Thursday, August 22, 2019

Craig Harrison (2): The Quiet Earth (1981)

Craig Harrison: The Quiet Earth. 1981. Text Classics (2013)

There's a strange plot-twist in chapter 12 of Craig Harrison's empty world classic The Quiet Earth. His hero, John Hobson, is driving down the North Island, looking for any other survivors of whatever it is that's happened to us all: 'The Event,' as he calls it. Then, all of a sudden:
Christ! There was something ahead, on the road, running into the car lights! I jerked the wheel hard across, braked, swerved, nearly lost control. There was a wild screeching. The car tipped right, skidding, and I flinched, expecting it to roll. It didn't. The wheels lifted, then fell back. The car stopped, sideways across the camber, headlights whitening trees. What in the name of God had I just seen? [88]
And what had he just seen? We have to wait almost a whole page to find out:
I had glimpsed, briefly, a bone-white beast the size of a big dog or a calf, hairless, wet and pallid like an abortion. Its head was deformed, a mutant of dog and goat, yet fat and imbecile, wide mouth snarling to the roots of its teeth, and glistening with spit; the car lights had glared back from red points of eyes rimmed pink. I had never seen such a monstrosity, not even among Perrin's worst experimental animals, and they were all mercifully dead. The double shock here was that this nightmare was alive, the only other living thing - ... [89]
This sighting upsets the apparent naturalism of the book. As Hobson muses, driving on towards Rotorua ('The stench was the same as ever, like shit in hell'):
I know what I saw back there. If it was real then there were now things living on earth which should be dead, which defied every law of nature I ever knew. And there must be a reason for that. Something I could not live with, in any sense. It demanded my death. [90]
In the end, the only language he can find for it 'sounded biblical:'
abomination, it surfaced like some diseased vision from Revelations. The way the creature moved! The slow lope totally alien to the run of a dog or calf, a kind of upright slithering ... [89]

Geoff Murphy, dir.: The Quiet Earth (1985)

Those of you more familiar with Geoff Murphy's classic feature film version of The Quiet Earth (with a screenplay by Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, and Sam Pillsbury) probably find this episode not at all what you would expect from the story as you know it.

Like the book's John Hobson, the film's Zac Hobson (played by Bruno Lawrence) wakes up alone in a motel room outside Thames. If you watch it on a DVD with the 'commentary' feature on, you'll hear how proud the film-makers are of that first nearly half an hour of screen time without a single line of dialogue.

It's a tour-de-force. And the powerful logic of the film's story persuades us that's how it must always have been: that that's the way these plots are supposed to go: Zac's lunatic delusions in Auckland, cured by a life-giving swim at Piha. His drive south, meeting first one, then another survivor. His eventual self-sacrifice to stop the 'effect' continuing to the destruction of all life on earth. That final re-awakening on an alien beach, with its wonderful last shot of a strange new planet rising into the spectacular new sky ...

So what about this strange beast - this apocalyptic revenant from a nightmare - this living disproof that John Hobson can be driving down the same island he knew before?

On the one hand, there's the mysterious nature of Rotorua itself - that place where hidden forces come close to the surface, seemingly always ready to break through - manifesting in strange events and disconcerting discoveries even for the most casual tourist (as I outlined in another blogpost earlier this year: The Mysteries of Rotorua).

On the other hand, there's the clear juxtaposition of this terrifying sight with Hobson's long flashback, in the next chapter, chapter 13, to the life and death of his severely autistic and disabled son Peter. The sole communication he achieves with the boy is (he believes) a request to be allowed to die:
If he wanted to kill himself, what could we do? I knew what the official answer would be; he would have to be placed under close watch in a mental hospital. If necessary, under restraint. [101]
Now, as Hobson stands in his motel room, with the muzzle of a shotgun in his mouth, trying (and failing) to make himself pull the trigger, he remembers the final scene of Peter's life:
I am sitting on the edge of the bath. Peter's eyes are devious, they glance in all directions and then again with a wrench of his head they fix on my face. I know what will happen. Holding the sides of the bath, he sinks back, slowly. His face goes from the air by inches, mouth closed, the edge of the water sliding up his face in a silver glint of surface tension, the trapped bubbles of air bright like chromium beads, his eyes open beneath the water. His hair floats and drifts, rising from his forehead, combed in slow motion by the lift of the silver line. Now I have to decide. Ten seconds. Wet skin glitters. The eyes widen. I stand, trembling, the reflections slipping over the brilliance. Goodbye Peter. He will only see my lips move. Then the lights.
I go down the hallway and into the kitchen. I go back into the hall. My child is dying. I go into the front room. Joanne is out. He knows that. I go into the kitchen. How long? I shall tell the inquest I went for a towel to the airing cupboard. Some things fell out when I opened the door. Then the phone rang. Wrong number. Then it was too late. I go into the front room. Dear God. I wrap my arms around myself. I am shivering. The sky dark blue. There is no noise. [104]

