Tēnā koutou and welcome to this launch of Laura Southgate’s The Boyfriend. Be warned: that title is supremely ironic.
Boys, some of whom are friends, are everywhere in this novel: there’s Dieter, Paul ‘so self contained he was practically shrinkwrapped’, Foster, Kyle, aka Angel Face, who likes to stare at the narrator, Erica ‘with his alarming blue eyes. Like an erotic knife attack.’
But 40 something year old Donny, the – what shall we call him – love interest? Romeo? Prince Charming? – monster? of this book – is neither a boy, nor particularly friendly. It’s typical of Laura’s light touch that she presents the label ‘the boyfriend’ with a straight face, so that, throughout our reading of this book, all that we might associate with our idea of a boyfriend – what it means to have and to be a boyfriend – has to be examined. That hopeful sounding, sweetly innocent phrase ‘the boyfriend’ sets the tone perfectly for what follows, which is many things – cautionary tale, coming of age story, anti-romance, sly and devastating social commentary, thrilling debut novel and that seemingly impossible thing, an often hilarious book about domestic violence.
That title lets you know what you’re in for, and boy, does this novel deliver. In a time when abusive male behaviour and the complex power dynamics of relationships are in our social and cultural spotlight, The Boyfriend uses the powers of fiction to bring you out of the newspaper and online outrages and into the felt, complicated and nuanced experience of trying to figure out what romantic love is.
The Boyfriend’s great strength – and what makes me really excited about Laura Southgate as a writer – is the originality, intelligence and wit of its narration. ‘Shattering prose,’ Tracey Slaughter called it; ‘utterly compelling.’ Laura beautifully manages the tightrope between acutely funny observation and bleak truth. This novel makes you think about irony: both its lifesaving properties, and the mortal danger it can mask. Laura employs it surgically to show the gap and the closeness between what Erica describes and what she is going through. This is irony as wit, entertainment, and survival technique.
Erica is in her late teens when this novel begins and there’s so much she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what a boyfriend is. She doesn’t know what real coffee is. She doesn’t know whether someone is asking her out or just practicing his German, liebchen. She thinks Lucky Strikes are condoms and has never tasted wasabi. More importantly she doesn’t know her potential, or her limits.
So when she meets Donny, who is ‘not exactly lacking in intensity’, at a yoga class and then in the street and then at a bar or is it a German lesson or just around – this is Wellington after all, and as another great local writer, David Geary once said, if you live in Wellington long enough you end up fucking yourself – she’s ready, and curious, to go along with what Donny says. He’s not that easy to put off – in his statements about everything, about her, the world, the conformist bourgeois pigs that she surely doesn’t want to be like – and in the end, it’s easier to stop trying. ‘I was eighteen. Was I repressed? I had to admit the possibility that Donny knew better than I did.’
What does it mean to have power in a relationship? If someone continually tells you they’re in your thrall, that you are killing them, crushing them with your indifference – if they insist on your power, what kind of power is that? Is it real? Or is the accusation a power play in itself? At what point does the sunk cost fallacy take over?
Scam victims, apparently, are often people of high intelligence, because they never think it will happen to them.
I won’t say too much about the ensuing hell knot of Donny and Erica’s relationship, and the suspense over whether or not Erica will escape – other than that Donny is an incredibly memorable literary character – charismatic, wheedling, cajoling, iconoclastic, ‘passionate’. He’s both pathetic and majestic, and it’s a credit to Laura’s talent that no matter how he behaves, you want to keep reading about him. As the novel twists and turns he is everywhere, unavoidable – and the comedy of manners mutates into a nightmare.
One of the other things I love about this novel is that if you picked it up on any random page you’d find something funny, sharp and astute – this is Laura earning the sobriquet given her by The Spinoff, who called her The Jane Austen of Aro Valley. The change happens both all at once, in an elliptical act of violence, then agonizingly slowly; the cold seeps in and you realize you’re dealing with another kind of story entirely. It is to Laura’s enormous credit that she holds these things in balance. It reminds me a bit of the great Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn: No matter how bad Erica’s situation becomes, the wit and precision of the narration asserts her personhood, in the face of her social expendability.
It’s great to see this novel being so well received already – first of all winning the prestigious Adam Prize as an MA manuscript last year, now in interviews in the national press, a fantastic review in The Listener just today, and, as well as this perfect edition from VUP, a UK publication to look forward to later this year. I’ve been enjoying the way both interviewers and reviewers seem to find themselves implicated in this book – whether they’ve been boyfriends or girlfriends. Erica’s story is more troubling than most, but I can promise you that this book will have you thinking in new ways about your own life, youth, romance, and what we don’t talk about when we talk about love. Erica’s nightmare shows us more clearly the dreams and fantasies we all share.
Finally, it’s fitting that we’re celebrating here in this stalwart Wellington venue. The milieu of turn of the century Te Aro is perfectly captured. The Boyfriend’s setting is decorated with mix tapes, a Pulp Fiction poster, Infinite Jest, ‘the new Cat Power album on CD’, clove cigarettes and feminist literary theory:
‘I went to Shadows and bought three pints, pretending to read a book. A guy asked me what I was reading, but when I showed him This Sex Which Is Not One, his eyes glazed over and he backed away.’
If only Bodega was still on Willis Street, we could go on after this and see one of the bands featured in this novel, Bovine: ‘they were playing calmly, like they were doing the dishes’.
This edgy, funny, pitch-perfect and necessary novel takes place twenty years ago, on another planet, and yesterday – even today – right here.
Please join me in congratulating Laura, and toasting The Boyfriend.