Dad Art by Damien Wilkins.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
Damien Wilkins is a seasoned novelist and the Director of Victoria’s International Institute of Modern Letters, taking the helm from innovator Bill Manhire, with whom he long worked in conjunction. As a lecturer of creative writing, one would thus expect Wilkins to be in control of the art form of the novel, and he demonstrates this, with an eye to small detail and observation. Dad Art, taking its title from performance artist Linda Montano who is frequently referenced, is his eighth novel.
Wilkins’ first line startles and momentarily perplexes: ‘How strange to step off the street one minute and then twenty minutes later to be safely on fire’. His narrator is the middle-aged, newly single Wellingtonian Michael, who cannot help but play an interior monologue through all his interactions and actions. He is an acoustic engineer by trade, and so is finely attuned to the balances or off-balances of sounds and aesthetics more generally. When he considers his own present lodgings, which he nicknames the Sanctum (‘Sanctumonium. Sanctumonious’), small details unsettle him, such as the ‘sound’s stoniness’ of a glass of water being set down on the granite sink as one ‘too mute’.
He has a grown daughter, Samantha, who is presently engaged in a month-long art installation project, where she is joined in effect full-time by a rope to a man. For Michael, who likes the straightforward and definable, this is provocative, and through much of the novel he and his daughter must negotiate continual friendly relations.
He has also entered the dating scene, cautiously and good-humouredly, commenting on the ‘highly curated’ state of profile pictures, and the game-playing between potential couples as they meet for the first time. In this way he comes across Chrissie, and, since she has a young child, Michael finds himself in new arenas such as playgrounds. In typical fashion he observes others’ interactions, such as a father struggling with a child on a slide. He substitutes the father for himself, pondering on how he would respond in such a situation. When Chrissie’s own reaction proves crass and judgemental, Michael, in his straightforward way, confronts her. For this quality Michael is a likeable and sympathetic individual for the reader.
Word play and image play flow through the novel, stemming from the author and, in turn, the main character himself. Michael notes his life as a single man (‘singleton, simpleton’); he watches the flawed trajectories of tennis balls across the court below.
Michael’s elderly, dementia-suffering father likewise adds to the richness of imagery, in his confused state personifying trees that had caught fire as “ones who can stand tall, who had their heads set on fire”, or, as he tries to find his way to the correct word: “The giant was made of schismy, of schnitzel, of shit. […] Schist. I found it. Schist”.
Michael, through Wilkins, is keenly observant of the dynamics of emotions traversing between individuals, and, as such has a focus on relationality and how one person can relate and try to understand and empathise with another. Being aesthetically aware, disjunctive elements, either in physical surroundings or in the harmonies of relationships, unnerve him.
Wilkins keeps his focus narrow, mostly on his main character and his dealings with the daily world. While this intensity pulls the reader in, it is also sometimes stifling, and it is likely easier for a male reader to identify closely. However, his character contrarily is at once familiar, for he struggles in life with the small details that are common to us all.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.