Carl Shuker - A mesmerizing opus by a first-time novelist worth remembering, The Method Actors trails a group of smart, stylish twentysomethings in Tokyo, where ideas of dislocation apply to the simplest comings and goings

Carl Shuker, The Method Actors: A Novel, Counterpoint, 2005.                        

The Method Actors is set in Japan, New York, and New Zealand. When a young military historian named Michael Edwards disappears in Tokyo, his sister Meredith comes to the city to search for him. There she meets up with old friends and acquaintances from all over the world: ex-JET exchange teachers from Canada, ex-drug addicts from Australia, drug dealers from the Netherlands, young American women with Japanese husbands hostessing for money, French kitchenhands, young Japanese mushroom growers, and wealthy young Chinese-Americans living the high life. Meredith begins to encounter increasing evidence that Michael was involved in something deeper and darker than she could have suspected: a secret history going back through Japanese war crimes in China in World War II to the quarantining of Dutch merchants on manmade islands during Japan's period of isolationism in the seventeenth century.

Kiwinovelist Shuker's debut follows a set of gaijin—young international 20-somethings who have gravitated to ultrahip, fast-forward Tokyo—as one of their number goes missing. A young Wellington-born military historian researching the Rape of Nanking, Michael Edwards suddenly disappears from his coterie, and his ex-pat clan swings into action despite their own problems. Michael's sister Meredith, 22, rushes back from a U.S. trip and must negotiate their complicated family's concern, as well as her own lack of direction. Catherine (married at 24 and having recently ended an affair with Michael), Yasuhiko (a misfit ex-botanist drug dealer to the rich and foreign), New Zealander Simon and his occasional bedmate Jacques—all get involved to one degree or another, when they can stop thinking about fashion, sex or drugs. Shuker uses short sections titled by character to shift back and forth in time, place and perspective. Meredith tirelessly roots around her brother's life, but the complex, grandiose scope of Michael's research (which may hold the key) pales in comparison to the Tokyo appearance of Catherine's husband. Shuker's dizzying debut shimmers with authentic detail, an uncanny, otherworldly sense of place and a cast of believably hardcore hipsters. - Publishers Weekly

Loner Yasu cultivates psilocybin mushrooms in his Tokyo apartment. Precocious college dropout Michael, the son of a wealthy New Zealand judge, is a rogue historian. When Michael disappears from his plush Tokyo digs, his sister, Meredith, flies in to search for him. She soon finds herself among a group of promiscuous fellow ex-pats who roam the enormous city, cell phones in hand, struggling with the language and feelings of alienation while consuming mass quantities of cigarettes, vending-machine beer, and drugs. As Meredith flounders, Yasu and his magic mushrooms dovetail with Michael's study of hidden Japanese war crimes in China during World War II. Shuker brilliantly captures Tokyo's edgy atmosphere and the cosmic loneliness of his characters in his overlong yet probing and imaginative debut novel, which possesses the frisson of Alex Garland's The Beach (1997) and a profound moral valence. How do we distinguish between the roles people play and their authentic selves? How contrived is history? How do we live with the knowledge of horrors such as the Japanese atrocities? Shuker poses daunting questions of conscience and compassion. - Donna Seaman

A mesmerizing opus by a first-time novelist worth remembering, The Method Actors trails a group of smart, stylish twentysomethings in Tokyo, where ideas of dislocation apply to the simplest comings and goings. Transplanted there from homes they'd just as soon forget, the friends wander with and around each other, sharing beds and drugs and histories, in search of a brilliant young historian who doesn't want to be found. The reason for his disappearance remains elusive, but it seems to have something to do with the work of a rogue botanist who engineers a highly potent strain of psychedelic mushrooms.
All the pieces are in place for a novel of fizzy dreams and fuzzy anxieties, which Carl Shuker delivers with an overflow of grace and ambition. Angling toward David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo in terms of style and tone, Shuker spies the internal and external worlds of characters who lose track of where one begins and the other ends. The historian develops his preoccupation with wartime atrocity into a heady consideration of the hallucinatory pull of history, which describes much of the way his friends and family go about living in the world. "Once peoples find themselves both capable and motivated in lying for a cause the concept of truth is immediately anachronism," one of the historian's interview subjects says in a cryptic film unearthed after his disappearance. It's a mystery how such a phenomenon takes hold, but it's less mysterious how the historian could go mad reconciling such a state with his utter rootlessness.
Shuker doesn't keep an especially tight hold on his ostensible themes, and his network of characters occasionally sprawls out of control, but The Method Actors nonetheless stands as a serious accomplishment. It's cerebral and probing, but also highly entertaining in the ways it surveys a city as rich for survey as Tokyo. The characters spend a lot of time mulling twentysomething dilemmas and delights in strange restaurants, commuter trains, cramped apartments, and streets that buzz with light and the noise of language. It's a rich backdrop for a novel that makes an impressive show of feeling lost and found at the same time. - Andy Battaglia

The Method Actors is a long novel -- nearly five-hundred pages --, a fact that's noteworthy because it doesn't seem to go anywhere, or at least not very far. Shuker's presentation -- not strictly chronological -- reinforces the notion, so one imagines it's on purpose, but it doesn't feel entirely right.        The central event in the novel is the disappearance of Michael Edwards, which leads to his sister Meredith coming to look for him, and the counterpoint of looking for him (in the present) and uncovering the past (including what Michael was doing up to that point, and what might have led to or caused his disappearance) doesn't fully drive the novel, which bogs down instead in lengthy incidental episodes, side-stories that often are all atmosphere and don't move anything much forward.
The Method Actors is a novel of twenty-somethings in Japan, foreigners (gaijin) in a very foreign land. In generally painstaking detail Shuker describes the foreigners' lives in Tokyo, from those who come over to teach English in the JET programme to the sons and daughters of privilege -- Michael and Meredith, whose father is a New Zealand judge with a penthouse suite in the Shinjuku Prince they can use and Simon, whose entrepreneur-father charges him with dining at the finest restaurants a couple of times a week to look for cooking staff he can poach for his restaurants. Chapters focus on different characters (some of them narrating their own stories, others not), making for perhaps close to a dozen closely observed foreigner-in-Japan accounts in all.        The scenes are well-related and detail-focussed, variations on a theme of often damaged people not yet sure of what they want to do with their lives trying to make their way in unreal Tokyo. Shuker could have built his whole novel around that (and at times it seems like he wants to), but he also has much grander ambitions. Specifically, there's Michael. Though a poor student it turns out he is very gifted and has, for years, been obsessed with history, writing a seminal paper on the Nanking Massacre that was published when he was still just in his teens. (In one of the few unrealistic touches Shuker has the paper reprinted in The New Republic, covering pages "20-57", but it's a magazine that rarely tops fifty pages total in length, and wouldn't print a piece of such length.)        Michael's thesis is a fascinating one, and his ideas on history something that one wishes Shuker had focussed on more intently. As is, there are only tantalizing digressions or hints ( a summary of his publishing-history, for example), Shuker on the whole preferring to focus on far less interesting day-to-day lives of his many characters to make his point. History continues to play a role -- specifically, then, early Western contacts with Japan -- but this far more compelling part of the narrative is decidedly the second tier.
       Michael's massacre-thesis also ties in with the book's other major preoccupation: mushrooms, specifically those with mind-altering effects. This part of the story brings in Yasu, the one prominent Japanese character, a disgraced mycologist whose promising career was ruined by a foreigner and who now grows mushrooms at home. Again Shuker wallows in detail (making for a mycologist's dream: rarely has fungus-growing been more lovingly and meticulously been described), and again he tells the story in a roundabout way, with the reasons for Yasu's disgrace, for example, only being revealed very late on.
       The details are often impressive: Shuker sets neat scenes, and accurately portrays so many different aspects of the Japan-experience, but often they seem to little end. The many characters that populate the book are also distracting: it's unclear whose fate the reader should focus on. (The presentation not being entirely in chronological order also doesn't help .....) Michael, though he figures in quite a few of the scenes from the past, remains a shadowy presence -- and his prodigy-status also isn't entirely convincing (though the idea of a history-prodigy is intriguing).
       Packed with ideas, and attempting to connect history, hallucination, contemporary alienation, and much more,
The Method Actors is enormously ambitious, but also unsatisfying. Shuker convinces in his details, especially of twentysomething foreigners in Tokyo, but also regarding his mushroom and historical forays, but the larger picture remains blurred.        Early on Michael is quoted: 
     "We were method actors," he says. "To know you gotta feel. To feel you gotta do. What if you could wake up imaginations, Cathy ? That's what I ask myself, every -morning-I-wake-up." 
       But it doesn't come across as entirely convincing, not enough of Michael revealed to explain what he's after.
       A very odd book, with a good deal of promise and many let-downs. - The Complete Review

“A tremendous stylist and a tremendous observer. . . . again and again I stopped to admire particular sentences and paragraphs.” —STEPHEN DOBYNS, THE CHURCH OF DEAD GIRLS

“I admire Shuker’s bravura attentiveness to the little things as much as I do his shameless and bracing bid for a Pynchonesque grand slam.” —GEOFFREY WOLFF, DUKE OF DECEPTION

“It’s difficult to convey here the thrill of Shuker’s writing, with its up-to-the-minute feel, its endless audacity … with its defiant difficulty, sly ambition and writing more than sharp enough to live up to its own hype.” —SAM FINNEMORE, THE LISTENER

Shuker’s novel immediately garnered comparisons to David Foster Wallace and David Mitchell when it was published in New Zealand. The voices and set pieces are dazzling. For me they call to mind the great Henry Green’s books full of characters in medias res, leaving the reader to sort out who is who and what is really going on. Shuker’s other books are also all highly recommended.  - Matt Bucher

