Monday 20 June 2016

Elizabeth Knox's launch speech for Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley

I thought I'd start by reading a little list of some of the professions people have in The Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley. Apart from the practical, everyday photographer or novelist, there’s an illiterate Archival Assistant, a Sufi Soup Cook, and an Imaginary Languages Poet. There are Cartographers — but they’re cultists. Druids officiate at funerals. There’s a Sheriff of Te Aro, to which I say 'Yee-Ha!'  There's differential topologist, which I think is like non-computational geometrist, and has to be real since my niece is dating one. And there is my favourite character, a dog. A very professional dog, who offers a comprehensive description of the tasks and duties of a dog.

The characters are busy in this book, they’re hellbent, but the book isn’t busy, noisy, crowded, or antic — even in the midst of brilliant descriptions of antic antics! It is lively and forceful, but also deftly plotted, strongly real in it’s evocation of the world of the senses; it is thematically shapely, and purposeful in its transmission of the author’s feeling for life.

On a cold winter night, Danyl, the perpetually pantsless hero of Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, having fled a mental health institution, returns to the valley on a bus. Danyl wants to find his girlfriend Verity. He wants something to eat and a place to lay his head. But the Valley seems more deserted and desolate than even midwinter rain could make it — and it’s not just atmosphere, it’s plot, more plot than a cemetery, right from the start. Danyl is the hero of the moment and, in Danyl speak, the moment has plans for him, no matter what other plans his brain might be entertaining, and it should be noted that Danyl’s brain is a distinct entity from Danyl himself — which I know is an experience we all share. Danyl’s brain might zap him, prod him to pay attention to things, but tends to fall ominously silent whenever he's having a good idea. That’s a bit of a theme, people having good ideas, congratulating themselves about it, and heading off energetically into calamity.

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is a novel of ideas. All arcane thrillers are novels of ideas in that this is the genre whose engine is the deep, indelible pattern of beliefs on human history. Many of the ideas in this novel are quite respectable, or recognisable. Notions people have about, for instance, the mathematical nature of the universe; or the best way to manage an archive, balancing the need to preserve materials against the needs of researchers; or how to run a local body election, and the proven strategy in our politics of a candidate presenting himself as sensible and friendly. In every instance the author is interested in the idea itself, and the process of the implementation of the idea. Then he sees the satirical possibilities, and then he takes it all a step further, beyond the boundaries of satire.  He uses the idea, the pursuit of the idea in the world, the logical absurdities of the pursuit, to generate a story. I am filled with admiration at Danyl’s ability to to go beyond type, the type of book this is. Not just to use exotic or complicated ideas as plot, or to use the absurdities generated by a situation then taken to a logical extreme as plot, to not just move in one direction evolving his story from esoteric idea to plot, but to be able to keep moving back and forth, building energy in the narrative by laying observation upon learning, upon satire, upon byzantine plotting and have the whole thing keep moving not like a machine, but like a well turned compost that’s fertile with humour, and mood, and drama, and character byplay, and warmth.

Danyl McLauchlan's feeling for place and space is spot on. The novel's streets, buildings, and weather are all recognisably Aro Street. But when the flooded stormwater drains of the Aro Valley flow away into a culvert and old drain inspection hatch, the reader follows them to an underground river, and of course the underground river has its own secrets and dangers. And the flow of real to speculative feels as natural and logical as water running downhill.  

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is an admirable advance on the Unspeakable Secrets, which was a delightful, engaging, and charming book. But this book is a mystery, a comedy, a work of speculative fiction; it is gripping and enchanting, it has that definitive quality of an arcane thriller (a genre that Danyl and I are both very interested in) of making human life and history seem larger and more magical, more full of portent and jeopardy, and more purposefully patterned. None of the novel’s types and tones undermines the other. It’s all of a piece. It’s simultaneously exotic, and close to home. It looks with proprietorial affection upon the Aro Valley as a kind of a microcosm of Wellington, and of New Zealand, and various New Zealand qualities like getting stuck in, and stuck, and keeping your head down, and running into unseen obstacles.
The novel achieves a tenderness for people, for ways of thinking about things — enthusiasms, obsessions, wounds — a tenderness for a neighbourhood, for human organisations, and human aspirations. Danyl said to me yesterday was there one rule of comedy he’d absorbed, that something was funnier if you remove most of the jokes. Just about every very funny bit in the book could have been played for more laughs, but Danyl has other fish to fry, he wants to tell a story, and he doesn't want to dilute what will matter in that story to the characters or to the reader.

So, in conclusion, read this book. Find out whether Danyl will be reconciled with Verity and his brain. Meet Steve, the Aro Valley’s Jack Reacher, see the election night bonfire, the orgy, the giant sponge. Touch the spiral. Test the reality of your universe. Spurn your loved ones and your bedtime and laugh like an Aro Valley drain.

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is available for purchase at all excellent bookshops at through our online bookstore. p/b, $30

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