What ridiculous creatures you always were!
Thomas Bernhard, Extinction
Dodos, quacks, dodgy directors, doctors and failed film stars populate Geoff Nicholson’s new novel. It oscillates between Los Angeles and London, the 17th century and now, linking them together through the sometimes tenuous, hypothetical connection between extinction and various kinds of life after death. The Hollywood Dodo itself is a film script, a mechanical reproduction of the extinct bird, a few corpses, fragments of a novel — in fact a multitude of interlinked things, just as the narrative itself comprises three separate but connected tales, and a few others imbedded in these.
Connection, and the various lengths to which people are prepared to go in order to establish it, seems to be one of Nicholson’s underlying themes. The novel’s various narratives recount the adventures of an English doctor and his daughter arriving in LA, an aspirant film director (“Auteur of the Future,” according to his business card) and a late-Renaissance trainee medic. How these all interconnect is too complex to reveal in its completeness, but it centres on the dodo of the title, and the various ways in which something 300 years extinct seems to persist in popular consciousness.
Repetitions, parallels and symbolic coincidences constitute the fabric of the fictional world Nicholson constructs. William Draper, the trainee medic, suffers from a rare skin disorder, as does Perry Martin, owner of “the Beauty Vault, a name that “managed to sound simultaneously like a hairdresser’s and a sex club;” Draper meets and falls sort of in love with “a female quack, a ‘wise woman’, if you will, a certain Mrs Hendrick.” Back in the 20th century, Rick McCartney, the future auteur, meets and nearly falls in love with his “past-life therapist,” Carla Mendez, “this really great-looking Hispanic woman, with olive skin and festoons of black hair, and dark eyes and lips.”
Carla regresses Rick, and, surprise surprise, his past life seems to be that of William Draper. Draper, cast out from his medical training by virtue of his skin disorder (“You have become an embarrassment,” he is told, “a would-be physician who cannot cure himself, nor be cured by the best physicians”), inherits via some invisible debt-collectors and a mercy killing the last dodo in England (and, it turns out, the world) and sets off on a doomed effort to find it a mate and populate the world with dodos. Rick, meanwhile, touts his dodo film pitch around LA (“This is the dildo movie, right?”), and eventually manages to sneak a day’s filming with a fifth-rate porn cast and the afore-mentioned mechanical dodo.
While all this is going on, English doctor Henry Cadwallader and his daughter Dorothy have arrived in LA to kick-start her film career. When this doesn’t happen in the worst way possible, Henry, fifty years old, fat and balding and prone to a rather pompous prose style, left to his own devices, gets sexually involved with a real estate agent and former film-star, and ends up “starring” himself as a reader in Rick’s dodo movie, having “saved” Rick from a panic attack when arriving in LA.
If you’ve followed this so far you’ll probably have realised that a plot summary is not something to which this novel is particularly amenable, nor something that will necessarily help in its comprehension. Nicholson relies heavily on coincidences and doubling, even tripling, in order to ram home the significance of particular events. The three-narrative structure, helpfully flagged for us by changes in typeface, is paralleled by the device of using film titles as chapter titles (“25. Back to the Future, 26. Mask”). All in all one gets the sense of a heavily crafted work in which the underlying themes remain largely underlying, even buried under the weight of fictional contrivance.
These themes are, themselves, potentially interesting, but the novel seems to lose sight of them at certain moments. Never sure if it’s a comedy or a tragedy, a mild satire on Hollywood or an eco-critical intervention, a meditation on mortality or a treatise on professional ethics, it drifts away from its central symbol, the dodo, offering only a smattering of the kind of historical and scientific authenticating information for which another book might opt. Almost accidentally we learn the dates of the dodo’s probable extinction, its Latin name, and a deliberately spurious etymology of its name (which derives from a Dutch rendering of the Portuguese word duodo, meaning “simpleton,” not the “sort of cooing, two repeated syllables, doo-doo, which no doubt has inspired the name”). I’d have been happy to learn lots more.
Then there’s the theme of charlatanry, embodied in quacks of various kinds, from the medical to the cinematic, allowing some sharp comments on various dubiously professional practices. And underneath this is the attention the novel seems to want to pay to issues of mortality and extinction. “Sometimes,” Rick McCartney tells us, “they’d ask me to say what the movie was about in just one word, and I’d say ‘extinction’.” Henry Cadwallader quotes TS Eliot in describing himself as a doctor “much possessed by death,” and later, in a kind of ironic commentary on the novel as a whole, he notes that “you don’t make a movie about death and extinction simply by having someone spouting about death and extinction.”
Too often this “spouting off” is what happens. Nicholson has written a fluent and sometimes funny novel, but its jokes are sometimes predictable (to be successful in Hollywood, learn to give a good blowjob — no shit, Sherlock; but a great quote from Cher provides one of the epigraphs) and its apparent ambitions are, ultimately, never quite realised.