Book review: Lifting by Damien Wilkins
Victoria University Press, $30
Shoplifting is the emblematic crime of our consumer era. In an age where people are created by their product choices, shoplifting is the flip-side, the illegitimate expression of identity or desire by the theft of store goods from tempting display.
Damien Wilkin's new novel, Lifting, is a queasy examination of the subject seen through the eyes of a shop detective in the last days of a grand department store in Wellington.
Amy works at Cutty's, where generations of families have been greeted by top-hatted doormen, lunched in the tearooms, or listened to music provided by a blind pianist at a grand piano. Her job is to mingle with the real shoppers while watching for those who have other motives. The announcement of the store's closure, however, has created a space where strange behaviours flourish.
Amy is a young mother, exhausted after the birth of her baby, facing the trials of a marriage and a mortgage. Her personal history intriguingly includes membership of an anarcho-feminist Animal Liberation group and ambulance work. She's observant and good at her store detective job.
Wilkins is the much-awarded writer who heads Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters. Lifting is his eleventh book. Recently, Wilkins seems to have specialised in a constrained Kiwi surrealism, a New Zealand suburban Gothic, where the uneasiness inherent in the ordinary is opened to view.
In his hands, the decline of Cutty's department store cues up a disruption of everyday existence and the eruption of the repressed. Long-standing staff are let go, reacting in ways that range from accepting to sinister. The shop's closure is haunted by the stylish Gertrude Cutty, the elderly surviving member of the founding family, and ghosts, real and imagined, of those who have died in the store's long history. The movement towards the closing sale becomes nightmarish.
Lifting can be a disquieting novel from the needs of a weaning mother's problems with the continual soaking of her breast milk to the viciousness of cornered thieves. However, it needs to be a book where the real foundations of life are shaken and exposed. While Wilkin's wry asides might be engaging, the novel finally flattens until it becomes a pastiche of metaphysical fiction – and it isn't quite philosophical enough to carry it off.
Looking at the clear vision of Nathanael West's 1939 novel The Day of the Locust, for example, when a crowd gets out of control at a movie premiere, is to glimpse an ideal precursor. Wilkins' version of Gothic is too tamed, too Lambton Quay, too mannered, too played-out, to bring upon the necessary terror.