CHINUA ACHEBE'S challenge to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" -- asking whether a novel that "depersonalizes a portion of the human race can be called a great work of art" -- is a particularly powerful example of a basic literary question. Can fiction that falsifies the nature of our reality have a meaningful artistic existence? From stream-of-consciousness monologues to noir thrillers, the work of innovative writers ("inventors," in Ezra Pound's formulation) brings back a fresh depiction of the world. But with their commercial cynicism or self-conscious style, failed novelists ("diluters," according to Pound) manage only to distort.
This is the issue at stake in Carl Shuker's first novel, an ensemble piece that jumps back and forth in time, point of view and tense, swimming deeply into its characters' consciousness, then out into cultural critique. Brash and fearless, "The Method Actors" is a self-consciously postmodern challenge to our perceived reality and its fictional depiction. But the question on which the book's success hinges is much older and simpler: does the formal ingenuity of its composition provide new insight or is it just an exercise in literary technique?
Shuker's basic plot concerns the disappearance from modern-day Tokyo of Michael Edwards, a young historian specializing in war crimes, and his sister's attempts to find him. Other story lines present other characters tangentially involved in that search: Yasu, a cultivator of magic mushrooms (apparently the drug of choice for East Asia's Generation X); Simon, the son of an international restaurateur; Catherine, Michael's abandoned lover, whom we know almost exclusively through successive drafts of a paper she's writing on Shakespeare. Various friends, lovers and acquaintances of these characters also wander into the action, exposing us to their perceptions and memories as the complex, multilayered reality of the book unfolds. "I lived in Tokyo for eight months," Simon tells us. "It moved quickly, and now there is a disassociated quality to it all, like a dream in which I can't remember myself as a character, like a movie with no sound. I tried, soon after I returned, just once, to explain the feeling to someone back in L.A. . . . It's like, everything you learn outside Tokyo is useless in Tokyo. Everything you learn in Tokyo is useless outside Tokyo."
With the exception of Yasu, the characters are young foreigners, prodigiously precocious in their tastes and appetites, navigating the opportunities for mind-altering adventure in a city -- "America's deformed little cyberbaby," one character calls it -- so complex and contradictory that exploring it can be a full-time occupation. Or so it seems to them. Doubtless they'd like to be known as expatriates, but they read more convincingly as senior-year-abroad tourists, afflicted with adolescent anomie: "The usual trajectory is they come to Tokyo looking for other selves, and only later do they begin to look for other people, whom they'll somehow magically find those other selves within."
At his best, however, Shuker is less investigative than descriptive. He lets his eye wander over anything -- a naked body, the anonymous expanses of an airport -- with equal patience and attention to detail. Virtually every one of his book's 500 pages has something worth lingering over, but many of the best passages are reserved for the cityscapes, which have an intensity reminiscent of William Gibson's visions of the gritty cybernetic future:
"Opposite, on the Tsutaya building, a TV four or five stories high is playing a Microsoft advertisement and in the dimming twilight the TV is lighting up the faces of the crowds in flickers, shining on a thousand heads of black hair. The air is thick and hot, radiating up from the concrete, and the traffic is roaring and the advertisement has changed to a video for the new Hitomi single and while I have been waiting here . . . I have seen a homeless man dragged past me by two uniformed Tobu department store staff to the police koban, protesting mildly, flapping his hands, some fluid leaking out of his pants, leaving a trail of wet on the concrete all the way back to Tobu, but it's so hot and there are so many people the fluid has already mostly evaporated or been tramped inside Shibuya station."
ALL this stylistic intricacy is certainly appealing, but is it more than merely ingenious? Michael's obsession with war crimes is presumably meant as a moral anchor for this fictional universe. But Michael -- perhaps internalizing the fractured nature of the narrative -- is unable to arrive at any durable historical or moral insight, which may be the reason for his disappearance. "If you're not confused," he says at one point, "you're not trying hard enough." Well, maybe. Here he sounds more like a grad student at a lecture on Derrida than a genuinely engaged historian.
A novel can explain a philosophical argument or it can dramatize it. In other words, a novel can make you think about something or make you experience it. (And sometimes, on rare occasions, it can do both.) Shuker's actors may not have completely mastered the Method: for much of the novel, they make you think but not feel. Despite its fascinations, this ambitious, often brilliant novel told me too much about itself and too little about the reality we all struggle to understand. - Neil Gordon

Carl Shuker, Three Novellas for a Novel, Mansfield Road Press, 2011.

Three Novellas for a Novel, based on the shocking true story of Tokyo's Super Free, is three intertwined 21st century horror stories set in a Japan riddled with concrete cancer. From the author of the Prize in Modern Letters-winning The Method Actors and the cult classic The Lazy Boys, with a new foreword.

“A thrilling ride … defiant difficulty, sly ambition and writing more than sharp enough to live up to its own hype … a rare pleasure for fans of truly innovative fiction." - The Listener

"Something like a modern classic. I tread carefully over the word masterpiece; still it's what I felt when I read it." - CS Leigh

Ah, experimental writing; the bane of any book reviewer's existence! Because as I've said here before, in many ways experimental books are virtually critic-proof, in that they are expressly designed to alienate and confuse a good half of the audience right from the start, and having a book reviewer point that out amounts to not much more than critical masturbation. That's the definition of experimental, after all, is that the artist is trying something that's never been done before; and as a result, that artist is going into that project not knowing in any way what the audience reaction is going to be, with it maybe finding a surprisingly large amount of sympathetic ears but most likely finding almost none at all. The reasons that experimental artists create such projects, then -- to express a startlingly unique vision, to innovate for the sake of innovation, to shake up the staid world of traditional rules and customs -- also tend to be critic-proof when all is said and done, making it very difficult indeed for a book reviewer like me to provide a decent critical analysis for such projects, or to give an overall general opinion of whether or not it's worth your time.
Take, for example, New Zealander Carl Shuker's online literary experiment Three Novellas for a Novel, a Radiohead-style "pay what you want" series of electronic novellas that are being
self-released at his website even as we speak, which was enthusiastically recommended to me by American author Michael FitzGerald (who I've also reviewed here in the past). Because let's just be as honest as we can -- it took me six damn reads of novella one before I could even begin to understand what was going on, and very quickly into novella two I realized that things were only going to get worse, leading me to simply giving up for good. But yet I curiously loved this project nonetheless, a dense and trippy and highly atmospheric fever-dream of a tale, told in the style of a David Lynch movie or perhaps a David Mitchell book, a story you don't read so much as you ingest. Plus, I know beforehand that I'm not the ideal target for this book anyway; these shared-theme novellas, adding up to a mid-sized unified novel by the end (hence its title), are in fact designed for the top one-percent of most intelligent, most educated, most erudite readers out there, those who are fatally bored with almost every single other book on the market and are looking for something especially juicy and challenging to sink their teeth into. If you're one of these people, you're going to freaking love Three Novellas for a Novel; if you're not, you're going to likely wonder who this Shuker fellow thinks he is, calling this readable literature in the first place. Yeah, welcome to experimental writing!
Now, for sure Shuker comes with a pedigree, part of the reason that I stuck in there as long as I did with this manuscript; holder of a Master's from Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters, his first novel The Method Actors was the winner of the Prize In Modern Letters, the world's most lucrative literary award for a first-time author, leading to this newest project having a lot more advance credibility than the usual self-published online experimental pay-what-you-want manuscript. And indeed, anyone who's a fan of extremely dense science-fiction is sure to love at least the first novella in this cycle, the depleted forest; it concerns a Caucasian expat named James Ballard, living in a near-future Tokyo and working a bizarre corporate media job, in a slightly alternate universe from ours that has seen the development of what's called "concrete cancer" -- that is, over the last decade, for some inexplicable reason, concrete buildings will suddenly just lose their entire integrity, with the concrete itself literally falling apart during a strong wind into trillions of sand pebbles, leaving massive devastation in its wake.
Like the best of contemporary science-fiction authors, then, this gives Shuker an excuse to paint some jarringly original mental portraits of this dystopian Tokyo; an entire district of all-wood skyscrapers, highways made out of bolted-down sheets of Plexiglas, abandoned '60s-style Mod resorts overlooking Mount Fuji, with walls that crumble like ash when touched. And in fact, when it comes to all this stuff, Shuker is simply brilliant at both story and detail, with the depleted forest easily able to hold its own against such similarly dense near-future authors as Charles Stross and Jeff Vandermeer, and to tell you the truth I'm interested now in visiting his earlier novels and seeing if they are indeed more traditional "New Weird" tales. Ah, but then we get into novella two, which in usual experimental style I can't even list correctly here for you using ASCII text alone; spelled out, it's called delta omicron hills park, but now substitute the Greek symbols for the letters mentioned at the beginning of its title. Whew! And see, just the story itself takes some explaining as well; it is ostensibly the shocking tell-all memoir of a minor member of a "Super Free" type group, a wealthy and privileged Asian teen who was recently busted organizing giant thousand-person forced-drinking gang-rape orgy parties in warehouses around the country for fellow wealthy privileged Asian teens. But see, what we're reading is the English translation, which was deliberately done with a piece of software that deliberately doesn't work very well; this Westernized version, then, is being sold to the British and American markets as a postmodern comedy, a "statement" on the frustrations of language in a Web 2.0 world.
In effect, it makes the entire novella unreadable, or at least as far as I could tell, a hundred pages of random words that have been strung in a row by some piece of automated software, which certainly proved Shuker's point but unfortunately made me in particular just give up on the entire rest of the project, not even bothering to read novella three (which by the way is called beau mot plage and will be coming out later this month). But then, this is where I begin to doubt myself as a reviewer, which is why experimental writing is so tricky to review; because maybe there is a real story being told in DO hills park, that maybe that random text isn't so random after all, and that I'm simply not smart enough to pick up on it myself. That's certainly what this novella's fans will say after reading this review -- "Ah, Pettus, you don't know what the f-ck you're talking about! This novel is perfectly understandable, and I can't believe you're too dumb to get this!" And this of course is what I mean when I say that such books are "critic-proof;" that since they are deliberately designed to be either intensely liked or intensely disliked, intensely understood or intensely not, you as the reader can't necessarily trust the opinion of anyone else at all, with you basically having to read the book for yourself to determine even the most general sense of whether or not it's any good. That when it comes to such books, my opinion as a critic is virtually worthless, making my role as a reviewer virtually pointless.
As a simple reader, though, I happen to love experimental projects; so today, I guess, don't think of me so much as a critic than as a simple fan, bringing your attention to a cool yet frustrating project that would normally otherwise probably not come to your attention. This is the perfect kind of experimental book for you to take a chance on, precisely because it's completely free if you want it to be (and seriously, you slacker, what else do you need?); it's something I highly recommend that you go and check out for yourself. -


Carl Shuker, Lazy Boys, Counterpoint, 2006.

