Mo and I were both working in downtown Auckland. Lunchtimes we’d meet in a café before heading back, Mo to his office and I to the room by the park where I was writing my novel.
I’d been having trouble deciding what material to include. I’d used some autobiographical details in my previous book and this had caused disputes. It was a story about a secretly dysfunctional family, and a woman trying to understand her past. I’d written about the way a family can be a regime, its dynamics echoing those of a repressive state. The novel reflected my interest in Trump, whose misogynistic posturing I recognised, and none of its main characters were men.
I was still preoccupied by the subject; I wasn’t done with it yet.
Mo said, “Write a metoo novel about a young woman and an older man.”
“I did that. Remember?”
When I was 20 I moved in with a man who was 38. It didn’t end well and I’d written my first novel about it, how naive I was, the way it all degenerated, the violence, the sex, the trauma.
“Because then,” Mo said slyly, “there’s something in it for everyone. The young women readers, the old men readers…”
I ignored him.
My father had told me he’d admired my last novel, but the things it implied about our family were false. He and I were both published fiction writers, an unusual situation. We’d always got on well, but in the last few years my questioning had caused a rift. I’d always been loyal; now I was slipping into a late role as the family black sheep.
A man called Nick Openshaw had started talking to us in the café. He lived near us out on the Starlight Peninsula and we had the same fascination with President Trump, so he’d got in the habit of joining us.
I made the occasional complaint about the time we were having to spend with him. I said to Mo: “If you were solo in a café daily, would you join a couple uninvited one hundred percent of the time?”
Mo shrugged this off; he enjoyed the conversation.
The American politician Nick liked most to bitch about was Hillary Clinton. He especially criticised her failure to empathise with the people who’d become the Trump base, the way she’d called them the Deplorables. Nick repeated what everyone now knew, she should have drawn them in, expressing what Trump understood was needed: “I am with you. I feel your pain. We.”
Nick was scathing. Clinton messed it up, he said. She lost the election with those elementary errors, and she wasn’t charming.
He didn’t like Senator Elizabeth Warren either. He said, “She bares her teeth and everyone runs away.” I thought this was inaccurate, that Elizabeth Warren’s problem wasn’t aggression, it was her ponderous, sentimental tone.
If we got onto local politicians, Nick turned coy, disingenuous. “I’m not political,” he would say. “I’m only interested in good ideas.”
Nick had a stagey, affected voice. He liked to fill us in; the greater his latest achievement, the lower and more modest the tone. If it was some absolute coup he’d pulled off, he’d go all glazed and confiding, almost sleepy, as if he was just waking to news of his own brilliance. When he left he always gave me, only me, a patronising, goofy thumbs-up.
He was a businessman, a white South African of Dutch heritage, he spoke Afrikaans, and he specialised in making deals. This was why he knew about drawing people in, empathising, creating a collective atmosphere – the very ploy Hillary Clinton should have used with the Deplorables.
Nick steered every conversation towards money. He painted himself as a smooth rich guy, recognised wherever he went (with his charm and his largesse, he was loved by the help) casually handing off money for the finest service, travelling in luxury and style, often cushioning his wife from reality: “I slipped downstairs and gave them the extra so she wouldn’t know how expensive…”
He’d say lazily,
“They couldn’t believe how much I made on the deal.”
“The manager always gives us our special room.”
“I predicted we’d have the deal by midnight. We closed (voice lowered to silken level) at one minute past.”
With a wink, a chuckle, “I prefer to turn left when I get on the plane.”
In one anecdote, he and his wife spent so much in a high end department store that the manager (alerted by some control panel perhaps?) hastened from his office, impressed by the stupendous sums, and offered them a free dinner in his fancy restaurant.
I started to notice implausible stories, and in some cases, outright lies. He would say he was flying to Cape Town tonight, then you’d catch sight of him next day. His plans changed without explanation. He told us he was writing a book (and there he was in the café with props: a notebook, pens) but later looked blank when I asked him about it. There were inconsistencies in details about his background too.
