Song of the Brakeman happens in a world where the earth's resources are almost exhausted, the water supplies are contaminated and parts of the landmasses have imploded. But the crisis into which this novel plunges the reader is not only an ecological one. An urban technician and his tribal lover are forced to take sides in a life-or-death struggle between irreconcilable forces: one in possession of the earth's remaining wealth and power, the other carrying the genetic key to the survival of mankind.
Bill Direen has written about a Balkans refugee in Berlin, a coma-victim at a rock concert, and the underbelly of art-obsessed Paris. In Song of the Brakeman a new cast of edgy characters is born to a world heading for extinction.
To justify the errors of their machine they sent me for a therapy called Writing.- Bill Direen, Song of the Brakeman (Auckland: Titus Books, 2006): 114.
The blurb above certainly doesn't do justice to the profoundly disturbing nature of William (Bill) Direen's masterpiece, Song of the Brakeman.
Direen is probably more famous, still, as an alt rock musician than as a writer. “Bill Direen is Chris Knox for people who think of Chris Knox as Neil Finn” - as Scott Hamilton once mordantly summarised Direen’s status within New Zealand music. As a solo artist, and with his band The Bilders in all its various manifestations, he's compiled a large back-catalogue of deliberately 'lo-fi' recordings and performances.
His writing career came later, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You can find an annotated list on his Wikipedia page, as well as in the (selected) bibliography below.
Rather than attempt to characterise his work - in its most extreme form, as manifested in such parts of his œuvre as Song of the Brakeman - it seems easier to quote some examples. Here's a touching anecdote from a conversation his protagonist, the Brakeman, has with a fellow customer in a brothel, early on in the novel:
'It's the month of the partial eclipse. I've lost everything and I'm walking along where my house used to be, looking for anything, a dog collar, a plank of wood painted cosy green. Among those fjords that used to be my suburb there it is, docked between two rocks, a trimaran on stilts. A light is shining from the observation window. I climbs a rock and sees a lean figure, scarlet, part-man, part-woman, piece shining like a diamond. She opens her blouse to another, a two-way him-her, who draws a fiber from her heart and eats it neat. He grows, slow and painful like there's a weight inside him. They mock each other on the slippery decking, spitting in the face, you know, and twining like it ain't, y'know, love, like eels on heat. You seen that?'If that doesn't mean a lot to you, fear not. The foreign inflections of the idioms of our future will fall gradually into focus, until finally you'll wonder why you ever had any trouble with them ... One of the central problems with this future, however, is its insistence on the evils of unrestricted writing. One of the Brakeman's earliest misdeeds is cooking up a batch of ink for his upstairs neighbour, an aristocratic young dancer:
The mercenary's rendition was corn porn, but his trade was his will and testament. He had seen a tribeswoman donating to save one of our boys who, like me, was less than tribal. Galveston had him as beefsteak before World Independence Day. 
When she asked me for ink I couldn't refuse, though I knew the danger. Anyone who used that stuff was regarded as an enemy of the state. I perfected the mix that would be the cause of her arrest, a crimson viscous concoction thickened with carbon from the incineration pits. You could do anything with it, old conning peasant dark drivel, government poetry, South Sea journals, delta discoveries, but that monkey bile would darken her manuscript best of all. That list could serve quite nicely as a characterisation of the book itself. All of those things (and more) are to be found within these pages.
Matt Kelly: Cover Image (2007)
My brother Ken wrote a review of Bill's book in brief #35. In it he commented particularly on this central linguistic aspect of the novel:
The driving, pulsating, often super-elaborate quality of the language was another fascination. Direen can create a new slang in every page. He can involve mystical reasonings, implied comments on the human condition, in what is largely a fast-moving narrative texture. For those who love language for its own sake, this makes for an invigorating ride. Both these additions and the poetical aspirations of the book take it, in fact, outside the bounds of Science Fiction proper. We could say that by a synthesis of directions, Direen has managed to occupy new literary ground.With due respect to Ken, I'm not quite sure that I agree there. It's true that such violent dislocations of language do seem more designed to evoke Finnegans Wake than (say) The Day of the Triffids (a comparison already made by Scott Hamilton in his launch speech for the book). 'Science Fiction proper' has always been a bit of a difficult beast to taxonomise, however. As Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest remark in the epigraph to their 1962 anthology Spectrum 2:- K. M. Ross, 'Review of Song of the Brakeman.'
brief 35 - A brief world order, ed. Brett Cross (September 2007): 120-21.