Carl Shuker's protagonist, Richard Sauer, heads off to college for no reason other than to escape the stultifying normalcy of his middle-class family in Timaru, New Zealand. He may appear ordinary in his aimlessness, mangling his way through his first year in college, but his bonging and banging, his anger and rage, take a brutal turn at an out-of-control dorm party which lands Richey in front of the disciplinary committee with a sexual harassment charge. Dropping out of school before he's thrown out, Richey and his housemates Matt, Nick, and Ursula begin a freefall that forces Richey to face his most destructive desires.
Sex, violence, mutilation, and drugs fuel the despair and alienation of these disaffected youth — those once innocent but now struggle to find the right combination of alcohol and drugs to keep an all-night buzz. Like a punch in the stomach or a sustained cry, Carl Shuker's risky and harrowing first person narrative is as visceral as Fight Club and as brutal as A Clockwork Orange. On the surface Richey's actions are unforgivable, but his unformed and distorted world is immediate and recognizable to a generation brought up in a society indifferent to its own nihilism.

A novel that begins with epigrams from the Pixies, the Clash and Milton has good potential. Don’t let it fool you.
After a promising debut with The Method Actors (2005), a layered portrait of expats in Japan, Shuker takes an odd step backward, time-wise and otherwise, into the demimonde of collegiate underachievers on New Zealand’s South Island. It’s the aoristic modern age, and 18-year-old Richard Sauer, aka Souse, is a mess who thrives on video nasties, ganja, piss (that is, beer) and piss bongs. “Students are allowed, expected, even obliged to keep up the image—carry out new feats of bonging, drink the most, the quickest, for the longest duration.” He has spent most of his grants and student allowances but has yet to attend a class, and, as the cancer-stricken angel who, one supposes, stands for all that is good—his opposite, that is—reminds him, it’s April. Oh, yes, young master Sauer is possibly suicidal and certainly violent: Early on, he beats his parents’ little dog, while even earlier on, he rapes a young woman. Given this résumé, it seems that his options are limited: He can join the army or the police, become a mechanic, go to tech school or stay at home “going insane on the dole.” He does quite worse than all that. His parents aren’t much help in Souse’s decline and fall, though they try to be; think of Alex’s mum and pop in A Clockwork Orange, and you’re most of the way there. Souse is just as bad a piece of work. Shuker writes well, and the stream-of-consciousness weirdness coming out of Souse has moments. But the point of the exercise seems to be unclear, unless it’s to report the dreariness of life in the postindustrial Antipodes or warn of what listening to one too many Cure songs can lead to.
Absent clear guidance, take these lessons: Stay clear of beer bongs. And of this book, too.- Kirkus Reviews

WHERE would we be without sheep? It is fascinating to follow their tracks through our literature; from the lost sheep in Janet Frame’s The Day of the Sheep to the newly shorn sheep of Joanna Paul’s Imogen, their presence is iconic. In Carl Shuker’s second novel The Lazy Boys, started before his prize winning The Method Actors, the iconic sheep is a dead one.
Richard Sauer, the novel’s eighteen year old narrator has his own way of seeing things. Once he saw a drowned sheep trapped underwater. The sheep was creating a ripple in the dark still water- well, not the sheep but an eel animating it as it fed, working its way from the inside out. In his imagination a younger Richey compounds this image with a story his companions tell of how they stoned a sheep, till it jumped off a cliff to its death (its ok, the sheep was old). The two sheep become confounded, a killed one, in a vision of death in life, of a violence that riddles his story. Disturbed and disturbing.
Where did it all start? In the hard lessons his father taught him? “Don’t get smart with me boy... I’ll put you in the bloody hospital.” In the culture of bullying at Timaru Boy’s High? How will the boy become a man? A Southern man at that? A tender hearted boy? Richey rejects the sweet boy that his friend Anna reminds him of. Perhaps she is his only friend. She is dying anyway. He filters out the saving memories of his childhood, of times spent by the placid Lake Alexandrina. He dismisses his mother.
No shame. That’s the story. That’s the attitude you need to be accepted by your mates. You have to be hard – no shame is the fend when you’re not sure of yourself. Whatever you do, however things turn to shit, the thing is not to show any anxiety, any feelings at all. If you do, you’ll be branded a fag. If you’re labelled a fag, you may as well kill yourself. The trick is not to be noticed. In this world boys learn to say yes because if they say no, they might start questioning you and yeah.
The anti hero of this novel doesn’t play rugby, or any sport. So he’s on the backfoot. But then he discovers that getting wasted and spewing on the sofa is a start towards acceptance and manhood. Serious drinking is his lifeline. And bullying the sideline (If you’re not for us, you’re against us). The trouble is, if you’re not mainstream (who is) it’s hard to tell when you’ve passed the test. You take respect however you get it. Richard Sauer’s rite of passage leaves a trail of havoc. Rugby is the game of this novel; his fall is like a scrum folding. Collapsed or twisted. Is it something that happens or is it self inflicted, Richey wonders. To the reader it seems both, and equally.
If you are leaving school and can’t think of what to do, why not enrol at Varsity (in this case Otago). Get away from the folks, from the claustrophobia of half a city like Timaru. Get a student loan, a lump sum. Get on the piss, do drugs, score a few chicks. Boys will be boys, after all – isn’t this just a stage? Not in this story. This isn’t the rollicking world of Baxter’s Ode to Mixed Flatting. Not a picaresque genre piece like Scarfies. It is a provocative satire, a horror story. It turns squalid and deep, taking the reader into territory that some will recoil from. I suppose it could have been set anywhere-say Hawera, or Brighton. But Shuker knows his Dunedin – cold and dark, dramatically provincial. What a hell of a place to escape to. Talk about isolation. Good for nihilists and sectarians (I love to visit – some of my best friends hail from there).
Over his flat Strangeways looms a deserted castle. It’s at the door of this castle that Richey hammers at the end. No one answers. The Maquis de Sade has been dead a long time. The denouement veers away from life, towards Mishima perhaps.
The Deep South has always been a good setting for the culture of unease; Shuker outdoes his predecessors in the literary virtuosity with which he calls up the familiar demons from the abyss, the abyss whose rim the crowd stumbles along rowdily. Listen to the thoughts, the idiolect of the peer group. Its conformism, its nicknames, its abusiveness, its banality, its brutality, its misogyny, its homophobia. In a word, ugly. And yet for some it’s one big party. A big night that you can’t pike out of.
Fear and loathing in Dundas Street. Don’t drug-induced rampages become boring? Souse’s fall becomes more and more of a stagger. We know he is going to succumb to his demons, but he takes his time. At times it drags, this self-obliteration; Richey gets bored, it takes more and more to get him going. At others, the acuity of his observations skewers attention. There’s a calm about Richey, when he’s not jittery. His observations are beautifully rendered, whether lyrical, dramatic or phantasmagoric. Returning home for a breather “Timaru is silent and gray, a smell like watery tinned salmon drifting up from the harbour.” At an aftermatch function in a motel he notes the youth of the girls on the white couches “sipping beer from plastic Speight’s 500ml cups and some of them look nervous and almost all of them have collars that are standing straight up.”(Lion Breweries may not find all the product placement a positive). Inside a bus in a line of traffic in a snowstorm on the Kilmog “I can only see my own reflection in the window, half-darkened, fluttering and flickering, tentative and ghostlike in the flakes of snow closest to the side of the bus.” It’s not all random:The lighting may be sporadic, but Richey seems to be going somewhere.
On another level the novel is naturalistic, clinical. Given his upbringing, this is what will happen. The expert Dr Johanssen spells it out for Richey in her Book of Murder. How violence is socially learnt. How Richey has lost his self. Where depression and anger will lead him to. What will release him from his paralysis. In a society where violence is socially acceptable. Inertia builds through endless rounds of chaos. In the end he has no choice. He has no identity, he is possessed. The shock of the climax seems a setup, prefigured as it is by his violent opening gambit. The logic is exact.
“Ta go. Who ta go”. Don’t we find the painted tribe picturesque? Hasn’t rugby cleaned up its act? The Lazy Boys brings it back into disrepute. Rugby is never going to be the beautiful game. Here’s Matt, the pizza dough maker, an artist, a sort of friend to Richey. At a clash with the Boks at Carisbrook, the crowd hooliganism gets too much. What he can’t take is the cop-out, the laziness of the spectators who can’t think of anything better to do. “So long as you’re a hard cunt and you hammer another guy, people like you and respect you, right.” Matt sees it as a failure of imagination.
Richey is not allowed to sit in his father’s Lazyboy, but he does anyway. He doesn’t only sit, he masturbates over pornos, volume right down, while his parents sleep overhead.
The after match functions are horrific, even for Richie. He gains admission through mistaken identity, and shows his outsider status in his jitters. Hilariously and disastrously, he tries to confide his malaise to Marc Ellis. This is almost the nadir of his not being understood. Until I got to this section, I was dubious about a dare a friend of mine said he witnessed in a Dunedin bar involving another notable rugby player and a coprographic act. In The Lazy Boys the surreal can be so convincing. The burning sofa on the terraces was another standout performance. The only scene with Maori: Hell’s Angels.
Apart from reading this for the hell of it, is there a lesson in Shuker’s version of the Fall? Even if he doesn’t intend it? A companion to Celia Lashlie? Could a reading of him tell us more about where our boys are going wrong, or at least serve as a warning? Give us second thoughts about sending our kids to Who ta go? It wasn’t as bad as that in our day, was it?
Recently I ran into some Old Boys. Not one of them a Richey – all success stories. When they’d had quite a few, out came the other stories. They reminded me of Ancient Mariners but with a glazed eye rather than a glittering one-not over the gutter yet. It wasn’t pretty. It was obviously the time of their lives. Mate. - Charles Bisley