Craig Harrison: The Quiet Earth (1981)

It's not that the actual idea of a kind of cyclic purgatory, going over again and again the worst features of your life, is such an original one: it's not even that unusual a fictional solution to the idea of fleshing out fantastical landscapes. It's more the fact that Craig Harrison takes it so far, writes with such severe, disciplined precision, that makes this - to my mind, at any rate - one of the very best New Zealand novels, realist, speculative, or otherwise.
The stunned clarity of the landscape seemed almost insulting; but even this was only like an extension of the indifference it had always radiated. I had felt it often when driving through remote hills in the past, on deserted roads. The clear light which scrubbed the hills into such precise definition, which polished seas and rinsed distance from time as well as space, had not changed. The nothingness stretching over huge sections of land infinitely had extended itself everywhere [23-24]
I guess we're more used to this kind of Terra Nullius evocation in descriptions of Australia: the endless sky, the boundless landscape running by. Expatriate Brit Harrison feels it here, too, though. It's as if New Zealand has always been a kind of purgatory for him: an afterlife, devoid of civilised life, not to mention the patina lent to Old World - in Harrison's case, Yorkshire - landscapes by age and long occupation.
The landscape held no possibilities other than those of that moment. You felt you had seen it all forever. It had no psychic resonance, no memories, no past; nothing human had ever happened here. That was not unusual for parts of New Zealand [my emphasis].

What is the reality behind the mystery that leaves John Hobson alone in New Zealand: apparently the only creature still alive?
Craig Harrison's book gives an unforgettable picture of a world where nothing is as it seems, a world haunted by loneliness and fear.
Of course the fallacy in all this will have struck you already. The South Island myth aside, New Zealand is not, nor ever has been - for the past thousand years, at least - an empty world, where 'nothing human had ever happened'.

When it comes to Craig Harrison, though, you're preaching to the choir. Pākehā / Māori race relations have been his bread and butter as a writer ever since he first arrived here, back in the dim and distant 1960s. Having given John Hobson a gigantic case of white man's guilt, he goes on to explain a few of the reasons why, beginning with a childhood meeting with a young Māori boy from 'an old house in the next street':
I said something like 'Come in,' but he looked away, shook his head, and mumbled, 'Nah, better go, eh,' and walked off.
I was surprised, not merely at the warnings my aunt and uncle gave me about the undesirability of associating with Polynesian children, since I already had a vague idea that they disliked Maoris, and remarks about contagious scabies and head lice were familiar in the form of general warnings against people one should not mix with; no, what amazed me was the extent of my own naïveté, revealed by the fact that the Maori boy knew more about my surrogate parents than I did [84]
When John Hobson does finally meet another human being in his strange Odyssey down the North Island it is, predictably, a Māori, ex-soldier Apirana Maketu. And they meet on the Volcanic Plateau, almost exactly in the centre of the island (rather than in Hamilton, as they do in the movie).
'Why us, then?' he asked; 'we must be special, eh?'
'We must have something in common,' I said, absurdly. He stood back and looked at me, in mock confusion. His face was lightened by very white teeth and the going of the frown, but he was quite dark-skinned and his eyes were very black and quick, scanning me up and down.
'You don't look like Ngati Porou to me,' he said. [123]