'Sf's no good,' they bellow till we're deaf.I'd like, instead, to suggest a few possible analogues:
'But this looks good.' - 'Well then, it's not sf.- Kingsley Amis & Robert Conquest, ed. Spectrum II: A Second Science Fiction Anthology. 1962. Pan Science Fiction (London: Pan Books Ltd., 1965): 4.
Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)
The obvious one is with Russell Hoban's classic novel Riddley Walker (1980). Because it's written in a gnomic, riddling style, the fact that this is clearly a piece of SF in the standard understanding of the term - plot-wise, thematically, and in terms of intention - was repeatedly denied by critics who felt that it was too accomplished to deserve the appelation. The generic flexibility of Hoban's other work - from fantasy in The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jaachin-Boaz (1973) to the eco-fiction of Turtle Diary (1975) - gave fuel to their argument: somewhat absurdly, in retrospect.
Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom: The Jesus Incident (1979)
I would challenge any reader to go through the first twenty or so pages of the work above and give me an accurate summary of their contents. It takes time for post-new wave SF novels to establish the ground rules both of the cosmos they inhabit and the language in use there. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes (as in this case) extremely challenging. It's something that die-hard fans learn to live with. Non-SF-tempered readers can find it a sore trial, however.
And yet no-one ever proposed the novel above as anything but strict SF, despite its thematic complexity and scope. The same is true of the more conventionally composed Dune (1965), despite its obvious status as one of the most influential novels of the past fifty years (as a pioneering piece of 'planetary ecology', among many other things).
Alan Moore: Voice of the Fire (1996)
My final exhibit is comics-supremo Alan Moore's debut print - as opposed to graphic - novel, Voice of the Fire. The resemblances here with Riddley Walker are strong, despite the prehistoric setting of the first section of his story. This makes it what? Fantasy? Historical fiction? Fantasy-&-SF? In the end, all one can really call it is a singularly ambitious novel, tout court.
And so, without doubt, is Direen's Song of the Brakeman.
Speaking for myself, I found the first fifty or so pages of the book fairly impenetrable on my first run through - after that, however, things settled into a more or less comprehensible narrative. Turning back, however, the first pages seemed no more difficult than the last: it's as if it simply takes that long for Brakeman's language to come into focus - rather like that in use in the memory-less world of Anna Smaill's The Chimes.
Anna Smaill: The Chimes (2015)
Direen's book is in four sections:
- The Yard (pp. 7-98): The Brakeman in his natural state, working to repair the vehicles that roar up and down the broken super-highways of this devastated future world. The start of his love affair with the queen of the rebellion, Enola, and his meeting with the mistress of theory, Myra.
It was twenty five years since the world, or what was left of it, had declared itself one state. The world turned twenty six. The new configuration of the earth's plates was holding. Magnetic lines were settling in to the new order. We were belting through time as before, 365 days a ringband, 67,000 miles an hour, the sun beating through the milky way once every 225 million years. It was eternity as usual ...
I was afraid to sleep, and afraid not to. I sat up nights watching, waiting. The weather was playing tricks. Cloud was condensing in the yard, dribbling down the walls. It was gray all day, every day. 
- Pell (pp. 99-179): The Brakeman in prison, tortured within an inch of his life, but finally contriving to escape in a Blackhawk helicopter with Enola, who's been masquerading as a nurse within the facility.
