Myths of reason and culture, Heather Murray

The Heart’s Wild Surf
Stephanie Johnson
Vintage/Random House, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 278 8

A Fancy Man 
Sue McCauley
Vintage/Random House, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 283 4

The Wedding at Bueno-Vista 
Shonagh Koea
Vintage/Random House, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 282 6

The book as we have always known and loved it is in its terminal stage, so the prophets of CD-rom suggest. Soon we will all be sitting up straight before our screens, interacting with the electronic “book”. I can hardly wait: my house will seem airier, lighter, healthier the minute I ditch those cumbersome old books, harbouring as they do at this very minute legions of dustmites, the odd platoon of black beetle. Very unhealthy. Someone should tell writers and publishers to hold production. It may be just another false alarm from the self-serving lips of those who never read anyway but it breaks your heart to see traditional producers carrying on as of old. Forty-plus novels published in New Zealand in 1996 and even as we speak hundreds are firing up their word processors as if the book reigneth forever and ever.

If not a complete cessation, a year’s respite would be a good thing to allow the rest of us to catch up on the backlog of reading. I try to keep up but unless the novelist offers an original slant or two, some dashingly new or spirited footwork, I soon cast the book aside. More style, wit and intelligence please; less grey realism from the tone-deaf. It’s an increasingly sophisticated and demanding reading public out there and evidence suggests that many occupying editorial chairs in publishing houses have given up, after the unexpected success of the bone people, trying to understand their clientele or even on trying to tell the good from the bad. They simply publish everything in the hope that something will catch on and pay the bills.

All three novels under review here were a delight to read, clever, witty, deep, entertaining and, above all, able still to say with flair and distinction something new about the human condition. Since they are all published by Random House, their editor must be excluded from the rude remarks about the confreres above. In a year which has launched the careers of Emily Perkins, Laura Solomon and Tina Shaw it is good to see that the three mid-career writers, Johnson, Koea and McCauley, are not outclassed or made redundant.

Stephanie Johnson’s The Heart’s Wild Surf reminds me of one of my favourite novels, E M Forster’s A Passage to India. Set during the time of the influenza epidemic of 1918, the uncomprehending colonisers are again the British and the colonised are the Fijians and the Indian and the Chinese labourers brought in to work on plantations.

I have given up trying to understand the British and can only shake my head in disbelief, enjoying every fresh manifestation of their true dottiness. If only they had stayed within the confines of the British Isles they would have been tolerable but their mission was to bestow light upon the world, bringing order and rationality to the chaotic, irrational barbarians at their gate. And it is here that Johnson finds her theme: who is rational and who is irrational? Putting a poem of her own into the lips of Rupert Brooke (who enjoyed a dalliance in Fiji with one of her characters) Johnson writes of the clash between natural or instinctive responses and reason: “Still sometimes now your Heart’s Wild Surf / Beats ‘gainst my Reef of Reason…” If the British had been able to adapt their more stringent Britishness towards something approximating life in the colonies both sides might have benefited but Johnson would have been deprived of a good story.

She is very funny about the accoutrements of daily British life set down in Fiji: the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, flannel petticoats, rubber corsets (a combination of the latter two inducing some acute manifestations in female private regions), diamond tiaras, ostrich feathers, fox furs and fine bone china. Appearances had to be kept up but they exacted a lethal toll. Fijians and Indians pondered on who was being irrational and barbaric as they strove to understand their masters and to come to terms with the blessings of empire, while keeping face for whites drove most to drink, drugs, and madness.

Overall hangs an air of corruption, decadence and decay. The trappings of British society are prone to decay in the tropics and they themselves are increasingly out of place and time, unable to adapt yet not wanting to return to England. The influenza is a suitable metaphor for their contribution to Fijian life. Johnson creates some wonderful characters: the drunken matriarchs of the two main families; Maudie and Bernard, whose offspring are fated to die; young Olive with psychic powers; the two “modern women”, the Misses Prime-Belcher and Perkins-Green, whose modernity does not permit them to fit into Fiji any more successfully than those who came before. Johnson uses a shifting point of view to tell the story, including even the strange Elvira, whose odd-coloured eyes won over Rupert Brooke. Some madnesses could be tolerated, with a little help from laudanum in the teapot, but overt sexuality could not and poor Elvira spent a wretched life exiled to her detached bure.

Ah, the myths of reason and culture with which we surround our lives! Stephanie Johnson is awake to them all.

As in her three earlier novels, Sue McCauley finds her subject-matter in the lives of the dispossessed, the poor who struggle for a toehold on the fringes of society. In A Fancy Man, her characters criss-cross the Tasman pursuing a better life. While to a geographer this form of migration might be called transhumance, to those involved it is called “doing a geographic … a drinker’s trail from place to place, home to home. Mess up and move on”. Existing outside settled conventional society but always in collision with it, the shiftless culture is usually male-led, “a culture of its own; fast friendships based on the bottle, easily made, easily severed”. Optimism leads them on to believe, despite hints to the contrary, that any day now they will find their niche, and riches.

Windsor is a small provincial town somewhere in the North Island. But, contrary to myths dropped about by Gary McCormick and his “Heartland” programme, the countryside is not home to the real dinkum decent Kiwi joker. Utopia, the rustic idyll Windsor is not. Not for these farmers the practising of eternal verities, the large-mindedness of those who live in response to the seasons, who feel that to know nature is to love it. Narrow, they are, vicious and self-absorbed. They neglect and mistreat wives and children and kick their neighbours. There is no joy and life is a battle to the death: “The nastiness … in Windsor seemed to be woven into life, sneaky as ground glass”.