Mo and I talked about him idly. I said, “The way he goes on about money. Either he’s a fantastic miser, or he hasn’t got any.”
“He’s got two broad themes other than himself. Money and status.”
I was bored by his chatter about lifestyle and luxury, but the boastful lies were something else.
“Just one,” I said. “That’s all it takes. Then you doubt everything.”
Mo shrugged. I persisted, “But it’s weird isn’t it? Have you ever met anyone else who tells you bare-faced lies?”
“So he’s a manipulator, sure.”
“And that doesn’t bother you? What about that coy statement, I don’t care about politics, I’m only interested in good ideas. That one wins the bullshit prize. It’s code for: I don’t want to say I vote different from you. It’s inane, because you can’t effect ideas without politics. It assumes we’re stupid enough to accept it, so it’s low rent manipulative…”
I ran on, trying Mo’s patience.
Nick invited us out to a restaurant with his wife, a tall, gaunt, American. She seemed sharp but he dominated, telling us about his parents (wealthy, well-travelled) his son, a genius who’d gone to the UK for postgraduate research after Witwatersrand University, and now taught maths at Oxford. With modestly lowered eyes he revealed that he, Nick, was a black belt in karate and had travelled to Japan to learn from a master, the greatest teacher of all.
I kept saying great, wow.
When Nick got animated telling a story about his travels with the Master in Japan, his wife made a slight karate chop gesture herself, telling him not to go too far.
In an aside to her, I mentioned our conversations about Trump. She shook her head. “Trump? Nick’s never been interested in politics. He’s only interested in good ideas.”
If we tried to avoid him he pursued. One time we were both tired and pretended not to see him. He sat head down, squaring his shoulders, as if absorbing an insult, then he shouted Mo’s name and marched over. I felt so guilty I turned on the charm. Afterwards though, I thought about the way he’d shouted.
Another day we opted to sit outside rather than join him, but he bustled out to drag us in. There was something disturbing about his relentlessness. He pushed, he was assertive. I suddenly saw him as aggressive.
At the table he pointed at my sunglasses, a little gesture. I’d put them on when he approached because, by now, I was sick of him. I thought, let me guess, you think sunglasses at the table is rude. You have a ‘thing’ about it…
Mo listened while I tried to get at it. “It’s like he’s on stage. Mincing around with his props. He’ll bring a book and pretend to ‘leaf through it.’ Or ‘pore over it.’ Waiting for you to say, Oh what’s the book? You can tell it’s an act. He’s never going to read it. It’s all an act, but why?”
I had a new radar; I was constantly keeping an eye out for him. It was strange, I didn’t usually dislike people. He was such a nice guy, everyone said. Why this aversion? It wasn’t just his fraudulence, or his parading quality. There was more: a constant, subtle tone in his talk about Hillary Clinton, his patronising silence every time Jacinda Ardern was mentioned. It was the same tone that kicked something off in me when my father told me, “Dickens’s Miss Havisham should be the icon of the metoo movement.”
Or when my mother straightened up after watering plants on her balcony, placed on hand on the small of her back and said with a melodramatic shiver, one eye on my father, “Oh, I hate the metoo movement.”
When Trump was being elected we were at a book launch with family, and as the updates kept coming in, no one could believe it. Soon everyone started arguing. There was a sense of appalled dismay, of not knowing where to look. I said misogyny had played a role, and in the dispute following that I expanded: Trump hated older women because they weren’t hot and he couldn’t call them honey and baby and push them around. Trump’s women weren’t allowed to be real. “Such a nasty woman,” he’d said of Clinton.
My father, who’d lately revealed a disgracefully lenient attitude to Ivanka Trump, upended his wine glass and made an announcement: misogyny had played absolutely zero part. He would have voted for Clinton of course, but her problem was she wasn’t charming.
I said, “Why does a President need to be charming?”
When I argued further he lost his temper and told me, “Get fucked.”
