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October 9, 2006 | by  | in Books |
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The Viewing Platform

It’s possible that people who have tried to watch The Office and Extras, but find them too excruciatingly uncomfortable for words, will not enjoy this book. It is the novel version of the mockumentary, using the same vicious satire but to more frightening effect. Imagine reading The Office, getting the same hilariously awful situations and dialogue, the same chaotic plot, but on top of these things, getting the thoughts of each of the characters. Imagine being inside David Brent’s revolting little head! This is, to some extent, what Wedde has done in his latest novel, using not office workers, but employees from the Department of Tourism, who are much, much worse than the likes of Gareth and Tim.

The situation is a road trip: six cultural tourism consultants, travelling round New Zealand, identifying G1As (grade one attractions) and the like. After a team building, bonding session, each consultant has a nickname, and a grudge of some sort against at least one of the other consultants. There’s Patricia, or Cowpat, the large-bottomed leader, making up for what she lacks in creativity with crass efficiency. There’s Hinemoana, token Maori, nicknamed Gloria, with luscious lips, a gourmet streak and a growing interest in Nancy (antsy), the poor little Aussie on crutches with a terminal illness. There’s Bangladeshi, Baul Biswas (busy balls), with personal problems including having to negotiate the ransom for his younger sister who has been kidnapped and used for porn. But wait, there’s more! William, unhealthy, cowardly, generally unattractive 50-something, falls in love with Joris (Boris), the implausibly good-looking European with a multi-million dollar adventure apparel label. As you see, there’s plenty scope here for uncomfortable dramas.

As the road trip winds on, the behaviour of the consultants becomes more surreal. Their targets – beauty, purity, identity, and etcetera – are blamed for the destruction of the team. That’s all well and good, and I have no problem with biting satire, especially at the expense of the Department of Tourism (an area that Wedde is no doubt rather familiar with, having worked at Te Papa for ten years). My problem with this book is to do with clarity. Any novel that has an eye of God third person narration, which zeroes in on the thoughts of nearly every character in the book, is going to be complicated.

Complicated is fine, so long as it is comprehensible. There are techniques that could make this book more readable, but which would ruin the chaotic, busy style, and which is probably deliberate. For instance: limiting the focus of each chapter to only a couple of characters, not having the whole book in the present tense, having a stronger plot that links each character’s concerns, not mimicking the tourism-speak quite so faithfully in the narrative voice, with all those adjectives.

Whether it’s a feature of the “novel-essay fusion” form, with which I’m not familiar, or whether it’s a post-modern effect, I found the structure of The Viewing Platform distractingly difficult to follow, which is a shame, as there were many brilliant moments in this book. I enjoyed the way each character had his or her distinctively pathetic way of telling a joke, “trying” a joke, “making a wee” joke. And Wedde’s ruthless attention to detail: “Go on, ask me a difficult, searching, intellectual question. Ask many,” says William, around a mouthful of fries. Mayonnaise runs down the scowlline at the corner of his mouth.” Woven through this sort of straight satire, is a more fundamental question of home, identity and where one can feel safe. The reader is subtly nudged into realising The ideas and behaviours that Wedde makes fun of through his characters and through his hilarious fake newspaper articles, are, , rather important and worth thinking about seriously after the joke is over.

IAN WEDDE
Penguin

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