ShameJoy by Julie Hill.
Wellington: Giant Sparrow Press (2015).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Julie Hill is a writer and documentary-maker who lives in Auckland. This is her first book. ShameJoy is a collection of comic short stories about pop psychology, pop music, politics and Germans.
It is a book with a somewhat concentrated plan for its focus is on dysfunctional youth. The main specific source of Hill’s stories are the Auckland of her motley crew of characters, and stories set in Australia and Germany. The emotional lives of the protagonists cast their light and shadow, and shape their way of thinking, over just about every story. It is the author’s perception of both the material and spiritual, with regard to her characters, that makes this a comic and inexplicable collection.
Most of the stories are attempts at capturing the presence, mood and emotions of her characters that have impinged on the author’s imagination: so we have O-Gradiant, who wants to lose one of her legs; Maus, who ends the Cold War; and Caramel, whose dead uncle starts a horrific war between New Zealand and Australia.
As well as the stories about music, politics and war, there are stories about debacles and catastrophes; stories about strange characters – a few of whom have tremendous emotional problems – and some surprises: the girl who wants her leg amputated, the mother whose body becomes a mass of feathers and the girl who makes love in the bushes.
For Hill, the strangest things are the most intimate and every-day: love, fright, truth, depression, which appear in many of the stories; the impression of family values and the places where it is possible to talk about God; the imprint of words themselves.
They are all, really, variants of responses to what happens to the characters. In the first story, “The Pavlova Debacle”, for example, we see Caramel receiving a present from her Uncle Jeff on the day he died:
On the day Uncle Jeff died, Caramel received a present from him in the post. She was allowed to open it even though it wasn’t Christmas for another eighteen sleeps. Inside the bubble wrap, inside a brown envelope was one candle and one pair of novelty shoelaces.
Overall, the mood is of a comic darkness – not the social gesture, which can sometimes veer close to black humour. The thankfulness that the things which make life worth living are such benign presences it seems that few characters expect anything else.
In “Whistle Solo” the character Maus is “. . . on top of the world. His new LP was about to go crazy, not just in West Germany, but all around the world.” In the penultimate paragraph Maus reveals how he got his name:
My name is Maus, but of course you know that already! When I was a little boy,
My mama told me, “Nothing is impossible if you just believe”. I didn’t believe her. How could I become a cosmonaut when my school marks were so poor? But mama was correct. Because here I am, the boy who was so short that everybody called him Maus. But guess what? Sometimes mauses turn into lions.
“For They Shall Inherit The Earth” is composed of various voices: Patrick, Heather, Maurice, Hazel and Doctor MacDonald. Its atmospheres, moods, silences, persist in the mind. A story, which moreover, seems to specifically evoke the ambition and angst of youth. Here is the opening rant from Patrick:
I could have been out the door minutes ago. Down at the pub, drink in hand, fag punctuating a series of anecdotes from another week at the information front.
But then a visit from Larry, the passive aggressive dwarf-sized sub-editor.
The way the material world is handled in “Catastrophist of Newton” runs parallel to that in which less tangible things, such as “The Eskimo Man” are realised. It’s as if the disintegration of the old dualisms is occurring, not just in Hill’s imagination, but in the actual language use. Another story, “Love Mountain,” which features strongly in the book, is about Barney. The opening takes place at his father’s funeral and moves from there to Barney’s dream and on to Derek and his girlfriend Ping. As stories go, it displays a clarity and deliberation which runs counter to the family ties, and is relaxed and perhaps even lyrical.
The intensity and intellectual control which shapes the stories can be seen in “Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With.” The impression is of a somewhat poetic form given a prose rhapsody:
Reuben Fairpark was certainly effete. In his tapered school trousers and black hair swooped up in a big Elvisy quiff, but he was no gaylord. He loved the ladies and the ladies loved him back.
I thought he was up himself. I would watch his black quiff bob by the art room window and think: what an ass.
In “Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With”, we are told by the storyteller that Chico is an exchange student from Brazil. The story is about the girl’s teenage years and leads to some interesting and shocking scenes. The girl’s second encounter with Chico leads to her first sexual experience:
The bushes were horrible and scratchy and Chico’s willy was infinitesimal, which is saying something since I’d nothing to compare it to. I had to ask him whether it had gone in.
Hill holds the rich story together with conviction.
The writing in this collection is apparently effortless, powerful and unafraid of mentioning forbidden subjects. There are so many examples; here is one from the last story “The End”, where Tricky is revealing himself to the old lady next door, Peeping Thomasina:
He stands. He contemplates his naked legs. He steps outside and yawns. Ecstatic. Peeping Thomasina pops out of her house like a cuckoo from a clock and gawps at him unabashed. Tricky meets her gaze and slides his hand slowly down his body until he has a firm grip on his ball sack. Thomasina goes back inside her house and slams the door.
Hill is superb in her evocation of youth, its faces, bodies, clothes and misdemeanours. Portraying the mores of early adulthood can be a challenge for an author and Hill manages to capture their friendships, conversations, sexuality, violence and cruelty memorably. It is hard to think of another collection like this one and Hill has written an original and astonishing collection of stories that face moral questions and suggest that out of the muddle of youthful exuberance can still come some hope.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).