Ob­ses­sion and rage at cen­tre of tale

Baby is a novel where the reader squirms through scenes, writes David Herkt.

Sunday Star-Times - - ESCAPE -

With its pros­thetic-pink cover fea­tur­ing two slices of white Won­der Bread sand­wich, a smear of rasp­berry jam, and a sin­gle word ti­tle, Baby, An­naleese Jochem’s novel al­ready boldly states that it is con­tem­po­rary fic­tion.

It is touted in brief cover-quotes: ‘‘Pa­tri­cia High­smith meets re­al­ity TV’’ (Cather­ine Chidgey) and ‘‘sul­try, sin­is­ter, hi­lar­i­ous, and de­mented’’ (Eleanor Cat­ton). But once a reader has pen­e­trated the pack­ag­ing, what’s wait­ing?

Baby is a flat-toned mur­der­ous novel of ob­ses­sion and rage. It is a les­bian Beavis and Butthead set in Pai­hia, a dumb and dumber Thelma and Louise for the iPhone age, a retro 8-bit app for a bored 20-some­thing young woman who ap­pre­ci­ates the irony of the irony of her not par­tic­u­larly lik­ing the mu­sic of Lorde or those fish-out-of-wa­ter mouth move­ments she makes when she sings.

Cyn­thia is 21. Her mind is filled with re­al­ity TV streamed through an un­lim­ited data mo­bile plan. When her fit­ness in­struc­tor, Ana­hera, leaves her hus­band and her job, Cyn­thia sees it as a con­fes­sion of love. With some stolen money and Cyn­thia’s dog, Snot-head, they drive to­gether to the Bay of Is­lands and buy a boat named Baby.

It is a novel told through Cyn­thia’s sin­gle view­point. Ana­hera is largely re­duced to stretches of ex­er­cised gym­flesh, some­times feared, of­ten ma­nip­u­lated, al­ways de­sired, an ob­ject of un­war­ranted ob­ses­sion. She sel­dom achieves any feel of re­al­ity be­yond her mean­ing for Cyn­thia.

It is also not the first book to dwell on the con­se­quences of a me­di­asat­u­rated life­style on a hu­man world view. As any­one who haunts Tin­der or Snapchat un­der­stands, it isn’t who you are that’s im­por­tant, it’s your me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Jochems doc­u­ments this lack of real-world af­fect with hor­rific skill.

It is also a novel where it is dan­ger­ous to be male. Cyn­thia’s ‘‘love’’ for Ana­hera al­lows no ri­vals, whether they are spotty teenage boys or Ger­man hik­ers. In a dream-like en­vi­ron­ment, more com­puter game than real life, plans are laid and ex­e­cuted. The claus­tro­pho­bia of an over­crowded boat cabin breeds vi­o­lence and sus­pi­cion. Psy­chotic out­break is al­ways a mo­ment away.

At times, it’s gross. It is a novel where the reader squirms through scenes in­volv­ing cold spaghetti and bot­tles of old tepid urine. There are also dis­cus­sions of plot points from Real House­wives of Auck­land. Porn pho­tos are shot for a web­site that sells used women’s G-strings.

But this is life, as we know it, in the 21st cen­tury, n’est-ce pas?

Cyn­thia is the ul­ti­mate un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor. This variance from re­al­ity be­comes the novel’s strength. Whether it is funny or not, de­pends upon a reader’s tol­er­ance for flat dec­la­ra­tion and black hu­mour. There is no moral les­son. There prob­a­bly isn’t in life.

Au­thor An­naleese Jochems.

An­naleese Jochems Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity Press $30

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