Chardonnay and schadenfreude

by David Hill / 21 May, 2015
Stephanie Johnson’s new novel lifts the lid on a (surely fictional) literary festival.
Stephanie Johnson: gets so much so right. Photo/David White

The permutations and participants in Stephanie Johnson’s exuberant new novel have – of course – no connection with the Auckland Writers Festival, which she has helped energise for nearly two decades. My yips of delighted recognition as I read are – equally of course – due only to my overexcited sensibility.

Actually, they’re more due to the ways Johnson gets so much so right. You’ll know the guests and gofers at this “vast and expensive dinner party”, which the author, obviously and engagingly, loves.

There’s the patrician UK female crime writer; the South American magical realist; the Ghanaian Booker winner; the Aussie whose book eschews the letter “e”; New Zealand’s own trendily turbulent rap novelist. There are hundreds of books sent by publishers and agents; luminaries who insist on flying Business Class and bringing their partners; artistic young female assistants with an odour of family money.

They’re all the responsibility of festival director Rae, just back from New York, her marriage and career increasingly precarious, her social life punctuated by too many glasses of chardonnay. We see events through her red-rimmed eyes and white-knuckled emails, as well as from the viewpoints of various literary lions or lice.

Several of the bibulous, bickering, bonking cast of Johnson’s 2013 novel The Writing Class reappear: struggling Merle; apprehensive Gareth; suddenly stellar Adarsh; spectacularly volatile Jacinta. A few times, the narrative pauses for their backstories, but they’re soon part of the momentum, growing fuller and more multifaceted.

Along with Charlotte Grimshaw, Johnson is one of the best anatomisers of 21st-century Auckland, and here we get Karen Walker tops, singles chat rooms, harbour pollution and climate change, brand names and burb names, “more people, more cans, more plastic, more poo”.

She’s also a joyous advocate for writing and reading. You have to like that. Words excite her and her people: there are plot summaries, critical encapsulations, rumours of author-publisher nooky, a terrific “And the winner is …” scene, names by the anthology-load. Eleanor Catton, James McNeish and Anne Kennedy get mentioned. So do literary quips and quotes: “We write what we are not”; “Life is bearable … only as a series of narrative strategies.” You have to like all that, too.

Among these stream desperation, multiple resentments, Jacinta’s eye-popping narcissism and some (literally) bruising comedy. Public acclaim is counterpointed by private rejections. Relationships twine and twang. There’s a slight surfeit of dysfunctional couplings, but Johnson keeps it all lucid, crisp, credible.

It’s a substantial book, emotionally as well as physically. Love hurts. The author excoriates yet sympathises with her cast.

As others have correctly said, Johnson’s a generous author. Cultural and social comedy are given gravitas by the – admittedly intermittent – presence of dauntless, dissident Chinese novelist Liu Wah, freed (as in exiled) for the first time.

WritersFestivalDoes the festival succeed? Of course. In spite of craven government sabotage, Byzantine sponsorship deals, intra-office guerrilla strikes and a rap-novel brawl with police participation. The writers disperse, to happiness or plagiarism and a highly possible sequel.

Does the book succeed? Oh, yes. And so (gulp) does Jacinta.

THE WRITERS’ FESTIVAL, by Stephanie Johnson (Penguin Random House, $37.99).

David Hill’s children’s book on Edmund Hillary is due from Puffin NZ in August.

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