Determined industry? Andrew Mason

Foreigners
Mike Johnson,
Penguin, Auckland, 1991, $19.95

Distortions
John Connor,
Reed Books, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

Man with Two Arms and other Stories
Norman Bilbrough,
Vintage, Auckland, 1991, $19.95

The Lie of the Land
Michael Henderson,
John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1991, $19.95

Shallow Are the Smiles at the Supermarket 
Sheridan Keith,
New Women’s Press, Auckland, 1990, $19.95

Five very varied first story collections, from five different publishers. All are paperbacks, stylishly presented (proofreading apart), and all but one are comfortably priced at $19.95. All are published with the assistance of the Literature Programme of the QEII Arts Council. On the face of it, the short story in New Zealand is a flourishing business. But how good is the product?

Mike Johnson’s Foreigners creatively solves the old problem of what to do with the long short story by putting three together in one volume and turning the blurb-writer into a contortionist in the attempt to link them. These stories, alert and enquiring, probe far beneath the surface of events; their length, however, also permits a density and discursiveness not always justified by what they retrieve. Only the third story, ‘Frame’, seems to me entirely successful: from Waiheke Island on 5 February 1990 the narrator meditates on his past travels, teasing out connections between people, places and politics. Gentle, perceptive, self-aware, the story is shaped by the processes of memory even as it prefigures their imaginative re-creation.

The theme of John Connor’s Distortions is declared in the first story – ‘I was an innocent abroad in a rude world’ ‑ and appropriately culminates in the concluding title novella. This sinister, shifting, disturbing piece plays with the question of whether, in an evil world, it is better to know or not to know, but seems uncertain which of the three outcomes it poses – corruption, madness, death – it wants to espouse itself. The preceding stories are a mixed bag, seemingly there to add bulk: only ‘Nobazznobatrazz’ and the evocative ‘Man of Fire’ to me earned their place.

Norman Bilbrough’s preoccupations are explicit in the long title story that opens Man with Two Arms, a depressing study of lives blighted by the suppression of emotion. Unable to acknowledge their true feelings to themselves, let alone others, these characters muddle painfully on, struggling to do what’s best but losing hope in ever being able to realise their ambitions and desires. The rest of the book offers shorter variations on the theme of desolation as the New Zealand condition, the product of both physical and social limitations. All are neatly if repetitively handled. Taking them together, however, I found the pervasive bleakness of the vision and the sameness of the approach finally numbing.

Not so Michael Henderson’s stories The Lie of the Land. Like Bilbrough’s, his collection is the distillation of nearly 20 years’ writing, but it goes to exhilarating extremes of language and subject – indeed language as the articulation of a world view is its subject. Henderson has an acute ear for the vernacular, for the verbal oddities and tics that betray character, for the slippery assumptions of language and the absurdity of its juxtapositions. Where language fails incomprehension begins, and behind the exultation is a sombre recognition of perplexity and suffering. It can be a dazzling performance.

Sheridan Keith’s Shallow are the Smiles at the Supermarket is a more brittle art. It relies on complicity between writer and reader: knowing better than her characters and being naturally superior to them, together we may judge their lives as empty, their desires as selfish and their values as shallow. Such judgements may well be valid, but I wanted more evidence than these manipulative stories, with their straw targets and archly pointed phrases, provide. In tone they reminded me of Fay Weldon’s stories, but lacking her moral resonance which turns irony into outrage and simplicity into fable. Most genuine for me were the stories based in childhood, where pity replaces superiority and the assumption of complicity is justified and fruitful.

For all the publisher confidence manifest in these volumes, the readership is likely to be small and faithful. Only the two Mikes, Henderson and Johnson, are really attentive to the possibilities of fiction – and of course, such far-reaching work doesn’t ‘sell’. The other three seem more content with established modes, wherein limitations of subject or technique are made more obvious and so can disappoint likely readers. Amid such evidence of determined industry, is it heresy to suggest that more rigorous examination of the output might be in order?

 

Andrew Mason is a freelance editor in Wellington.