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Book Review: Responsibility, by Nigel Cox

December 17, 2009

Oh Nigel Cox! I grabbed The Cowboy Dog, his last novel, completed just before he died of cancer, based on a rave review in the Listener. It was amazing, deep and complex and far far more than I’d allowed my instinctual tall-poppy, New Zillund sux cynicism to imagine a New Zealand book about cowboys in the North Island high country could ever have been. It instantly took a place on the same plateau of greatness as any of the inseparable unrankable Best Things I’ve Ever Read. So when I saw a second-hand copy of his second-to-last book, “Responsibility”, for $8 at UBS the other day I had to see what it was like.

First of all, Cox is a really good writer, in the poetic/artistic sense. Example, a burning map:

It glowed, then crumpled–for a hot second the pencil lines on it could be seen, ash-white suddenly against the now black background. It was utterly flimsy, a butterfly thing–this was the last time it would ever be seen.

It has a wonderful sense of rhythm, rhyme, it’s beautifully poetic. In fact this type of thing almost breaks the character of the narrator, who is kind of a washed-up wannabe poet in his own way…if he wrote this well he wouldn’t be a wannabe.

In this novel Cox rides a razor edge between irony, cliche, cartoon, and sentiment. I feel like I’m always comparing everything to Nabokov, but between the wordplay, the twistedly autobiographical details of the narrator and the harsh suckerpunching brutal reality of personal damage that sneaks in past the sly black humour I think it’s not unfair to draw the comparison. Besides which, there’s the detective angle and the 13-year-old wannabe seductress, and a lake. I’m sure if I’d read a more hard-boiled detective novels I would have found many more little tips of the hat and elliptic allusions — Cox’s writing has that depth that tells you he knows exactly what he’s doing and is Aware of All Literary Traditions. But all this is just a prelude to let you know that this is a serious, thoroughly artistic modern novel, despite the simplifying blurb on the back that suggests that it’s just a darkly comic detective story with a bit of a moral.

So, roughly the book is about a New Zealander, Martin Rumsfield (not Rumsfeld, as he insists on pointing out during some rants on the state of the world), who was a washed-up hippy and has ended up in Berlin working in the Holocaust memorial (this is the autobiographical stuff) with his wife and 3 kids in tow. The eldest kid is the Lolita-esque Sal who is from a previous lover and seems to be keen to grow up as fast as possible. He somehow falls in with a dodgy former sort-of-friend who has some half-baked plan to scam the Nigerian scammers.

The plot is all a bit mad and the hard-boiled detective aspects are very parodic. But the narrator also offers meditations, some cynical and joking, others deep and insightful, on the state of the world, the meaning of family, the way he’s lived his life. Also the Holocaust: as he says, “One of the things you can’t help stubbing your toe on in Germany is the Holocaust.” There is a terribly good passage describing his visit to a former concentration camp which I assume is based on Cox’s own visit to the place. On seeing the underground halls where bodies were piled:

It was a larder, of kinds, for keeping. And it had kept, and it would always keep, and if you went there what you got you kept whether you liked it or not.

This oscillation between ironic, know-it-all joking about the horrors while not being exactly sure of what they mean and directly feeling the too terrible to put in words emotion seems like the core dilemma of the book. It’s hard to nail down any sort of satisfying meaning from it all: either it’s unserious or unsure jokeyness or emotions and experiences so deep and painful that they can’t be really dealt with. Martin’s “she’ll be right, everyone needs a bit of adventure” attitude, coupled with the wild promises of riches from the scam scheme, lead to a tragedy which was almost expected, though the details were unimaginable: is this meant as a small-time analogue of the German people circa WWII? But then the comparison is at once unfair (nothing could be as bad as the ultimate Hitlerian evil) and disturbingly reasonable: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” This one man’s excessive enthusiasm for the cartoonish wild side causes consequences that for him are so terrible that his earlier musings on the Holocaust disappear into the far distance.

So is this what Cox intended? To show that our capriciousness can get us into absolutely nightmarish situations on every scale, from a single family or a single life to the slaughter of millions? And that our modern ironic detachment from the slaughter of Iraqis or the starving of Africans as the result of that evil Dubya Bush and those evil capitalists is really kind of a bit like our detachment from that evil Hitler? That maybe we should take some Responsibility for it all?

I’m afraid this description may make the novel sound a bit too simple and allegorical. Cox’s finesse and subtlety are able to inspire such comparisons while retaining full respect for the horrors of all the tragedies at once. To willingly venture to the source of Godwin’s Law, sweep away the safe cliches and expose the heart of human nature and its terrible realities, while not giving in to the temptation of separating the transcendently evil Holocaust so that it is merely a horrible distant event with no implications other than the most banal for our distant modern position: this is really amazing, and it makes me selfishly wish that Cox was still around to write more challenging, heartbreaking books like this one.

Responsibility, by Nigel Cox. Victoria University Press (2005), 192 pages.

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