Searching for the Self
In a narrow street of tiny houses, in a district near the Yanaka Cemetery where the last Shogun is buried, a row of shoes was laid out along the pavement. Policemen stationed beside their bikes wielded glow sticks to move along the passersby, but so politely and cordially that it was possible to pretend not to understand and to drift closer and closer until the crime scene was clearly visible: a tiny, cube-like building, a claustrophobic staircase, a child's pink bicycle parked at the bottom, and within, the room in which lights were set up and investigators were working, dressed in special overalls, their feet encased in plastic bags. It seemed typical and not: atypical because a crime had occurred, and crime is so little in evidence in Tokyo, and yet typical in its Japanese neatness, its crisp efficiency. The line of shoes was absolutely straight, the emergency outfits were chic and toy-like, dinky-coloured boiler suits with epaulettes and buckles, helmets with straps done up under the chin.
Inside the tiny room, one act of untidiness had occurred, a piece of chaos involving blood splatter and something lying on the floor. One meltdown or blowout in a city of rigid order and control. You hoped it hadn't involved the owner of the small pink bike.
Tokyo, unreal city, under the iron light of an autumn noon. One day it rained, and a cold wind tore across the vast grounds of the Imperial Palace. Crows sat on the black palace walls, and the black water in the imperial moat had a brooding, sullen sheen. In the shelter of the grounds, the dark green foliage hung dripping over black bridges, and framed the ancient gates. The Palace is grand, imposing, so steeped in the atmospherics of power (beauty and menace) that it makes Buckingham Palace look like a block of flats. Later the sky cleared and turned luminous and the palace grounds became wildly pretty; for days the city glowed with a still, golden sheen, an autumnal radiance that turned the early dusk into a light show, long shadows cast by skyscrapers, low sun glancing off acres of mirror glass.
An app on my phone totted up walking distances: it got up to twenty kilometres a day. It's a vast city where people live crammed into tiny spaces, a ceremonious city, where a uniformed functionary (boiler suit, helmet, glowstick) bows low and guides you past road works. Such is the mania for formality that the fixing of one paving stone will entail a scene: cordons, signs, fencing, as if you would be lost if not guided around the tiniest obstacle, and you can't help wondering how New Zealand must seem to visiting Japanese tourists: a wildly unregulated free-for-all presumably, full of people who are friendly but ill-dressed, physically degenerate, staggeringly rude.
The Naked I - On Elena Ferrante
The Naked I
Some time after the Christchurch earthquake, I visited the city. I hadn't been there since before the disaster, and I was shocked by the devastation in the centre, and in particular by the number of multi-storey buildings that were still standing, completely derelict. I couldn't believe that so little progress had been made in restoring the place, and I was particularly struck by the eeriness of all that dead space in a close urban setting. I walked around the Red Zone too, noting its silent emptiness and beauty, nature taking over orderly lines, the houses broken, sinking into the earth. Christchurch was lost and neglected; it was fallen and ruined. For the first time, I found the place compelling.
I wrote a piece in the New Zealand Herald, in which I recalled a phase of my life when I lived in a flat on top of derelict building. Each day, I had to travel through eight floors of empty space – the silence, the darkness, the isolation. I never knew if anyone had got into the building during the night, and if I'd screamed up there, no one would have heard on the street below. Empty buildings, I wrote, are infinitely more terrifying than abandoned open spaces, and I felt for the people of Christchurch, living with those spaces around them, above them, in the very centre of their lives.
The piece received the usual small mix of positive and negative responses, but there was one that caught my eye, a tweet by journalist and editor Finlay MacDonald. Reacting to comments about my piece he'd simply tweeted, "I,I,I..."
As tweets go it was nicely economical, as well as wittily sarky. My Herald piece was all about me, he was saying. I had started out with poor Christchurch, but only in order to steer the reader back to myself. Implicit was a dash of self-righteousness, too: Was nothing sacred? Even a disaster's an opportunity to go on about herself. (Oh, shallow, "latte-sipping" Aucklander!)
I thought of a few literary jokes, referring perhaps to Milton's poem about Samson, who was kidnapped by Philistines, and rendered eye-less in Gaza. (Oh, shallow Philistine, who would poke out my I's!)
And yet, I thought, while it made its point neatly, the tweet missed a distinction between methods: what he saw as egotism I felt as empathy; moreover my response was intrinsic to my profession, not his. I had resorted immediately to the reflex, not of journalist but of fiction writer. Instead of writing about funding difficulties, Cera, insurance companies, government and bureaucratic inaction, I had simply thought my way into what seemed the most dramatic effect of the disaster, the psychological blow: the fear, the uncertainty, the darkness that had inserted itself into a previously orderly scene, the precarious nature of things.