Carl Shuker has observed that The Lazy Boys, his second novel, after The Method Actors, winner of the 2006 Prize in Modern Letters, tends to be reviewed quite differently inside New Zealand than outside. The Lazy Boys focuses on the psychic disintegration of Richey “Souse” Sauer, nominally a college student a prodigious drinker and adherent to an especially bleak vision of masculinity embodied in the slogan, “No shame.” The novel opens with Souse’s committing of a drunken sexual assault or harassment that he can’t remember, and it culminates in a particularly gruesome attack. New Zealand reviewers recognize the book as a species of densely realized provincial novel, an attempt to depict accurately a nihilism specific to college-age males in southern New Zealand in the early 1990s. North American reviewers, however, tend to view the book as either glorifying or wallowing in that nihilism, reading it as a kind of Less Than Zero for the college set.
Shuker ought to be absolved of this charge, however.  Whatever grasp of local detail The Lazy Boys might possess, it also points up an uncanny ambiguity in the language of Souse and his friends, one that can’t be reduced to “glorification.” On the one hand, Shuker captures the testosterone-driven verve of adolescent slang, and shows why this might be appealing to young men worried about their social standing. But he also makes clear how the limited vocabulary of these young men both embodies their emotional limitations and shields them from recognizing it. The novel opens with a five-page overture in which Souse presents his account of the epic drinking that preceded his unremembered assault. Souse and his friends start doing beer bongs in a toilet, and so the word piss comes screaming to the fore: “There’s like piss all over the floor, piss on the walls, piss all over us and the floor’s slippery as and this big like piss and water fight ends up starting”; “I was really pissed too, as well as the floor being real slippery”. But then he accidentally sticks his hand “into this fucking gross blocked up urinal, all people’s piss and those soaps and beer and cigarette butts and ash and shit”. By the bottom of the page, he’s pissed in another sense, too, as his anger and embarrassment about the accident in the toilet lead him to lash out at a woman. What Souse can’t see is that if the excremental casualness of his language braces him against an indifferent world, it also hardens him against his own best impulses, preventing him from experiencing any non-pathological happiness. By the novel’s end, he’ll admit to being “frightened of himself”, but it’s far from clear whether he’s frightened of his rage or his softness.
Shuker’s key insight into Souse’s character is the mantra, “no shame.” It means, “my actions are typical. It says, any offence you feel at my actions is a function of your own naivety; this is how things are done. It says, this is what is reasonable; this is what is acceptable”. While Souse admits the phrase is defensive, he’s necessarily blind to its corrosive effects. Souse likes the phrase’s economy: I do what I do, this is what guys do, accept it or fuck off—all these are encompassed in “no shame.” More, it gives him a clear path of action in any given scenario: Do whatever a friend asks. If something bad happens, then, no shame because it happened in the context of what guys do.
Souse misses the fact that embracing the phrase turns him into a kind of automaton. He almost gets it, but not quite. So, for example, he says early on that his violence “extends directly from my experience, this country, my life ...  And when I say ‘I,’ it doesn’t matter, believe me, because there are many others like me”. And he’s fascinated with psychiatric treatises on serial killers and murder-rapists, spending hours in his bedroom collating the circumstances of his life against those of famous psychopaths. What Shuker makes clear is that this apparently sociological argument is in fact just a narcissistic update of “no shame.” Souse’s fear—of himself, of being shown up, of being weak—drives him to pathologize his own actions. It’s as if the horrors he commits accrue, not to himself, but to society. When a young woman near the end of the novel points out that “no shame” is “warped ... It’s not an affirmation. It’s a pity,” it detonates explosively. All he do is beg silently “Don’t you dare” and curse aloud “Fuck ... you”. What’s striking here is that he is someone who doesn’t dare; he acts to avoid daring, because to dare means potential failure. While Shuker presents Souse’s point of view “with conviction”, it’s clear that he doesn’t endorse it.
In the main, Shuker excels at confining himself to Souse’s point of view, and to allowing his insights about the self-destructive posing of adolescent masculinity to emerge obliquely through Souse’s darkening language. Occasionally, though, he can’t let a line or an image get away, and his protagonist says things that sound unlikely. After the novel’s opening party, Souse retreats to his parents house, and, while they’re away, tortures the dog, masturbates on his father’s chair until he bleeds, wets his bed, and fires a gun through the family television. But he also is able to notice that “Dad’s got his weight on one foot and his hips cocked casually; his body forms the shape of a parenthesis behind and beyond Mum who stands, shoulders squared to me, her focus completely on me, with that almost smug air of certainty, of someone who knows their back is covered”. Even the way the alliteration develops throughout this sentence makes it seem unlikely to have emanated from Souse’s consciousness.
And then there’s Anna, almost the only person besides his parents who still calls Souse “Richey.” Anna haunts the novel: We find out in an epigraph that she has died, killing herself after the return of cancer. Throughout the novel, we read letters from her to Souse that remember a time when Souse’s affective palette was less monochrome, and he spends a considerable amount of psychic energy denying that these emotions and this psychological flexibility are still available to him. Finally, he ends up thinking, “Forgiveness is temporary and time is short and she is dead”. Souse does speak in a compressed tone, but the economy and rhythm of this sentence sound too sophisticated for him.
Beyond its evident interest in the desperate self-alienation that is one response to male adolescent crisis, The Lazy Boys does offer a recognizable, if bleak, portrait of college life, especially in its attachment to music. Kurt Cobain’s death is probably the most significant world event in the novel, and almost the only moment of connection happens when somebody discovers a copy of “The Draize Train”. Souse and his friends are in college at time when New Zealand has just defunded higher education, shifting to a so-called “user-pays” system. The ramifications of this approach, including the way it re-introduces certain kinds of class anxieties at strange moments, are everywhere in the novel, though that would probably be clearer to a New Zealand readership. The Lazy Boys deserves a wide readership, especially among those interested in young people and the way they can, as Freud said of neurotics, “escape into illness.” - Jason B. Jones

Carl Shuker, Anti Lebanon: A Novel, Counterpoint, 2013.

The criminal and the victim alike return to the scene of the crime…
It is the Arab Spring and the fate of the Christians of the Middle East is uncertain. The many Christians of Lebanon are walking a knife-edge, their very survival in their ancestral refuge in doubt, as the Lebanese government becomes Hezbollah-dominated, while Syria convulses with warring religious factions. Anti Lebanon is a cross-genre political thriller and horror story embedded within these recent events, featuring a multiethnic Christian family living out the lingering after-effects of Lebanon’s civil war as it struggles to deal with its phantoms, its ghosts, and its vampires.
Leon Elias is a young and impoverished Lebanese man whose older sister had joined a Christian militia and has been killed. He becomes caught up in the recent “little war” in Beirut, when the Shi’a resistance/militia Hezbollah takes over most of the city. In this milieu—the emptied streets of Christian east Beirut, the old shell-scarred sandstone villas, the echoing gunfire—he becomes involved, only partly by choice, in the theft of a seriously valuable piece of artisanal jewelry, and is bitten—like a vampire—by its Armenian maker.
Events take a ghostly and mysterious turn as the factions jostling for power in Beirut begin to align against him and his family, and he is forced to flee the sullied beauty of that wonderful and pitiful country, in this story of love and loss, of the civil war and the Arabization of the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” and of contemporary vampires—beings addicted to violence, lies, and baser primal drives.
Carl Shuker is a remarkable writer. A storyteller in the tradition of Celine and J. G. Ballard, no one alive writes better sentences. Anti Lebanon will delight his fans and entrance anyone new to his fine work.

"Anti Lebanon is an extremely exciting book. It seems to suggest we can go anywhere with the novel, that it can contain anything. It’s masterful in its form and the story it tells is compelling, original and important." —Pip Adam, Scoop Review of Books

 In the midst of the Arab Spring, Beirut is experiencing a chaotic flux of soldiers, martyrs, and security guards. New Zealand-born novelist Shuker (The Lazy Boys) places at its center Leon, a brooding Christian Lebanese filmmaker, and commences with a rather standard thriller plot. Complicit in the theft of artisanal jewelry meant for a wealthy buyer in Iran, Leon finds himself wanted by the varying factions vying for power in Beirut. The situation takes a strange turn, however, when Leon is bitten by the jewels' Armenian maker and possibly transformed into a modern vampire, a primal being who, as his father explains, cannot be trusted. Hovering in the fringes of the war-torn city, Leon then traverses a nightmarish landscape of demons as Shuker crafts a dark noir that is equal parts allegorical and hallucinogenic. Though the intricacies of the plot require a working understanding of Middle Eastern politics and the power dynamics at play during Arab Spring, one cannot help but be captivated by the slow, mournful mood and atmosphere of Shuker's Beirut. Combining a thriller and a horror story into a single melancholic narrative, Shuker has created a haunting and riveting account of war, loss, and exile.—Publishers Weekly

