ed Gordon McLauchlan
Tandem Press, $24.95,
Well, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, we know that it did, because Gordon McLauchlan tells us so. In the introduction to Morrieson’s Motel he says that this unusual short-story collection is the result of a collaboration between the New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN) and Tandem Press; and he goes on to warmly thank Tandem’s Bob Ross for his suggestion that “we adapt to New Zealand the Irish idea that inspired Finbar’s Hotel”.
For Finbar’s Hotel, novelist Dermot Bolger invited six fellow Irish writers each to write a story about the events on a particular night at an imaginary Dublin hotel. As editor of what might be called the local cover version, McLauchlan got twice that many New Zealand writers to contribute stories on the theme of a motel stay in a “semi-mythical South Taranaki town” whose identity, given the Morrieson connection, is not hard to guess.
“I think we’ve made the idea our own,” asserts McLauchlan, and in that, at least, he’s right. These stories have an undeniably, uniquely New Zealand character – I don’t think anyone with a reasonable working knowledge of modern English literature could mistake their aromatic provenance. To read them through is to be reminded profoundly of our pastoral roots.
In “Family Unit” the Irwin family, driving south, are obliged to “slow down behind a stock truck with viscous calf shit dribbling from beneath its back palings”. Also on the road, the hero of “The Killing Fields” is held up by an “articulated stock truck. Following it closely, he caught the pungent, ammoniac odour of dags, urine and wool, saw the green shit and piss slopping out onto the road.” There are moments of refreshment and relief, however. “At Opunake,” writes the author of “Dawson Falls”, “they stopped for petrol and a pie.”
Many of the stories are about people on the lam – running from the law, or from business failure or a broken relationship. Naturally they fetch up at Morrieson’s Motel, where proprietors Clarry and Betty Claridge swiftly draw their own conclusions about the couple in unit four or the gent with the false name in unit ten. An outsider who knew nothing of New Zealand might, after reading this collection, conclude that the country is made up mainly of petty crims, lost souls, solo mothers and bickering couples. The environment, both urban and rural, is generally depicted as charmless if not downright oppressive.
Yes, there are times when the stories in Morrieson’s Motel seem like a reading list for NZ Lit 101. Several of them teeter on the brink of stereotype; one or two plunge right over. Which is not to to say that there are not some good ones here. The first, “On Teevee”, is a stand-out, a vividly written picaresque tale about the complications arising from a friend’s failure to deliver a TV set to a solo mother and her small son. Ronald Hugh himself, I feel sure, would have liked that one. And whoever wrote “Tact”, which is about a man dying of cancer, and his wife’s unspoken realisation of what he intends to do, has to be someone blessed with the greatest gift a writer can have – that of knowing exactly how much to leave out.
But who did write “Tact”? I suspect it was Maurice Gee, but we may never know. Because the second gimmick that drives this book, besides the Morriesonian theme, is that, though we know who the contributors are (see below*), no individual names are attached to the stories. As with Finbar’s Hotel, this has been done deliberately, according to McLauchlan, “to give literary buffs the chance to demonstrate their skills in identifying style”. In other words, the book is a kind of contest, only without a prize or indeed any promise of a correct solution. “On publication,” says McLauchlan, “only I know exactly who wrote what, and I wait, intrigued, to discover if anyone can match up all the authors with their work.”
Well, thanks – but no thanks. The task, as far as I can see, is well-nigh impossible, and the more you scan the stories trying to solve the puzzle, the less enjoyment you get from them as stories. One is also haunted by the suspicion that, just to throw us off the trail, some writers may have deliberately imitated the style of a colleague. This aspect of the book becomes before long a distraction, then an irritant, and finally a frustration. The correct answers could at least have been printed upside down at the end or something.
The motel theme and setting also begins to pall about halfway through. Finbar’s Hotel only had seven stories; there are 13 here (rather naughtily, McLauchlan, who has never written fiction before, includes one of his own), and it’s too many. The core idea is too slight to bear the weight of so much variation. We soon cease to care about the transient characters, and as for the core characters supplied by McLauchlan to each writer (Clarry, Betty et al), they’re both too much the same and too different in each story to take satisfying shape. There is a blurring effect.
You wind up wondering about the worth of this ultimately rather arid collection. The book should have been either a bunch of stories on a less restrictive theme, with no-nonsense author identification, or an anonymous free-for-all, with unnamed authors writing about any subject under the sun. But what we have now, with its two competing agendas, falls a long, long way short of being, as McLauchlan claims, “the most entertaining collection of short fiction produced in New Zealand for many years”.
Finbar’s Hotel was apparently such a success that a sequel was published: Ladies’ Night at Finbar’s Hotel. But Morrieson’s Motel should be closed straightaway. Once is more than enough. And if that should lead to accommodation problems in that semi-mythical South Taranaki town, anyone still needing to spend a night there can make do, I’m sure, with a pallet on the floor.
*Barbara Anderson, Catherine Chidgey, Tessa Duder, Maurice Gee, Kevin Ireland, Stephanie Johnson, Graeme Lay, Sue McCauley, Gordon McLauchlan, Owen Marshall, Vincent O’Sullivan, Sarah Quigley and Elizabeth Smither.
Denis Welch is arts editor of the New Zealand Listener.