It had been a long dry, as great a calamity as when the ice caps had melted and the dried-up viscera of the earth had caved in, fragmenting the continents. True water had sunk beneath the petroleum gunge, the dregs of centuries. Underground caves had sucked it way down till it was too deep to bore. Some of the water had returned as steam from volcanic port-holes but it had changed. Its chemical composition was no longer H2O ... A weight, heavy as earth itself, rose above us. 
- The Flood (pp. 181-205): Their subsequent adventures in the viscous soup that passes for the remnants of the world's oceans, in an increasingly dreamlike state, as their son Richie is born and grows into maturity in the space of a few days.
As we penetrated Flood we found that there were areas which did not congeal in the night, and crusted floating masses which did not dissolve during the morning. These merged on contact to form floating islands. Their terrain appeared smooth but was jagged with dangerous crystal blooms. Not all floating objects were dangerous. Some were boons. One floating crate was full of sealed packets of seaweed powder, rich in vitamins. 
- The Tribe (pp. 207-64): The revelations at the heart of the forest, the final battle between Cadena's forces of destruction and the survivors of the tribe: the birth of a new consciousness beyond the alternating forces of life and death.
The chiefs lacked the usual combination of elements, of right and left, male and female. They were formed in a way I had never contemplated. Few of the males had scrotums to speak of and few of their penises had stems - they were knobs of Tyrian purple nosing out of thinning fur. The breasts of those who had them, whom I will call the women, were large. In fact, they were being milked and their primary protein source must have contained some antidote, an ingredient that kept many of the limitless poisons and microbes at bay. The ganglia of many were, nevertheless, tumefied. The necks of some were lymphatic pile-ups, Many had stitch marks where apprentice surgeons had implanted digestive organs. Some displayed evidence of freelance experiments: patches of animal fur, non-human mammalian genitals ineptly implanted. This gave me hope. Where there were surgeons there was some form of anesthesia and stitching thread to retrieve Myra's theory. [225-26]
Jean Wimmerling: Cli-fi (2018)
This last section of Direen's book, in particular, defies easy summary. His prose grows increasingly surrealist and disjointed, till it begins to resemble a strange cross between Angela Carter (the first chapter, in particular, of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann - published in the US as The War of Dreams) and the Comte de Lautréamont's visionary Chants de Maldoror.
Mind you, something like this might be expected of a narrator who learned his art in prison, under the watchful eye of his torturers (as well as Enola, his tribal lover disguised as a nurse):
She had a stack of biros and I was soon working with my left hand. Soon we would have a script, a real pot-boiler. Old trash with the hot stink, survival stories, commando raids, jealous killers, androgynous embryo-farming hitchhiking cannibals, city-born unknowing incest pairs, isosceles political love triangles, rebellious impotent pinned entomologists hot for virgins and farmer-savages, heretic self-made execution-rippers caging leper monks and concupiscent boat-boys.More to the point, however, when Brakeman finally reaches the centre of his personal labyrinth, the regions of the tribe, he is separated from Enola and acclimatised to the new conditions by his new he/she lover Xanjal:
Imagining is free, even in three-word strings. 
On the fifteenth day we rose from the bed and she guided me through the city. There were two cities, she said, contained in the same space, but she could only show me one. There was no law against looking through the cracks in the temple walls. There were centuries-old icons there, pheasants being roasted over fires of seasoned cherry wood, a priest sprinkling oregano over the flames. In another chapel I saw women being crucified for having failed impossible tasks. I fell back. She laughed at that. She said no one sees other than what is in his or her own mind. She was so like a ghost when we went through the city together, that I asked her if she had ever been in touch with the dead. She said that death returns us to the future. We arrive every moment from the future. When we die we go there eternally. [230-31]"No one sees other than what is in his or her own mind" - is that the final message of Direen's book (insofar as any book needs a 'final message')? Certainly Aleister Crowley's motto (borrowed from Rabelais): 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,' appears to be the only rule that applies in this strange multi-layered city / swamp / forest.
Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)
Another, even stranger influence on his work might be seen elsewhere, in the weird fantasy adventures of Victorian visionary Rider Haggard. Direen's endlessly dying and reviving heroine Enola (named, presumably, for the bomb that spawned all these misadventures and transcendences) reminds one of no-one so much as Haggard's immortal heroine She-who-must-be-obeyed:
Rider Haggard: She (1887)
And not simply in her first incarnation as the white queen of a cannibal tribe in Africa, but her later, even weirder appearance in the mountains of Tibet, as the reborn Ayesha.
Rider Haggard: Ayesha: The Return of She (1905)
We could continue this allusion-hunting indefinitely, however. I have to admit that I still have many questions about Direen's book, though. Why, for instance, is there a state of John Logie Baird, the Scottish inventor of television, outside the spurious 'voting booth' on p.25? Does he have a place in this future polity akin to that of Henry Ford in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World?
Is the trimaran found by Brakeman and Enola in the swamps of Flood, on p.188, the same as the one described in my first extended quote above, the one where a tribeswoman is seen donating her heart's blood to save 'one of our boys'?
What is the significance of the name 'Richie Tibbetts'? Why is Enola and Ex-P's child called that? The account of his birth and upbringing and the strange sledding expedition to save his mother from a trapper (pp.194-96) is pretty trippy even by the standards of the rest of the book. Is this where the dreamtime really begins?
Bill Direen: Onævia (2004)
One obvious source of answers to this and other tantalising mysteries in the book might seem to be this earlier work by Direen, described by him on the SOUTH INDIES TEXT & MUSIC PUBLISHING site as the "invented history of an imaginary land, taking as its lead such masterpieces as Swift's Gulliver's Travels and More's Utopia. It is the first story of an SF sequence that includes Song of the Brakeman, L, and the two parts of Enclosures 'Jonah', and 'The Stadium'."
There is a somewhat more circumstantial blurb on Goodreads:
The nation of Onævia grows and declines on the edge of a vast continent. Games, cuisine, beliefs and unusual practices offer a glimpse of a polymorphic people, from the coronation of the first king to the capture of the last surviving Onævian.In practice, though, even if it is meant to serve as a 'prequel' to Song of the Brakeman, there's little in the strange fabular history of Onævia and its gradual descent into decadence and madness that serves to elucidate the latter work in any obvious way. In fact, the doings of the Boowigs and other descendants of the hunter Ighmut sound more like an exercise in Voltairean satire than the nightmarish, Ballardian headtrip of Brakeman.
There is, however, an intriguing paragraph on the god 'Flood' in the section on mythology in the appendix to Direen's book:
Flood was the fourth child of the second generation. Redundant, you might think, in the sea. But he liked nothing better than to glut himself on the shoreline and coastal plains. He reached his slime-coated needle-toes up, and scooped mouthfuls of soil down into his sieve-like gullet. He rose into the sky making beautiful clouds, before rushing down to have his pleasure of the earth, spreading amorphous over the valleys and plains, gathering huts, animals, soil and inhabitants, before spilling, with his plunder, into the discoloured ocean.Certainly one can recognise there some of the imagery of (in particular) part three of the later novel. Even if - as is quite probable - there are other anticipations there I've missed, Song of the Brakeman is surely the Huckleberry Finn to Onævia's Tom Sawyer: a sequel so much richer than its original that it must really stand alone.- Bill Direen, Onævia: Fable. 2002 (Auckland: Titus Books, 2004): 110.
Rose Rees-Owen: Scott Hamilton (2015)
In his launch speech for the book, From First to Fourth Gear, poet and critic Scott Hamilton pointed out the rich heritage Direen's book is drawing on:
The story of Bill's Brakeman also calls up some interesting parallels in the canon of Kiwi literature. One thinks of Lear, a post-apocalypse novel by Mike Johnson ... and The Quiet Earth, the Craig Harrison novel which Geoff Murphy filmed in the '80s. The Quiet Earth showed us the conflict between a Pakeha scientist partially responsible for an experiment that has depopulated the earth, and a Maori who rejects him and his science, and ends up stealing the last girl on earth from him. There is a similar tension in Bill's novel between the Brakeman, a scientist implicated obscurely in the ecological catastrophe that has befallen the earth, and his lover, who belongs to a group of people who live a pre-industrial life. In Song of the Brakeman, as in The Quiet Earth, there is the question whether science and technology are hopelessly implicated in a way of life which has led to apocalypse, or whether they can be made to serve different ends. Can the scientist redeem himself, or must he suffer the same fate as the order he once served?
