The sacred fish, Norman Bilbrough

Norman Bilbrough looks at some short fiction currently available – and sorts the big from the small.

Motel View
Forbes Williams,
Victoria University Press, $19.95

Animal Passions
Sheridan Keith,
New Women’s Press, $24.95

Just Like You Said It Would Be
Bernard Gadd,
Brick Row, $19.95

Elaine and other stories
Peter Entwisle,
ESAW Press, $24.95

Palms and Minarets
Vincent O’Sullivan,
Victoria University Press, $24.95

The Oxford Book of New Zealand Short Stories
Vincent O’Sullivan (ed),
Oxford University Press, $39.95

In the early sixties I published a formula story. It was laconic in tone, but with an underlying mix of self-righteousness and sentimentality. Its ingredient of violence was death by a piece of four-by-two. Gay-bashing New Zealand style.

I am uncertain where the tone and the particular manner of this story came from, for I had read only a little Sargeson. Certainly Hemingway contributed to it. Possibly it had a direct link to John Mulgan’s Man Alone, which had impressed me in the sixth form. But I suspect I had picked up some cultural shorthand which enabled me to produce such a fabrication. It was a bloke’s story – safe ground. It was about men doing things with other men (like hammering nails and eating their sandwiches on timber stacks), and it was totally out of kilter with what I really thought about men at the time. Probably I was trying to think about them as little as possible.

It is embarrassing reading. It has no validity. It’s a vogue story. Blokes being laconic on timber stacks and killing each other with chunks of wood must have been eminently acceptable for those times.

The thing about formula writing is that one is always aware of the author. It displays an attitude. The author introduces himself or herself before the story: it’s an aspect of the cult of personality. It’s the attitude of poseurs; of a culture which is aggressively unsure of itself. Ideally one requires a story to stand up and be noticed and not the author at all.

New Zealand has become very literate. We have an education system which is essentially middle-class, and which is becoming increasingly culturally nationalistic. This is backed up by a superb library system. But we still are a very uncritical, literate society. We’re assertive about our culture, and we still fear it. Maybe we’re still looking over our shoulders at the philistinism which was rampant a few decades ago. Maybe it’s still dogging along there as a ghastly reminder of our lesser selves. And this causes us to swallow whole whatever is New Zealand and is culture.

As yet we don’t have a confident critical body to deal with this big cultural fish. In our literary world we have factions, we have parochialism centred in our cities, we have university presses, we study New Zealand literature, and we have prestigious writing classes. We have a thriving literature industry. But we also have a body of limpid and seemingly terrified reviewers – which enables our writers to become smug and to remain immature. When a few wildcards like Iain Sharp or C K Stead air their views, we are liable to get indignant and alarmed.

The big fish of New Zealand literature is rapidly becoming a sacred fish.

Getting into Forbes Williams’s stories is a frustrating experience. As soon as you open his book you know you’re in the presence of a writer. His prose is at ease with itself. Trouble is, one suddenly has a parcel of expectations.

The first piece from Motel View is disappointing, because it’s an offering. No more. Here is a talented writer holding out his hand, then retracting it just as one is about to grasp it. It’s perceptive writing, just on the edge of taking off …

What’s immediately beyond is a series of teasers: fragments, riddles, ironies. Morsels which are perhaps meant to be tasty, but which actually got up my nose. The first story, Malone is long-winded. Williams is not overly concerned about form. As the book progressed I discovered that he has a lot to say; he’s quite happy be long-winded, and because he’s an engaging writer, one comes to accept this. Malone is about news manipulation. It’s about a clever Joe Bloggs being able to fabricate news, even internationally. In parts it attempts to be surreal, but it lacks the canny and hard edges of the surreal.

In The Wild Coast the narrator is travelling through South Africa. Essentially the story is about a nine-year-old conman called Joshua, and the smoking of large quantities of the local dope (dagga). The Wild Coast moves between fiction, travel writing, and journalism. Williams is at ease within these fluid parameters and at times the tale is entertaining and diverting. But it’s also unresolved. One’s interest is engaged, the story travels on – then suddenly the narrator exits. Williams’ endings tend to go untidy on him, and he has to get out fast.

The highlight of the book is Cricket. It’s complete, it’s got its own perfect shape, and it makes one laugh aloud – a rare thing with New Zealand stories. Williams knows his subject and the characters state their individuality through the dialogue. It’s an expert story, and it deserves to be anthologised. Williams writes well about children. He isn’t awkward, he’s immediate. He writes an unaffected little story about a kid and his bike in Incident on Anzac Crescent.

