Steve Braunias names the best novel of the year so far
The dark and topical shadow of shamed TV presenter Kamahl Santamaria looms over Down from Upland, a brilliant novel by Wellington writer Murdoch Stephens. It’s a satire of the Wellington civil service – its anxieties, its directives, its sexual tensions – and Stephens handles it with great skill, including a long, excruciating scene where the main character blunders his way towards a complaint of sexual harassment. It takes place in a downtown bar. Stephens offers the reader a seat at their table. We hear the older male, younger female encounter at close range – his insistence on talking about sex, her silence and discomfit. It’s so awful to witness and also so compelling to read. The stories told about Santamaria’s case are broad, remote. Down from Upland offers setting, dialogue, and the black comedy of saying all the wrong things.
In her otherwise positive Listener review of Down from Upland, Josie Shapiro damned it with faint criticism. She felt it lacking in “sensitive narrative engagement”. There were too many “chatty jokes”, she felt. “Satire works best when there’s emotional truth at play,” she announced. I don’t know if that rule can be applied any more than the repeated dictums that satire must not punch down. I think satire works best when it’s funny, and Down from Upland is very funny. I also think it’s the best New Zealand novel of the year to date and that it ought to be a best-seller, bought in droves. This is a book anyone can read and take pleasure in recognising codes of conduct in 2022.
It takes place on the steep banks of Wellington suburbs (the title is named after Upland Road, that main arterial route in Kelburn) and within the seething canyons of the CBD. He takes you with him in this comedy of manners. You’re there on the Saturday night bus to Brandon Street in the city. You’re there opening and closing the little wooden gate of a house in Kelburn. And you’re there in a civil service office watching and listening to another excruciating scene, this time with the demons of every private and public corporation, HR.
The comedy is constant, because it attaches itself to the actual nature of the book’s central character, Scott. A generation ago he would have been labelled a Snag, or sensitive new age guy, someone passive and liberal and fun to mock. Scott is all those things but Down from Under is up to date, contemporary. Scott and his wife Jacqui are among the first generation of millennials who now find themselves as parents of a teenager. Their blunderings and pious attempts at parenting are 2022-centric. They talk to their son Axel about the importance of respecting gender pronouns, and press upon him the notion of moderate drinking (low-alcohol beer is a motif in the book).
The plot, such as it is, tells the tale of Scott’s misfortunes. He discusses the concept of an open marriage with Jacqui. She’s keen. Scott’s keen, too, and tries it on with Linnea, who works in his office. They meet for a drink. It goes really badly. As an up to date, contemporary book, it behoves Down from Upland to deal with #MeToo and sexual harassment, but it doesn’t feel contrived, or like a requirement: Stephens goes about telling his story at an even pace, and stays faithful to his characters.
As well as humour, Stephens introduces something else that’s rare in New Zealand fiction: sex. He writes of married sex, fantasy sex, gay sex, illicit sex, threesome sex, cougar sex, and, in some ways most convincingly of all, no sex. Axel goes to Wellington High. He has good mates. He has a bit of a crush on a girl called Tanasi. He goes to parties. He takes part in drinking experiments (with low-alcohol beer). He’s social, he’s kind of cool, he’s a nice kid. He’s also a virgin. Stephens could have played this a different way, written scenes of teenagers having sex, but the book feels more honest and convincing for its innocence and abstinence. They’re just kids.
Adults have adult sex, slowly. “One hand curled around the back of his neck and then other gripped his shoulder…Scott reached back to Justin’s waist. Though he couldn’t see a thing, he registered the leather of the belt and the metal of the clasp, before releasing it.” Stephens takes even more time in a hotel room. “She had one wrist free when she paused. She could see another couple. On a bed. In the mirror…It had taken more than a moment for her to realise the couple were her and João, her hair mostly obscuring her face…She looked at the couple as João kissed her neck…She reached back, pulling him down and twisting to kiss him over her shoulder…He whispered something in Portuguese, held her close and fell into his sleep. She looked back at the mirror. They were still there.”
As you might expect from Lawrence & Gibson, the little publishing imprint co-founded by Stephens and Brannavan Gnanalingam (who actually included a trigger warning at the front of one of his novels), there’s a certain undertone of right on-ness throughout Down from Upland. No sensitivities were hurt in the making of this fiction. But the handling of Scott’s complaint procedure is more bloke than woke. As well as Linnea’s complaint, another female colleague complains that he made her feel uncomfortable. Instead of punishment, though, he receives a kind of reward.
The novel skates rather than dwells. Civil servants present things on whiteboard. There is good news for a division in the ministry called the Respiratory Health Unit. There is an announcement about the public service becoming carbon neutral by 2025. Scott makes a speech in acronyms: “I mean, that includes MBIE, it includes SOEs? It must, surely – MFAT, think of MFAT! Hats off to DPMC, one hundred per cent. MPI – far out, MPI!” At home, he cooks dhal and something called gulab jamun. There are references to Crofton Downs, Brooklyn, Midland Park….Stephens keeps it light, sets out to entertain. He writes in the acknowledgements about “this demure novel on the follies of moderation and communicative reason”. I don’t actually know what that means. I read it as a nuanced portrait of one family in Wellington in 2022.
Down from Upland touches that sweet spot between literary fiction (intellectually satisfying) and commercial fiction (a page-turner). Fiona Kidman has that same dual appeal, and Maurice Shadbolt had it in his pomp. Murdoch Stephens, with this sometimes malicious novel told mainly with a good-natured sense of fun, belongs in that pantheon. Send Down from Upland into the Nielsen top 10 best-seller chart at once.
Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens (Lawrence & Gibson, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.