This is what fiction writers (those egomaniacs) tend to do. They insert themselves into experience. Fiction can't work without that ability to infiltrate consciousness into empty spaces. You could probably find a correlation between writers with a tendency to malice and their creation of unconvincing, two-dimensional fictional characters. Christina Stead put it another way when she said, "A writer has to have a Christ-like sympathy for everyone."
And yet again, hadn't Finlay MacDonald, who never says anything that's not clever, immediately perceived something, and expressed it with typical wit: that in writing my column I was trying to have it – fiction and journalism – both ways?
So good journalism, granted, involves selfless commentary. And good fiction involves the self, but is incompatible with solipsism, with "I,I,I."
Or is it?
We were parked on the side of the road, outside a restaurant called the Dejavu. Youths watched us from a ramshackle balcony strung with washing lines. The old van made a slow, ticking sound. Rubbish and stones lay heaped along the road; white dust rose in the hot wind.
We were in Beit Jala, on the West Bank. From Jerusalem we'd queued at the Israeli Army checkpoint, then driven beyond the giant security wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories, up into the hot dusty hills, the roads lined with shabby white apartment blocks overlooking the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo.
'The economic situation here is very bad,' our Palestinian companion said. At intersections, children dodged cars, offering small wooden flutes for sale. A thin youth with a waxy, stoned face leaned against a wall, closed his eyes and slid onto the pavement. A man with a scarred, burned face sold bracelets.
We had been all afternoon in the West Bank, now on our way back we were stuck. The Palestinian driver, Mohammed, was on his phone: he'd left his permit by mistake at the last stop, and without it, he couldn't get back through the military checkpoint. He was trying to get someone to bring him his papers. In the meantime we waited, dreaming, in the shadow of the Dejavu.
It was Ramadan, and we were travelling with it. We'd started in Dubai, where the heat rose to 50 degrees. 'It is the Holy Month,' we were told. 'Do not drink water or eat in the street in daylight hours. You will cause offence, and you will incur a fine.' Dubai considered itself quite liberal though: in the hotel the receptionist blithely told me, 'Of course you can use the pool during Ramadan. We're not Saudi Arabia, you know!'
It was Ramadan, and no one was on the streets. Dubai was conducting business indoors, the cafés closed, the wide avenues silent. You really couldn't be out in it for long, amid the glass towers and chemical blue ponds, the soaring fountains. I hid from the sun in full headscarf, looking out through the mesh of fabric, my own breathing sighing in my ears. Dubai shines and glitters and gleams, and then it changes, out beyond the fancy space-age skyscrapers the city flattens, collapses into shabbiness and squalid sprawl; finally it faces what is out there: the wild, harsh beauty of the Arabian Desert. We drove into it: after the shabby buildings, the pylons, the rubbish-strewn roads, eventually there is nothing but red dunes, iron blue sky. The spine of a dune cuts a precise, wavering line against the air. Below it, spread pools of black shadow. The wind is a force like the blast from an open oven door. Standing on the dune, you are looking across a landscape but also into it; its otherness is an enclosed system. It's beautiful, savage, unforgiving.
Beating Time - On Knausgaard
On Form and Memory: My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
This really happened.
One evening, when I was standing with my siblings at a party, a woman approached who was familiar and yet unknown. We all had the same split-second reaction: who is this stranger we know so well? It was age, of course, the passing of years, that caused the stalled beat of time before we recognized her. She approached and we all made friendly faces and she said, in her immediately familiar, slow and slightly dopey voice, with no preamble, as if we were resuming the conversation we'd carried on decades before, 'I was just remembering the roll-up lawn.'
And with that, the information arrived at once: her voice, the face she used to have, the faces we used to have, and the roll-up lawn: that tiny detail edging an expanse of green memory, the past opening out before us, the lawn the stage and we the muddy, snotty little players, with our strutting and fretting. The long ago garden, the neighbourhood, where we created ourselves, where our first selves were formed.
She was one of our local gang. We were children of the seventies and eighties. We spent our lives outdoors; we were our own savage, separate little tribe. The way parents did childcare back then was to say, "Go and play. Come back at dinnertime."