Let’s go Shopping is a free-for-all about a supermarket. It’s a piece with sub-titles and topics – which allows the writer to evade an actual story. But inside the bizarre and intimate fug of Williams’ supermarket there’s a story which could be as good as Cricket. There’s sex and graft in this world: Williams knows the place well.

Hope Springs is the longest story. But again it’s not a story, it’s more like perceptive information got out of hand. Its adolescent protagonist has a lot of trouble with his parents, is obsessed with sex, and is fast learning that the world is a ludicrous and rat-shit place. This is a rite of passage story. It’s about the replacement of the old order by a new, bewildering and facile order. Williams milks the banal aspects of our culture entertainingly – be it summer at the beach with one’s parents, or one’s first drink. He has a keen eye for the absurdity of news and news-making. He likes taking the mickey out of it … But then the end of the story looms, and he has to take a desperate lunge out.

Forbes Williams’ stories are a bit like wild horses. He hasn’t got them properly corralled yet. There’s plenty of talent in those horses though. It will be interesting to see what happens to them.

Sheridan Keith is a very different writer. There’s a strong element of artifice in her stories and I found it difficult to connect with them. One isn’t aware so much of the stories, they don’t have a life of their own, but of lots of small agendas of the author. Luminous Animals attempts a languid tone. It’s a story full of poses and flourishes. The author is showing us her writing, much in the same way as she might show off her jewellery, or an expensive dress. And the detail in it is learned detail, it has no personal quirks.

In Zoology, an older man, Stephen, a dilettante, becomes intrigued with an art student, Alexa, who was immersed in dramatisations of herself. It’s an unlikely liaison which I found interesting. But the protagonists tend to be irritating. Keith is a clever writer, and clever writers often patronise their characters. Here, one is not entirely sure. Maybe Keith is showing off. When Stephen prepares himself for bed – he has created an expensive and immaculate life-style for himself – the detail is neither entertaining nor relevant. It doesn’t add to the story. But it’s good taste detail. Snob detail. It shows how much the author knows. And she loves her literary flourishes: Before long he had asked her to have dinner with him, and before long she had said that she would. Keith uses the avoidance technique of over-burdened language. Stephen doesn’t woo Alexa, he begins a conscientious arousal programme. Maybe there is irony there; certainly there is disdain. But finally we’re not aware of seduction, or sex – we are aware of language.

With In the Fog, the Dog, again the reader is up against the same problem. If Keith were able to use the exuberance of language, there would be some point. But too often the writing is cautiously repetitive. Is this over-use of language intended to obscure meaning, or is it affectation? Short story writing is not about explaining. Too much explanation makes for resentful readers. Obviously I found these stories patronising and irritating. But I read them all because, unlike many New Zealanders, Sheridan Keith confronts love. She’s not afraid of cracking a love story. A better story, Dancing in the Dark, partially connects because of this. It’s a fairly ordinary story, but it’s a felt story. The central experience is authentic, even if the writer employs the artificial device of recounting it from the Connaught Hotel on the Thames.

Many of Bernard Gadd’s stories are about young people, and are aimed at young people. They target topical subjects: molestation, incest, bigotry, cultural schism, and the exploitation of indigenous people. His stories are designed to instruct: they’re written for the edification of the readers. If a writer chooses to go down the path of being politically correct, he or she rapidly loses literary interest. Life, society, whatever, is not politically correct. To hoist such a narrow agenda upon it is to miss the point. Writers may be variously buddhists, vegans, trade union activists or radical lesbians, but for them to use their fiction as a vehicle for their personal agendas, without the leavening ingredients of irony or wit or satire – which prevent it from becoming a party line tract – is to commit literary suicide. It’s boring, and once again it’s patronising. The writer informs the reader – who has no choice in the matter. It’s the Ancient Mariner and the wedding guest syndrome. Except New Zealand writers who find it necessary to patronise their readers are not very interesting Ancient Mariners.

Two stories in this collection had vigour. A House of Us is about a group of young Maori who want to get back to the land and build a wharemoe – a house. The narrator is a cynic: he’s the devil’s advocate. And because he thinks the whole venture stupid there is a welcome tension in the story until of course he relents, and comes around … I saw it all again, like a tv screen on my mind that house, the cooking lean-to and its camp oven, some chickens, even the maori loo. Yeah, even a garden and some corns, some kumara. And my sweat going to make something of our own, no one telling us what to do, getting between us and our dreams, using us, ripping us off. Worthy and predictable stuff. Maori talking Maori-speak. For me the story would have taken a turn for the better if a psychopath had come upon the scene, torched the house, driven off the occupants with tear gas, and reared battery hens on the kumara patch.