Feminism: I wondered why it had taken so long for it to be an issue between Dad and me. Even though I was the only one in the family who really took him on, who’d always dared to argue with him, I’d stayed in high favour – right up until I turned into the black sheep. In order for it all to change, I’d had to get old. Will there come a time, I wondered, when Trump suddenly thinks, of Ivanka, Who’s this old bag? She has wrinkles; she questions and argues, has lost her simper. She no longer blindly believes…
Around the time Jacinda Ardern was negotiating to form her new government Dad suggested she play deputy to Winston Peters.
I said, “Forget it. If she does that, it’s over.” I didn’t say, Listen Dad, get fucked…
Nick had an affectation: he liked to dress entirely in black. In winter, over his black clothes, he wore a long black coat and a black hat, which now seemed to me either satanic or fascist. He would glide in, or slip out from behind a pillar, the hat making his head look very small. He sat in the café with bowed shoulders, his face gaunt under the hat brim, the cheeks carved off, cadaverous.
“There he is. Phantom of the Opera.”
Now he was inspecting some sort of ledger. He looked up and said, “Oh there you are. I have these shares, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook. What do you think I should do with them?”
I saw him walking against the sunny white wall of the savings bank, the shape of a man cut out of the air, revealing the black universe behind. I started calling him the Black Monk, after Chekhov’s story about madness, where a monk dressed in black keeps materialising out of the air.
By now I was recoiling every time I saw a tall man in black clothes in the street. Mo said my complaints were fanciful and my jokes were uncharitable; I was making Nick into a fictional character when he was just a friendly guy with lots of good ideas.
Rigged up in his black outfit, his dingy hat laid on the table next to my coffee cup, Nick was talking about a five-star hotel where guests could request a butler. We were supposed to be thrilled by the idea (its airhead promise of luxury and top service) but it sent me into furious irritation.
In my most opaque sunglasses (I’d bought a pair of mirror shades, just for the cafe) I looked across the table and said, attempting restraint but sounding wildly caustic, “But what would you do with a butler? What the fuck would be the point of him?”
There was a silence. Nick smiled, rueful. “Oh well,” he said to Mo.
Now his gaze turned sharp; he was trying to assess where Mo was in this. I imagined him calculating, if Mo was still charmed, perhaps he could manage to divide us. What a paranoid thought.
The next day Nick didn’t join us. Instead, having materialised with startling abruptness he stood over our table and read out an article about the US Supreme Court confirmation hearings where Judge Kavanaugh, having been accused of sexual assault, had blustered, cried, shouted, argued, and generally behaved like a man unfit for the job.
“He lied. A liar shouldn’t get a judicial appointment,” I said. I’d been Googling, and I couldn’t find Nick’s son at Oxford.
When Nick turned to me he lowered his voice, perhaps a technique for difficult customers. Nothing was spontaneous; he was so confident still, in his power to manipulate. His black hat made me think of fairy tales. In those old stories, the devil is always stupid.
“And how are you feeling today?” he asked, as if enquiring after some attack of hysteria, the vapours.
Now, for the first time, he stalked away and sat by himself. We got on with lunch, but Nick couldn’t sit still. I looked up to find him walking by our table. He circled slowly back past us, dawdling behind Mo’s chair. He greeted a man across the room, then strolled past again. I laughed. It was his way; if you evaded him he’d come up behind you, or stick that thumbs-up fist in your face. Rejected, he would bounce back – with proximity.
“What’s he doing? The Phantom. Roaming about like that. It’s too weird.”
Mo looked annoyed. I stopped laughing. It was my fault; now Nick was parading his exclusion and Mo was stuck with only me for company.
Over at his solo table his expression was soulful, long-suffering. He was setting up a scenario: himself cruelly shunned, by me. Ten minutes later, his lips pursed in a tuneless whistle, he moved to the table next to ours. Now he was so close he could hear us talking – but he was sitting with his back to us. It was so awkward, that after a whispered dispute we got up and left.
