Carl Shuker’s launch speech for Aspiring


Launching Aspiring by Damien Wilkins
by Carl Shuker

I remember interviewing Damien for his book Chemistry nearly twenty years ago. Our half-hour talk produced three tiny quotes in an 800-word review I wrote for The Press (I used to send those reviews in on a floppy disk in the mail). There was so much gold leftover I repurposed it for NZ Books (salut!). It’s here:

Be kind to a young reviewer. I was young, hungry, nervous as anything. I thought I was very sure of a lot of things. Damien was what Damien is and seems always to have been: gleefully thoughtful, quietly privy to secrets, supremely confident, supremely articulate about his ongoing project. If not the what, the how has been established early on in this project (though who knows what ‘early’ even means when you are as vampirically ageless as he). Damien told me about going to the US as a very young man to study under Stanley Elkin in St Louis:

‘I went there with a lot of the writing I was doing at the time, which was full of adjectives and . . . full of “writing”. Full of voice. But it was quite a stylised, self-conscious, adjectival voice, and once I got there, I thought, no, I can’t do this anymore. Mainly because the people who had taught me all that were sitting there, and they were the masters of it. So I felt I had to reinvent myself.’

Now I vividly remember thinking, because I was working on a long wordy book at the time, I completely disagree with this aesthetic, but he is important. ‘Stylised, self-conscious, adjectival’ pretty much described everything I was doing, and it was an amazing feeling to completely disagree with him yet completely get where he was coming from and why. And to register, somehow, even then, that at some point just maybe his truth might be true for me. My disagreement comes out in the interview when I (I thought carefully) deployed some William Gass to provide the counterpoint:

But Damien, I said, Gass says, ‘the art is in the music; without the music, there is only comprehension’. How, I said, I thought with winning subtlety, would a comment like that sit with what you do?

Damien then floored me by knowing exactly where he deliberately sits within a Gassian taxonomy of music versus comprehension, quoting Gass’s mad early practices (writing forty descriptions of a tea cup), then bending all this knowledge to a justification for his own process – ‘when you make a book you make a world, you don’t make a vision of the real. You actually make some thing.’

Always the feeling reading a new book from Damien, those first few pages, is – wait – where is the flair? Where is the fabled genius; the pyrotechnics? Everything he said in that interview is imprinted on my brain – how to learn pace, to learn what a speed hump is in a narrative and how it affects what went before and what comes after. Critically, for all Damien’s characteristic understatement sentence by sentence, he is a plastic writer, a sculptor. How things look on the page, the interplay of paragraph size, the steady shrinkage of falling lines of dialogue when a conversation is dying or a disagreement winning – all this complex artistry of the visual and verbal is a vital part of the way he plays with our brains and hearts. Damien thinks in chapters, he feels in whole novels, but he speaks in those simple sculptured sentences, smuggling in the pieces of something huge and potentially dangerous.

Another thing he told me that went into my brain without a ripple: ‘You give everyone their moment. So there’s no character in there who’s unredeemed by style. Even the peripheral characters; they just have a few lines to say, but I try to make the situation interesting or odd or amusing.’ That last line hides the genius in what he said before: ‘there’s no character in there who’s unredeemed by style’. There are theses to be written about walk-ons in Wilkins. About how the redemption of character – no matter how peripheral – by style generates in his fiction this feeling of a deep-breathing patience, that is warm, ultimately heartless perhaps in the possible fates it might bestow, but, in the immediate, warm, sensitive, even kind.

That’s a key thing reading Damien – that simplicity, that offhandedness, is somehow some kind of a terrible lure into reading him simply, offhandedly, trusting him that he won’t hurt you, like we sometimes trust the world and simply live in its small moments, unaware of the stratospheric changes the world and Wilkins will wield upon us. Because hurt us both he and the world does. In Aspiring I was reminded of a phrase I read elsewhere – ‘nested, high-impact stimuli’. This seems a quiet book about a quiet boy (nearly seven feet tall) in a quiet town by a quiet, thousand-year-old lake. But as we read, comforted, soothed in detail, we suddenly have to remember where we put our feet. Masquerading as YA, it’s another Wilkins trick. Come in, he says, look at this and look at this, but don’t look over there, something’s coming. The sense of looming threat and dissolution – even if it’s only the routine disappointment of more life in a small town – is masterful and only exists because of this mastery of all the mundane and small that may be dissolved.

In our troubled times, Aspiring is a gorgeous reminder of what we stand to lose, of course an object correlative for a loss of innocence, and also a secular reminder to attempt to lift ourselves, to aspire, despite our bullies, despite our broken-hearted fathers, despite whatever’s happened or happening, again and again.