Childhood territory. There was the shed where my father locked himself in and wrote his poetry and fiction, there was the back lawn where we played for hours on the high jump set my father made for us, complete with proper measurements penned on the posts in inches, a bamboo cross beam and mouldy old mattress to land on. At the edge of the grass was a concrete wall and below that the lawn formed a fragrant green mat, which, we discovered, could be rolled at the edges into a long tube made of earth and grass, a thick mud-reeking sausage, veined here and there with writhing worms. Here, in the roll-up lawn, was the essence of memory, the detail, minutiae, smells and sounds: this was the kind of information out of which the early self was constructed. The roll-up lawn was a thing only a child would notice. You had to be close to the ground, in that formative phase where every part of the garden was material to explore. There was no larger meaning beyond "lawn" and "garden", there was only each vivid constituent part, the distance between hedges, the plum tree, the rat hole under the deck: these things made up a whole world.
Decades later, having become a writer myself, what I began to think of most often was returning to that place: the back garden, the neighbourhood, Hobson Bay, and the idea began to be tied up with two preoccupations: with form and with memory.
I had been thinking for a long time about form. I was bored by the sameness of contemporary novels. I was fascinated with various subjects, with the Nazis for example, and particularly with the Nazi architect Albert Speer, but at the same time I disliked the idea of, say, researching Speer for two years and then settling down to write a historically accurate novel about him. There was something about the conventionality of that notion, when it was suggested to me, that brought me out in a rash. I wanted to go closer to the real, not in terms of writing about it, but of writing with it. I wanted stronger, more immediate ingredients. Starting with the short story collection, Opportunity, I started using events and people from our own contemporary society to create stories, mixing them up, fictionalising them, attempting both to utilise and to alter the chemistry, rather than just "representing." I wanted a broad canvas, so I started linking the books. I wanted to experiment with using readers' memories and perceptions of real events in the narratives, while at the same time, cannily, trying to create fiction that would live beyond its contemporary resonance, in other words to write fiction that would last.
I was preoccupied with form and memory, and I wrote five books – two short story collections and three novels – in which I used not only my own memories but also what I thought of as our society's contemporary, collective experience. I didn't name the collective memories however; I didn't call a spade a spade. I fictionalised. What events and people readers could recognise, they could also perceive as altered. Names were changed; facts and geography were rearranged. When each book was published I spent time trying to explain what I'd been doing, but the conversations didn't usually go much past whether or not a character was "meant to be the Prime Minister", or was "based on experience" or a location was "meant to be the real place."
I was looking for a way to break out of conventional form. While admiring some of it, I disliked a lot of contemporary fiction. A lot of it, I thought, was such shit.
My interest in memory was all about the work at first. And then, as a kind of strange revelation that seemed not unconnected, I become interested for the first time in my self, specifically, what version of myself I had been presenting to myself, and to the world.
Starlight Peninsula Reviews
"It's thrilling for me to see the things that seem so wrong in this country coolly reflected in these books. The lack of outrage is also refreshing: any political agenda feels like it belongs to the characters, not the author. The books act like a mirror, perhaps the most powerful tool at this political moment of shouting and polling. The mirror won't argue, can't argue, just shows. The other thrill of these books, and Starlight Peninsula in particular, is the craft of storytelling. . . some of the most thrilling and nail-biting reading I've done." - Pip Adam, Metro
"Charlotte Grimshaw's fascinating new novel Starlight Peninsula sees her take on a role somewhere between novelist and commentator. Using the dirty politics of our recent times as material, the book is a thoughtful conversation about the idea of truth in contemporary New Zealand society, both big and small, in lives both private and public, and specifically in politics and the media. . . Eloise's questions are acts of great courage and duty. Hers are problems of Shakespearean proportions, set amid the toe toes within earshot of cicadas during the internet age. Grimshaw's Auckland is a formidably complete world, detailed and concrete . . . This is one of those books that to like, or even describe as enjoyable, is almost to miss the point. It's a clever puzzle that the reader is invited to think through and then reflect - uncomfortably - onto their own world. Starlight Peninsula is at its best when it makes its reader uneasy; it is discomfiting, often challenging and always brilliant." - Louise O'Brien, NZ Listener
"This stunning novel not only brings an authentic conclusion to the knotted lives of its knotted characters, but also continues to provide the ''star spangled Kiwi metropolis'' slant Grimshaw brings to the epic contemporary serial. Whether Grimshaw is writing about Parnell or Mount Eden, her prose sparkles. She knows how to write identifiable landscapes, filling them with energy, unsettlement, shape and sentience. Auckland resident Grimshaw imparts an intimacy with the environs she evokes here. . . . Conspiracy, duplicity, notoriety, ambiguity, agony, loss, romance and catharsis: Starlight Peninsula charts all the thematic complexities of its predecessors, while offering the kind of astute political and psychological mystery which can be read as a standalone work for readers unfamiliar with Grimshaw's previous books. . . . I'm certain readers, proven to be passionate about this mixed-up community, will be begging Grimshaw not to close the door just yet on their fame, flaws and downfalls." - Siobhan Harvey, Dominion Post Weekend
On the morning of July 15th, Moscow was as hot as an oven. Deep in the Metro, the trains seemed to travel too fast, the crowds were densely packed and the air was sweaty and close. When the news came that a train had derailed between Park Pobedy and Slavyansky Stations, killing twenty-two people, it was a fact to turn over in the mind, to consider with perverse wonder: I was on the Moscow Metro that very morning. I was down there, sweating and claustrophobic and silently complaining about the speed. Just as, the month before, I was flying over eastern Ukraine, on a Singapore Airlines flight to London, before that airspace was closed. Eat, drink and be merry, the universe was telling me, for tomorrow we go up in smoke.
