Bluffworld is a funny, horrifying, thought-provoking read, set in academia in an alternate Christchurch. If you have ever experienced the liberation of information-free decision-making, wait till you read about the helium float of meaning-free discourse! Thomas Flannery, our narrator, sits on the toilet writing his personal bildungsroman Bluffworld – although there’s not much personal development to report. We follow him through his career and along the way we learn the difference between bluffing, bullshit, and horseshit.
The English faculty of the College of Arts, where Flannery works, is the epitome of colonial snobbery and sloth. The hierarchy threads through the faculty, continues offshore, and peaks at the “fantasised Oxbridge life”. When the university builds a new campus, the faculty academics are delighted to stay in their “diminutive mock-Gothic” Oxford, they are a “strange combination of gentlemen’s club and sheltered workshop”. Flannery exists among, and by, bluffing and skiving, and the disparaging of indigenous writing and knowledge – a vilified faculty member dares to champion “Pacific writing”.
The faculty is predominantly male – and puerile ones at that; the book is smeared with scatalogical references and off-colour humour. A colleague says of Flannery’s trick of lecturing on the classics using only the first chapters, paragraphs, or, in the case of Moby Dick the first three words, that he had “turned ejaculatio praecox into a mode of literary criticism”. It’s not surprising it was written on the toilet, many key scenes occur in the loo, and the end of life for the books is … well read Bluffworld.
It need hardly be said that the blokes are a misogynistic lot. When Flannery makes a serious misstep in judgement, he is puzzled why the women of the faculty are as angry as the boys – “I hadn’t had a relationship with any of them, had I – ?” It is only at a distance we read of a woman aggrieved, a woman despairing, and in one case, Sally, a woman having a successful career and relationship post-Flannery.
Appropriately, Bluffworld is full of plagiarisms, the cover is à la Discworld, the section headings are all stolen. It has copious footnotes, by a second narrator, which are disparaging, pointing out examples of plagiarism and bad grammar (our man has problems with direct and indirect pronouns). They explain references and words to the reader – often fussily and unnecessarily: ‘Meccano’, the card game ‘Snap’. They mark non-English works as those to “Ignore”.
The writing is reminiscent of other styles as well, the English faculty has the quirkiness of the academia of Robertson Davies, and as the book progresses, and things get more bizarre, we end up in a Soviet era style satire, with the university buildings shapeshifting while inhabited, and committees and subcommittees being formed with the members having no idea what their mission is. With the dissolution of the faculty, the staff pose in academic gowns for tourists, take guided tours, sell baked potatoes from a cart, and lecture standing on a box outside Cathedral Mall. Flannery helps a colleague, Bevan, in his bookshop, selling books from the faculty library – their stock gradually becoming overwhelming and giving them rashes and coughs.
Somehow Flannery has absorbed enough knowledge to bluff a few book sales, “like Post-it notes that had stuck to me as I passed” – after all he did unwittingly absorb some Hungarian while having an affair with Lára, the Hungarian wife of a colleague. But basically, Flannery’s career is a steal. He also lives in other people’s houses, and he feels himself turning into various of his colleagues. He looks in the mirror and sees “not Everyman but Anyone”, he catches his reflection in a dark window and looks “Like a narrator, like a writer. So Jeremy Irons”.
There is a good deal of mistaken identity throughout Bluffworld, one possible reason for Flannery’s success is that it isn’t really him who is meant to advance. The reader starts to wonder if some of the characters even exist – is Flannery’s fellow student Manatine real? He is and he isn’t there a lot of the time. His association with drugs adds to the confusion, and his name suggests the manatees who confused sailors when they were seen to resemble mermaids. Manatine “made sense, as long as he was speaking. When he stopped, he made no sense at all.”
“Has anyone ever said anything original?” Amidst the fun is the message about knowledge being a cumulative process; building on previous thought, adding to it and re-shaping it in a new environment. Enriching ideas with indigenous knowledge, with new experiences. Plagiarism is theft, and when what is being plagiarised is European writing and you are in a far-flung colony of ‘home’, the theft unmoors the works from their meaning and context. People will start believing in anything once communication stops gesturing to the “Lacanian Real” – once it becomes untethered from an underlying reality.
Flannery is the villain of the piece and also the victim. There is a parallel drawn between the academic split with relevance and the followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult, who committed suicide so they could be taken up into a spaceship that was travelling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Flannery becomes seduced with the “vision going forward” “scholar-managers” nonsense of Super-Iggo, the Vice-Chancellor brought in to corporatise the university. Listening to Super-Iggo’s stoner-type verbiage gives Flannery a hard on, the jargon enters the sex talk between him and Sally. But it isn’t Super-Iggo who actually does the reorganising, it is a small drab man with food stains on his tie who does the dirty work.
Bluffworld is laugh-out-loud funny, but despite its ridiculousness and its cynicism, it has a serious theme. Sally ends up fronting a show for Viscera Entertainment, and in one relentless grilling of a former colleague of Flannery’s, she explains the demise of the humanities is due to bad communication, because “no one reads the stuff, no one practises what it preaches anymore”. She points to the National Library’s culling of over 500,000 of its humanities holdings. The suggestion is that we are losing links to our literary heritage by failing to carry that heritage into the present time and place, a move which would have enabled the people of Bluffworld to adapt in a wise, not meaningless, way – to not end up with a university totally comprised of administrators.
“It’s our heritage.” Flannery witnesses books going to be pulped, there is a moving honour roll of titles soon to be gone: Pacific, European, American – Art, Poetry, Philosophy, Literature. Once written knowledge is devalued, all that is written becomes suspect. Flannery knows he is guilty, knows what a loser he is; when Sally is interviewed on U.S. TV about a book she has written, he knows it will be about him, and knows how awfully he will be depicted, because he knows how awful he has been. When he hears there will be no more in-person lectures at the university, he mourns the loss of the intimacy of student/teacher relationship – something he never bothered nurturing.
We leave Bluffworld with Flannery ready to take off in the helium bubble of administration, untethered, but far from free. As I say, Bluffworld is a funny, horrifying, thought-provoking read – and possibly set in a not so alternative reality!