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story, 'Catfish', the protagonist of which is a retired Academic trying to compose a critical essay on Craig Harrison's The Quiet Earth (whilst simultaneously struggling against his own suicidal tendencies). You can, if you're curious, find the whole story in my recent collection Ghost Stories. Here's a quote from the essay-within-the-story:
Far more effectively than in the more programmatic Broken October, Hobson’s suspicions, fears, and final downright homicidal ferocity against Apirana Maketu – note the closeness of that surname to mākutu [curse] – map pākehā paranoia with deadly accuracy. [86]
As the blurb above puts it: "The conclusion to this disturbing and brilliantly written novel has a deadly impact." Or, as my protagonist goes on to say in his essay:
The Quiet Earth is, basically, a novel about suicide. Its surface preoccupations with colonial guilt and racism, however strongly expressed, mask an obsession with the details of what might happen after death, especially if that death came out of despair.
Immediately after his terrifying encounter with the strange abortion / shadow-creature, Hobson “put the muzzle of the shotgun in my mouth and reached down to the trigger.” On this occasion, though, “I could do nothing.”
It isn’t till long afterwards, in narrative time, after he and his companion Apirana have run down the one surviving woman in Wellington in their car – by accident, but really as a result of the macho rivalry between them – and the two of them have fought to a finish (Hobson wins: sort of), that he finally has the strength to go back to his point of origin and complete the deed.
His realization, at that point, that he hated his own autistic son and indeed caused his death by drowning, linked to the fact that he and his wife spent their honeymoon in Rotorua, gives some substance to his sense that he is indeed creating the circumstances around him: that they constitute a kind of psychological parody of the conditions of his own life.
Of course, as luck would have it, when he does finally muster the guts to kill himself, he wakes up again, in the same hotel room, with – presumably – the same journey of self-discovery to endure.
No wonder the film chose a more cosmic ending, with its hero knocked through a hole between worlds into a beautiful alien beachscape, with a ringed, Saturn-like planet climbing up from a strangely tranquil sea.
The fact that this is clearly the same West Coast beach which he swam at earlier in the movie, might offer a hint towards the inescapable self-referential mise-en-abîme which lies at the heart of the book. [88-89]

Do I still agree with my character? Did I ever agree with my character, in fact? The great thing about fiction is that you can have it both ways at once. It's certainly a plausible reading of The Quiet Earth, and it does tie in nicely with my own story's preoccupations.

Earlier on the essay says:
The strength of the idea behind Harrison’s novel is, however, not so much in this use of Nietzsche’s “eternal return” as a plot-structuring device, as the facility with which it enables him to discuss the racial, post-colonial themes so close to his heart.
That sounds a bit more like it, to me. There are plenty of 'empty world' stories out there - Earth Abides, I am Legend, The Stand. It's safe to say that none of these are one-idea books. All of them take the opportunity to explore in depth just what it is that bugs their respective authors most about the world we humans have built for ourselves.

That, for me, is a bit closer to the magnitude of Harrison's achievement in this, his second-to-be-published - and almost certainly his greatest - novel. Broken October has many strengths (though not probably not as many as the stage play, Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day, that preceded it). Ground Level, which came next, perhaps found more appropriate expression in slapstick form as the pioneering TV sit-com Joe and Koro.

In The Quiet Earth Harrison really found his stride, however. It's a claustrophobic, singularly dark vision he gives us - the film had to lighten it quite a few shades to make it acceptable to a larger audience - but that's what makes it such an impressive novel. It's something one can go back, finding new facets - both disturbing and enlightening - at each repetition of poor John Hobson's self-created, self-cursed trajectory.

Bruno Lawrence (1941-1995)


Richard said...

Having read this I read your story Jack. The second of the ghost stories I have read. Very good indeed! I think he interconnects a number of things. The white man meeting the Maori is to do with colonialism etc -- and the strange beast he sees is a nightmare of the Other which is the self, the misanthropy is general and the man's -- but it is more than a metaphor of NZ-Maori history (although it seems the book must show that powerfully -- it also connects to recurrence and even maybe via Camus to a kind of Sisyphean thing (but how can one "triumph" in Nietzsche's or Camus's or even Sartre's worlds? The idea seems slightly mad to me. Although I know it is metaphorical. It is stark.
Your story "cheats" as I know you have a soft spot for cats...and it could have been revealed, surely, the cat was an incarnation of the "monster" seen in Harrison's story or something.
'Wittgenstein's Mistress' is another of those existential things (a woman is alone in the world) although the significances are complicated by "referring" to the Tractatus, and in my copy there is a good afterword by David Foster Wallace.
In any case, I liked your story, and want to read those works by Harrison. It sounds as if the book is 'better' than the movie. In any case the book and the film are always different regardless how the movies are presented.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Stephen King makes a great thing of the 'monster' cat in his novel Pet Sematary - for myself, I'm afraid that that's completely out-of-bounds, I'm afraid.

