In the Neighbourhood of Fame, by Bridget van der Zijpp, (Victoria University Press, 2015), 272 pp., $30
In 1968 Andy Warhol foresaw a future in which everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. How amazing that a man living close to three decades before the age of the internet could be so prescient. Today, when 15 minutes is ample time for headlines to be written and pinged onto the billions of smartphones currently in use, or for Twitter hashtags to trend, Warhol’s statement seems almost literally true. We live in a constant cycle of global super-celebrities who will be the focus of punishing international attention for only as long as it takes for the next to emerge. This means that we also live, now, in a wasteland of the no-longer famous. What happens to these people after they have been pulverised by the fame machine? And how does that affect their friends and families?
These questions are at the heart of Bridget van der Zijpp’s In the Neighbourhood of Fame, a thoroughly modern novel whose plot hinges on the unchecked power of social media and the ruthless accuracy of DNA testing, narrated in turn by three women whose lives are shaken by their proximity – physical and emotional – to a former celebrity.
Jed Jordan, the celebrity in question, was once a rock star, the lead singer of a Kiwi band who had produced one ‘massive hit’ that won them the kind of ubiquity that culminates with use in television advertisements, followed by a disappointing second album and finally, a decade or so before the novel’s setting, an acrimonious split. When the novel begins, Jed lives the quiet life in suburban Auckland. Having gotten out of the music game, he has turned his hand to, of all things, raising peppers; he has the requisite beautiful wife, and a 10-year-old son. Jed has turned his back on fame, but fame can’t quite leave him alone, and his earlier stardom is about to morph into a terrible notoriety that threatens to score irreparable wounds into not only his own life but also that of his neighbour and recently returned childhood friend, Evie; his wife, Lauren; and Haley, a 15-year-old who befriends Jed at the local dog park.
Van der Zijpp has chosen to assign the novel to multiple narrators, with Evie, Lauren and Haley each taking chapters. Jed is the central character, but we never hear from him: this is the story of a planet as told by its moons. The three women orbit around Jed, and if they sometimes bump into one another it is only because all three are in thrall to the same man.
This is a good narrative concept, one that allows van der Zijpp to draw Jed into her tight, deftly executed plot without needing to make him aware of any of its mechanics. But it has its stylistic drawbacks.
In order to avoid her three narrators sounding too alike, van der Zijpp writes them in entirely different styles. Evie takes the straightforward first person past tense. Hers is a clear, readable voice and, despite the fact that her biography is – it dawns on us – little more than plot set-up, she is a nuanced and plausible character. The transitions between her chapters and those narrated by Lauren and Haley can be jarring, however, and not only because these two recount their stories in the present tense.
Perhaps in an attempt to convey a certain teenage laziness, when writing Haley’s voice van der Zijpp has a habit of dropping subject pronouns and articles in a style improbably reminiscent of Bridget Jones’ Diary: ‘Tell him sometimes that I have to get back to my homework, but quite often he hooks me in. Have quickly got used to his place. Have discovered you can make disorder and dirt less visible if you choose to.’ Too often, the author’s straining for authentic ‘teen speak’ bubbles through the narrative. ‘Night gets better,’ Haley notes. ‘Watch some episodes from the first series of Skins and Wolf lights up some weed.’ The final phrase stands out on the page in awkwardness. Do kids – does anyone – really refer to smoking pot as lighting up some weed? Haley is an interesting character, perhaps the most credible of the three narrators. The novel finds her on the precipice of adulthood, as the extent of her sexual power begins to reveal itself to her. Haley’s struggle to haul herself emotionally into this adult world rings painfully true. But I found myself wishing that van der Zijpp hadn’t made quite such an effort. A more natural style, even if less realistic, would have helped the character shine. Haley’s voice is instead a frequent distraction from Haley herself.
Lauren is another matter. Van der Zijpp writes her chapters in the second person, a voice tricky both to write and to read. It has the effect of privileging Lauren’s perspective over the other two, of making her interior life seem richer than that of the other two narrators, by making the reader essentially its proxy. Perhaps this is intended – Lauren’s story, while not uninteresting, is actually the least essential to the plot, so it might be that she is deliberately put forward as the emotional centre of the three women, the sole among them who, free from plot necessity, reacts intuitively. There is also some suggestion that the author puts her own viewpoint into Lauren’s mouth. Lauren is the manager of an Auckland theatre, and she, far more than Jed, is the misunderstood artist of the novel.
The following sentence, which comes as Lauren exits a board meeting following a negative review in what we understand to be the New Zealand Herald – stood out for me as straining for effect:
Not for the first time have you felt the pained struggle to contain yourself as a group of people, some of whom you consider have a slight intellectual deficit, feel the necessity to make free with their views on the culmination of your months of intricate planning.
Whatever the case being made, Lauren’s voice seems overemphasised, the balance unfairly tipped.
The style, then, is emphatic in this novel, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. But the reading of In the Neighbourhood of Fame is not to end up experiencing style over substance. Its themes run deep and pertinent: questions of the differences between what we believe and what we can know, or what we want to believe and the truth, are at the centre of the characters’ interactions. In the interests of spoiler aversion I hesitate to get too specific, but the story asks us to consider what degree of disclosure parents owe to their children, children to their parents, spouses to one another.
It’s a book exploring the complexities of public image versus private persona, and to what extent there is a difference between the two. And the novel unfolds more than anything else as a particularly modern cautionary tale. Sheer naivety – which is entirely plausible – on the part of two characters sets the plot rolling with a scandal born and raised on social media, where these questions of truth are more pertinent (or perhaps, if you like, more irrelevant) than anywhere else.
Maybe it is this cautionary, fable-like aspect that renders the plot at points surprisingly conservative. This neighbourhood is one where every sexual encounter has negative, or at least unintended, physical and emotional consequences, and where no fewer than three modern characters choose single teenage motherhood with barely a nodding thought to the other options available to them. Marriage, while certainly complicated, is sacred in this world, teenagers are wild, strangers are dangerous and the internet a contemporary minefield.
The plot twists, in a satisfying way. We realise with hindsight that one twist has been flagged all along; the world tips, threatens to shatter, but eventually rights itself. The characters learn, they grow, they move on. Everything ties up neatly, a little too neatly even, but maybe this is the point. Beyond anything else, In the Neighbourhood of Fame might just be a Trojan horse for old-school values.
EMILY BROOKES is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and a former editor of Salient. Her reviews have appeared in the Dominion Post, the Listener and the Times Literary Supplement. She currently lives and works in Paris.