I’m tempted to say that Carl Shuker’s novel Anti Lebanon is full of twists, but twists isn’t the right word—it’s more like the novel’s trajectory repeatedly escapes the reader’s expectations, driving into increasingly alien terrain.
Anti Lebanon begins as a somewhat traditional novel focused on Leon Elias, “thirty years old, East Beiruti Greek Orthodox.” Leon has dropped out of university, leaving his degree in hydrogeology unfinished. Leon has since taken a job as the security guard of an abandoned amusement park, a symbolic stand-in for Lebanon’s tourist economy. The Arab Spring has destabilized Lebanon, leaving its Christian population in a precarious position as Hezbollah dominates the government—and the streets. After dropping out of school, Leon creates an experimental short film, In the anti Lebanon,  a film “about his family and his sister and their history” — a history of mixed cultures (Leon’s mother is Japanese) and pain (his sister, a soldier, was assassinated).
The early parts of Anti Lebanon seem to set the stage for a fairly conventional novel with strong political overtones, one that explores Leon’s guilt over his sister’s violent death and his conflicted place as a sensitive and artistic soul who’s the son an infamous warrior, all set against the backdrop of Christian Lebanon in the tumult of the Arab Spring. But then Shuker takes us other places. Lots of other places.
The crucible for this change comes after a night of drinking ends in violence and theft. I don’t want to spoil too much—this is a novel that constantly had me rereading entire passages, asking, Wait, what?—but let’s just say Leon, complicit in a crime, ends up moving a body by motorcycle. Let me share some of Shuker’s prose in a passage that reveals the novel’s major metaphysical gambit:
This time there was no crash and it probably was the alcohol but the pain of the thing’s biting was gristly and sharp and also distant and allied with the shock of the fall so he rode though it for it seemed several dozen feet— the most important thing was not to fall again. He came to a controlled halt, stopped the bike, and then over his shoulder punched the thing’s face several times, his knuckle hitting soft then hitting helmet, and it bit again and this time harder and it stung and went deeper, a popping sound or feeling in his neck that suddenly got desperately deep and he punched again and then he rolled violently and writhed in the grasp of the thing they had created and he fell over deliberately, twisting so as to topple over sideways upon and hurt and stop the thing, and he hit the ground landing on its arm and this dislodged the biting helmeted head and he pulled up its hands and wriggled away over the concrete like his sister palming herself away from her disappeared foot and he scrambled up, and the thing just lay there inert and still, wired to the scooter in a position absurd, all tied up and crooked and ruined and wrong. He stood and held his hot neck looking at the fallen boy and then knew that someone else was there.
Is Leon now a vampire? The novel answers this question clearly even as it refuses to explain or define what, exactly, being a vampire means.  Anti Lebanon at times threatens to become an allegory of Mideast politics and history, using vampirism as its major trope, but then Shuker shifts us into new, weird territory. An appropriately Borgesian chapter titled “Labyrinth” moves Leon and the reader into a propulsive engine of dream logic; we’re never quite sure exactly what is happening as Leon gives over to dark, primal violence.
Such violence inheres from history and geography and mythology. It’s worth sharing another passage at length to see how Shuker traces these contours, plunging character and reader into history’s strange tangles. Here, vampire Leon drinks a guard’s lifeblood—the beginning of an oblique spree—and tunnels into mythos, plumbing the history of his land to arrive at his sister’s murder:
Semi-unhinged single Christian men, living alone in brutalist concrete boxes on the borderlands with their rage and a shrieking TV, a simonized gun and a cross on the wall, were approached and made use of. Aries, Andromeda, and Perseus slowly wheeled across the dead guard’s sunglasses. Christian snipers took positions around Mar Mikhael overlooking Electricité du Liban. A secret. Leon, labyrinthine, tunneled from shadow to shadow. The criminal and the victim alike return to the scene of the crime. Would the Israelis come? The taste of blood was hot: There was juniper, vetyver, and chypres too, copper drying down to a powder, wealth and breadth of deathless rivers in endless cycle, over centuries, aeons, untouched and untouchable: Nahr al Kalb, the dog river, collecting on its rock walls the signatures of dead empires: the steles of Ramses II, Nebuchadnezzar, Napoleon III and Caracalla, General Gouraud and The XXI British Army Corps with Le Détachement Français de Palestine et Syrie occupied Beirut and Tripoli: October 1918 AD; and Nahr Ibrahim, the blood river, which flows red: iron-rich soil rusting, seeding red anemones of the rebirth along its banks. The land still bearing the imprint of its creator, still running with the blood of Adonis in cascades; cataracts of rust. The march crossed the exact point on the Green Line where the Black Saturday ID checkpoints were erected once upon a time and to cross was to have your ID checked for religion and your throat cut in the passenger seat, watched over by Phalange HQ, past Makhlouf’s sandwich store— his weakness, his frailty. He told her about the last shot, what he alone saw: that the assassin didn’t even look as he ruined her; as he ruined him.
From here—well, let’s just say that Leon goes, and that the book moves into a picaresque rhythm, erupting with Bolañoesque moments of horror and strange shifts into the unreal (there’s a moment at the end of an episode in Israel that confounded everything I’d read so far in the book, the effect approaching alterity). It would spoil too much of Anti Lebanon to delineate all its movements; suffice to say its unsettling shifts are grounded in motifs of dogs, water, film, art, crashes, the peri, the vampire.
Shuker’s book isn’t for everyone. Those looking for a classic Gothic horror or a sexy vampire romp will likely be disappointed (and probably confused). Shuker also throws his reader into the metaphorical deep end of Mideast politics and history, offering little exposition that might help explain some of the complexity. There’s a trust in the reader there that I admire (even as I often headed to Wikipedia to learn about Lebanon’s civil wars, the Druze, its relationship to Syria, Palestine, Israel…). That trust is best returned to the author—a trust to follow him where he goes, because frankly you won’t be able to see ahead. Anti Lebanon is unpredictable, strange, and very rewarding. - Edwin Turner

When a writer known for their success in the literary world goes slumming in the genre ghetto, one never knows what might result.  For example, you may find solid work that’s more than offset by stunningly pompous and condescending attitudes, as in the case of Susan Hill.  You may be the recipient of impressive imaginings, accented by blindly ignorant denials, as with Margaret Atwood.  You may get stellar, albeit demanding and peculiar, tales accompanied by acceptance — even grudging embrace — of genre influences, as in the case of Cormac McCarthy.
I have no idea how New Zealand writer Carl Shuker —  recipient of the 2006 Prize in Modern Letters for his debut novel, and a frequent critical darling — feels about genre fiction, but his latest novel, Anti Lebanon, certainly utilizes genre constructs to great advantage, resulting in a novel that mixes its ingredients almost seamlessly, and borders on brilliance before retreating a bit.
As its title implies, the book is set in Lebanon, where Arab Spring has brought even more uncertainty than usual to the lives of the Christians there, virtually ostracized by a Hezbollah-dominated government and caught in the crossfire between other warring religious factions.  Against this backdrop, we meet thirty-year-old Leon Elias, college-educated as a hydrogeologist (and Lebanon’s water resources are a recurring theme here) but underemployed as a security guard. His father, Didi, a former military hero, is likewise working below his expected station, because he backed the wrong horse during one epoch of the unending jockeying between Lebanon’s many factions, while Leon’s sister, Keiko, was murdered for posing a political threat via her growing prominence. The complications in Leon’s personal life are like a microcosmic version of the various relationships and intrigues that entangle the entire nation.  As Leon’s father says at one point:
“Politics in this country is one long and very dangerous soap opera full of lies and repetitions and clichés. Every episode’s climax leads to no resolution. We are in season fifty-eight at least, and few of the original cast remain. Apart from those grizzled old men— like me— who are typecast and cannot get another job.”
One drunken night, everything changes for Leon, as the following passage foreshadows:
It was that time of a night when a certain drunken sweet spot hit. People began to say what they really thought, in the generous context of what they’d said that they didn’t really think before and had gotten away with. When the smart and bored began to push the limits of what others would tolerate, and when abrupt furies and half-felt passions turned into speeches; whims turned accusations.
It’s abrupt fury that leads a friend of Leon to accidentally kill a fellow reveler with a punch, leading to Leon taking a late-night trip to dump the body, the corpse balanced precariously behind him on his scooter. It’s towards the end of that journey, when the body suddenly stirs and bites Leon on the neck, that things really take a turn for the strange.
Meanwhile, in a flashback that is gradually revealed, we learn that Leon had created an experimental film and submitted it to a local competition, an act that eventually leads him to a presentation that purports to tell of the history of the vampire in Lebanon. Rarely seen and only half understood, the vampires of Anti Lebanon have relatively little in common with the familiar western version, leaning more toward the pyr, fallen angels in Persian mythology.
…pyr have slept in the Lebanon for long, long before this, the lecturer said. He was perhaps picked up— like a germ— by Godfrey de Bouillon and Peter the Hermit somewhere in the Serbian forests between Belgrade and Nish on the First Crusade, accidentally recruited on the march toward Jerusalem. Suspicion and the pogrom revive the pyr and give it vivid life. Any troop of soldiers with cynical leadership, a sacred cause, and little in the way of qualms is the pyr’s natural habitat. The pyr is lost in time; he haunts the present, and lost in the labyrinth, haunts all times.
There is never a traditional “conversion” of the bitten victim to vampire, in the sense that readers of western vampire fiction will be familiar with. In fact, there remains significant uncertainty as to what, if anything will happen to Leon after his bite.  Mystery, as well as some occasionally mystifying events, ensue, interspersed with some truly memorable descriptive passages such as:
The unfinished bridge over the intersection hulked in shade, just an archway now, the on-ramps never built, all graffitied, weeds growing from its stump, flags and faded banners drooping from its parapets. Here everything temporary is permanent.
Semi-unhinged single Christian men, living alone in brutalist concrete boxes on the borderlands with their rage and a shrieking TV, a simonized gun and a cross on the wall, were approached and made use of.
Halfway through Anti Lebanon, I thought it was the best novel that I’d read this year, and potentially the best I’d read in several years.  Unfortunately, Shuker loses control of his narrative a bit in the latter stages of the book, coincident with Leon’s meanderings beyond Lebanon’s borders. Despite its somewhat disappointing conclusion, Anti Lebanon remains a truly impressive melding of genre elements with mainstream sensibilities.  I hope Shuker’s dabblings in the dark are not a one-time experiment; return visits would be most welcome. -

