Jack Ross, ed.: brief 30 - Kunst (November 2004)
William Direen, Jules. Wellington: Alpha Books, 2003. ISBN 0-9583266-4-9. 241 pp. RRP $34.95.
William Direen: Jules (2003)
Iain Sharp recently, in a Landfall article, singled out the blurb of Jules as a particularly egregious example of local authors who shoot themselves in the foot by suggesting the unreadability of their product: “He begins the journey, through the tunnel of gravid shade, homewards, by means tortuous, peristaltic, swallowing images before and expelling them behind, each image possessing its own intoxicating fluidity, …” etc. etc.
It is, one is forced to admit, a bit daunting. Best to ignore it for the moment, I would suggest. Who is William Direen, anyway, and why has he insisted on giving us such an oddly set-out text? “Bill Direen is Chris Knox for people who think of Chris Knox as Neil Finn,” is Scott Hamilton’s rather gnomic summary of Bill Direen’s status within New Zealand music. A maverick, in other words – a man whom it’s unsafe to type, an outsider, a loner, but also a very influential artist within the alternative tradition.
And now he’s turned to writing novels (this, it would appear, is the third – after Wormwood (1997) and Nusquama (2002)). It’s the tale of a man named Jules Wells, a professor of Art history in Paris, and his peregrinations through that city on a single day (it’d be safe to say that the shade of Ulysses is never too far from Direen’s thoughts). Since Jules is an Art Historian (and also something of an artist), his perceptions require footnotes – almost ludicrously detailed accounts of particular paintings or painters recalled by the images he “swallows before and expels behind” (to paraphrase the blurb quoted above).
The effect of these constant interruptions to the flow of his perceptions is, above all, to make one stop and think. The footnotes could, after all, have been arranged more conveniently on each page, rather than as a block at the end of the book. Direen clearly wishes us to worry about how we’re to read his text. Are we going to interrupt it by leafing backwards once or twice a page, or are we going to read it through and then consult the notes en bloc? The first seems better to me – there’s a good deal in the notes which only makes sense in the context of the surrounding matter. But there’s also the danger of losing one’s way within the, at times quite baffling, narrative:
Such a chance we have been given to feel, to understand. Yet we inflict imitation on our children, as if replication were possible. We praise our professors, doctors, captains – for what? For their sleight of hand? Where is he whose weapon can gainsay the wound? 
Direen’s central interest is in perception – how do we see reality. The purpose of his book (insofar as one can commit oneself to so sweeping a formulation) is to suggest new ways of describing and apprehending the eddy of impressions all around us. The (crucial) passage I began to quote above continues: “We are of those neither hot nor cold, forever-going-between, or, worse, we are inert, those who know no narrative, clinging to possessions, who purchase, plan-patent, code-deciphered.”
It certainly isn’t that he doesn’t believe in narrative. His scorn for the “inert … who purchase, plan-patent, code-deciphered” is quite apparent. This is no Finnegans Wake. Direen’s book has characters (or, at least, one main character), action, a plot … Rather, I think he believes in narratives. A rock musician and an Art historian may construct their world in different ways, but they do construct it. Direen is the enemy of apathy, the lukewarm, the ready-made. For that reason alone, even if there were no others, his book would deserve respect.
brief 30 (2004): 115.
[Titus Books Website (29/4/06)]
brief 30 (2004)