Critic Te Arohi (2019)
In a subsequent interview with Megan Anderson, printed in Otago University's student magazine Critic Te Arohi 7 (2007): 46-7), Direen himself offered some insights into the musical (and political) inspirations for his book:
Song of the Brakeman is set in a world like ours, but it is impossible to treat it as such. The landscape Direen portrays is one in which the continents have fragmented, the environment is irrevocably tainted, the ice caps have melted, and the entire hydrological cycle is suspended. Direen calls it “a world of the imagination, rather than of the future.” This is reassuring, as the world Direen paints is the sort of apocalyptic future one could easily envisage for our own world, if global warming is anything to go by ...That seems as good a place as any to end - or, should I say, in the words of the X-Files, to suspend investigations.
During an interview with the Dunedin-based Bill Direen, Critic got the impression that storyline plays a relatively small role in Direen’s writing ... What’s particularly striking about the novel is its musicality. Direen uses narrative as an expressive tool, constantly altering the narrative’s pace, rhythm and tone to represent what it’s describing. What begins as a choppy, violent urban setting reflected through a film noir / Sin City monologue evolves into a retreat into nature — or what is left of it in a deteriorating world — a lyrical prose flooded with imagery. This performative aspect of Direen’s work is something he is obviously passionate about ... and this is evident in his search for a language which “includes the verbal elements and the musical elements which [are] a part of me, which [have] always been a part of me.” Direen emphasises the sound and musicality of language, rather than focusing on just the semantic qualities of words: “Because I was a musician, and still am” he says, “music and rhythm, and a lot of the musical aspects of language play a big part in the way that I see literature” ...
Direen is adamant that his search for an expressive, musical language is not him “purposely trying to be difficult in this language thing” though he admits, “People have accused me of it” ... The actual song of the Brakeman, sung enthusiastically by Brakeman in the midst of the exceedingly violent interrogation scenes of Part II, is, as Direen says “intended as light relief, really, because of all this heavy stuff.” Direen admits that “It’s a satirical piece, I guess. It’s sort of anti-capitalist.” This makes sense when considering how Direen’s interrogation scenes were influenced by the Guantanamo Bay imprisonments. While Direen refers to America extensively in the novel, he stressed that ‘it’s not anti-American, but obviously I use America as a model for the world state.” ...
At the end of the interview Direen asked Critic of his book, “Did you think it was bizarre?”
Song of the Brakeman bizarre? Perhaps. An absorbing novel regardless? Certainly.
The X-Files (1993-2018)
William (Bill) Direen
- Wormwood: Novel (1997)
- The Impossible: Short Stories. Wellington: Alpha Books, 2002.
- Nusquama: Novel (2002)
- Onævia: Fable. 2002. Auckland: Titus Books, 2004.
- Jules. Wellington: Alpha Books, 2003.
- Coma. Titus Novellas. Auckland: Titus Books, 2005.
- New Sea Land: Poems. Auckland: Titus Books, 2005.
- Song of the Brakeman. Auckland: Titus Books, 2006.
- Enclosures. Auckland: Titus Books, 2008.
- The Ballad of Rue Belliard. Auckland: Titus Books, 2013. [In Brett Cross, ed. brief 48 (June 2013).]
- Enclosures 2: Europe, New Zealand; Centre; Stoat: Canal City; Survey. Dunedin: Percutio, 2016.
- Enclosures 3: Treatmen(o)t; Scipio Sonn; Nyons-Nice-Venice; Tattoo; from Stoat. Dunedin: in situ, 2017.
- Enclosures 4. 2018.
Homepages & Online Information:
William Direen: Jules (2003)