Chief itinerant is Frank Ward, farm labourer and general good guy. By nature he bears close resemblance to Murray Ball’s great cartoon character, Cooch Windgrass: “Frank could make a frog feel significant just by the way he’d step over it”. Everyone — everyone with a value or two in the right place — loves Frank. He seems free of the hangups everyone else is gripped by and misfits are drawn to him, perhaps to absorb some of his bounty. But Frank has problems which exasperate the young woman who loves him: he is a boozer, and he rustles the odd sheep or cow, nothing on the scale of McKenzie, just an animal or two to get him started on his own bit of land. Sharing beasts is not a trait of this community and the lynch mob gathers. McCauley has a very lively plot and a great cast of characters. Dialogue is crisp and spare and the narrative line hurries on in an easy, colloquial style. Will Frank’s young woman stay with him? Will he make a go of it this time?

Shonagh Koea’s fourth novel, The Wedding at Bueno-Vista, continues her favourite theme, the woman alone, isolated from society. Koea offers another in her strong line of pleasantly eccentric widows, a species for whom conventional society is prepared to offer little space. They decline to throw themselves upon the funeral pyres of their husbands so they must shift as they can. Elaine Frobisher was a misfit long before her husband “saved” her by marriage. She was one of the poor children who grew up never having the right books, the right toys, the right looks, the right jerseys. Not for her orthodontist’s bands, or smocked Viyella dresses. Her father beat her. She survives by being unobtrusive and cultivating a rich inner life. But she cannot avoid all contact with the majority who seek her out for ridicule and bullying. In defence her real world is that of her immediate environs where she surrounds herself with beautiful objects as a substitute for human warmth: Elaine feels superior in her attainment of beauty.

After a brief marriage to the kindly David Frobisher, Elaine’s terrors increase. She feels:

“I was — I am — full of death, full of the recollection of death. I feel that I bear death with me, like my shadow. It is always there … and it is not just the end of life I mean. What I mean by death is the death of ideas and hopes, of innocent thoughts, of faint hopes for tomorrow.”

Alone, Elaine is preyed upon by her mother-in-law, by old acquaintances who have adjusted to the real world and by a gang of thieves whose frequent depredations upon her beautiful objects force her to move into a large block of flats, Bueno-Vista, where she hopes for greater security and anonymity. Noting that wives as a group are protected and secure, she plans a second (mythical) wedding of her own to provide a lifeline.

Lest the plot and the grieving widow sound impossibly sad, it must be said that Koea is a witty and shrewd commentator on the foibles of society, remorselessly unpicking the seams of daily life, unravelling pretensions and leaving the reader with much to enjoy, as in her reporting on Appalachian quilts, handstitched by “skilled hillbillies who had been trained in market strategies to cope with environmentally conscious consumers”. Koea has a great eye for the macabre detail so richly embedded in New Zealand life. Death seldom comes quietly: a robber is drowned in a hopper of sesame seeds, another is dismembered, his bits and pieces washing up on a nearby beach and the deaf boy is unable to hear the train approaching from behind as he takes a shortcut along the line.

McCauley and Koea write out of a deep sense of rage at society. McCauley espouses the cause of the working class. So “working” is her class that the enemy, that is, the “upper” class responsible for the current state of affairs, would very likely be classified by sociologists as merely “upper working”. McCauley is not bothered by the dark knights of the Business Roundtable, since they are too far beyond her ken. Koea takes her subjects from the educated middle classes who are preyed upon by lower-class thugs who think that Elaine and her ilk must be rich and by those who drive BMWs and pursue money. They talk on cellphones whilst waiting for the lights to change; their cars are painted rich metallic shades, their women have sleek hands thick with rings and they bear names like Adrian Bunce and Esme Frintaggle. Only the mean-spirited become money-rich. Both novels are investigations into how we should live and must be read for a deeper philosophical message underlying the mere passage of events, the roll call of characters.

Koea is direct about her anger: in the novel she wonders why as a child she did not rebel at the first sign of inequality and the arrogance of power before she and her playmates “grew accustomed to rudeness, attuned to not having things”. The poor should have demanded the sunny side of the playground. Now she regrets her continuing self-effacement, her chronic politeness which has caused her to withdraw instead of doing battle. Perhaps she could learn to become rude, arrogant and demanding to fit better into society? But of course, the real value for Elaine (and for Koea) is in remaining aloof, untainted and above the philistine society. Is this a satisfactory solution? Is the only way for the meek to inherit any earth worth speaking of to withdraw to the periphery and leave the centre to the greedy bullies? If Koea advocates such a solution, it is a depressing end. Elaine’s hinted “rescue” at the end may or may not bind her any more closely into conventional society.

McCauley finds true values only within a class ostracised by the wider uncaring society. Love and generosity of spirit — both crucial to the writer — reside in the Frank Wards of the world. His group survives and conducts its daily round in ways not comprehended by the rich, or by the policy makers. They have their own transactions, their own currency and codes, their own clocks and pace. McCauley seems to be saying that this alternative life, rich and worthy, cannot be circumscribed by the power brokers because they lack eyes to note its being. McCauley believes wholeheartedly in the resilience of the human spirit in adversity.

Now it is all very fine for us to know that life goes on abundantly (and the novelists assure us, more richly) among the dispossessed on the fringes, but are McCauley and Koea, by showing us the riches these people contrive under the status quo, lulling themselves and us into an acceptance of such a divisive, alienating and stultifying society? Should they, and those of us who share their concerns, not be taking to the barricades? I rather think we should.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin scholar and writer. 

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