I wasn’t born for interviews,” Shuker says, shifting slightly in his chair. His modesty belies an understated opulence with his words that he displays over the next forty or so minutes. He’s just spent a similar amount of time talking to National Radio. Two days before he had a glorious technicolour, full-page picture in the Sunday Star-Times, complete with gonzo-laced Steve Braunias profile. He really wasn’t blowing smoke up my arse when he told me on the phone the night before that he “was a little interviewed out.”
It seems in New Zealand, although we are reluctant to take a risk on something slightly different, we are however swift in accepting people back into the fold – only after we have concrete proof of their worth. The Star-Times profile was Braunias at his most sycophantic, and an annoying piece of journalism. To a degree Shuker is a friend (more a friend of a family member): I had seen him months previously, drunk as hell, at my sister’s wedding. The book was out, but it was still unknown by most in New Zealand. Carl Shuker hadn’t yet been ordained a celebrity, and there was still something delightfully anonymous about Shuker, who is from first hand experience, the loveliest of people. Seeing this article, it seemed that the decision had been made and the switch hit. Shuker was now part of the big time. Hell, he even got a bigger picture for his piece than Bono did weeks before.
“What did you think?” Shuker asks me with a wry smile, seemingly fully aware of some of the ironies the story represents. “That picture was pretty awful.” He retorts. I have no reply, and smile back at him. What does he think it says about New Zealand? “I think it says more about Steve Braunias than anything else.” Is he a cunt? “Nooo. He’s an awesome guy. I’ve known him for quite a while. It was fun, we drank gin for a couple of hours and got drunk and somehow he was recording it.” I feel better about the feature, but only slightly.
It seems, given Shuker’s past and the plot material for The Method Actors, that it is only fitting that it would be an international audience he would find acceptance with at first. The novel tackles expatriate hedonism in the midst of Tokyo intensity, and links into a secret history of the area. Shuker himself has spent a couple of years in Tokyo. Soon he plans to leave for London, visa permitting.

The commonplace initial rejection that is par seemingly built in to any narrative of a young artist, must make the initial success sweeter for the lucky few who are successful. “It definitely makes it sweeter in the long sense. I’ve been doing this for six years, I don’t feel like tada! Fuck you! You can see why they don’t publish your book. They don’t have the money. They can’t take the risks. New Zealanders are guarded and they are slow to invest in someone who might not prove to be the goods.”
Also, nothing really says “you’ve made it” like an award for $65,000. Money in the New Zealand arts industry, especially for authors, is a precious and rare commodity. The ability to wave goodbye to a day job, and say hello to days spent chain-smoking in your underwear in front of a computer and growing cool beards is something that comes implied with such a big cheque. So too I guess, would a pretty bloody huge celebration. “It was actually pretty demure. We got home about three after sitting around at the Matterhorn and shouting opinions at each other. I wanted to pay the whole bill, but a whole lot of people surreptitiously paid their bills on the way out. I was really disappointed, I got this mediocre little bill.”
I proceed with the, um, $65,000 question. How does it feel to win $65,000? “It makes you feel very optimistic. Actually at the award ceremony, on the outside I was looking very shy, and trying to contain myself. But inside it felt fucking good.”
The thing about awards, in my opinion, can be that they take over. The Method Actors can become ‘the Glen Schaeffer award winning novel The Method Actors’ instead of a crackingly intelligent, sprawling novel combining expatriate dislocation with Tokyo’s intensity. It’s happened plenty of times. The phrase ‘award winning’ or ‘critically acclaimed’ before anything can overtake any thoughts on more important matters such as style and plot. Does he fear this? “I don’t believe in prizes, I think
they get in the way. How do you choose between six authors? People who are the inverse of each other? It’s a little bit of a head-fuck really”
Now with the award and the recognition, Shuker has been anointed by the mainstream as a card-carrying member of the successful New Zealand lierati. His thoughts on that aside, Shuker is part of a batch of writers coming forward who are graduates of the Bill Manhire directed Masters in Creative Writing. “I’ve got lots of friends, publishing books. I’m lucky enough after doing that course to know a lot of writers.” It has put Shuker into a very alive circle of creative energy. “Before this I didn’t know anyone that wrote anything, or been around anyone that really thought reading was a particularly good idea at all.” He briefly alludes to unhappiness at school and you can imagine for someone slightly eccentric and creative, it would have been a supreme relief to surround yourself with like-minded individuals while doing the course. “Doing that course was just the hugest thing.”
Like a lot of Manhire graduates I have spoken with, he is quick to deflect the ‘book factory’ criticism that is so often thrown at the course. “Manhire is not an influence. He’s a support person. He’s always there and he’s always ready. He’s like a supportive uncle, but a very cool uncle that you can tell anything too. He’s the definition of hands off. Sometimes you’ll want him to push you in a certain direction, but he won’t.” The ludicrous thing is, that once the course is over and finished, there is a long, tough road ahead of you. Being a Manhire graduate is not going to get that book published for you, especially not with New Zealand’s notoriously reluctant publishing houses. It is going to give you the skills to get the book written in the first place. “It doesn’t really help you specifically, it helps you as a person,” Shuker says.
The negative reaction to Manhire is like anything in culture. “I think as soon as someone stands up and is someone, y’know, it’s the obvious thing to happen. It’s the done thing in culture.
If the band blows up, the 16 year olds will love it for a while. They put out the bad album and they’ll turn on them. It’s a universal impulse.”
Shuker is philosophical about his writing. He obviously carries a tremendous amount of confidence on his shoulder, the sort of confidence that comes with breaking through the barrier of doubt – and then reaping the rewards. He’s reluctant to let his work, and The Method Actors get tied up into any grandiose rhetoric that can crush an author’s work or alienate them from an author. He lists his influences as “music, movies, friends, and life.” His inspiration to write began to grow while writing stories about Ewoks as a kid.
Writing as work though, usually takes a backseat to working, to live. How hard is the formality of a day job when one’s heart lies elsewhere? “I used to work in the Graduation Office, after I’d finished The Method Actors, and after I’d graduated. In my downtime at work I would edit the book, but I was so afraid of people reading over my shoulder that I reduced it down to 8 point type. I had to wear these glasses to work. I printed the whole novel out there to. They never caught me.”
Being an author is a lonely occupation. There is not the instant gratification of performing in front of an audience, or watching an audience take in your finished product. “I envy musicians, just being able to go on tour after doing all this work and go nuts. But the kick has to come from writing itself, and you are either genetically programmed to get that kick from writing or you’re not. And if you do, commit to it.”
It’s a grueling activity, creating a novel, which requires knowledge of both yourself, and people. “This book almost killed me. I was drinking a bottle of wine every single night. It was dire and I was lonely, I owed so much money. I was anxious all the time.” In the end, it was a healthy dose of self-belief that was needed to break through the struggle and into the pay off. “You’ve got to believe that your book has an concrete reason for being in existence. You have to believe that what you are writing is cool. There is no book that is about being young and free in Tokyo, let alone tries to connect it with history. I think people have been waiting for a book like this, it feels different, it feels new.”
Despite currently riding a wave of recognition, Shuker is prepared for the comedown – and is aware of New Zealand’s slightly fickle tall poppy culture. “We’re quick with the backlash, and you’ve got to respect that. It’s like the NME, we build them up to cut them down. And I think the thing is, don’t look for it. Do your own thing, be true to yourself and it can’t hurt you. You’re doing something that you love. And if people write a bad review, fuck it.”
But now London calls. And like I said above, it’s visa permitting – with Shuker at 31 a little past the age limit for the working holiday permit. Shuker is looking forward to getting back to writing and is elated at not having to work. “There’s a Suede song called ‘Europe is My Playground’, and I find that sentiment appealing. I want it to be my playground.” He’s out to “find something that I can not give a fuck what people think about it again.” But he’s aware the burden that the award brings on him. “Y’know those Macarthur Genius Grants? They are statistically proven to reduce productivity. People don’t want that stress, they want to be on holiday. But I’ll be in London. No one will give a fuck about me or know who I am. I can just disappear.”
He’s a cool guy Carl Shuker, and that’s reflected in The Method Actors. He talks with enough passion about music Bruce Springsteen, Death From Above 1979, Prince, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the Thin Red Line to gain the faith of someone with more than a passing interest in culture. He’s seems just aloof enough to not believe his own hype and just cocky enough to believe that the world should pay attention to what he has to write about. He’s written one good book, and been given the opportunity to write many more.
I guess, all we can do now, is watch this space. -

