Dunn Roamin’

Megan Dunn, Things I Learned at Art School

Penguin New Zealand, 352pp, $35.00, ISBN 97801 43774853

reviewed by James Cook

Megan Dunn’s first book, Tinderbox, was an astute, formally daring work of comic non-fiction that traced her years working for Borders bookshop in the UK during the 00s, while attempting a feminist rewrite of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. The follow-up, Things I Learned at Art School, is a prequel of sorts, a more conventional memoir of her early years growing up in New Zealand in the 80s and 90s, which nevertheless crackles with all the energy and inventiveness of her debut. Dunn’s trademark voice — deadpan, tough, yet at times tender and poignant — Dorothy Parker in Courtney Love army boots; Eve Babitz with an Auckland accent — drives the book forward.

The narrative begins in small-town Huntly, where Dunn, age seven, and her Catholic mother — recently separated from a truck driver named Bruce, the father of Dunn’s half-brother — have decamped to from Auckland. They live in a brick presbytery with Dunn’s grandparents, who are keeping house for the priest. ‘Don’t worry,’ writes Dunn. ‘It’s not one of those stories. The priest was polite and sweet.’ After six months, they move to a flat in Henderson with ‘blue curtains and blue carpet tiles, as though it knew we were sad and that it was going to contain our sadness and hold it’. Fittingly, they find an op-shop print of Picasso’s melancholy, Blue-Period study Mother and Child by the Sea hanging on the living-room wall.

Dunn has the usual ’80s girlhood preoccupations. Her Olivia Newton-John poster and Barbie Doll (with its pink flushable commode) are her first talismans against an insecure, peripatetic life. Vivid domestic scenes convey the sense of dislocation familiar to all children of separated parents and complex, ‘blended’ families. When Dunn’s half-brother’s step-mother shows up, railing at her mother: ‘If you love him then why did you leave?’ Dunn writes: ‘I stood in the doorway of the flat and watched.’ The detached numbness of the sentence speaks volumes.

By age 14, Dunn and her mother have moved to a room above a care home run by her uncle. Dunn’s mother works there, making the tea. A bookcase is lined with Mills & Boon hardbacks, with their covers of misty-eyed couples in clinches (‘a general atmosphere of surrender prevailed’), and outside the lounge window ‘lake Rotorua lapped, ever ancient, ever young.’ Her uncle commits suicide unexpectedly, an event which affects her deeply (‘suicide is personal. Isn’t that the point?’), causing her to reflect on the time she worked behind his home bar, standing below a print of Cézanne’s Card Players. Another room, another picture: Dunn reminds us again that paintings are physical objects; art is part of the furniture of life.

School is sheer hell and ‘misery’ — as a redhead Dunn is teased and tormented by blonde girls who look at her with ‘perfect aquamarine eyes filled with spite’. After leaving — its now the 1990s — Dunn enrols at Elam School of Fine Arts, and here begins the main body of the book. Dunn’s chapters in this section (and throughout much of the book) have a postmodern, cut-up feel, an appropriately collagist approach for her course. She majors in Intermedia, ‘the department for people who didn’t know what the heck they were doing.’ Her tutors wear a lot of khaki. Dunn, on the other hand, wears ‘scuffed brown work boots and an op-shop pinafore decorated with illustrations of the Eiffel Tower’; and later: ‘a brown vinyl waistcoat. Red wine just wiped off.’ She tries her hand as an ‘appropriation artist’ — cutting up a videotape of the mermaid movie Splash then adding a script adapted from Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. Her khaki-wearing tutor doesn’t approve, and tells her to ‘research the history of the mermaid’. ‘Research?’ Writes Dunn. ‘Had Magritte been told to research flying baguettes?’

While still at art school, Dunn starts a gallery, Fiat Lux, in a disused shop with an androgynous fellow student friend, David. Much arty mayhem ensues. Later, after graduating, she embarks on a stint behind the bar at a massage parlour called Belle De Jour (after failing as the receptionist), where she plots her escape to the UK: the start of the Tinderbox era.

Dunn is rarely un-engaging. The narrative only flags slightly during the high jinx of the Fiat Lux period, which could almost be those of any art students at any art school in the world. Although, having said that, an account of scouring Rotorua’s op-shops with David while on acid, only to come away with a faux plastic log decorated with mushrooms that glow in the dark, then getting hopelessly lost in a forest of giant redwoods does stand out. You couldn’t do that in Central Saint Martins.

None of this capering prepares the reader for the emotional KO-punch of the penultimate chapter, which uses the pictures on the walls of a hospital during Dunn’s mother’s final days to profoundly moving effect. Another room, another picture: the motif, established early on, proves Dunn to be a writer in full control of her material.

At the time of writing, Things I Learned at Art School is only available in New Zealand (however, a UK eBook edition exists). With so much memoir being published that is either formulaic or merely plain dull, a book as clever, witty and downright entertaining as Things I learned at Art School deserves a far wider audience. The reader will smile and cry, and not just with laughter. What more can you ask of a work of art?

James Cook is an assistant editor at Review 31 and the author of Memory Songs: A Personal Journey into the Music that Shaped the 90s.