Books

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle
Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life

What kind of fruit would you be, and why? The unnamed narrator of Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life struggles to answer this question at a group job interview as she stands in a circle with other interviewees. It’s one of many moments that highlight the ways the surreal and absurd stitch life’s fabric.

The second book by Auckland-born Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, it follows Autobiography of a Marguerite, an experimental and autobiographical woven prose poem exploring autoimmune disease and familial dysfunction.

Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life also bridges poetry and prose, or more accurately, boxes them – its neat slabs of text are laid out in blocky stanzaic paragraphs. Aphoristic and epigrammatic, they collect the thoughts of a woman in her late 20s with depression and chronic illness who has graduated from a creative writing degree and now shuffles between job interviews and online dating.

She’s becalmed and isolated except for an anodyne parade of featureless – except for the occasional “big dick” – Tinder dates. These include a married couple who offer her a very small bowl of muesli, someone who says he’s “not interested in what you’re saying” (he’s “just being honest”) and men gazing backwards at their exes, including the ex with psoriasis like the narrator (“maybe that was his type”).

New things come into her life. An administrative job at a bakery, dealing with the rage of people who receive plain croissants instead of almond or the wrong number of Christmas puddings. Ringworm. A therapist who suggests channelling pain into art. That’s what he did as a former comedian and clown – and what about Kurt Cobain, who “made millions”?

In the first of these vignettes, some of which have been published elsewhere and reframed for this work, the narrator is eating “disgusting chocolates that have melted and reformed five times while sitting in my friend’s hot car”. The abject stays in focus throughout.

Under the flat surface of each boxy slab of prose are trip-wires, quick flips in tone. There’s something of the mood of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation with its depressed narrator who is all looks and no vision until she imagines the “luxurious free fall into velvet blackness” of a year-long pharmaceutically enabled sleep. Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life, too, is often comedic and sharp, although where its satire is directed is not always an answerable question.

Felicity Plunkett

Giramondo, 68pp, $19.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle".

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Reviewer: Felicity Plunkett