New Zealand writer Carl Shuker is the author of four novels, including Three Novellas for a Novel, cult novel The Lazy Boys, and The Method Actors. His latest novel is Anti Lebanon (Counterpoint Press) is a strange work of surreal horror, set primary in Lebanon in the immediate fallout of the Arab Spring.  In my review, I wrote that Anti Lebanon’s “trajectory repeatedly escapes the reader’s expectations, driving into increasingly alien terrain.”
Carl was kind enough to talk about his work over a series of emails. He was especially kind in letting Biblioklept publish the short story “Fiction” which he mentions in the first part of this interview.
Carl Shuker Author Photo B&W
Biblioklept: How did Anti Lebanon begin? Did you set out to write about a Lebanese Christian? Tell us about the genesis of the novel and your research process.
Carl Shuker: Anti Lebanon started with the words, and the disjunction between my sense memories of the words, the place names and the language, and the atrocity exhibition of the Lebanese civil war of ‘75-’90 (which we are reliving now in the Syrian civil war).
I was brought up moderately conservative Anglican, which early on involved a lot of Bible stories and Sunday school. I had a very deep and powerful connection with the vocabulary. I remember tasting the words in a totally engrossing synesthesia: lying in bed in a small town in the South Island of New Zealand, ten years old and waiting for sleep and saying the words to myself.
Lebanon, for example, was thick milk and Alpine honey (as Nabokov once described his life). You can taste it in those pregnant Bs, those labile Ls and sonorous Os and Ns. And Syria and Damascus—with the latter I had generated some fertile misprision, I think, because into it I had somehow conflated “alabaster.” So the city had the word within it, and these cool and chalky white walls I felt up under my fingernails were as real to me as the blanket at my cheek. Jounieh, Jtaoui, and Bsharre; Ehden, and Zghorta.
Sometime in late 2006 I lost my agent (of only two years), via a one-paragraph email entitled, chillingly, “Cutting back.” He was a bit older and I hadn’t made him any money so it was understandable.
I saw, after eight years of trying to get it published, that although it did well critically and got a very cult following of some very cool and interesting people (a lot of eastern European teenage girls, pleasingly), that The Lazy Boys (2006) was not going to be any kind of breakthrough. There would be no musical. That book does sometimes feel to me like a cursed chalice. Another two years of querying agents for my Three Novellas for a Novel project had not gotten me representation again. I had no publisher for it. A long-gestating film project with a director and producer finally fell through due to funding and all the difficulties surrounding that. (The screenplay for The Lazy Boys is sitting humming in my drawer.)  I was running out of money I had from a prize and I felt after nearly ten years of work I was back almost at square one. Currently I have no agent and I think I’m fortunate to have gotten through the current convulsions in publishing under my own steam. I don’t know what I’d advise a young writer right now, about getting represented.
With writing and publishing, which is a tough and demanding ambient, the cliché is very useful: you get bitter or you get better. Working on a new thing is the best and only antidote to publishing an old thing. It’s always and only the writing that saves you. I started looking around for a new project. Though I don’t write short stories I wrote a suicide note for the lit-fict writer of the time and of the writer I’d almost become, a short story called “Fiction” that started to encompass elements of this new obsession with Lebanon, and to extend it to the consequences of that obsession.
I’m intuitive and a weird hybrid of deeply elemental and playful and airy fairy when I look around for a new project. But I’ve learned to identify and focus in on my obsessions, which is an important skill for a novelist. And usually it is what is troubling me; what I can’t figure out.
Etienne Sakr, a Christian militia leader in the civil war, who has been subsequently exiled and tarred as a rightist and racist and has not emerged from the post-war period at all well, wrote, “Politics is not the art of the possible. Politics, like all great art forms, is the art of the impossible. Otherwise there is no problem to resolve.”
Like all great art forms. This was a conception of the novel as well. The writing is a resolving of unresolved and seemingly irresolvable elements—it’s a tension, also, that can sustain you through the long period of composing something as big and demanding as a novel. Solving some problem you couldn’t any other way.
And the solution was the mode I think I am refining, that I work in by default anyhow. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams: “Contradictory thoughts do not try to eliminate one another, but continue side by side, and often combine to form condensation products, as though no contradiction existed.”
In Anti Lebanon it was: how to resolve and express this deep but wordless feeling I have for the words of this country, the bloody holy dirt of this country, and the tropes and gestures of the vampire, the monster?
I prepped and read as much as I could on the civil war, and went to Beirut in May 2008 to taste the dirt. This was the same month I published the Three Novellas in serial online for a limited time for free or more, a la Radiohead’s In Rainbows, clearing the decks for something new (These were rereleased with a new introduction, for all ebook formats, in 2011:
And while I was there Hezbollah invaded Beirut, and I was given my novel to the sound of gunfire in the west, to the sight of an old Christian making fun of the Ashura and of the Shi’a who now owned his city and his country, wearing a comedy fez and mock self-flagellating with a plastic whip.
Biblioklept: Was it always in your head to introduce the vampire element into the plot? How did that come about?
CS: Well, when I started Anti Lebanon I started with the scene in the amusement park with my protagonist Leon, a security guard there who’s fallen asleep and wakes up to “a dead and freakish still.” I had all these materials in my head for the book:
I had the country, my obsession with it. I had the this amazing historical moment when Hezbollah took over, in response to the Sunni-heavy government under Saad Hariri trying to control them, to shut down their illegal communications network. The revenge of the Shia in Lebanon against the Sunni who have always looked down upon them. And the first time the seemingly untouchable Hezbollah turned their guns against fellow Lebanese. It was a complex contemporary political and military moment that I think novels have a particular genius in showing us, if novelists would only look at them.
I had Christians in Lebanon after the civil war. All the tragedy and the bloodthirstiness of Lebanese Christianity. The decline of things, which I’m very attracted to: pride in decline. And I had this character of Leon’s father very powerfully in mind: a big Christian, both physically and in personality; a security guard, a burly, charismatic, working man and leader and a civil war veteran. A man I became friendly with in east Beirut. One of those powerful male figures in our lives we feel are untouchable and always right. (“Three times jujitsu champion of Lebanon during the civil war; when? who remembers; who knows now.”) I had the contradictions creeping into his life, as the Hezbollah he has to support, because the Christian party he supports has aligned with them, do something very ambiguous and worrying.
But there was something missing, some binding element, or catalyst, some next level shit that could help the novel embody the whole messy idea. Somehow represent the addiction to violence, the ancestral handing-down of this kind of obligation to violence, and the sense of the blood in the soil always under your feet in Beirut. Walking a particular corner, looking at the men outside Phalange headquarters, and knowing Black Saturday started here where you stand. I had always wanted to write a vampire, one day. It was right in front of me, begging me to see it.
When I finally realised it, that was when the problems started.
Biblioklept: Okay—you can’t just stop there. Tell us about those problems.
CS: Oh my God. It would seem so silly and all writers’ problems when it comes to actually writing are the same or similar. Not finding a voice. Doubting your own voice. Time. Jobs. Debt. Money. Doubt, principally. The only mentionable and salvageable things, because they are, in retrospect, possibly funny, are the symptoms: I became convinced I was losing my hair. I went to an ER one day and had to abashedly (I was then a 36-year-old heavy smoker) tell the doctor (kind of leaning into him, and making an “I know this sounds stupid” face) that I thought I might be having a heart attack.
You don’t want to go into the emotions you feel when you enter a hospital ER thinking you’re having a heart attack and leave with some over-the-counter Gaviscon and one rogue ECG electrode still stuck to your ribs.
There were pressures. The worst were probably internal. But when my daughter was born she slept a lot of the time and I had a sudden superhuman burst of clarity and focus and went through the entire manuscript again stem to stern, took two weeks off work to rewrite one of the Japan sequences where Beirut and Lebanon had slipped off the page and the book had gotten floaty and lost, and then almost immediately I submitted it to Jack Shoemaker.
Biblioklept: The final third of the book, those Japan sequences and the Israel bit, those are some of my favorites. I think there’s a lot of picaresque energy there. Was Jack Shoemaker your editor as well as publisher?
CS: Jack is my first reader, then there’s a second, but he’s never edited me as a copy editor edits. He’s always been my greatest advocate and is an amazing reader (and his list speaks for itself) but I don’t even know if he edits anyone any more. My editor on the first two books was the incomparable Trish Hoard, who was then one half of Shoemaker and Hoard before Jack got Counterpoint back.
Biblioklept: Were you ever pressured or tempted to play up the vampire aspect of the novel as a means to, I don’t know, bolster its commercial appeal?
CS: Well I started the book in 2008 and very soon after Twilight hunched and slouched and pouted into my awareness and after about six seconds of thinking “oh cool, trickledown” I realised it was an unmitigated disaster for me. Not only was my vampirism in Anti Lebanon supposed to be truly terrifying – and geopolitical, and religious – plus it had to do with sex but was also kind of unsexy in the easier ways (in that the sex in the book is constrained by religion, and is difficult and a bit sad and more about relief and frustration), but it was also the kind of vampirism I actually believed in: a nearly physical manifestation of a metaphor that is so persistent and pervasive and persuasive: a shade.
So I asked myself would the audience of Twilight and True Blood really want to broaden their fun base into a novel about Beirut, Hezbollah, the Lebanese civil war and the Christian exodus, and I decided probably not. So I thought so I’m writing the wrong kind of vampirism to speak to these people, and too much vampirism to speak to everybody else who’s thoroughly sick of it, and I’m screwed when it comes to publication.
But the metaphor was so true and so right and the novel started to click “like a fucking Geiger counter” as dfw would have it, so I really had no choice. I stuck by the kind of vampire the book was into and the kind of questions the book was asking: is he or is he not a vampire? What is a vampire really? If the historical record clearly demonstrates so many acts that are far, far worse and the cause of so much more blood spilled than any act of vampirism, then what kind of creature is a vampire? Is he mourning?
Late in the war a Christian priest was quoted as saying, “For a long time it was fun. Playing in our own blood.”  I put alongside this a Patrick Chauvel photograph of a priest in robes standing in a pile of shells firing a 50-cal. machine gun in south Lebanon in 1985. The glee on his face. A soldier beside him with his face in his hand. The material in the “pyr” chapter, about PLO soldiers ransacking the the Christian mausoleums in Damour: it was all true. What more evidence did I need? All good lit, music, film goes against what prevailing fashions, even if they’re dealing in the same ostensible material.
And here we recognize conclusive evidence of pyr: The process of exection extended to the dead. The Damour cemetery was invaded and it was a rout. They rooted out the corpsesnipers from the mausoleums, dragged the skeletonsoldiers from their elaborate Christian coffins, stripped them of their mortuary best, murdered their cadavers, pulling rib from rib, penetrating the vacant insides to locate and despoil and exect the very Christian soul.Anti Lebanon – 150
Plus, in terms of “commercial appeal”, Etienne Sakr said another smart thing:
“When you are fighting you either follow the cause and don’t get the money, or you follow the money and lose the cause.”
Biblioklept: There’s a lot in the book that makes the reader go, “Wait, what?” Is this real? Is this really happening to Leon? Is this in his head?” The section in Israel for example . . .
CS: The idea became for me the discipline of this particular novel, which was to attempt to analogise contemporary Christian Lebanon while invoking and revitalising the vampire genre. [Note: some spoilers follow in this response only]
Leon is a young Christian in a very precarious situation. Yet paradoxically he and his father are security guards. (The novel is riddled with them – and Leon kills one later.) With some fellow Christians he commits, through a fin de siècle hedonism, accident and the absence of inhibition bred of desperation and overfamiliarity, a violent crime against, not a rival sect, but a fellow Christian. This is the vulnerable, damaged Armenian jeweller Frederick Zakarian. And, believing him dead, as they try to dispose of his body Zakarian, tied up but seemingly still alive, bites him. With the only weapon Zakarian has any longer. Teeth.
It is here (though for close readers the inevitability is triggered at the threshold to Zakarian’s workshop) that the narrative attempts to successfully double or mirror Leon – as vampire, as criminal, as victim, failed son, inheritor of paternal sin and a psychology overdetermined by violence, and simply as mourning brother. To me, being undead and mourning share a lot of the same qualities.
There was a wonderful 1984 Playboy interview with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (despite the blood and compromise on his hands a very interesting polymath and political genius, who showed William Dalrymple the rooms of priceless religious artifacts he’d saved from the war – see Dalrymple’s excellent From the Holy Mountain). I had it as an epigraph for a time:
Q: How do you deal with those feelings on a personal level? How does it feel not to know if you or your family will live through another day?
A: We become inhuman. We no longer respond to normal human feelings.
—interview with Walid Jumblatt, Playboy 1984
Leon flees Lebanon when it becomes clear the Armenians, missing their man and the jewels he was working on (destined for Iranians), are talking to the Christians of Beirut who have decades-old scores to settle against Leon’s father for his alliances in the civil war. The factions begin to align around money. Leon’s flight from Lebanon also simply mirrors in a particular sense the horrible inevitability of the more general Christian flight after 1400 continuous years of settlement in that one place.
The scenes in Israel you mention, that feature a psychic during immigration questioning at the Allenby Bridge border: these are simply in-context extrapolations of the already wildly implausible real we’re all struggling to absorb.
Biblioklept: Can you tell us what you’re working on now? I know you’ve been working on something new…
CS: [sotto voce] Right now I’m writer in residence at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters, and the generosity and good company of students and staff here have allowed me to get 60,000 words into a new novel set in a medical journal in London. It’s a social comedy in the world of work, with a Straw Dogs strand and a healthy skepticism for the whole project of “a social comedy in the world of work” driving the plot—like Saki meeting Julio Cortazar in an argument over grammar and style in a London pub full of eccentric, driven healthcare professionals.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
CS: I once rescued Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night (in English) from a trashcan in Tokyo (and stole a great nickname for one of my dark drinking lazy boys: “Pazuzu, of the rotting genitals’). I was also prohibited from graduating from Victoria due to more than $1000 in overdue fees from the library. One of the books was David Bergamini’s astonishing Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy. So I have no regrets. -

