I recently read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Anthony McCarten’s novel, Death of a Superhero. You can read my review of it here. One thing that irritated me about the book was that the UK edition had relocated the action from Wellington in New Zealand to Watford in England so I was pleased to find that Alma Books’ edition of Spinners, McCarten’s debut novel, was still set firmly in the factory town of Opunake in New Zealand although, in exactly the same way as Death of a Superhero didn’t actually either benefit of suffer from the change of locale, Spinners would work if set in Wales or small-town America . . . though perhaps not Roswell, New Mexico, besides I think Melinda Metz has that one pretty well sewn up.
The reason I picked this particular book to read next was because of the blurb:
Teenage meat-packer Delia Chapman’s claim that she has encountered a group of aliens is at first considered temporary insanity because of the stresses of her job. For how else can her story, which gains her instant tabloid fame and the envy of her catty friends, be explained? Things get stranger when Delia realizes she’s pregnant, but remembers little more of her supernatural experience than lights and noise. When two of Delia’s friends also disclose their pregnancies and likewise blame the spacemen, the town of Opunake begins to buzz with reporters.
but the cover, which shows a cartoony flying-saucer, and a cow on its back didn’t do any harm. I wish they’d stuck to the one used by William Morrow & Company but I’ll come back to that.
Spinners – has to be a euphemism for flying saucers hasn’t it? Well, I’m not so sure. The word only crops up once in the book and that’s to describe one of the girls. So were they saying that she was spinning them a yarn? That’s what I thought but it appears that ‘spinner’ is also Australian slang for someone who is not too clever or easily fooled and not a few of the townsfolk think that their own gullibility is being put to the test when the news begins to circulate.
It’s a good title simply because there are layers of meaning kicking around in there if you choose to go looking for them. And you can say exactly the same about the book itself. You’ve got the alien storyline, a social commentary and a religious metaphor all nicely interwoven throughout a rather funny story. In exactly the same way as Death of a Superhero handled the question of mortality, Spinners questions people’s reasons for being.
There’s no pussyfooting around though. In the best traditions of everything they teach you about how to write a best-selling novel, McCarten jumps straight into his first chapter with both feet:
It was some time on Saturday night after work but before closing time down at the pub that Delia Chapman saw a spaceman. Well, that wasn’t quite true. She saw ten of them. They stayed for about half an hour. And they took her on their vessel. They had silver suits and stainless-steel boots. The vessel was ultra-modern and entirely impressive.
Delia had completed her third straight split shift in the small-goods packing section at Borthwick’s Freezing Works. Her body, therefore, was still at breakfast, her head at midnight, her internal clock as scrambled as a long-haul flight attendant’s, and although she was completely exhausted she was too confused to sleep. Still wearing her white factory clothes and gum boots, she left her family farmhouse on foot, bought a bag of hot chips at the Texacana Take-away Bar and wandered on the river road towards the highway leading out of town.
Who expected to see something like a spaceman in Opunake? Since Delia was unprepared for such a nationally significant experience, she was, at best, clumsy in her observations. Two hours later she was able to report that she had had a nice time, seen some lights and a few shapes, and had received a dozen or so non-verbal commands. But beyond that, and when pressed for more explicit details, she could add only that her guests had been extremely polite throughout the incident and had treated her as if she were extremely important.
It’s a good start. A couple of pages on, dazed and confused, she’s found wandering on the road into town by Phillip Sullivan, the mayor’s nephew, who is about is to take up the post of town librarian which has been resurrected by his uncle “as a favour to his dear sister.” Although there are a lot of bit players in the book, these two fall best into the category of male and female leads, the Mary and Joseph of our cautionary tale. They drive into town and park outside the bar (i.e. ‘inn’ – geddit?) attached to the White Hart Hotel where a public meeting concerning the installation of the town’s first speed camera has just concluded with local policeman – and captain of the town’s netball team (of which Delia is an important member) – slouching out of the side door before the dissenting voices get too much, only to be buttonholed by Philip and then things in truth kick off.
Opunake is a real place. A genuine small town. The population was 1368 in the 2006 Census and the place is ringed by meat processing plants so when we read in the book that "it was known that 80 percent of the town's female population were being taxed to the point of near nervous collapse by the factory's unrelenting regimen" that’s probably not an unrealistic figure.
There are plenty of small towns and villages where there’s next-to-no choice as to where you’re going to work when you leave school which is why this book will make sense to a much larger demographic than New Zealanders and ex-pat New Zealanders; I never did manage to shake the Southern accent which I found the police sergeant talking in nor could I stop thinking about him as the town sheriff and I’m positive the wee woman in the book’s post office works in our corner shop.
