Speaking into the air above

by Mark Peters / 26 December, 2009
Damien Wilkins' elliptical style can irritate as much as it rewards.

Responding to a question about the meaning of his masterpiece Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett said: "It's all symbiosis." The unending dialogue ropes the characters together in a reality that is at best tenuous, improvisatory, recurrent. But it keeps them going. Although Damien Wilkins slyly references the play throughout his Wellington-based novel Somebody Loves Us All, it's not language that simultaneously connects and isolates his characters but its conduits and conductors: the tele-phone; Skype; various recording devices; the speech organs themselves.

So when his protagonist Paddy's mother, Teresa, wakes up one morning to find herself speaking with what sounds like a French accent, she naturally feels a burgeoning estrangement from the world. Wilkins sets up the plot so delicately that Teresa at first seems simply to be suffering the onset of senility. She knows what day of the week it is, but in French.

The main characters - involved for the most part in communication-based professions - are just as subtly shaded in.

Paddy is a speech therapist whose first marriage suffered because of his vapidity and there are glimpses of this trait still. Having recently terminated his newspaper column, Speech Marks, he is waiting for Gorzo - a fan - to telephone him.

Paddy's strong-willed partner, Helena, runs a language school, and her daughter, Dora, distances herself from the world by viewing it through a video camera. As cycling companions, Paddy and educational psychologist Jeremy Lantham are locked into an unspoken but pointless competition with one another.

Significant metaphors would be as seamlessly patched in if they didn't so frequently read as set-pieces. Paddy, for instance, finds himself thinking about an encounter with young tui. "They were always plugged into a current of crisis. They darted around, thinking what next, what next?" The motif of restless anxiety resonates with his sister Margie's assertion that she and Teresa remind each other of some problem. When Paddy questions her about it, Margie responds: "That's just it, what is the problem?"

The plot, then, is incidental to the neurotic surface of examined lives and the little frictions that tie the characters to one another. But despite the drollery, the mild ironies and occasional flash of the razor in which Wilkins excels, the sense that the story is constantly waiting to begin frustrates the reader's emotional connection with the characters.

Paddy's professional tactic as a speech therapist is one of indirection rather than confrontation: "Speak into the air above and around and beyond," as he puts it. There is something of the author's method here, too, although by part two the various plot threads begin to take on more immediacy.

Paddy's work with an intransigent young mute is re-energised. The mystery behind Gorzo's silence is explained and Teresa's cousin and confidante, Pip, returns from South Africa to be by her friend's side. When Teresa's perplexing malaise is given a name, she even indulges in the absurdity of her situation. "She says she's not understood by locals," deadpans Pip.

But just as the pace picks up, it is slowed by an unilluminating monologue. "Too much psychology, too much tension [to be a shaggy dog story]," Paddy reassures Pip of her account of a teenage cycling expedition with Teresa. Certainly, there is psychology, there is tension - but other than the vague suggestion she and Teresa understand each other, Pip's story is too collateral to resonate with the rest of the narrative.

Although there is much to admire in Wilkins' elliptical writing style, his method can irritate in equal measure. Paddy and Lantham's nicknames, Trick and Lant, are irksome conceits, while the names of secondary characters Medbh and Iyob seem contrived to trip on the tongue. One of Paddy's neighbours undertakes nightly excursions to explore the micro-interactions between buildings and night-light: the Moon, stars and illuminated faces of watches and cellphones. The nanoscopic exercise induces a sense of ennui that Wilkins seems intent on tapping into for literary effect. The motive is clever - très moderne, if you will - but risks alienating the reader.

What keeps the reader going, on the other hand, is the psychology and interactions between the characters as they struggle to connect with each other. It is, after all, all symbiosis.

SOMEBODY LOVES US ALL, by Damien Wilkins (VUP, $38).

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