Book Review: The Demolition of the Century, by Duncan Sarkies

Meet Tom Spotswood – insuranceImage investigator, alcoholic and absentee father. Tom has lost his socks, his career, his ex-wife, and, worst of all, his 10-year-old son Frank. Tom’s been out of town for a while, on the run from a man named Robert Valentine who wants those socks back. But when Tom goes to pick his son up from school for Easter weekend and discovers Frank is missing, he goes from being the hunted to the hunter, determined to discover the true identity of Robert Valentine and rescue his son.

Meet Spud – a demolition contractor pulling down The Century theatre with an archaic wrecking machine (adeptly call the T-Rex). A mass hoarder who’s prone to panic attacks, he’s struggling to keep his marriage from imploding and just wants some damn sleep.

The Demolition of the Century is a superb read filled with insightful – though cynical – social commentary, and brilliant characterization. The story alternates between Tom and Spud’s points of view, is cleverly crafted, and plays cunning tricks with time and ‘the unreliable narrator’. With a varied tone – which swings from farcical, to anarchic, to exhilarating suspense, to the painful and poignant – Sarkies has the ability to dart from sidesplitting hilarity to heartbreaking pathos in an instant, leaving the reader unsure how to cope with the polarized emotions with which they are left holding.

There’s so much I want to praise Sarkies for – his astonishing ability to capture the human condition, his capacity to express the bitter sweetness of life, and his talent of getting inside a character’s mind so thoroughly. It’s hard to give examples without giving spoilers: the reader starts out under one set of assumptions, but then has to reevaluate everything partway through the story. Sarkies’ brilliance when it comes to dialogue is one area in which I can be candid. It’s fast paced, dynamic, and comical – you can definitely tell Sarkies is a scriptwriter.

The novel is peppered with scenes in which characters find technology hindering a situation rather than being beneficial. Tom has a trying experience with a GPS:

I must have pushed a bad button accidentally during the drive, because the car has started talking to me.
‘It looks like you are leaving The City,’ it says.
Obviously it wants me to say something back, but I’m not in the mood for talking to a car so I hunt around for a button to shut it up.
‘Where would you like to go to?’ it asks me.
‘Quiet’, I say.
‘Where would you like to go to?’ it asks again.
‘Off. Turn off.’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t recognise that address,’ it say and I’m looking around for an on/off button but I can’t find it.
‘Where would you like to go?’ it says.
‘Herbert Valley,’ I say, ‘but I know where I’m going. I don’t need your help.’
‘Herbert Valley,’ it says to me. ‘Turn left at the next intersection.’
‘I don’t want to,’ I say to it. ‘I know a better way.’
‘Turn left at the next intersection,’ it repeats.
‘No,’ I say.
I pass the road it wanted me to turn left at, and the car says,
‘Oops. You missed your turn. That’s okay. You can turn left at Stedman Street.’
‘I know,’ I say to the car, and it tells me to turn left and I do what it says, not because it told me to, but because that was where I was going anyway.

Sarkies captures the exasperation and anxiety felt in a society where technology is advancing at a rapid pace and automated systems are replacing human interaction. One cannot even order a simple coffee anymore:

 What sort of zing would you like?’ a guy with too much hair gel asks me.
‘What’s your zing? Do you want a lasting zing or a quick shot or a no-more-headaches zing –‘
‘Please. Tea for two.’
‘We don’t do tea.’
‘Coffee then. Coffee for two.’
‘Uhh . . .’ the meatbrain goes, like I’ve thrown him a really difficult request.
‘You gotta choose from the menu, sir,’ he says to me.

Whilst reading the book, I was curious to see if The Century was based on a real theatre, and after some Googling I discovered that yes, in Duncan’s hometown of Dunedin, the city’s beloved Century cinema was pulled down in 1993 to make way for a tyre shop that’s never been built. Carl Jung suggested that buildings symbolize people, and this motif runs through Sarkies’ novel. Like the old building that is being demolished, the characters in the story are exhausted and damaged. They need to go through the process of clearing through the rubble and debris in order make peace with the past and build a new future.

Reviewed by Stephanie Soper

The Demolition of the Century
by Duncan Sarkies
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143568902