Book Review: In the Neighbourhood of Fame, by Brigid van der Zijpp

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Wow, this is great. I very much enjoyed reading this, and found myself sitting down for five minute bursts just to keep those pages turning.

A slow boiler with many twists and turns, this is 100% relevant for the times we live in, and very New Zealand in its subject matter, its crafting, its ordinariness, its suburbaness. It makes the point primarily, how in such a lightly populated country/society/culture, the ubiquitous six degrees of separation, is here really only three degrees of separation. And as a result, we can’t but help feel that we all own a piece of those who, in New Zealand eyes, become famous. The title could not be a more perfect summation not only of the suburban setting of the story, but also of the New Zealand we live in as a whole. When someone makes it big here, it doesn’t take long for the poppy-bashers to come out and cut them down to size. And then once that cutting down has happened, the fame never really goes away, it seems it just goes into remission until something makes that little poppy pop out of the ground again for a further chopping down. Really, who would want to be famous? And that is what this story is about – the nature of fame, and how it affects those around it almost as much as it does the person concerned.

In this story, Jed Jordan is a man in his 40s, a one-hit-wonder who, with his band of old school mates, some 15-20 years earlier, had a glorious few years of fame. There was one album that everyone adored, a couple of popular singles off it. Then it all came crashing down – a band break-up, financial woes, a second album that the reviewers didn’t like, and it was all over. Now Jed is living in the suburbs, growing capsicums, living an aimless sort of existence. During the course of the book, other than via a transcription of an interview he does with a 15-year-old school girl, we never actually get to find out what he thinks about his life, his fame, and what it all means. That interview by the way, is fantastic.

But we do get to read about the lives of those around him, and how that fame impacts on each of them. There are three narrators – Lauren who is Jed’s wife and mother to their 11-year-old son Jasper, and chief executive of a theatre company; Evie who grew up with Jed, has been living in Australia for many years, but recently returned with her 18-year-old son for her father’s funeral, and Haley, a 15-year-old school girl, really just a child, but like so many 15-year-olds, wanting to be something/one else.

Even though Jed is the central character, and the ultimately the story is about him, it is mostly about Lauren, Evie and Haley and the choices they make around this man who was once famous. It is almost as if every time he breathes, out comes some sort of magic fame dust that lands lightly on all those he comes in contact with. It seems to affect some more than others, and in the process raises the question of when we meet someone well known, are we interested in them because they were/are famous, or simply because they are a new person to get to know.

I also think there is another major character in this story – social media and the power, we the users, have given it to transmit and spread the most awful stuff about people – not only from habitual trolls, but also from those that simply do it because they can – Twitter, Facebook, media outlets, restaurant review pages – and it can all be done anonymously behind a smokescreen of some awful made-up handle. The phenomena of making yourself feel better about your life by trashing someone else’s.

I highly recommend this book, I am surprised it has not had more press exposure, as it is an easy read, extremely worthwhile, and will make you think for some time afterwards.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

In the Neighbourhood of Fame
by Brigid van der Zijpp
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739247

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