The Geometry of Desire
David Ling, $24.99,
Fish’n’Chip Shop Song and Other Stories
I set out recently to teach my nine-year-old son about apostrophes. It was pleasingly straightforward. You learn the rules, you follow the rules, your father says “good work”: this is the sort of thing a nine-year-old boy enjoys. High on grammatical empowerment, my son and I turned to the humble comma. Things got subjective. Have you ever tried presenting a member of the Harry Potter generation with a critique of J K Rowling’s comma placement? Be ready to back down.
So I was grateful, reading Linda Niccol’s first collection of short stories, to discover a perfect, unambiguous example of comma abuse: “Because I turned forty a few months ago and because I’d already bought myself years ago when business was good, the 911 Porsche that a man who owns an advertising company should drive, there seemed nothing to do but have an affair.”
That’s the sort of sentence you can really go to town on. I jotted it down as I read it, with a scribbled note to myself, saying, “Use in review? Too cruel?” – followed, moments later, by a second note, “Sums her up perfectly”, and then, added after I’d read a few more pages, “Story’s brilliant. Sentence turning point of book?”
The sentence occurs in “Water Bores”, the seventh story in The Geometry of Desire … and, to all initial appearances, the seventh to feature an intimate relationship blighted by a stereotypical selfish male bastard. Like every other story in the book, it has a little cluster of snowflake patterns hovering in the half-page of empty space over its title – a lovely bit of design, because at first it seems a more or less random stylistic nod to the word “geometry”. I had to read quite a few stories before I remembered the cardinal rule of snowflakes: every one built to the same blueprint, but every one unique.
“Water Bores” is the story where it first becomes clear that Niccol, who sets out in this book to mine a deep but fairly narrow vein of human experience, is going to be able to pull off the snowflake trick. The six earlier stories are all essentially the same story, though sufficiently varied in their details to remain interesting. But six emotionally closed, self-serving males in a row have much the same effect on a reader – especially, perhaps, a male reader – as six cups of strong coffee. You’re a bit jittery as you start on the seventh. When I read “there seemed nothing to do but have an affair”, I was ready to start throwing around phrases like “one trick pony”, “simplistic characterisation” and “finally rather boring”.
Niccol’s next sentence is “Well that’s how it might have seemed to anyone watching.” She goes on to give an insightful, quietly melancholy portrayal of a man stumbling into a foolish betrayal of a wife he still loves, and of the complex consequences for their marriage. She counterpoints this with an extremely funny thumbnail sketch of small town politics – a seemingly casual bit of light relief which turns out to be crucial to the story’s ambiguous and powerful ending. This is the kind of rich, humane storytelling which Niccol’s intertwined themes of love and betrayal ultimately demand, and the fact that she places “Water Bores” at the end of a six-story string of similar but lighter pieces tells you a lot about her sense of pacing and overall structure.
There remains the vexed question of comma deployment. At the level of individual sentences, Niccol is at best a competent writer, and sometimes she’s less than that. What I found interesting about this book is that, in the end, I didn’t care. For some readers, this would seem a small point to make, but I’m generally of the “never mind the forest, that tree’s crooked” school. Clumsy sentences will put me right off a book, whatever its other merits. But Niccol’s varied, intelligent studies of relationships doomed, saved, nascent and senescent are just too rewarding. The commas can go hang.
Carl Nixon is a more accomplished writer than Niccol. Whether you consider his first collection, Fish’n’Chip Shop Song and Other Stories, to be a stronger book than The Geometry of Desire is another question again. The two collections are each well worth reading, and if you happen to read them one after the other, you’ll find they make an enjoyable double, having many intriguing similarities and points of comparison. Mostly, these are a matter of incidental resemblances – for example, each book uses an emotionally isolated art collector as a key character in a pair of counterpoised stories. Niccol has two collectors, one of whom narrates the story of his self-sabotaged marriage while the other is seen through his exasperated partner’s eyes. Nixon’s collector appears twice, first in a story about his awkward relationship with his father, and then in one about his even more difficult relationship with his son.
Spotting this sort of thing is a fun game to play, and once you begin it’s surprising how frequently the books echo each other. But the most obvious similarity between them is a substantive one: Nixon, like Niccol, uses relationships as a grand organising theme. In his case, New Zealand father-son relationships.
“Andrew sees his father after his own air has run out. Bill is a foetus floating among a patch of trailing weed.” Having a man see his own drowning father as an unborn child might seem too obvious a manoeuvre; and in fact the story in which this occurs, “The Raft”, could easily have become a melodramatic excess. Andrew’s own son has drowned before the story opens, and drowned, moreover, while in Bill’s care. Unable to forgive his father, unable to grieve openly for his son, insisting to the therapist, whom his frantic wife insists he visit, that he’s “good as gold”, Andrew is a cliché of Kiwi masculinity writ large. Except that his story works. Nixon presents the almost schematic situation – grandfather loses grandson; father loses son; son saves father – so straightforwardly as to disarm cynicism.
Elsewhere he demonstrates that he can be playful and overtly sophisticated when he wants to be (it would be a mistake to call “The Raft” unsophisticated, though it’s certainly uncomplicated). He also demonstrates that he isn’t offering us so many father-son stories because that’s all he knows how to write. This is a substantially more varied book in its subject matter and tone than Niccol’s, roaming over such ground as the death of small New Zealand towns, an old soldier’s return to the site of a battle, and (my favourite) a bus driver’s attempt to defy quantum mechanics and achieve perfect obedience to his timetable.
And yet Niccol gets away with playing the snowflake game, and Nixon doesn’t, entirely. His closing story, “My Father Running with a Dead Boy”, is possibly the strongest in both these books, a devastating study of the distances between people and especially between fathers and sons. I say “possibly”, because my ability to read it was compromised by its position at the end of a book with too many similarly themed pieces. Nixon brings out the tensions and potential difficulties of the father-son relationship so well in each of the seven stories devoted to the theme that, en masse, they become repetitive. The upshot is that, while this collection’s author has to be considered a significant presence on the New Zealand literary scene, the collection itself seems imperfectly conceived.
David Larsen is an Auckland freelance writer and reviewer.