I do think the book is richer than the movie, though the latter has many impressive features also. They're really more like parallel works than 'versions' of one another.

Richard said...

I am getting more interested in King although to date only his movies, Vic has read a few of his books...

Vic saw 'The Quiet Earth' and felt for him it didn't work or keep working but started well. I am getting Harrison's book as, having reviewed Rapatahana's two novels and read your novellas! ... It sounds interesting.

In your novella it is amusing your 'interlocuter' or Overseer keeps commenting on your divagations into Swedenborg via H. James senior and later you get to Henry James himself, then Nabakov of Lolita (?) is (almost) implied and James's story of a kind of struggle with himself, which is what is possibly happening through colonialism. But Senior James is affected, Harrison's character sees a similar (vastation?) and so on. Clever the way you envelope these narratives in 'erudite' references...Leicester would be annoyed at your snobbishness (!!) and amused also by the cleverness of it all. And you still have a foot in Borges's camp and de Bergerac etc etc...

And you dare to have a cat in your story! A cute one (they are the worst and full of plots). And a dead wife...It is all too tragic and your 'helper' woman? Does she succeed in her devilish plot of getting a cat to you, and then she...or were they supernatural voices Jack on the phone? Come on Jack!

Richard said...

Hi Jack. Reporting in. I read 'The Quiet Earth' (and purchased Broken October). It is an incredible book. In the end it is indeed like that eternal recurrence and it reminded me of my reading of a book of essays by Terry Eagleton on Evil. It might be called Evil. The book is absolutely absorbing and I have to agree with the 'No Exit' idea. Although it is readable on other levels. For example, the character, Hobson, slowly emerges as dubious (but you are right about the intensity of Harrison's writing and the uniqueness). Thus my suspicions of Hobson. What does the reader believe in what is almost a mise en abyme? Did he actually find those terrible photographs. In suspending belief I can do this take: that Hobson IS, but possibly the others are fictions (they are indeed Other to use a worn term)...but within that doubt Hobson gets less and less likeable so my recollections of No Exit (which is frightening like 'The Third Policeman' by Flann O'Brien and 'Pincher Martin' by Golding (indeed also Ambrose Bierce's 'Incident at Owl's Creek...'): it is a great but almost traumatic novel (two other examples 'Cotter's England' by Christina Stead and 'Ethan Frome' by Edith Wharton)* As that happened, and his use of 'The Maori' and so on makes the No Exit reading a good one. But "evil"? And at the level of Pakeha vs Maori in NZ (or overall Coloniser vs Colonised) it has a point. Perhaps the key is what he finds written about himself. It is as if there are some things he might or can invent but others he cant evade.

But it is certainly worth a read. It is close to one of our (or the) great books. I must read some more of his.

I have been absent without leave and haven't caught up with the other posts here yet. I can produce a Doctor's note! My abject apologies as the Chief Commentator...

*Why are their so many great but awful novels like that? But Harrison's is a great read also like them.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Is there a kind of self-hatred in writers that leads them to concoct such hells for themselves? I guess there must be. Perhaps it's the principle of trying to think of the absolute worst thing, in the hopes that nothing that *actually* happens can be as bad as that?

Richard said...

Yes. That, thinking of the worst thing, which for Sartre was a Hell (a "real" Hell, it almost is): a kind of moral existential Hell. Otherwise, it seems, people could make excuses, such as their subconscious etc. For him it seems there were to be no excuses, no exits. I think that derives via Nietzsche. But it makes me wonder. Kafka I can handle, and Flann O'Brien of 'At Swim Two Birds', but some of the other things...

But even if the genetic research for something (one theory I thought of was it was the thing that allowed some of us to avoid all the horror, then another was as the novel progressed to the end, that it was some kind of mysterious message). I think Harrison's book is not unbearable though. It is a good eat. In Rapatahana's 'TOA' the pretty dysfunctional world the character is in is a bit Kafkaesque with even a 'reference' to 'Once Were Warriors' (satirical) which ('Once Were...') could be argued was written about a reality per se (though some Maori I have met felt it was not balanced in its focus on Maori): but it has a message about a wrong and wrongs. Harrison's does also in a veiled way.

But is it self-hate they write some of these really awful things? I think also humans, as well a comedy, like those dark fairy stories. Something like that.