I was reading The End, the last in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical series, My Struggle. Knausgaard had sent his uncle the manuscript of his novel, which told the story of Karl Ove’s father’s death from alcoholism, and the days he and his brother had spent cleaning up the father’s squalid house. The uncle had reacted badly to the novel. He insisted the account of alcoholism and squalor was false, and threatened to sue. Reading his uncle’s angry emails, Knausgaard was thrown into anxiety and confusion and started to doubt himself. Had he really experienced the events he’d recalled and written about so vividly? He’d regarded his father’s death as one of the most significant experiences of his life, yet his uncle denied it all.
The uncle’s vehemence was striking. He argued nothing Knausgaard had written was true, the whole account was motivated by the writer’s malice and desire for fame. He set out an alternative narrative. It so contradicted Knausgaard’s that if it was false, and I assumed it was, it amounted to a very elaborate lie.
When I’d started to look back at my own life and to write about things I’d found significant, my family reacted with anger. It was made clear, trying to understand one’s life through the lens of the past was a disgraceful thing to do. Only unquestioning loyalty was acceptable. To look behind the façade amounted to disgusting self-pity and worse, treachery. My father was dismissive when I told him I’d consulted a psychotherapist. This was grotesque. The psychiatric profession was known to be bogus. What you did was get on with things, you moved on. Yet at the same time he was criticising me, Dad was working on a memoir in which he dwelt exclusively on the past. I had no faith he would include any of the uncomfortable details I’d been trying to get at. I’d always given the standard bio line: Lovely childhood, a house full of books. But after publishing my last novel, I’d tried to get a bit closer to the truth, writing: I grew up in a household so stressful I emerged from it chaotic.
My father’s response had been to say I was the chaos.
After my novel was published, I got into serious disputes with my father. He wrote me smooth, sorrowful emails in which he called me a “scolding fantasist.” The memories I had were false, he said. He denied my mother hadn’t spoken to me for years, and when I argued, he turned dark, accusing me of cruelty and disloyalty.
When I discovered he’d used an exact description of my and my daughter’s matching ankle tattoos in his latest novel, and that he’d described a man and a woman with those tattoos having sex, I was furious.
It had been my daughter’s idea to get the tattoos, for fun and to mark our close bond. I’d written about them; they were a special feature, and people knew about them.
I protested, and my father’s emails to me ranged from denial he’d described our tattoos, to attempts to shut down my nasty fuss, and when that failed, to saying I’d known all along what he was going to do. He wrote reminding me he’d consulted me, and I’d given him permission to do it. This wasn’t true. When I told him I would never treat my children this way, he used the word violins to describe the way I talked about my kids. He altered facts and denied my reality; he was also deliberately creating a false record. He would discard my furious replies, and archive his own letters for posterity. I knew it was gaslighting, that I’d grown up with gaslighting. I understood, but still it was a force. What if he was right about everything?
What if there was nothing strange at all about Nick Openshaw?
I went on reading The End, ploughing through hundreds of pages of Knausgaard’s daily routine, from his kids’ nursery to playground to nappy changes to cooking meals. If a woman had portrayed so much mundane detail, so much housework, as well as the intricate aspects of family relationships, would it be dismissed as a “women’s book”? Knausgaard got away with it because he was a man, but also because there was a point to the recording of domestic minutiae; it was part of his vast, complex, highly original project, a treatise on reality and art, a kind of epic intellectual deconstruction of the civilisation around him.
When he wasn’t doing housework, or plunging into a discussion of Joyce’s Ulysses, or the Bible or Mein Kampf, Knausgaard was guiltily agonising over his writing and all the trouble it caused him, mainly because he kept naming and portraying real people.
What was more important, to stay loyal and discreet, or to write about what mattered? My father allowed himself the freedom to write anything, to use our tattoos as though he weren’t related to me or my daughter. But I wasn’t allowed the same freedom to write about how it felt to me. I had to put up with the implication, falsely asserted by him in emails, that I’d sanctioned it.