The other story, A Call to my Daughter, is also predictable. It’s a phone call between an elderly Samoan woman and her daughter – who is trying to shrug off traditional Samoan ways. She wants to embrace papalagi life. But the story has pathos. It’s about the non-meeting of mother and daughter, and Gadd writes about them, finally, as human beings caught up in a particular cultural circumstance. They have got beyond stereotypes.

Peter Entwisle does his own public relations for Elaine and other stories. In a foreword he offers them as erotic stories, and says: The reason I go as far as I do into the circumstances and experience of drama is because I believe no-one has ventured there before, at least in New Zealand writing. Fearsome and bewildering as that landscape is, it is part of our interior geography. I think it is better explored than left beyond understanding. Brave words. On further reading one realises they are a cover-up. Also Entwisle has a lot of cheek offering this as a collection of erotic stories. As the authors – and readers – of the recent collection Erotic Writing know, writing a truly erotic story is very difficult. And I suspect that anybody picking up this book is not going to be fooled. Flaccid, over-explanatory prose with a smattering of sex thrown in does not make for erotica. But I also suspect that Entwisle might not care if the first five stories in the collection fail to titillate the reader, because obviously the title story Elaine, is his trump card. It’s sixty pages of verbosity: I persisted because of the carrot of sex being continually dangled in front of me. But gradually it became apparent that I was reading a very unpleasant story.

Elaine simply can’t get enough sex. She’s the stuff of male fantasy – and fantasy is where she should have stayed. She fucks herself silly right throughout her life, gets raped, and finally comes to a grisly end. A tragic story – or so Entwisle would lead us to believe. Also he implies it may be a true story, which still doesn’t give him the excuse to write it, with all its embellishments. He says: I have no particular moral lesson to teach though of course moral attitudes are implicit in the stories. But the story Elaine is brutally moral. It’s pure fundamentalism. If a woman fucks around, she gets what she deserves. Elaine gets a terrible whipping, then her throat cut. This story is no more than a snuff movie, dressed up as literature.

It was a relief to turn to Vincent O’Sullivan’s book. The first story I read, Billy Joel her Bird, was convincing and satisfying. Several stories further in, I was still finding this satisfaction.

Many stories I read for this piece were imperfectly realised, but O’Sullivan’s stories are not. He’s an old pro: he knows a story must have distinct parameters – it need not be traditionally constructed in the sense of a Katherine Mansfield or Somerset Maugham story – and that it be valid and complete within those parameters. It doesn’t matter how seemingly trivial the main focus of the story is. He writes a lovely story about witnesses to the death of a dog on a New York street, in Corner. He writes plainly about an elderly man visiting a New York bar weekly and discovering that the Vietnam vet, who was also a regular, has diedbut has left him a Charlie Mingus record in a home-made cover. He writes an intriguing and brief story about paranoia, in Terminus. Being a New Zealand writer puts no restrictions on O’Sullivan: he writes confidently about people whose cultural experience is quite distant from ours.

He uses all his poetic talents in The Boy, the Bridge, the River, the longest story. It deals with a Latvian refugee from World War II, living in suburban New Zealand. ‘Latty’ has a hidden past. He boards in a converted tool shed; he works in the accounts department of a bus company; he has a friendship with Len. He has virtually made himself a non-life. Because of this the reader’s interest is undercut. Latty arouses our interest – but he’s shrivelling fast. There is melancholy, there’s incomprehension, but the events of the story are too small for its poetic size. It’s an ambitious story which tries to make up in mood what it lacks in weight.

In The Last of Freddie, O’Sullivan takes on a risky subject: Freddie, the boozing, fornicating artist, dead now, and remembered with varying degrees of affection by his three mistresses. The Freddie type has intrigued lots of writers, but he’s also a trap: the larger-than-life character. Writers love the idea of painters’ lives: maybe they feel they are the creative extroverts they would love to be. Certainly they appear to be good copy. But the definitive artist in print was Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth – a basic rat-bag of a man who has made all his literary successors look like weak imitations. Freddie is not much more than a stereotype, even though we have three points of view on him. This is the weakest story in the book.

The Oxford Book of New Zealand Short Stories is a handsome volume, and although I think the editor of such an anthology has an unenviable task – sure to offend the authors that are excluded – I cannot understand Vincent O’Sullivan’s choice of many of the stories. A large number are simply second-rate. For many the New Zealand short story begins with Katherine Mansfield, a fact set in concrete – or on a plaque in Tinakori Road. But Mansfield is more like an expatriate who, having returned to England, uses her New Zealand experience as material. She doesn’t feel like a relation of mine. Nor do Rudyard Kipling or Henry Lawson who also figure in this anthology.