An old schoolteacher once asked us what the three fastest modes of communication were – this would be in the late nineteen-sixties – and his answer when none of us could guess was: “Telephone, telegraph, tell a woman.” I know, very sexist, but that’s the mistake the police sergeant makes when gets home to his wife that night:
If I tell you something, you have to swear to keep this strictly to yourself. It’s police business. OK?
In the half-light his wife did not bat an eyelid. For eight years he had prefaced every bedtime conversation with such a request, and for eight years she had stared innocently back at him, no such promise ever coming. It was a historical grievance: she refused to have her bedroom shrunk to a witness box, where nightly she would have to swear some oath to her husband! Where was basic trust?
Where indeed? By 6:15 a.m. the milkman knew and as the “milkman moved from door to door like a pollinating bee among flowers” the “contagion” spread. “By 8 a.m., a good portion of the south-western corner of Opunake ... was bubbling with mockery” and, by 8:25, two of Delia’s friends, the one with the film starlet’s name, Deborah Kerr, and the one without, Lucinda Evans, knew so by the time Delia arrives for work “wearing the same clothes as on the previous night”, everyone is fully aware of her now infamous encounter. Gossip is contagious. It’s a good word to use here. It spreads and it mutates.
One school of thought holds that that Delia, who has been known to wear a Lakers NBA basketball cap, a University of North Carolina T-shirt, and to carry a Walkman wherever she goes, might simply have taken "the next logical step in her metamorphosis into a Yank".
Yanks saw spacemen. They imagined close encounters at the drop of a hat, especially when they were depressed, or had insomnia, or were on some kind of pills. ... New Zealanders were different. They saw ghosts, not UFOs; poltergeists, the odd devil and the ever improbable witch.
Others put it down to her mental facilities being compromised due to nothing stranger than overwork. Her friends are jealous of the attention she is getting and wish they’d concocted a story like that. No one really takes her seriously. Which is where the cow enters into the proceedings.
The cow provides seemingly incontrovertible evidence that Delia’s story is true, the part about seeing spacemen at least; incontrovertible proof of the sex bit comes at its own leisurely pace some weeks later but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In a field near where Delia was nearly run down up by the town’s librarian-elect there was discovered a crop circle – just a circle, nothing too elaborate – and in the middle of said circle a cow, squashed as if something very heavy had landed on it. A spacecraft would fit the bill nicely. No proof can be found that anyone has slaughtered the beast elsewhere and hauled it there, no tracks, no nothing, and so much of the mockery stops.
More people shut up and pay attention when first one and then a second young girl of about the same age as Delia announces to the world that she is pregnant and that the father might not be one of the locals. Oh, and did I forget to mention they’re all supposed to be virgins – at least that’s what they maintain – but you were probably expecting me to say something about that, weren’t you? Delia is so adamant of her unsoiled state she allows herself to be medically examined. It turns out she’s no longer virgo intacta but, as she argues, that doesn’t prove anything.
By now, of course, the media is involved. The question is: are they more interested in a story that will sell papers or in getting to the truth? Philip has also decided to investigate matters in a very librarianish kind of way. Once he has managed to replenish the library’s stock – partly by calling in all the overdue books (most of which have been AWOL for over a decade) and partly by ordering in new stock – he sets about researching the matter; he takes an exercise book, writes “A Psycho-Philosophical Enquiry” on the cover and begins copying in bits and bobs that he comes across in his research without bothering to credit the original authors so that when at the end of the book Delia finally comes to read the thing she believes what she has in her hands is a transcript of “his innermost thoughts, written in moments of inspired anguish.” Okay so “[h]is voice was often pretentious, and it varied from passage to passage as if he had many personalities ... but two themes were repeated: where was the individual who would come and protect us from ourselves; and if that individual never existed, how would we begin to create him?”
Just after coming to this realisation her first contraction begins and during the sixth hour of her labour she gives birth to a son, “a tiny infant who weighed 1,065 grams, or two pounds of butter”, names him “James Christopher” (J.C. – think about it) and is visited twelve days later (which is when some traditions believe the magi arrived) by their proxies, Watson, Young and Sullivan.
All a bit much? Perhaps. Who can tell? The Bible doesn’t really say a lot about how Mary’s confinement went. Pretty much all we get are the immaculate conception, the visit with Elizabeth and the arrival in Bethlehem. The first two I’ve covered. I should perhaps mention that one of the other two girls to get pregnant is Yvonne McKay, Delia’s cousin; the bible doesn’t specify but, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, St. Hippolytus believed Mary and Elizabeth were also cousins. So I guess that covers the highlights. Everything else would have to be conjecture and so, albeit in a modern setting, McCarten conjectures.
