparison with Wide Sargasso Sea is not a stretch. The language in this novel is extraordinary: the art of a poet between the covers of a novel.

Another comparison that came to mind — Pachinko. What becomes of stateless brown women.

I’m so pleased that Michelle Cahill wrote Daisy & Woolf, that she generously gave me the chance to read it, and that she did me the honour of asking me to launch Daisy & Woolf. I look forward to for the conversations we’ll have about our books. About the way they speak to the other, and the ways in which they pursue agendas. And our shared interest in, and passion for the writer’s life.

 

 

SOPHIE CUNNINGHAM’S latest novel, This Devastating Fever, is forthcoming in September 2022 with Ultimo Press. She is the author of seven books, across multiple fiction and nonfiction, children and adults and include City of Trees – Essays on life, death and the need for a forest, and Melbourne. She is also editor of the collection Fire, Flood, Plague: Australian writers respond to 2020. Sophie’s former roles include as a book publisher and editor, chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, editor of the literary journal Meanjin, and co-founder of The Stella Prize celebrating women’s writing. She is now an adjunct professor at RMIT University’s non/fiction Lab. In 2019, Sophie was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her contributions to literature.

Gemma Parker reviews Where We Swim by Ingrid Horrocks

Where We Swim

by Ingrid Horrocks

UQP

ISBN 9780702263408

Victoria University of Wellington Press, NZ

Reviewed by GEMMA PARKER

Where We Swim by Ingrid Horrocks is a hybrid work of creative nonfiction, an exploratory memoir that combines travel narrative and nature writing with meditations on ecology, community and responsibility. These meditations revolve around a series of immersions in waters both local and foreign as Horrocks and her young family swim in their native Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as abroad, in Colombia, America, Australia and England. In each of these journeys, Horrocks interrogates and urges exploration of the world and of ourselves in order to begin to imagine other futures, other ways of being. Horrocks connects the waters in which they swim to deeper ecologies, and embeds her narrative in family and domestic life. This book navigates the author’s despair about a near-future that will be devastated by the effects of climate change, but also the importance of connection, community and courage. 

Where We Swim begins with a solitary morning swim at Mōkau at the mouth of the estuary in the early autumn of 2017. Horrocks quickly refutes some possible presumptions we might have about this swim, about her, about this journey, about the book – she is not a strong swimmer, this book is not about mastery, but also, this is not a straightforward travel narrative. The author explains that her original plan for the book was to write about a series of swims from Wellington to Auckland, framing her search as looking at why we swim, but that she abandoned this as too rigid, too traditional. “At some point in my solo swimming journey,” she writes, “I felt there was a problem with it. It sectioned off swimming and water, and ecology, from daily life. Swimming alone seemed not to get fully to the heart of things” (p. 5). And so rather than why we swim, Horrocks weaves for us an intimate journey as she interrogates not only the waters in which we swim, but also the we, and the where.

The book is structured in chapters that revolve around family and travel, and immersions and submersions in other ways of being – other climates, languages, cultures, societies and environments. These immersions and submersions are often risky, slippery and dangerous, as Horrocks finds with her first swim at Mōkau. But they are also necessary – and it is this element of necessary risk and necessary immersion that forms the heart of the book. 

After the initial swim, the book offers a series of vignettes and reflections from daily life: a visit to her parents and a swim at a local beach that hinges on a meditation on intergenerational tensions, ageing and illness, and a waterlog journal that revolves around the excitement of a whale in the local harbour. Horrocks offers a complex portrait of identity and personal responsibility, and the imperative the author feels to submerge herself in the environmental crisis – to put her body on the line, whilst embracing and interrogating the networks of knowledge and myth and the families and communities that sustain her.  

The book is at its richest when Horrocks depicts her young family abroad. Travelling overseas with children is often exhausting and confusing, and Horrocks immerses us in the discomfort and anxiety of her journeys whilst allowing the travel and the place to push her into new currents, new experiences, new ways of seeing.  In the Amazon, they are confronted by how little they know or understand about the journey they have undertaken. What they had assumed was a five-minute walk to their accommodation turns into a two-hour hike, without sunscreen, water or insect repellent. A chartered boat ride reveals itself to be a rickety canoe without life jackets on choppy waters. Horrocks captures these painful moments of anxiety in generous detail. Once the moments of perceived risk pass, the beauty of their surroundings floods in. The writing continues to switch like this with dizzying variety, between poetic description of the exotic locations they travel through, meditation and reflection on the ethics of adventure tourism, and Horrocks’ own navigation between allowing her children to experience the world as it is whilst trying to protect them from harm. 

Where We Swim is partly about questioning our roles and responsibilities to each other and to the planet, but it is also very much about our ability to bear witness and to be curious about other ways of being. The trip to Arcosanti in Arizona is part of that quest, and Horrocks takes the time to present a complex portrait of this experimental community in the desert. Horrocks and her husband stand in the gift shop waiting for their souvenir to be wrapped as the attendant, a member of the community, begins to tell them about the charges of sexual assault that have been levelled at Arcosanti’s visionary founder, the Italian architect Paolo Soleri. They listen carefully to this young man whilst keeping an eye on their twin daughters who are wandering around the gift shop, hoping to shield the girls from this complex testimony, whilst also committing to bearing witness.

The trip to Perth involves deeper investigation into Horrocks’ research into solastalgia, environmental catastrophe, precarity and ways of writing the apocalypse. After a return to the English coastline where she once lived and studied, the book returns to the local waters of Aotearoa New Zealand, to ageing and illness, the passage of time, what we love and what we stand to lose. In the final pages of the book Horrocks is on the shore, contemplating an evening swim, and finds herself reluctant to get into the water. She asks: “Why do this – why take off layers, casing, seal? Why make oneself? Why even consider exposing limbs and hair and goosebumped skin to the sea? Why hold out my breathing life – and that of my family – like this, when one could just have stayed at home?” and then goes on to conclude: “But it has turned out that I need this – this stripping down, this immersing. It feels necessary to keep attempting it. It doesn’t now feel possible to live a life of only footpaths beneath one’s feet” (p. 194).

One of the most satisfying elements of this book is the fact that the author finished it just as the pandemic began, in 2020, and yet the final section, ‘Coda’, feels completely integrated into the entire text, the inevitable conclusion to this meditation on community, environment, travel, family, responsibility, empathy and courage. Horrocks includes a variety of scholarly and literary sources throughout the book. Some are explored over the course of pages, while some seem inadequately presented, such as Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Pip Adam’s The New Animals, which are only tantalisingly introduced. The incorrect claim that Adelaide is built on the north side of the river Torrens (p. 118) has no impact on the quality of the writing, but it does undermine the reader’s faith in the accuracy of the details that underpin the work.

Nevertheless, Where We Swim is both brave and rebellious. It grapples with ecological despair, with the complex demands of identity and responsibility, and deals honestly with the dubious ethics of tourism and travel, with hypocrisy and contradiction. It is an honest attempt at exploring the world and waters beyond the comfortable limits of a life – an especially comfortable life, as Horrocks admits. There may be elements of this book that seem under-developed or incorrect, but the core project is admirable: the author is committed to her responsibility to immerse herself, and her readers, in waters despite the risk, the danger and the discomfort. 

 

GEMMA PARKER is an award-winning poet, teacher, PhD candidate and student member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide. Gemma is one of the co-founders and managing editors of the new Adelaide literary journal The Saltbush Review. She lives and works on Kaurna Country in Adelaide after many years abroad.

Fernanda Dahlstrom reviews Nothing to See by Pip Adam

Nothing to See

by Pip Adam

Giramondo

ISBN 9781925818680

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 s