Carl Shuker is the daring writer of The Method Actors, The Lazy Boys, Three Novellas for a Novel, and now Anti Lebanon. I find his fiction fearless, exciting, and never the same.
His new book is the gripping story of a Lebanese Christian pushed into crisis by a Hezbollah insurgency. It takes risks in terms of genre, using aspects of vampire literature to transform a novel that’s already dealing with war and religio-political nightmare. This is fiction that won’t be constrained by old ideas about borders, a point made by Pip Adam in an illuminating review here.
Shuker is currently in Wellington as the writer in residence at Victoria University. I took the chance to ask him three questions about this book.
For me the first eruption of vampire activity in Anti Lebanon came as a shock—I swore out loud! But it’s not as if Anti Lebanon suddenly becomes a simplistic orgy of vampire violence and torment. It seems you’re more interested in using aspects of that genre to explore “pyr”, a violence of attitude that rises from old and complicated sources. What influenced your foray into that genre, and did you always intend to incorporate aspects of vampire literature, or did that grow out of the developing story?
CS: I initially had a book in mind that was partly speculative. I went as far as inventing alternative and parallel organisations to those that really existed in the civil war—new militias, political parties, personalities, even religions. I wrote a piece I still like about an Armenian militia that insisted on fighting unarmed—they simply marched against their foes over the bodies of the dead, embarrassing their enemies into ceasefire. But as a whole it lacked depth and urgency and wasn’t working, and as I explored Leon I naturally came around to returning my militias and sects back to the reality we know, and then the novel began to feel dangerous and exciting. Until it died again, after about fifty pages of work. The book and the material wanted something that mere reality couldn’t furnish.

It was around then I realised an old teenage ambition of mine—to write a monster novel, particularly one with vampires—had found its moment. What could be more scary or appropriate in the ruins and Ottoman villas of east Beirut, alongside the rebuilt city centre full of glittering marble and tile, the flowers of the manicured gardens chosen for the specific combination of their scents, than a Christian vampire in mourning roaming the emptied streets? We don’t believe in vampires do we? Imagine your neighbours don’t believe in your god—so, by extension, you—and then invade your area. It seemed perfect.
LP: Leon’s rage seems to be partly sourced in his despair over the waste and misuse of a key Lebanon resource—water—as symbolised most powerfully in the poisoning of the Anti Lebanon aquifer. For me this despair resonated strongly with concerns about water elsewhere in the world, especially here in New Zealand. Was that part of your decision to set this story in Lebanon—the universality of those concerns about water?
CS: It’s everywhere we look, isn’t it. It grew out of the material, the way these things should. I went on research to Lebanon, Syria and Israel with water and blood in mind, but I wasn’t prepared for the state of the Beirut river, the Jordan, or the Dead Sea. The more you read in the history of the Lebanon, the more you understand it as an incredibly singular phenomenon in the area. The richness of its natural resources, compared with Syria and Israel as they are currently drawn, is an astonishment. The cedars, the rivers, the mountains, plains and sea. And it is religion that has done its damndest to ruin these things.... (please click Read More)

Anti Lebanon mentions in part a rubbish dump in the major southern city of Sidon. Sidon is, geographically, to Beirut roughly what Paraparaumu is to central Wellington. This dump became, through the impossibility of proper municipal controls during the war, several stories high and so large it qualified as a quarter of the town. It collapsed into the sea several times. The history of humans fishing off Sidon is several thousand years old. But now the fishermen ruin the seabeds by dynamiting those fish not strangled in the supermarket bags. I have no other way to report on these things but this deadpan delivery. As a New Zealander I maintain a very naïve, painful, constantly refreshed and I think rather valuable horror at a despoiled beach of any kind, anywhere.
There’s a very beautiful story about a river north of Beirut called nahr Ibrahim. They call it the blood river, as it flows red with the blood of Adonis. It is, of course, iron rich soil rusting in the banks. But where nahr Ibrahim flows into the Mediterranean is not too far from the Casino du Liban in Jounieh where during the war they threw men from the cliffs into the sea. Cataracts of blood, or rust. It amounts to the same.
It seems that you’ve never been limited by the constraints of mainstream publishing. When New Zealand publishers were wary of your first book, The Method Actors, you didn't alter the novel or drop it completely. Instead you published it through the major US publisher Shoemaker and Hoard. And after writing Three Novellas for a Novel you said “I’ve really done it this time. No one will publish it.” Rather than dropping that book and writing something more conventional, you published it online, offering parts of the novel free for a time. What influences your decision on where to publish and how? 
CS: I think it’s constantly evolving and moving. What’s important is to find out what my first principles are: what motivates me in a very general sense is the desire to write and to show that writing and keep on writing—to perform in the lab and then to perform in the imagination of a reader. In effect, when in the best of possible moods about my work, I believe it’s very good and should be read. So publication is still the means to that end, though it is no longer the simple thing it once was when I was putting together my role models and ambitions and understanding of the world as a young reader and writer. Working on a novel or other similar project you assemble it in a space that is, or ought to be, determined by literature, by other books, plays, poems, written materials of any kind. Not in a market. In the so-called market, as they used to say about films, “nobody knows anything”.
But at the end, with each novel or book of poems, you have to take that cold, hard look at it and ask yourself—who is this for? That’s hard to do and potentially dangerous in the middle of a project. It’s a useful procrastination tool, and one of the reasons I advise my students and anyone who will listen to separate off that reptilian, survivor thinking (will this sell, to whom and how, etc, and how will I achieve that), in as much as is possible, from the angelic, dreaming, free-associating, imagining part of you when you’re thinking and feeling and composing. Which is the part that gets work done.
That is, not to be defeatist, but equal parts realistic and indefatigable about what you’ve done, when you’ve done it. Aim for something high and out of reach. If you don’t reach it you have at least failed in the right direction. But my sensitive portrait of my grandmother who lived and died in one small town south of Timaru (a novella!—so thrilling to publishers) is unlikely to secure a heavy-hitting ICM agent. It’s unlikely to secure a NZ publisher. But if I believe it’s of Janet Frame-esque quality and I want to publish it conventionally then I ought to have the gumption, stones, persistence and belief in myself to get it on to the desks of major agents and editors wherever I feel it’s important to be published. If I think it’s of more specialist appeal, I ought to examine my options with a sense of freedom and possibility.
So Three Novellas—to me (in the best of possible moods) an irresistible, great dark giggle of a book, completely readable and loads of fun—I sent out to a lot of people who then (I feel, in the worst of possible moods) understandably blinked and said no, if they said anything at all. (That’s another thing: it’s never been easier to actually get manuscripts on agents’ and editors’ desks.) The Lazy Boys did the rounds of what were then the usual NZ suspects, most of whom showed interest but eventually said no. Writing The Method Actors and doing the MA relieved me of the disappointment of that.
After the Novellas ran up against several brick walls I took matters into my own hands. I started on research for Anti Lebanon and I designed and put out the Novellas in as interesting and beautiful way as I was capable. And that—taking control of the means of production—was incredibly satisfying and creative. A lot of hard work but that comes with the territory. After all, what choice did I have? The world will always surprise you.
There are other, deeper psychological needs that can be served by writing and publishing, and that serve the kind of drive required to keep on writing and to get published. The desire to receive 11 times over the parental approbation that was divided among my 11 brothers and sisters. To avenge the torture I received at home/high school/university/my first job/creche. To attempt not to disappear. But in the long run of writing and publishing books these kinds of needs can only provide an edge to a broader, more pleasant drive, in my experience: to contribute, to give. To feel a flow. To be part of the conversation at the high table. To play for high stakes.  -


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