Kirsten McDougall on a “kind and slightly bonkers” novel longlisted for an Ockham book award

“I believe that all reality is an illusion, no more real than a dream anyway”, states Aljce early on in Aljce in Therapy Land. If you’re not a fan of existential late-night rants, this novel might test your patience. But I’m a fan, and I welcome any novel that wants to mess with my head, as well as the boundaries of the form itself. Both levels are achieved in Alice Tawhai’s first novel.

In a story about a woman suffering under the mismanagement of a narcissist bully boss, Aljce in Therapy Land surprised me with hot points of joy. It came in the form of a Mad Neighbour standing in his concept garden of pink flamingos, astro turf, palm fronds and a home-made spa pool telling Aljce about the rabbit on the moon; and it’s also embedded in the main protaganist’s relentless questioning of the nature of reality.

The slowest readers among us (I happily count myself as one) will recognise the riff on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland even if they haven’t read it. The novel’s fame is such that its trippy motifs are sprinkled through popular culture. Readers will spot characters and some plot points from Alice in Aljce. My childhood was mispent rereading Famous Five books; I came to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as an adult. Although I’m partial to a talking animal, I’m not one for puns or lawless plot devices and I read Lewis Carroll’s classic with an aloof bemusement, pleased to escape his claustrophobic world at the end. Some books are best read at certain ages.

I’m also not a committed trainspotter, and though original Alice fans may be entertained to spot Wonderland references in Aljce, Tawhai has made her own world here, playing with parts of Carroll’s novel and bending it in her own design. The Therapy Land part of Tawhai’s novel is anchored in the nonsense of Wonderland, a central tenet being that there are multiple versions of reality and to tie ourselves down to one set idea of reality is what crazy people do. Particles behave differently when they’re observed. The world, as if we needed any reminders right now, is bonkers.

The story starts on Aljce’s first day at her new job at a “one stop wrap around service” called the Therapy Hub. She’s excited to work with her new boss Jillq, an impressive woman who wears perfume that smells like flowers bursting out of a wardrobe. Aljce has left a good job with a nice boss behind, in order to gain the practice hours she needs for her counselling qualification. She has two girls, Pleasance and Liddell (trainspotters ahoy!) who she’s raising by herself, and a mortgage to pay. She’s also falling in love with a man she’s met online, named Lewis (again, ahoy!). New horizons beckon, and much is at stake. On her first morning in the new office Aljce stands on a golf ball in the corridor and bends down to try and pick it up. Jillq tells her “it is best not to get disorientated […] mind on the game, Aljce.”

But what is the game at Therapy Hub? We soon learn that Jillq is chaos. She doesn’t want to be tied down to Aljce’s counselling placement agreement so refuses to sign it, then she signs it but doesn’t tick the boxes, then she insists on Aljce using three different diaries; a desktop diary in reception, an Outlook calendar and the planner on the wall; to mark her every appointment and movement to and from the office, as well as using a notebook to take notes at every single meeting she attends. No one at the Hub seems to do any work, the office is void of clients, yet they all protest that they are very, very busy, rushed off their feet. Outside the office window, Aljce spies rows of perfect cabbages (“cabbages for the poor”, we learn) and bunnies in a paddock, many, many bunnies. Inside the office there’s more of those golf balls, an office cat named Sailor, and something called an “OK line” that Jillq draws on a whiteboard but refuses to explain, because “People must do their own research”.

Over the hedge, on which the Mad Neighbour dries his washing from time to time, Aljce, listens to him rave about his cannabis plant-thieving brother, meth-addled neighbours, epileptic shock

Quickly, we see that things will go way past any line you might remotely call okay for Aljce. Jillq sends group emails in full caps with alternative spelling: “SOME PEOPLE ARE NOT BEING MINDFUL!!!!! I WILL NOTTTT STAND 4 IT!!!! TAME PLAYERS ONLY!!!!!!” And then she starts in with her assaults: People with degrees like Aljce think they’re too good for learning. Anyone who lacks basic people skills the way Aljce does won’t be suited to therapy. People close their doors so that they don’t have to talk to you, Aljce. No one wants that sort of energy around them. You are a nasty, hard person. And on and on.

