The Straight Banana by Tim Wilson - book review

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 07 October, 2016
Tim Wilson: what the $#@& does he think he’s doing? Photo/James Tolich

Tim Wilson’s latest novel is a mass of tics and quirks, foibles and whimsy, and slyly knowledgeable detail.

Tim Wilson’s new novel is set in interesting times, yet it opens with an intimate dilemma as Thomas Tudehope Milde, a character from Wilson’s previous novel, News Pigs, finds himself in a difficult situation: he is drunk, nude and shackled to a column in a stranger’s flat on the Lower East Side.

It’s summer in New York, 2007. Milde is the US correspondent for his homeland, the Plucky Little Country, a small nation at the bottom of the world. The Iraq War is in full swing; the US is fizzing with paranoia; and the news media is in decline. The talk is all of violence, ruin and biodynamic diets.

There’s so much rich material here: New York, war, terrorism, modern media, so much of what Saul Bellow called “event glamour”. Boundless possibility exists in the world of Tom Milde, yet the novel is called The Straight Banana. Its ambition, it seems, is as boyishly modest as that.

The Straight Banana is such a mass of tics and quirks, of foibles and whimsy, it’s difficult to know where to begin. On page one, shackled naked, Milde struggles: “Splargh! Blurgh!! Boing!!!!!” And further: “Oh horror! Oh sordor!! Oh bared front bottom!!!”

On page one alone, there are 14 exclamation marks. Compared with later pages, this is restrained. Throughout are footnotes that clarify, in twinkly style, anything that needs further explanation. The swear words are squeamishly rendered: $#@&-wits. There are multi-choice questionnaires, cartoon graphics (Wham! Pow! Ouch!). There’s a “survey” near the end that playfully/defiantly (passive-aggressively) anticipates how all this silliness will be received.

The theme is American paranoia, as the country grapples with its current Enemy Within. The straight bananas, as motif, represent the nation’s own ­Dolchstosslegende, the Nazi conspiracy theory that blamed Bolsheviks and Jews for the loss of World War I. It’s a novel crammed with detail that’s slyly know­ledgeable, yet oddly dissociated. Amid the dingbats and cartoon graphics can be found popular song lyrics, references to Tennyson, Apollinaire and Milton, a full quote of German critic Walter Benjamin’s classic commentary on a Paul Klee print, snatches of TS Eliot’s Prufrock and quotes from German philosopher Max Weber.

There’s an inevitable comparison to be made with Money, Martin Amis’ brilliantly funny New York novel. There are echoes, from real flashes of lyricism to the use of what Amis called Elmore Leonard’s marijuana tense: Milde shackled to his column, struggling. Your reviewer, shackled to the task, questioning. What the $#@& are we doing here? What the $#@& does Tim Wilson think he’s doing?

That Money is one of the funniest books in the canon is perhaps due to a paradox: on some crucial level the author is deadly serious – about himself, his subject and his talent. Everything flows from that confidence. If, on the other hand, an author gives the impression of dancing around while wearing a fruit bowl on his head, eyeing us to gauge, assess, appeal and even nag us for a lenient response, the humour doesn’t work. Some lack of commitment, some infirmity of purpose, stifles the joke.

THE STRAIGHT BANANA, by Tim Wilson (Victoria University Press, $30)

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.


101413 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Searching Great Barrier Island for the meaning of…

by Joanna Wane

Joanna Wane goes to Great Barrier Island in search of the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Read more
Australian classic Storm Boy gets a modern remake
101340 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Movies

Australian classic Storm Boy gets a modern remake

by James Robins

The biggest beak in Oz screen history returns in a remake of a 1970s favourite.

Read more
Go South: The NZ travel show with no narration or score
101364 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Television

Go South: The NZ travel show with no narration or…

by Russell Brown

New Zealand jumps on the captivating, if time-consuming, bandwagon of televising cross-country journeys.

Read more
The downsides of tiny houses
101357 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Property

The downsides of tiny houses

by Megan Carras

Tiny houses look marvellous but have a dark side. Here are three things they don’t tell you on marketing blurb.

Read more
Scientists reveal the secrets to a restorative sleep
100946 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Scientists reveal the secrets to a restorative sle…

by Mark Broatch

A third of New Zealanders don’t get enough sleep and it’s killing us. Mark Broatch asks sleep scientists what we can do to get a good night’s slumber.

Read more
10 tips for getting a better night's sleep
100957 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

10 tips for getting a better night's sleep

by The Listener

Don’t use the snooze button on your alarm clock. Alarms spike blood pressure and heart rate, and snooze buttons just repeat the shock.

Read more
Gone in 60 seconds: The hard lessons from the Cryptopia heist
101395 2019-01-18 14:38:51Z Tech

Gone in 60 seconds: The hard lessons from the Cryp…

by Peter Griffin

Time is of the essence in a bank heist, and in the digital world, cryptocurrency tokens can be transferred in a flash and converted to US dollars.

Read more
Escape the hustle and bustle of Queen St at new Auckland central eatery NEO
101383 2019-01-18 09:28:19Z Auckland Eats

Escape the hustle and bustle of Queen St at new Au…

by Alex Blackwood

NEO is a new all-day eatery overlooking Queen St.

Read more