Book review: Baby by Annaleese Jochems
Baby by Annaleese Jochems, Victoria University Press, $30
With its prosthetic-pink cover featuring two slices of white Wonder Bread sandwich, a vaginal smear of raspberry jam, and a single word title, Baby, Annaleese Jochem's novel already boldly states that it is contemporary fiction.
It is touted in brief cover-quotes: "Patricia Highsmith meets reality TV" (Catherine Chidgey) and "sultry, sinister, hilarious, and demented" (Eleanor Catton). But once a reader has penetrated the packaging, what's waiting?
Baby is a flat-toned murderous novel of obsession and rage. It is a lesbian Beavis and Butthead set in Paihia, a dumb and dumber Thelma and Louise for the iPhone age, a retro 8-bit app for a bored 20-something young woman who appreciates the irony of the irony of her not particularly liking the music of Lorde or those fish-out-of-water mouth movements she makes when she sings.
Cynthia is 21. Her mind is filled with reality TV streamed through an unlimited data mobile plan. When her fitness instructor, Anahera, leaves her husband and her job, Cynthia sees it as a confession of love. With some stolen money and Cynthia's dog, Snot-head, they drive together to the Bay of Islands and buy a boat named Baby.
It is a novel told through Cynthia's single viewpoint. Anahera is largely reduced to stretches of exercised gym-flesh, sometimes feared, often manipulated, always desired, an object of unwarranted obsession. She seldom achieves any feel of reality beyond her meaning for Cynthia.
It is also not the first book to dwell on the consequences of a media-saturated lifestyle on a human worldview. As anyone who haunts Tinder or Snapchat understands, it isn't who you are that's important, it's your media representation. Jochems documents this lack of real-world affect with horrific skill.
It is also a novel where it is dangerous to be male. Cynthia's "love" for Anahera allows no rivals, whether they are spotty teenage boys or German hikers. In a dream-like environment, more computer game than real life, plans are laid and executed. The claustrophobia of an overcrowded boat cabin breeds violence and suspicion. Psychotic outbreak is always a moment away.
At times, it's gross. It is a novel where the reader squirms through scenes involving cold spaghetti and bottles of old tepid urine. There are also discussions of plot points from Real Housewives of Auckland. Porn photos are shot for a website that sells used women's g-strings.
But this is life, as we know it, in the 21st century, n'est-ce pas?
Cynthia is the ultimate unreliable narrator. This variance from reality becomes the novel's strength. Whether it is funny or not, depends upon a reader's tolerance for flat declaration and black humour. There is no moral lesson. There probably isn't in life.