Like a child, sleeping in a UN school in Gaza. In a Moscow hotel we watched the World Cup final. In the bar were thirty elderly Germans and a group of Israelis. Two screens had been set up, one a Russian channel, the other German. At half time, Russian TV played clips of sexy cheerleaders, while the German channel dourly switched to the news: live coverage of the bombing of Gaza.
We watched in silence, as Palestinian women and children screamed and panicked and died. I wanted to get up and say, OK, re Gaza. You Israelis, you Germans. Does anyone want to share? The Israelis were crying bullets, the people of Gaza were dying, the Germans silently sipped their tankards of beer. Nothing to do with them, these murderous Israeli tears. It wasn't their fault. Still, one thing was very clear: whatever or whoever had driven them to it, the Israelis had gone completely insane.
Derelict buildings are scary. I know this from experience. Years ago when I was working for a law firm in Central Auckland, I found myself between flats and accepted, without much thought, an invitation to move into an apartment on top of the CML building in Queen Street. On the face of it, everything seemed fine. I would be flatting with a law student and a policeman. The apartment had glass doors opening out onto the roof, which served as an enormous concrete deck. It was slightly shabby, but most flats were. It was convenient, so much so that I could see my own office from it. But there was something I didn't take into account until I'd moved in: the CML mall was scheduled for demolition in the future and the entire building below the flat, all eight floors, was completely empty.
When I was a child, I used to be frightened of the house if there was no one home. I would wait outside, or go to a friend's house until the place was occupied. Now, in Queen Street I relived that old fear on a grand scale. In the evening after work I would unlock the glass door to the abandoned mall, walk the length of it after locking the door behind me, enter the lift and ride up through the empty floors. The lift only went to the seventh; then you had to walk a flight of stairs to the flat. This, I soon realized, was potentially dangerous, since there was no way of knowing who could have got into the building during the day.
Me and Germaine Greer
Let's begin with the tea towel. I was at primary school, one of three children of a stay-at-home mother. Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch had become a bestseller, and women's liberation was very much in the air. Back then, in our house and in the houses of my friends, one of many instances of domestic tyranny was the ironing pile. These days it seems to me a form of madness. Why iron a handkerchief or a pillow case at all? My own rule is iron nothing unless it's your own shirt. Ironing drove my mother crazy but it hadn't occurred to her to give it up. Dully, she flattened a hanky, a cloth napkin. She picked up a tea towel. And then she snapped. She stamped her foot, mangled the tea towel and shouted, "I hate being a housewife." Soon after she'd embarked on the necessary training and got herself a career. The Female Eunuch had entered the collective consciousness and made the throwing down of the tea towel imperative and right. My mother did it gladly, and not a moment too soon.
The personal is political", began Carol Hanisch's feminist memorandum of 1969. In the early days of the women's movement, Hanisch recalled, men "belittled us no end for trying to bring our so-called personal problems into the public arena – especially all those body issues like sex, appearance and abortion." A year later, Germaine Greer courageously laid bare those body issues in The Female Eunuch, a treatise on the lot of women that was idiosyncratic, hectoring, witty, angry and, for the times, quite inflammatory. Women read it and were exhilarated, threw down their ironing, hurled it across the room at their husbands. It's a book antique enough to contain this startling sentence, "That most virile of creatures, the buck negro, has very little body hair at all", and unscientific enough to give us this gem: "Men's habit of wrapping their nether quarters in long garments has resulted in a wastage of the tissues which can be seen in the chicken legs which they expose on any British resort beach." The book is fascinating now because it fixes, with great clarity, an era and a voice. The fact that it's dated shows how far we've come. It seems an expression of Germaine Greer's deepest self, imaginative and personal as well as passionately political. It is famously the book that "changed lives."