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Melbourne life was fine, if a little prosaic. It’s a big city but a small town, and having grown up here I couldn’t go to a bar or get a cup of coffee without running into someone I knew. It was a giant playground of everyone I’d ever met in my life, for better or worse. To find anonymity it was necessary to put a few oceans between us.
One summer I set out for Paris with my best mate, on a mission to put my lazy grasp of French to the test. It was also an opportunity to indulge my teenage fascination with all things French.
I had one goal though. To visit Shakespeare and Company, a legendary bookshop where the staff walked in off the street to accept an offer of bed and board in return for work. I was going to try and get myself a job there, or inveigle my way in with the penseurs who would meet in an upstairs room and debate philosophy and literature. I did go to Shakespeare and Company. I even found the room, with a group of people from around the world excitedly arguing in French about, well something or other (have I mentioned my French isn’t great?). I stood there for a moment, backed out and left.
I realized that my dreams of being an arty Parisian intellectual type were just that – dreams. I preferred the easy banter of my mates, the calming isolation in reading Dostoyevsky, or Camus, and knowing I did not have to justify my choice. Beneath all that there was a growing resentment for pretentiousness and the realization that life goes on outside the pages of a book.
Patrick O’Neil’s book is about how he drew inspiration for his adventures across the globe from the literary fiction of Franz Kafka, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Desperately concerned at the prospect of living a conventional life, he flees the suburbs of Melbourne on three seperate occasions during his twenties, leaving family, studies, work and relationships to wait for his return.
As the first third of the book is dedicated to Kafka, O’Neil heads off to Europe, landing in London after an exhausting trans-continental flight on a cheap airline. There he is put up by a friend in a ritzy apartment. Deciding that this degree of comfort is yet another ‘gilded cage’, he books a ticket on a ferry for Amsterdam. Arriving finally in the wee hours of the morning O’Neil realizes he is alone in a strange city, surrounded by drug addicts and prostitutes and should anything happen to him no one will even know to look for him there. He is catapulted into a night of paranoia and fear, much like something conjured up by the frenzied imagination of Kafka himself.
His subsequent adventures follow the same pattern. Disenchantment at home sends him free-wheeling across the globe chasing literary dragons. A new foreign land, the confusion that results from the language barrier and the skewed perception that follows ingesting psychedelics. He meets some fascinating characters off on their own mad adventures. O’Neil himself is marched back and forth across foreign borders, threatened by gun-toting criminals, arrested by corrupt South American cops on drugs charges and almost dies in a car-wreck. He faces the threat of death on several occasions, but seemingly the experience of living with a compulsive New York neurotic is the most spirit-crushing.
However, the experience of reading this memoir makes for a far more frustrating journey. O’Neil cheerfully describes himself as mad on one or two occasions, but a complete lack of common sense – coupled with a near-total degree of self-absorption – makes for a dreary narrative. It is like reading Walden and discovering the author was hanging out on a mate’s private estate.
The other issue is that the characters encountered by O’Neil seem a lot more interesting, such as a Belgian psytrance documentarian, or a Manhatannite drag queen. Instead we have to contend with the narrator’s own half-baked ponderings. A de rigeur appearance of Carlos Castaneda during a peyote session was the personal low-point for me. He was a fraud who used the women attracted by his shamanic nonsense about Toltecs and disguised pure bunkum as wisdom.
The book’s muses – Kafka, Thompson and Kerouac – are imitated in an overly literal manner. Reading the book felt like sitting next to a teenager on a long-distance bus ride who’s read the CliffsNotes summaries.
Tired, dated and frustrating. First-world tourist pornography.
A sixty-something desk clerk with a dishevelled stare and dark armpits told me to sign my name in the registration book. I blanked. He repeated I should sign my name. I couldn’t sign my full name, Mary Alice Baker. Nina was the first name that came to me, because it was exotic, foreign sounding. I couldn’t imagine a terrorist Nina. The sum total of my life to date would be my last name. I signed myself in as Nina Zero.
Let me tell you about a weird little incident that happened to me in Amsterdam. Oh don’t worry, it’s nothing like that. I broke the mould on visitors to that capital of lax morality by visiting comic stores to hunt down hard-to-get titles. In one store I asked the owner if he had any copies of Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. He directed me to accompany him downstairs to the basement. There I found a low-ceilinged room stuffed with long-boxes. The owner began to list the contents of each, naming companies I was familiar with and then he pointed to the fifth box along and said “those are Bad Girl comics”. The pattern repeated itself, with several other boxes being identified in the same way.
Bad girls? I really did not know what he meant. Female protagonists that act like pulp fiction tough guys, often written by men and parodying feminist heroines perhaps.
Mary Alice Baker starts this book as a ‘good girl’, but informs us that she soon learned how to be a ‘bad girl’. Living on a meagre wage from taking pictures of children for doting parents, Mary’s own family life is an abusive, dysfunctional nightmare. Her father rules the home with an iron fist, frequently taking out his frustrations on his children and long-suffering wife. Mary does not have much luck with the men in her life, as her boyfriend Wrex is an emotionally manipulative parasite, whose relationship with her is dependent on her allowing him to sleep in her bed.
Then he asks her one favour too many, deliver a package to a stranger at LAX Airport. Seconds later the man, and indeed the arrivals lounge, are blown to smithereens. Mary suddenly finds herself a suspected terrorist, her name and face decorating the front pages of newspapers across Los Angeles. One safety pin through her nose and a dye-job later and Nina Zero is born. She falls in with fame-hungry Warholian artists, even gets a crash course in becoming a private eye and decides to hunt down the party responsible for the bombing. Maybe put a few holes in Wrex as well if possible.
This novel has some fun with poking fun at the shallow LA art scene. Nina’s new flatmates are a paranoid film-maker who expresses contempt for Hollywood, but is desperate to get her own picture deal. Then there’s Billy b, an intense artist who likes to draw portraits of Elvis and Kim Basinger. Together they talk long into the night about the philosophy of kitsch, which Mary/Nina can only barely follow. When they discover she’s a suspected terrorist she becomes their goose with the golden egg.
The eagerness of the people in Mary’s life to stab her in the back allows for a certain amount of black humour. However, the sheer negativity of this book becomes tiresome. What’s more every man in Mary’s life treats her like crap. For all R.M. Eversz’s claims to the contrary, she seems less like a bad girl and more like a victim. This leads to the uncomfortable notion that the rough sex and the violence featured is itself meant to be entertaining. Personally I found it distressing. Compare Nina Zero to Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson avoided accusations of voyeurism by creating a character with genuine mental issues, as well as a fierce independence. Eversz does not convince, Nina’s problems are solved by handing her a gun. She even points out to her abusive father at one point that while he has fists, she has the means to kill him now she has a weapon.
What a wonderful moral!
While this book was a quick read, it left a bitter aftertaste. Not for everyone. Sadly I only figured out the meaning of the title after realizing the Warhol connection. And yes, a print of Elvis is actually shot.