The Back of His Head by Patrick Evans.
Wellington: VUP (2015).
Reviewed by Sue Wootton.
Patrick Evans is a Christchurch academic and writer who has published three previous novels. The Back of His Head is pitched by publisher Victoria University Press as a “hilarious and troubling satire on the making and manipulation of literary fame”. Troubling, yes; hilarious, not so much. While I laughed a couple of times in the opening section at the pompous and ever-scathing voice of Peter Orr, who relates most of the novel, it gradually dawned on me that I was in the presence of the party bore, and that he had no intention of shutting up or changing his tune. An additional stumbling block for me was the very hook around which the story (such that it is) revolves: the characters’ obsession with dead literary “genius” and all round horrible man, Raymond Thomas Lawrence. There will be others who will want to stay the length, but I wasn’t the right guest for this particular party.
Peter Orr is Raymond Lawrence’s nephew and adopted son, and one of four trustees on the great man’s literary trust. Early on, Orr tells us that “Raymond it is whom I’m after in this account… I seek the very man himself.” His “account”, supplemented by transcripts of the taped voice of Lawrence’s former caregiver, stretches to over 350 pages. Orr’s seeking is circular and repetitive, as befits his obsessional nature, and Evans successfully characterises the paralysis that results from such thinking. Thus by the end of the novel Orr has had no new insights into “the very man himself”. Neither has the reader, since it’s obvious from the start that the man was odious. Evans successfully conveys this too, as well as the terrible psychological damage that such a toxic person inflicts on their families and colleagues. I really wanted to feel for poor Peter Orr, and to an extent I did grieve for his ruined life. But Orr is stuck, and to my mind the humour in the novel centres on the one joke that Orr himself is a joke. We’re laughing at, rather than laughing with. This absence of compassion is a feature of the novel as a whole. The characters operate in isolation, being called on and off the stage to deliver speeches at one another. It can be hard to distinguish between members of the literary trust. Their diction is scatological; their humour puerile; their egos fragile, over-inflated, and easily popped. Casual misogyny and homophobia abound. The three male trust members won’t let the female “in on the plot”. In their world, to annoy someone is to press or pull their tits, a man sleeps with “some silly little tart”, and if two women spend time together “They’ll be at it till dawn. Practising Sapphic alternatives.” As their anxiety about the possible release of unflattering information about Lawrence grows, research material is dropped in the toilet and a male trustee defecates on the female’s living room carpet. The warmest person in the book is Lawrence’s former caregiver, but he is always a stereotype: a bodybuilder, all brawn and no brain, whose speech is transcribed complete with question marks at the end of declaratory statements to denote a rising inflection and its presumed associated stupidity.
But of course the characters are isolated for the good reason that they are unlikeable, and, as in real life, such people alienate themselves by their behaviour. The absence of love in Evans’ characters’ lives, their complete inability to relate to one another, to empathise, or to think outside of their obsession, is, I think, the point of The Back of His Head. I would have been more interested in some development of that theme, but there will be others for whom it is sufficiently worthwhile that Evans has convincingly portrayed this bleak way of being.
Sue Wootton’s most recent publication is Out of Shape, a letterpress portfolio of poems hand set and printed by Canberra letterpress artist Caren Florance (Ampersand Duck, 2013). She lives in Dunedin and is the editor of the Monday Poem column in the Otago Daily Times. Her website is suewootton.com.