There was people standing down by the garage and just staring up at the house, just staring, and she used to wonder what it was they were after, she told me. It’s not his books, she says, apparently there’s special things in them but it’s no good people like us trying to get them out. That’s what she told me. Fancy folk like Mr Orr and his friends, literary folk, that’s their job, that’s what they do, that’s the point of them, she says. Down at the university. Well, after I’d had a go at reading them like I said, I reckoned she was right. Either-Or and his arty-fart friends can keep the books for themselves and the rest of us can have what’s left over. The people who come to visit the Residence, they’re after something else, she says… (Ch V, Loc 1720).
Patrick Evans, the Kiwi author of this clever and witty novel, has a wicked sense of humour. This excerpt, like the rest of The Back of His Head is poking fun at New Zealand’s very small literary community and its literary heroes. Thom Ham, erstwhile carer for Raymond Lawrence, is explaining the people’s reaction to the news that Raymond had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. They flocked in their hordes to see The Great Man’s House, to bask in the national glory of an author they haven’t read and won’t understand if they do. Evans goes on to show his readers that Raymond is a truly grotesque man, and his literary trustees are either pretentious fools over-identifying with their hero, or simply exploiting his legacy for their own ends.
If you know a little bit about New Zealand literary history, recent and not so terribly long ago, or you’ve had any dealings with literary trustees, then you may think you recognise some of the targets of Evans’ clever satire. But let’s not cause the author trouble by guessing any names, (not in comments either, please) and besides, he warns us himself that
Those who think they see themselves in the novel’s pages can be assured they are taking themselves too seriously. (Acknowledgements, Loc. 4867)
In any case, The Back of His Head stands on its own terms as an interesting exploration of the reality of genius (if that’s indeed what Raymond was) in a novel that plays games with the reader all the way through.
The plot reveals itself through contrasting narrators, beginning with Raymond’s nephew Peter Orr, who fancies himself as Raymond’s literary heir. Peter, you may remember from my Sensational Snippet, is the one gushing over an abstract ‘portrait’ of Raymond which depicts only the back of his head. He is so obsessed with Raymond’s work that he has memorised at least one of the novels off by heart. He is in constant conflict with the other – shall we say, more off-hand? – trustees who guard the Residence as a repository for Raymond’s legacy, summoning them as a matter of urgency to a meeting because some naughty visitor has nicked a shell that Raymond used as an ashtray. Such things are not replaceable because only the authentic object or piece of furniture has the magic bestowed by the touch of the Great Man himself. Peter gets quite breathless sometimes. Peter sometimes has to be reminded that he is not actually Raymond himself.
All the members of the Trust have an ‘intimate’ history with Raymond, so secret that they don’t even share it with each other. Marjorie’s tell-all memoir only muddies the waters, and not just because her publisher made her self- censor certain aspects of her narrative. But Peter shares an awkward secret with Julian, a secret so potentially fraught, that it would be a calamity if it were revealed. As the reader comes to know Raymond through Peter’s narrative and that of Thom, it is cunningly revealed that not only is this Nobel Prize winner a monster, but also that his literary theory is, um, more than a little dubious.
That’s not the only strand in this novel will give readers pause for thought. New Zealand is, as those of us with long memories will know, a country that had to get used to the idea that a great nation could perform an act of sabotage with impunity. Evans toys with the effect on the Kiwi psyche that terrorists aren’t just immature guys with a fixation on the seventh century waving black flags. If governments can justify that, so the argument goes, then ordinary people can justify this, in the service of something they think is worthwhile, perhaps made all the more worthy if in the service of national prestige…
If you don’t mind an author poking fun at reader adulation (of which I am more than a little guilty myself); if you can laugh at yourself when you investigate an obscure word only to discover that Evans has made it up; if you don’t mind the fact that you’re probably only getting half of the in-jokes; and if you can tolerate some pretty grubby insinuations – then you are likely to enjoy this book. I certainly did: I found it very satisfying reading indeed.
(I only hope I’m not imagining I understand things, like poor Peter does!)
There’s an interesting interview with the author at These Rough Notes.
PS (about ten minutes later)
This book hasn’t been widely reviewed, and not at all, as far as I can tell, on our side of the ditch. But I’ve just discovered a ‘review’ by C.K. Stead, and I implore you not to read it at least until after you’ve read the novel. I’m not even going to provide the link because, well, who am I to argue with the great C.K. Stead? Nobody, I know, but really, it’s not a review, it’s a spoiler-filled summary of the book.
Author: Patrick Evans
Title: The Back of His Head
Publisher: Victoria University Press, New Zealand, 2015,
Kindle edition ASIN B0165WNC0G
Personal library, purchased from Amazon Australia