Monday, October 6, 2008

charlotte randall's version of punk

I love spending time with Charlotte Randall. Her intelligence, her willingness to take risks with the narrative, the breadth of her knowledge, her insights into the human condition, her use of history and literature to comment on what's happening, her ascerbic narrators, her love of language, her preoccupation with shammery (is there such a word?), her satirical bent, are all compelling to me.

My copy of The Crocus Hour is warped and bent from all the places it's been: the kitchen bench, the bath, beside the bathroom sink, under a cup of coffee, stuck in my bag. That is a tribute to a good book. If my camera was working I'd show you that rather than this pristine version off the Penguin website.

Not everyone agrees with me about Randall (which is a pen-name, by the way). When I mention her, I usually get comments like 'she's too clever', 'she wrote that weird book about the devil' (Within The Kiss) or 'I liked The Curative ...' (a stunning novel about an inmate chained up in Bedlam in the early 19th century which unfolds largely through dialogue). They either haven't tried or didn't like What Happened Then Mr Bones which is set in Petone with a narrative that goes backwards in time following a family which has a habit of dying violently, or Within the Kiss which has Faust as a bored housewife, Mephisto as a tennis coach and Faust's daughter as a tennis player with a soul to sell, or her first novel Dead Sea Fruit.

The fact is I've loved all of Randall's outings - as confusing and as frustrating as they sometimes can be with their talkiness and mad narratives. I can forgive all that because I am always exhilarated by where her brain goes. Matt Vickers made a magnificent attempt at grappling with Within The Kiss for online journal Turbine:

Randall's triumph here is getting away with breaking the rules by pointing out the rules as she goes, and ignoring them anyway, to create something very distinct, almost punk, with its tightly-controlled anarchy.

Yes! Great stuff. The Literary Encylopaedia throws up an interesting summary:
Characterised by sardonic and often acerbic narrators, Charlotte Randall’s novels balance a zealous attention to language and vocabulary with mordant observations of the human condition. Her novels aim their critiques at a broad range of subjects, but often return to satirise dubious medical science, pseudo-religious superstitions, and spurious cultural trends. By blending contemporary and historical settings (often within a single narrative) Randall’s novels bring the follies of the past to bear on the present.

The Crocus Hour, published this year, is no different. There are long stretches of monologue and dialogue when Henry - an ascerbic older New Zealander in Crete looking for a daughter who has disappeared - tells a young French backpacker about his search and his theories on what happened. Like her other books, Randall lets Henry talk at length about 'the human condition', and goes on to explore Cretan history, Greek culture and mythology, sexism and genre politics, you name it.

Then, in the second half, it takes us to Henry's home in Christchurch where the backpacker visits him. Here Henry takes his young friend through the history, mythology, geography, culture etc of the South Island of New Zealand while critiquing, amongst other things, the art of natural medicines and hippy culture - you get the picture.

There is the usual wonderful Randall language (but with fewer tricky words this time), marvellous evocations of place and time, and some to-die-for insights into the make-up of human beings. Try this one:

The patient's daughter feels herself to be composed of rage.
There is a story unfolding, too. Step by step we get closer to why Henry's daughter disappeared. It's not a straight line, that's all, and it's not totally the point. We digress wildly and wonderfully, and even when we're on track it's hard to tell which track it is. The work of Charlotte Randall reminds me of that line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: 'counter, original, spare, strange,' and, in the end, all I can say is what I said at the start, I like spending time with that.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Mary, Randall is now firmly on my radar...

Anonymous said...

Hey, in case you're interested - someone's set up a facebook page with news and updates about Charlotte. Might be a good one to keep an eye on. :-)