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)

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