Outside of work, Aljce’s life is rich in day dreaming: smoking joints with her bff Strauss and her Mad Neighbour and messaging love interest Lewis. Aljce and Strauss like to get stoned and have long conversations about quantum physics and whether they’re better parents stoned or sober. Stoned, Aljce decides, because she’s less concerned about mess on the floor that way. Over the hedge, on which the Mad Neighbour dries his washing from time to time, Aljce, listens to him rave about his cannabis plant-thieving brother, meth-addled neighbours, epileptic shock, and betting like the queen. He’s both tedious and entertaining and while the Mad Neighbour might hold to a logic just as insane as Jillq’s, it’s kindly and generous, open to all types. At one point the neighbours are drag-racing down their street:  “‘Ooh, here comes trouble,’ he said in a voice that fully suggested he supported it coming.” The other thing about this novel is that it’s funny.

Aljce’s online relationship with Lewis starts to get pear-shaped. He’s a well known writer who gets invited to festivals, but he’s stuck. When she tells him she might write a book, and that she’s writing her thoughts into her phone, he tells her that real writers write in long hand. He suggests they co-write something. Aljce “can already see herself caught between wanting to make compromises to please him, and needing to be her true self.” The reader suspects that Lewis, like Aljce’s new job, will not work out well for her.

Like Succession, Aljce in Therapyland can be read as a study in narcissism

At a certain point in my reading of the Therapy Hub scenes I realised was clenching my teeth and doing something awkward with my neck like I do when I watch Succession. Like Succession, Aljce in Therapyland can be read partly as a study in narcissism. Anyone who has worked with or who has the misfortune to have a Grade-A narcissist in their family will recognise Jillq. Aljce is perceptive enough to know what’s going on, to note how her adrenaline races as soon as she hears Jillq’s voice, but she also wonders, what if it is her fault? Narcissists are black holes, you can’t help but get pulled into their orbit. It’s a good day for Aljce and the reader when Jillq’s day of judgment finally comes.

In novels, people like Jillq can come across as caricatures, and we are taught in novel 101 that a caricature is not good writing. There’s something about writing down a narcissist that makes you wonder if they’re for real. Did they really say that just now? It’s part of their trick. What is real and what is not? The ground is always shifting in their presence but a narcissist revealed is a caricature. Read this book and know the signs.

Like the best of us, Aljce in Therapy Land is lumpy and digressive in form. I love the novel for its plasticity. If a novel is to convince me of the form its author has chosen for it, it must seduce me. Aljce in Therapy Land did this. At some point it got under my skin. It did this in the most gentle way, like the kindest nurse, pointing out a window to a child rollerskating past in a pirate’s hat whilst she pricks your arm with the needle.

There’s a refusal in this novel to follow a ‘correct’ form, for Aljce or the Mad Neighbour to live the life others might expect of them. Aljce is a fighter, or maybe she’s a silent assassin. She wears clothing as armour, and refuses to agree with the general opinion. Jillq accuses her of dressing inappropriately and unprofessionally, and in response she wears leopard print and a fake black fur with knee length black boots. “She knew it added to the impression of hardness but she felt perverse, and it made her feel braver. She felt as if she was underwater with turbulent schools of dark fish, one shoal going that way, another shoal going this way, another smacking right into her.” Aljce’s refusal to follow Jillq’s line is what saves her.

At the end of the novel the Mad Neighbour stands on Aljce’s picnic table to get a better view of a blood moon. He’s flapping his arms to get his balance, “like a bird attempting to fly backwards”. There’s something in that image – of two neighbours sharing an ephemeral moment – that summed up this funny, kind, and slightly bonkers book for me. If there are multiple realities for us on this planet, I know I’d rather be in the one that has a man on picnic table trying to fly towards a rabbit on the moon.

Aljce in Therapy Land by Alice Tawhai (Lawrence & Gibson, $25), is available in selected bookstores nationwide, and has been longlisted for the 2021 Jann Medlicott Acorn prize for fiction at the Ockham New Zealand national book awards.

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