Limbering up, Anne French

It could be You
Sue McCauley
Vintage, $24.95, ISBN 1 86962 008 9

The Mathematics of Jane Austen
Elizabeth Smither
Godwit, $24.95, ISBN 1 86941 317 2

Remember Me
Linda Burgess
Otago University Press, $21.95, ISBN 1 877 13335 3

Short stories have a slightly medicinal quality. This is fiction that is good for you — not sufficient to revel in, lose yourself in, pull up right over your head, it lasts just long enough to make its point. It has a freeze-dried quality which can be disconcerting. Like those crunchy little pellets you give the cat, it needs something to wash it down. The concentrated chewiness can make you a bit manic, inclined to want to run up the curtains or strop your claws on the sofa with frustration. If you read too many of them at a sitting you feel as though you’re watching an unfamiliar soap opera or you’ve walked in on the gossipy end of a Neighbourhood Watch meeting. You are dropped in to people’s lives in the most intimate way, as though you’re supposed to know them — and just when you figure it out and are ready to join in the conversation it’s over.

For the writer they must be irresistible. Easy to slot in around better-paying work, great as a limbering-up routine or a short burst of exercise, this is fiction that fits into weekends. Presumably they find them also fun to write — otherwise, why do they produce so much of it?

Publishers, though, recognise that stories have to be packaged so as to make them look an easier read than they really are. Canny Godwit has got this down to a fine art. The Smither collection is an attractive, chunky little hardback with an arty jacket, intriguing rather than imposing. In the case of the McCauley and the Burgess the words “short stories” don’t appear on the cover at all — you have to read the blurb. Both Burgess and McCauley are better known as novelists and It could be You even looks like a novel.

McCauley is the most medicinal. Her stories have a lovely  astringent tang, somewhere between Campari and mouthwash. She’s also the most competent of the bunch (though the others are talented) and her many years of daily craft, writing for television, film and radio are evident on every page. One of her funniest stories, “Notes for Episode 7”, is about writing for television and is told in faxes from the script editor, Keith, to the writer, Jane. Jane’s frustration and contempt for the storylines are not shown, except through Keith’s increasingly irritated replies. For instance:

Frankly, I just can’t see the problem. This is the nineties and, as we said, this Jason is a hunk. Why shouldn’t she fancy him and fancy David at the same time? Or is it to be one rule for men and one for women? Besides, Chatwin and Te Awa always has at least two sex scenes and we’ve done Wendy with David and James with just about every female in the cast.

But McCauley’s take on contemporary life is more Jane-like than that of Burgess or Smither. She often writes about people on the margins (in time-honoured Sargeson mode) but with more compassion and a sharper political edge. Fifty years ago old Sarge could probably rely on his lefty readers agreeing there was something rotten in the state of New Zealand, so he was free to concentrate on delineating character and voice. But McCauley’s Alliance-flavoured analysis of things is not necessarily shared by the book-buying public so she writes with greater intensity and moral force. She’s not unsubtle but she means every word. None of your post-modern nonsense here — McCauley knows what literature is for.

The title story, “It could be You”, follows the protagonist over several days and the remaking of her to-do list, in which everything is gradually attended to apart from “Ring Anita”. Anita is on a sickness benefit ( with something like ME that doctors find hard to identify and impossible to cure).

But how can you know? How can anyone know? In Anita’s shoes who would not become obsessive? Who would not seek out sympathy, clutch at kindness? It could be you, that’s the thought you can’t chase out of your mind.

Indeed, many of McCauley’s characters could be you. The woman in “Purple Trousers”, for instance, a snippet of a story about what happens in your head when you start fancying someone:

I’m afraid of misinterpreting, jumping to conclusions, generally making a fool of myself. Once you get to worrying about your trousers, you’re in no position to make an objective judgment about the other person’s feelings… I treat myself gently, as I would any accident victim. I take a hot bath and bandage myself with used conversation…

 

But some of them are most emphatically not you. In a few stories McCauley is making a larger point about the poor, the dispossessed, the poor in spirit. She forces us to  witness what is going on and to recognise that it is going on around us (us readers, I mean, us with our New Zealand Books subscriptions and our bookcases and our nice orderly lives) in suburbs we never visit to people who don’t deserve it, while we are turning the pages as though it’s just fiction. “After Max” is a case in point — a heartbreaking story told by a child in a poor family that has to send the dog away because they can’t afford to feed it, amongst other things:

And Mrs Steel starts blinking her eyes like Bubby does when she’s ready for a big wet bawl. My dad cries I tell her so she will feel better but the words are wrong and Kelly is hearing them and I see how she thinks that is dumb when I wanted to say it as something really awful, the way he was crumpled up on the floor and now all the time I am scared for all of us but mostly for me.