On the other hand, Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame do feel like relations. The Sargeson stories, A Great Day and Old Man’s story, still have impact. I hadn’t read A Great Day for over twenty years, but it’s still fresh, still relevant. It’s a lean story and in another twenty years it’ll be still lean and hungry. Old Man’s Story predates the apparently contemporary subject of child abuse, and it contains no judgements. There’s nothing politically sound about Sargeson: people play out their own tragedies here.

Janet Frame’s stories, The Reservoir and The Bath, are probably not her best, but The Reservoir probably contains all the rituals and minute mythologies of New Zealand childhood we need to know. The Bath tends to be over-written. But Janet Frame gave many of us the permission to write. Certainly she gave many women the permission. With writing she liberated herself, and liberated others. She grew up in a time when New Zealand was an awful place for a creative woman to live in.

Sargeson and Frame had immense courage. They made their lives as writers. Sargeson never deviated from that chosen role; his voice was unique in the thirties and forties, and it still is. And no matter how uncomfortable Frame has made us, she is unavoidable. She – and Sargeson – are embedded in our psyches. Even if one has never taken the train to the wrong beach, or met a sheep in the washhouse, the experiences of her characters are terribly familiar. We have re-lived them over and over.

Apart from Sargeson’s and Frame’s contributions, the stories that stand out in this volume are: A New Zealand Elegy by C K Stead, School Picnic by A P Gaskell, Morning Talk by Yvonne du Fresne, and Mumsie and Zip by Owen Marshall. These are among the very best of New Zealand writing. A Glorious Morning Comrade by Maurice Gee is a punchy vital story, and I had not read Fiona Kidman’s The Tennis Player before. It’s a lovely story. It was also a pleasure to re-discover Renato Amato.

But when one comes to the younger writers who make up roughly the last third of the book, the standard really falls off. Michael Morrissey and Bill Manhire ring in a change with Jack Kerouac sat down by the Wanganui River and wept and The Poet’s Wife. Again form becomes uppermost. And attitude. One feels that these writers – and their contemporaries – are determined not to write like their predecessors, even if they have to write clever undergraduate pieces to avoid doing so. The Poet’s Wife is amusing, and for the writer it was obviously easy to get into, but difficult to get out of. It falls flat at the end. But Manhire is a more talented writer than Morrissey, whose piece isn’t much more than a writing exercise.

Witi Ihimaera is more of a traditional writer. He knows his craft, and the emotional tone of Big Brother, Little Sister doesn’t let up. But because it is a simplistic tale, it has no interest. With The Gringos, Ian Wedde gives out a lot of rock’n’roll information – and not much more. There’s no actual story: just an encyclopedic parade. And there’s a slight I’ve been there and you haven’t attitude to it, which is irritating. For all its detail and craft The Gift by Fiona Farrell is a very ordinary story with a marked debt to Janet Frame. But it has none of the quirky authenticity of Frame. It’s a story without surprises – there are no shocks of recognition. And it has a tacked on foreword and afterword. Archaeology by John Cranna is a thought-out story and well written, but it’s impervious to involvement. It’s a carefully made edifice, with its own convoluted symbolism.

In Outing, Peter Wells offers a glorious passage. His protagonists are driving through the Auckland Domain and one shouts out his extravagant admiration for a jogger. Fortunately the runner turned towards them and, in his endorphin bliss, showered an appreciative smile at them. The other men pulled away. They passed in a blur of sequined sweat on muscular flesh, with frolicsome cocks beating to and fro like agitated metronomes inside their tiny shorts. I wanted to read more from somebody who can write so succinctly and appreciatively about other human beings, but, although Wells is too good a writer to get mawkish and sentimental about his particular subject, the story is clumsy. Colleen Reilly writes a slack piece with Jim’s Elvis. Lloyd Jones’s Who’s that dancing with my mother? is curiously dead. And Anthony McCarten’s Baby Clare is simply poor. It has no finesse and no sharpness. No grace.

Reading these later stories I longed for more like Mumsie and Zip. It’s a story which grabs you. It’s riveting. It has tension, vigour and richness. But the new breed of writers are trying to be street-wise, and street-wise is style, not engagement. So in turn the reader is not engaged. Many of them are élitist – writing for each other. Their stories do not stay in the memory. They’re flip, clever, and smart-alec. They’re deliberately writing without heart. Theirs are the vogue stories of today. Gone are the blokes sunning their chests on timberstacks: they have been replaced by subjects far more sophisticated. Gone too are the old writers/bohemians – killed off in a sense by over-literacy and technology. One can’t afford to feel nostalgic about this. But writers still have the same struggle as Sargeson and Frame did: it’s a struggle towards maturity. And in this country it’s a struggle out of self-consciousness.

 

Norman Bilbrough is a Wellington writer.

 

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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