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Stephanie Johnson

STORY IS OFTEN THE MISSING GUEST at today's so-earnest literary table, along with its close friends Imagination and Humour. How refreshing - and salutary - then to see them as integral invitees to the smorgasbord served up by New Zealand author Stephanie Johnson, a guest at the Sydney Writers Festival ahead of her Monday release of The Whistler (Allen & Unwin, rrp $19.95, 235pp).

Her novel is as imaginatively intricate as computer circuitry: echoes of Joan Makes History, with a twist of Brautigan impishness, Pynchonesque significance, black humour and Gothic tones, plus a dash of conspiracy theory, adventure action, idealism and humanity. It's an sf novel narrated by a genetically-altered lapdog called Smooch, a "Whistler" whose repertoire includes total recall of past lives and the ability to download information direct from brain to disk.

The setting is Sydney 2318, a pollution-prevalent centre in a world run by all-powerful corporations, where civic kings, gangsters and the "haves" live in protected luxury as the have-nots scrabble to survive in a Blade Runner-ish dung-heap.

Nevertheless, the novel is as much about the past as apocolyptic future. Smooch, owned by single mother Verity, a "pleasure-giver" in the Relief Corps (a Vestal Virgin-like prostitute for the privileged), and her deformed son Vernon, has lived through history's highpoints as women's lapdog. He was with Mary as she and Joseph set off for that census, with the incarcerated Mary Queen of Scots, in a separatist Amazonian domed community in 2296, on Hawaiki in 925 when Kupe left to discover New Zealand. And wait, there's more ...

History is the key to The Whistler, the forgetting and rewriting of it; satire city, this is an often biting comment on contemporary society's lost compassion. Some may sniff at satiric sf as a literary concept, but it's their loss - the message is subtly shaded in this rollicking tale, which unravels with deceptive ease around a crowd of seductive characters and imaginative flights.

"I hope people laugh when they read it, although it does have its poignancies," says Johnson. "Personally, I don't believe history repeats itself, but I do believe it has salient lessons."

Now 37, she is Aucklander born and bred, a one-time cellist who had "visions of becoming the next Jacqueline Du Pre - I had the romantic ideal but not the application nor talent". At uni, she ditched music for English and history, then discovered acting. Thespian aspirations led to role-seeking in Australia in the mid-80s. At which she had some success, although her most persistent gig was as a "truly inept" temp in Sydney offices.

After a role in Dogs in Space (with Michael Hutchence), "a deplorable movie in which I looked particularly fetching as a crew-cut lesbian with bad skin wearing a pink boiler suit," she (re)turned to the typewriter (she admits to being a "compulsive scribbler" since her teens), publishing a collection of stories then a novel, Crimes of Neglect, which was set in Sydney.

In 1989, with her Australian husband Tim Woodhouse (a freelance documentary editor) she "fled the flight path over Leichhardt" to return to Auckland's calm and community, where she has been writing full-time "as much as is possible with three kids under 9" - stories, poetry, novels (including the Booker-nominated The Heart's Wild Surf), and TV scripts (Shortland Street, etc).

The impulsion? "What's left when you're a terrible secretary and a mediocre actress?" she laughs. The Whistler, she says, has been percolating since she was 21, when she first flirted with the idea. "I started to write it but gave up when I realised I wasn't ready." Fifteen years later, between projects, she unearthed her yellowing synopsis in a bottom drawer. The novel's episodic nature was a perfect fit for her chaotic domestic situation.

"It was a wild romp in fact and imagination. In a way it's my protest book. I hope my vision of the future is completely wrong, but I worry it is not." A street-marching veteran with anti-nuclear and anti-aparheid campaign medals, she despairs at social inertia about "ecology, privatisation, the loss of unions, the denigration of services to health, education and the aged ... such a cold, unfeeling philosophy is abroad in NZ and Australia, which we seem to be accepting complacently."

Her passions, so on the sleeve in life, are professionally subsumed in The Whistler. There is, though, a significant empathy with the character of Vernon, "misshapen in the womb by toxins and drifting, gene-altering clouds", a bulbous-headed genius whose physical difficulties include having one normal leg and the other short with a misshapen foot.

Johnson herself was born with deformed feet and lower legs. Every winter, she says almost as an afterthought, she was packed off for another operation, having regular surgery until she was 16. While this bought her "a season in the sun" of daily mobility with surgical boots, "you eventually pay for all that surgical intervention. These days I have limited mobility, and carry a stick." Satirically, that stick is a big one.

This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1998

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