Not all the stories are like that. The one that comes before “After Max” is a lovely piece of nostalgia, evoking the summer “my sister and I stayed with our Aunt Elly and Uncle Roy in a beachside cabin”. It could be a slice out of Peter Wells’s Boy Overboard (without the low throbbing); it’s the beach story we’ve all lived but like to read again. Johnny and the Rockbusters are staying next door and after a few days of casual beach encounters “Johnny and I were almost going around together”. It’s close to bliss but it can’t last. “Whenever I imagined Aunt Elly and Johnny in social congress I felt an oily undertow in my stomach.”

2

After being in the expert hands of Sue McCauley, who effortlessly delineates what it is to be a New Zealander, past and present, and who writes with the easy assurance of a pro, the world of Elizabeth Smither’s stories, interesting and competently written though they are, seems small and pursy and literary. McCauley’s characters are having experiences the whole time — too many, often, starting before breakfast and not finishing till late. They lose their jobs and find love and somehow get the bond money together. Smither’s characters don’t often plunge in. They are mostly hanging round on the edge of the pool, not getting wet, dismayed by the splashing and the vulgar shouts of people enjoying themselves, remembering with nostalgia or regret how it was when they almost had fun themselves. The story unfolds and by its end we come to see that, had they taken the plunge, they wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Not really.

Still, if the voice of the little girl in “After Max” bothers you, this is the book for you. It’s beautiful to look at, would make a nice gift and is attractively written. A typical Smither character is a woman of a certain age, a reader, a person of intelligence, sometimes longing for more sophistication and worldliness than she possesses. In “Francophilia” Jean is keen on things French. Her son flies in from France to join his sister waiting by her deathbed; they talk about their parents and in her dying thoughts their mother remembers (but does not communicate) a moment of rare and glorious pleasure one weekend in Paris before she resumed her otherwise suburban life. In “A Turkish Proverb” Jane goes back to the town of her youth to work on a revision of her history of an old family company and meets again the marketing manager she had quietly fancied, only to find that — well, the kind of thing people find out in short stories.

This is not to say Smither’s characters don’t have exper-iences. They do, of a certain kind, a bit circumscribed and genteel and disappointing, but they soldier on for the most part without making too much fuss. Sometimes the exper-ience is entirely vicarious, like the evening the two women have at a chamber music concert in “The Lark Quartet”.

Bea focuses on the faces of the four women, whose faces seem to have become naked with so many people examining them. If it is only a desultorily good quartet, if Mozart himself despairs of it, their faces show nothing of this. The four faces wear an attentiveness that is more than musical. Perhaps they are historians too, students of costume and manners…

The most satisfying, least Brookner-like, story is the title story, in which Irene tries to explain to her thesis supervisor that Jane Austen constructed her novels around pairs of opposites and Ben inadvertently tells the kids at school that he has two mothers, though it’s not what you think. “Ben walks rapidly alongside a fence which is too high to jump. Behind him the footsteps, padded, nonchalant, like wolves which delicately advance upon a dead campfire.” Perhaps it’s because all three characters are actors, not watchers — or because it’s more complex in its construction, more satisfying in its use of major and minor themes. (I am beginning to sound like a Smither narrator!) It’s certainly no less literary than the others but here the literariness is the point of the story, not an attractively placed detail.

3

Being too literary is not one of Linda Burgess’s failings. Like McCauley, she’s gripped by character and plot and she records what she sees sharply, vividly and with great wit. The title story, “Remember me”, takes place as several friends meet for dinner at a restaurant. The dialogue crackles along:

Nigel said he didn’t know how Mark could do it, be a criminal lawyer, that is. He had his napkin tucked into the collar of his shirt, the only one wearing a tie, and didn’t want food spots on it…

“You’re right,” said Mark. “Next time I’m asked to defend someone unpopular I’ll suggest we just stone them then and there. Don’t bother about a trial.”

The story depends on a revelation and ends on a twist and it is impeccably timed, the tone spot-on. “The cheek. The bloody cheek.”

The collection is organised by the age of the protagonists and each story is accompanied by an evocative snapshot, an idea which comes off nicely. The one that precedes “Being Gwynneth” (about a primary school friendship) took me right back to those posed school photographs, with the girls in summer tunics and the boys with stiff backs standing up straight — a nice piece of memory contextualisation, before “I suppose I hadn’t expected to be invited to Gwynneth’s house; I wasn’t in her class” — and we’re off.

Just as McCauley tells a story in faxes, Burgess tells one in minutes. The last story is the meeting of the poetry society in a small town just after the poet’s visit.

Dulcie pointed out that there was no need to be jealous. That she was aware that it pissed them off that she was the only one in the group who had had a poem written about her. Who had bedded a poet. A major poet, what’s more.

Charmaine, said well, so Dulcie said. That in fact it was jolly difficult to prove or disprove that the slender, sylvan-thighed siren of that poem was Dulcie.

Dorothy said that she always wondered what sylvan thighs actually were.

…and so on.

Linda Burgess is Massey University’s writer in residence this year and has published two novels to date. On the basis of this story alone I hope she manages to get her third one finished before she’s spotted by the cynical script editors and forced to work in the salt mines of telly.

Anne French is a Wellington poet. 

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