Best of both worlds, Chris Else

The Six Pack Two 
New Zealand Book Month with Whitireia Publishing, $6.00,
ISBN  9781877192326

For Everyone Concerned 
Damien Wilkins 
Victoria University Press, $30.00, 
ISBN 9780864735591

Coming Up Roses 
Sarah Laing 
Vintage, $27.99,
ISBN 9781869419202 

Luminous 
Alice Tawhai 
Huia Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781869692933

The aim of New Zealand Book Month is to bring locally published books before a wider audience. A cornerstone of this campaign is the Six Pack, a collection of short stories one of which is chosen by popular vote and the others by a panel of judges, the whole caboodle being sold off for a mere $6 and given away in generous quantities to schools, and movers and shakers, and anyone else who happens to be around. The intention here – to increase the domestic market for locally published books – is unimpeachable.

Whether the six-pack concept works in practice remains to be seen. I wonder, for example, who the book is aimed at. Are we trying to seduce sophisticated readers away from their Anne Enright or their Ian MacEwan? Or do we want to tempt non-readers or readers who go for Jillie Cooper or Tom Clancy? If the former, then I wonder if giving a book away for $6 is going to make anyone feel New Zealand literature is valuable or worth taking seriously. If the latter then it seems odd to offer what is these days a literary form – the short story.

This tension between the popular and the sophisticated is evident in Miriam Kamo’s introduction. She talks about the ease with which the judging panel reached its decision but the subtext reveals a lack of critical clarity beneath that ready consensus. She points out the huge divergence that can occur in readers’ responses, citing two reviews of Frame’s Scented Gardens for the Blind: one that proclaimed it “a likely work of genius”, the other that it was “unreadable in the worst sense”. She says that “the bottom line for judging [was] the quality of the writing”, which nonetheless resulted in a selection with “broad appeal”. The pieces have been “crafted to withstand the criticism of others” but they are also “unapologetic and honest storytelling”. The claim seems to be that we have the best of both worlds. I’m not so sure.

The book begins with “In the Back of a VW” by Faith Oxenbridge, an entertaining coming-of-age piece that touches on themes of student-teacher sex and medical misadventure. There is plenty of story here – enough plot and sub-plot to make a novel – and it is easy to see why this was the readers’ choice selection. It is matched with one of the stories chosen by the judges: Jennifer Lane’s “Scout’s Honour”. Lane’s protagonist is younger, the humour is lighter, the serious subject matter beyond the child’s purview is adultery, but the two pieces share the indulgent irony with which we look back on the unruly innocence of childhood – a familiar enough literary attitude.

At the other extreme, the book ends with what to my mind is the most interesting piece in the collection: Tracey Slaughter’s “Note Left on a Window”, a multi-layered narrative suffused with the self-destructive grief of a young woman whose lover has committed suicide – hardly calculated to appeal to the Tom Clancy reader, despite the fact that it opens with a sex scene. Almost as good is Charlotte Grimshaw’s “The Yard Broom”. Here is another young woman in the grip of self-destructive anger. Whereas Slaughter concentrates on intense emotion, Grimshaw gives us moral ambiguity – a dodgy evangelical preacher and a protagonist who saves herself at the expense of her boyfriend.

Two pairs of stories, then: one light and dealing with childhood and adolescence, one dark and dealing with the emotional struggles of young adulthood. In between there are two other odd-ball stories: Dave Armstrong’s “Foodbanquet” – little more than a political skit that should have been over in half its actual length, and Elizabeth Smither’s “Kathy and Tim”, a charming piece that plays against conventional narrative expectations. A small tale of internet romance to end in disappointment, if not disaster. Things seem about to go wrong at every turn but in the end it’s happily ever after.

Earlier this year, in a fulmination against the Wellington literary establishment, Gordon McLauchlan described Damien Wilkins’ work as “unreadable”. If this is so, Wilkins must be the best unreadable writer in the country. Maybe he even shares with Janet Frame the distinction of being unreadable “in the worst sense”, whatever that might mean. His great strengths are his subtlety, his understatement and his specificity of character, which combine in a unique voice calibrated to elucidate the power of the small. The collection For Everyone Concerned exemplifies these qualities in what might be called the essential Wilkins. Quirky but revealing dialogue, surprising but authentic emotional reactions, an irony that moves gently from one passage to the next until a piece can seem to turn back in on itself, all these combine into moments that are at once ordinary and revealing, suffused with tone and shadow that hint at things beyond and beneath the text.

Whence, then, the “unreadable” tag? I think it’s prompted by Wilkins’ utter, I suspect wilful, disregard for the traditional virtues of narrative. Unapologetic and honest storytelling this is not. With one or two exceptions, the shape and structure of these pieces are derived from literary devices rather than action or event. Wilkins’ most common technique for developing a story is simply to change the subject. In the longest piece, “A Wide, Clear Window”, the switches of scene and character create a meandering effect that soon had me checking how many pages I still had to go.

In the shortest pieces, the switch comes at the end. A situation that has little or no narrative movement suddenly concludes with a single line that sometimes provides a startling sense of resolution but in others is as dead as a flat battery. If we see fiction as arising from the ancient arts of drama and poetry, Wilkins work leans heavily towards the poetic. So much of the story is lurking below the surface that there is nothing left to elicit a dramatic response.

Sarah Laing’s work shares some of Wilkins’ good qualities. Here too there is a sharp eye for detail, some nice observation of character and a use of language that can startle with its originality. Laing has a greater respect for narrative than Wilkins, but perhaps not enough.

My first reaction to Coming Up Roses was that it was too long. Despite the variations in scene and situation, from the young Kiwi in New York to the old woman dying of cancer and the loveless young mother in a small New Zealand town, there is a sameness about a number of these pieces. The writing sometimes skates across the surface of the story without engaging it fully. The understatement can obscure rather than illuminate, and the quirky imagery and snapshot structures of some of the pieces detract from a full engagement with the material.

When Laing gets it right, though, she is very good indeed. Stories like “Afterbirth”, in which a mother reflects on her new-born son, the title piece, “Coming Up Roses”, the prize-winning “The Wrong Shoe” and the final story in the collection, “Axminster”, show a variety of tone and technique that suggests a new writer on the rise. What all these stories have in common, and which the others often lack, is sufficient strength in the plot or in the underlying emotional experience to give the piece some narrative heft.

There is no shortage of heft in Alice Tawhai’s second collection, Luminous. Here we have life on the margins; a world of violence and casual adultery, poverty and drugs. This is similar territory to that explored by Charlotte Grimshaw in her Six Pack story but whereas Grimshaw writes with the cool intelligence of the educated middle class, Tawhai’s work displays a wisdom born of involvement, or at least acquaintance.

Most of the protagonists in these stories are female and either Maori or Pacifika. When Tawhai moves beyond the Polynesian world in “Like Japan” and “Miss India”, it is to deal with the rape of young women who are innocent of the dangers in the wider world beyond their own cultures. Although these two stories are not the best in the book, they highlight a feature of the collection as a whole. In a sense, all the protagonists are innocents, seeking to build their lives as best they can within the limitations of their environment.

Unlike an Alan Duff, say, Tawhai passes no overt judgement. She allows the material to stand for itself.  The sense of a perspective beyond the narrow view of the protagonists comes from the quality of the writing. The style is fluid, the imagery evocative. Tawhai occasionally stumbles: a simile too many, a metaphor that misses its mark, but, for the most part, these are pieces that come close to the Six Pack judges’ ideal of the best of both worlds.

 

Chris Else is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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