Genre publishing exists like a hidden enclave in the broader Australian culture, replete with its own publications and personalities, politics and institutions. Hidden away in this world are number of highly talented writers whose work deserves much greater recognition than it receives. At the literary end of this spectrum is the work of Ben Peek or Deborah Biancotti. Closer to the genre side of things stands Paul Haines, whose second collection, Slice of Life, was recently published by The Mayne Press and has been shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards.
Haines has gained attention with several award-winning stories such as ‘The Last Days of Kali-Yuga’, ‘The Devil in Mr Pussy (or How I Found God Inside My Wife)’ and most recently ‘Wives’. Paranoia, profanity, horror, guilt, black humour – Haines’ worlds are macabre constructions existing somewhere in the borderland between genre greats Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison. Like in Dick, Haines’ everyday protagonists live in worlds where something is clearly going on beneath the surface of things. This combination of little people in their small everyday lives (in Haines case they often inhabit the grungy world of backpacking or share-housing) and grand dark forces (shadowy figures that control us in one way or another) opens a space for black humour. Like Ellison, Haines writes explicit and violent stories that show little respect for taboos. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the beginning of ‘The Devil in Mr Pussy’ (abridged):
The stifled moans and muted screams of my wife from the adjoining bedroom made it hard to concentrate. The cat was right. Things had gotten to the point where I needed to lay blame. Mr Pussy sat straight-backed like a temple guardian on my silk rug, staring at me as I worked …
Pregnancy can be a killer. Mr Pussy gave his thick coat another attention-seeking lick. You know I don’t like kids …
“Mirella and I moved here to start a family. You know that.”
Sure you did, but this ain’t normal. This is fucking weird.
The cat was right. It was weird.
I filled his bowl with out current favourite – Beef Lamb Liver and Vegetable Bickies – and poured myself a handful while I was at it. I felt a little more in control now.
And who was to blame? I couldn’t blame myself. Jesus, definitely Jesus, and the woman that introduced us to this madness. Lucy Case.
We should never have bought this house from her.
Here we see many of the elements that Haines uses to such effect: the paranoia, the weirdness in the context of the everyday, the humour, the horror. At his best, Haines is fresh and lively. At times he makes you laugh out loud.
Some of Haines’ stories are satires of commercial society: ‘(It’s Not Like) The Good Old Days’ is a rare (for Haines) science fiction story, in which the protagonists live virtual lives uploaded into the web; there they rent space like a broadband plan, but are subject to all the difficulties one associates with such plans, and the web in general (spam, viruses, etc). ‘Inducing’ is a story about God and aliens manipulating humanity in a giant pyramid scheme, not unlike Amway.
Haines is at his best when he has space to develop these themes, and the slighter stories in Slice of Life are of less consequence.
Structurally, his stories are superbly controlled – Haines knows how to plot, when to open a story, when to hold back information. This last technique makes his readers work, but pays them back for their trouble. Like much horror or ‘paranoid fiction’, the plots remain hidden. One must not reveal too early the true state of affairs. What makes Haines original is that in some stories, such as ‘Mnemophonic’, he never fully resolves things, leaving a sense of mystery resonating in the readers’ minds.
If genre elements – the horror, the science fiction, the fantasy – provide Haines his strengths, other genre conventions limit him. Like many who emerge from the world of genre fiction, Haines places a premium on story and action. His prose is clear and precise. But rarely do his characters attain the kind of individuality that one might expect from more literary fiction. Rarely are we provided backstory or the delicate moments of relationships. Haines’ protagonists tend to share the same characteristics: they are grungy types on the dole, who smoke dope, take drugs, drink, and wonder about the emptying of meaning from the modern world. In a postmodern flourish, they are often called Paul Haines. In the mainstream literary world, Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe stands close to Haines’ fiction, but Tsiolkas shows a literary sensibility that Haines lacks.
Some may suggest that Haines’ gender politics leave something to be desired. His work has been called ‘masculine’, and certainly the stories are told through an unambiguous male gaze. But the very fact that Haines’ protagonists are losers, or unstable (and in the process of going mad), makes a direct identification of the author with the views of his characters tendentious.
If Slice of Life can largely be called a success, we can only wonder at how Haines would handle a longer project. Could the paranoia, the horror, the humour be sustained over an entire novel? The work of Philip K. Dick would suggest that it is possible – whether Haines himself can pull it off is something we will have to wait to see.
Paul Haines can be found at www.paulhaines.com