It was a challenge hidden in plain sight, hard to confront, with family opprobrium raining down on me. The subtlety made it complicated; people wouldn’t necessarily see anything wrong in what he’d done. The same tattoos? So what? It felt like a macho signal that demanded I play the submissive cypher or resist. He might call it a tribute, but it was an assertion. It neatly disrespected my bond with my daughter, which he knew I valued, and it expressed the very attitude to family relationships that had made our family chaotic. If he’d done nothing wrong, why shouldn’t I write about it? Why should he have all the freedom, while I had none?
I spent a week writing a short story in which I asked that question. I called it “The Black Monk”. After finishing it I filed it away. Images appeared to me then, flashes against a dark background, positive memories: my father lighting a kerosene lantern in the house out in the bush, leading a fishing expedition on the black sand beach, his face lighting up when telling a story, or making a joke. The same week, I read this in Knausgaard’s The End:
Language is not, and can never be, the same as what it represents, but will always comprise its own shadow world pointing towards the real one, so what we see when we read is language, not the world itself.
“The Black Monk” was not reality. It only asked one question; it couldn’t fairly represent a whole relationship, the good as well as bad. It was a story made out of the shadow world.
At the café, Mo and I were talking about a bizarre spectacle: Kanye West’s visit to the White House. In front of TV cameras Kanye had gone into a disjointed rant, reducing even Trump to silence. In it, he said he’d grown up with no father and no male energy in the house, and putting on a Trump MAGA hat made him feel like a superhero.
I was off on a spiel of my own: “This is why Trump doesn’t need tactical advice. The Democrats try to calculate how to play it (do we go low or do we go high?) but Trump just knows; he’s pushing buttons instinctively. He’s doing a dance, it’s intuitive, there’s a live wire connecting his pathology to their vulnerability; he knows his unrepentant pussy-grabber act makes fragile men feel strong. His advisors say, Don’t mock the woman who accused Kavanaugh, and what does he do? He mocks her. Gets a million laughs. The crowd goes wild. It’s all about small man syndrome. Insecure men draw in that raw male energy and feel like superheroes…”
“Oh hi,” Mo said. Nick was standing right behind me.
Nick turned his mouth down at the corners, raising his hands, palms outwards. “Whoa,” he said to Mo, and made a thing of backing away, as if at any moment I might bare my teeth.
I sat with my elbows on the desk, staring out. The trees cast long shadows across the park; above the branches the sky was all in flames. What to include? I’d been loyal all my life. Could I write in the fearless way Knausgaard had? I closed the laptop. I wouldn’t write about the tattoos, nor about my life, nor would I publish a story called “The Black Monk.” With this decision I felt a kind of lift, not happiness exactly, but the sense I might reach some kind of harmony. If I stopped describing what I perceived to be real, I would no longer be the black sheep.
I took the bus to the Starlight Peninsula. It was getting dark; the lights were starting to come on in the wooden houses. When I got home, the front door was unlocked.
Nick Openshaw was standing in our kitchen. There were no lamps on, just the last red glimmer of the sunset through the windows behind him. His black coat was draped over a chair, and his black hat lay on the bench.
“Mo’s just gone to get some rum,” he said, with a little glint of delight that looked almost innocent. “He’s promised me a mojito.”
I imagined myself backing away.
“You look tired,” he said in a soothing tone. “Long day?”
He was weighing a metal cocktail stirrer in his hand. The feeling came over me again, of grace, as if harmony could be found if only I would just let go.
I put a hand to the small of my back. There was no need to write life down. How much easier to sit silent in the warm evening dusk, to fall into line.
For a moment he looked glazed, his mouth slightly open. But his expression set something off in me, a force that swelled like sudden rage, an inner voice: I can describe a moment of weakness, a hand to the small of my back, my mother’s gesture. But I am not that woman. I will not be erased.
Darkness filled me, until I felt like a figure cut out of the air. Nick’s pushiness, his manipulative behavior, all designed to charm, had produced the opposite effect, a small catastrophe of unintended consequences. He went on smiling in that stupid, over-confident way, as if he had no idea what could be unleashed in people, no idea of the real meaning of nasty.