Richard Meros' Zebulon

Richard Meros' Zebulon: a cautionary tale is the strangest piece of New Zealand fiction I've read in a while.

Meros was in the spotlight around 2008 after writing a book-length love letter to the then-prime minister called On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking me as her Young Lover.

Fourth novel Zebulon is built like a colourful, complicated labyrinth. It constantly twists and digresses back upon itself, wandering down every side-road before emerging at the end of each chapter, blinking unsteadily in the daylight. There might even be a minotaur somewhere. I'm still not sure what to make of it.

There's a legend floating around that Jack Kerouac released On the Road after spending three weeks frantically bashing it out on a single 37-metre scroll of typewriter paper. The scroll itself is real and still exists, but really Kerouac spent a decade on the novel before seeding the three-week-marathon tale during an interview on the Steve Allen Show.

Zebulon reminds me a little of what On the Road might have been if all the characters were meant to be budding writers who lived in central Wellington circa 2010. Parts of the book read as if they were drafted very quickly before being added to better-edited sections almost at random, and other bits are conspicously pared-back.

Much like On the Road is better if you can pick up the cultural references, I think you'd have to be a day-to-day acquaintance of Meros' to really enjoy this book fully. Although Meros himself and all his characters use pseudonyms, there is name-dropping galore, and a good deal of the content is just the narrator's train of thought chuffing along while he goes about his life as a writer in Wellington. He does some errands, has a number of awkward sexual encounters, begins a book called Being and Somethingness and then there's a minor drama involving his publishing collective.

Mostly the narrator's daily life is described in minute detail, but Meros rapidly dials it back after the character's wife Lesley enters the picture. I respect Meros' willingness to change his style in the name of privacy, but at the same time, it seemed lop-sided to me that he would spend three quarters of the book describing brief, unfulfilling relationships before drawing a virtual blank on events leading up to his marriage.

A good chunk of the book is also meant to be a story written by a young writer the narrator is teaching to write. In this parallel story, the head of Che Guevara becomes reanimated and resurrects communism before moving to Canada with Elvis Presley. Meros used this rollicking tale as a tool to demonstrate how a new writer might go about starting a novel, even including criticism from his narrator at the bottom of each chapter.

At the end of the book, Meros' narrator reveals that Zebulon itself is nothing but a loose collection of draft papers meant for Being and Somethingness, cobbled together to save his publishers from the poorhouse. He ends the story by announcing that he and Lesley plan to have a child, which contrasts wildly with his life and personality as portrayed earlier on. It's an unexpected finish to say the least.

Having completed Zebulon in the space of about a week, I felt as though I'd sat through a piece of performance art without reading the precis. Meros definitely succeeded in exploring some of the deeper ideas around what it means to construct stories among other stories, but it seemed to me that Zebulon failed to transcend its argument by making itself accessible to the reader.

In a way, this makes perfect sense for a book trying to explain how difficult it is to write well- I just wish Meros hadn't taken it so literally. Like a less meticulous Kerouac, Meros went out of his way to create a book that reads like it was thrown together in three weeks and while there's a lot to like here, it ultimately feels like a waste of talent.

Meros' new play, Richard Meros Salutes the Southern Man is on at the Suter Art Gallery and Theatre on October 18 and 19.