Joseph – Jesus’ step-dad – really barely gets a mention in the Bible. We know that when he heard that Mary was pregnant he still agreed to marry her and so it’s no great surprise when we see that role auditioned for by Philip although he’s not the only one champing at the bit to step in there; the newspaper reporter has developed a bit of a thing for her (albeit based on a old photo of her when she was about twelve) and then there’s Gilbert Haines, mechanic and amateur magician, who “had been in love with Delia Chapman ever since he had seen her hitting a shuttlecock in the high-school gymnasium when she was barely thirteen, on tiptoe, biting her tongue.” Gilbert is actually only two years older than Delia so his preoccupation isn’t nearly as creepy as the journalist’s. She’s not interested in guys though and it’s only the fact that Philip is also an outsider in the community that draws the two of them together; he’s an outsider and she’s become one – her choice of attire could be forgiven as quirky, but not this.
There are too many characters wandering through this book for all of them to be fully rounded. We don’t even learn a huge amount about Philip and Delia, just a few key facts. We know that Delia’s mother committed suicide and that her relationship with her father has deteriorated since; we know he beats her; we know that Philip has just been dishonourably discharged from the army “as a result of a kitchen brawl in which one man was maimed”; we know the police sergeant has had a vasectomy (and, courtesy of his wife, the whole town knows that there is no way he could be the father of any of the children); we know the mayor is more interested in the new Aquatic Centre than anything else; we know Gilbert Haines is not very good at card tricks; we know that Vic Young is a caricature of a journalist, a mixture of “vague but interconnected ... concepts: the noon deadline, physical exhaustion, a history of poor relations with his fellow human beings, a history of pitiful relations with the opposite sex, a brewing midlife crisis, the failure of the Sixties to deliver the promised utopia and a pinch of professional excitement related to his latest story” . . . we know all of that and yet I’ve read complaints that the characters are not fleshed out enough. This is rubbish. McCarten has given us enough to work with without feeling the need to provide an extensive back-story which would slow down the pace of the novel. Besides if he told us everything what are we supposed to do with our own imaginations?
And the novel does move along at a fair gallop and what few hurdles there are are negotiated with ease. This is a quick read; I finished the book in just two sittings. The fact that the book is an easy read has lulled some reviewers into thinking it a light read. Far from it. Jesus’ parables, it was pointed out to me years ago, are written in the simplest of English and yet men have debated their meaning for years. Most great truths can be presented in the most straightforward language. No, there is serious stuff here once you get though the sugar-coating and sink your teeth into it. Publishers Weekly called the book a "sprightly, quirky novel", Library Journal says it’s a "fun and wacky romp", only the New York Times got the point:
In fooling around with a narrative that has enough resemblance to a parable to be able to pass as one, McCarten is part barker, part juggler, part aerialist. He hangs attributes on his characters as if they were caps and bells, and he has these unwitting jesters say and do thigh-slapping things. But once he's used his wiles to lure customers in and locked the doors behind them, he has more weighty topics to discuss. While never losing his humour, McCarten seriously considers how discombobulating a story like Delia's can be in an unstable society like Opunake.
On one level this is a retelling of the nativity but I was also wondering how close he would get to Village of the Damned and there is that shadow hanging over the storyline too. For the most part no one expects these to be anything more or less than three normal human babies but what, just for arguments sake, if they’re not, just what if the girls’ stories are true, just what then? And then the bricks start coming through the windows...
Now, as much as I enjoyed this book and the way, in the style of the best mysteries, pretty much all the answers are there in plain sight, it’s not a perfect book and I do have to admit the lead characters at least could have had a bit more meat on their bones. The ending will also arrive a tad too quickly for some people’s tastes. All loose ends are tied up, it’s not that, but the ending does feel hurried. In fairness when I consider my own daughter’s birth it was all over in a night. The waiting, the anticipation, the planning, the making sure she had a full set of Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit stories sitting ready for her, all that time and then suddenly a phone call, a hasty car ride, a few hours fretting and it was all over in a bit of a blur. I had no idea what I was expecting but it certainly was a sudden ending to the pregnancy. So I suppose that bit was realistic enough.
This is very much my kind of book, the kind of book I like to read and the kind of book I like to write. The world is a far too serious place as it is without needing to lay it on with a trowel. I would also point out that I read a couple of reviews on Amazon by teenagers who also highly recommended the book even if it was the bright green cover with a cow on it that first attracted them in the first place.
You can read an excerpt from the opening chapter of Spinners here.
Anthony McCarten is a playwright, filmmaker, poet, and fiction writer. McCarten, with Stephen Sinclair, wrote Ladies’ Night (1987), a play about male strippers that became an unprecedented commercial success. It has been translated into six languages and was the most successful touring production in Britain between 1990 and 1994. He has also directed films, published a short story collection, and a number of poems. The English Harem was his first novel to make it to the big screen, his fourth novel, Show of Hands being the second and Death of a Superhero the third. Not sure what happened to Spinners although a screenplay is kicking around. It has also been translated into six languages, and was voted one of the top ten novels of 2000 by readers of Esquire magazine.