What am I doing here? Nicholas Reid

A Man Melting
Craig Cliff
Vintage, $29.99,
ISBN 9781869791926

 

Everything We Hoped For
Pip Adam
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864736253

 

Once upon a Time in Aotearoa
Tina Makereti
Huia, $30.00,
ISBN 978186969166

 

He ran his right thumbnail under the nail of his left index finger, then knocked the collected grime from the edge of the nail with his other thumb. He asked himself if he could recall a specific time he had performed this act before. A time, a place, a song in the background? No, but he had done this a thousand times – all had melded into one. An amputated memory. A sense more than a memory. He wondered if these were the only permanent memories.

As it happens, this paragraph comes from what is only the second of the 18 stories that make up Craig Cliff’s first and very accomplished collection, A Man Melting. But it is indicative of one major strain in his writing. There’s that attention to small details, that intense self-consciousness, that interrogation of consciousness itself, that uncertainty about identity and that questioning of the value of rational thought. In short, that sense of an alert young man still feeling his way into the world and the rules of its games.

The story “Copies”, told in the first person, starts as a meditation on an eccentric father and ends as a cry of desolation at the loss of a father, with the sense that the narrator’s own personality is disintegrating as he heads for parenthood and middle age. “Manawatu” (quoted above) has a man in his 30s committing a completely gratuitous act just to show he is alive. “The Sceptic’s Kid” is rude enough to suggest that there are some certainties which even sceptics are not sceptical enough to question.

Craig Cliff is in his late 20s. These are the stories of his generation. There are a few backward glances to childhood and adolescence, like the young kid who probes his grandfather’s uncomfortable past (“Another Language”) or the sardonic memories of school cliques and bullying (“The Tin Man”). There are a few unflattering glimpses of older people, like the dope-smoking old fool who imagines he’s hip (“Touch”), or the clapped-out schoolteachers encountered by a young woman protagonist returned to New Plymouth (“Unnatural Selection”).

In the main, though, the imagery is the imagery of young adults – of connections not quite made; of the uncertainty of relationships when couples (usually unmarried) aren’t sure if they’re committed to each other; of superficial tourist experience in foreign countries (European or Asian); of computer systems that don’t work or that send the wrong message or that completely take over people’s lives and personalities (as they do for some brilliantly funny pages of “Orbital Resonance”).

And in the end there is that terrible anxiety about identity, when people haven’t yet worked out what their role in life is. So many of the stories turn on such basic existential questions as: Who am I? What am I doing here? Does this person really love me? What is love anyway? Why can’t anybody give me clear answers? Fittingly, the title story is the parable of a man, literally melting, who can get no satisfactory answers from doctor, scientist, priest or shrink. His being leaks away. There are no rational explanations – just the experience. It is interesting that four or five stories refer to Darwin or the theory of evolution, which again brings us back to questions on the nature of being.

Possibly all this makes Cliff sound a heavy-hearted person gazing at his navel. Not a bit of it. Among the chief delights of this collection are Cliff’s deft way with a narrative and his keen wit. Sometimes the stories are postmodern enough to be self-referential, with a narrator directly drawing attention to the story’s form. But Cliff can also come up with an honest-to-God old-fashioned sting-in-the-tail (“Facing Galapagos”), and with goofy surreal humour (“The Spirit of Rainbow Gorge”). The intentions are always serious, but the author is not dour about it.

My only gripe is with the longest story in the collection, “Fat Camp”, which somehow seems to lose its focus. That, however, is the limit of my negatives. A Man Melting is simply the best new collection of short stories I’ve read in an age.

“Comparisons are odorous”, as Dogberry said, but the hell of having three short-story collections for simultaneous review is that one is forced implicitly to make comparisons between them. So I shall jump in and be odorous. Story for story, Pip Adam is as skilful a writer as Craig Cliff, but she is a very different sort of writer. Her subject matter is varied, but her emotional range is more constricted. There are 23 stories in the fewer than 200 pages of Everything We Hoped For. In itself, this signals that Pip Adam is more interested in the terse, tight-focused moment than in the expansive tale.

Three or four of the stories accomplish a sort of dry irony – the snapshot of self-conscious vegans on a guilty holiday (“You Might Be Right”); the tale of a strained relationship between a woman and the guy on the phone fixing her computer (“Mary’s Job”); and perhaps the story (“You’ve Come a Long Way Baby”) of the woman accompanying a guy to a science-fiction fans’ convention, although this tale ends with finger-wagging moralism on the author’s part.

Dry irony is as far as Adam loosens up, however. Humour is certainly not her forte. Indeed, the oppressive thing about reading this collection from beginning to end is the relentless grimness of Adam’s subject matter and world view. There are two tales of extreme sexual conduct in New Zealand Army settings. A tale set in a women’s prison with both the threat and the reality of violence. A sad tale of suppressed homosexuality among store clerks in a small town. A children’s birthday party threatened by tensions among the adults. A drug-addict trying to see how she can beat the system in a treatment facility. A woman undergoing a really difficult Caesarean delivery. A woman dying in hospital. A marriage disintegrating and not helped by people talking psychic mumbo-jumbo.

Let me make it clear, many of these stories are beautifully crafted. Adam often goes for allusiveness, understatement in extreme situations and a deadpan tone that forces the reader to be (as the literature manuals say) an “imaginative collaborator”. This also goes for her habit of naming each story (and the whole collection) after a phrase buried somewhere in the text. The reader does sometimes have to work very hard to join the dots, however. A plethora of proper names are often thrown at us in the first couple of paragraphs, and we then have to spend time figuring out how characters are related to one another. I fear this brings a minority of stories perilously close to being cryptograms or acrostics.

But it’s still the subject matter that bothers me more than the style. Take the story “Bleeding”. A man discovers he has bowel cancer and starts bleeding from the anus. He decides to go out partying anyway. He picks up a woman in a bar. They drink. He drives her home. He bleeds from his anus. She calls him a pig. She vomits. He calls her a pig. I read this a number of times, asking myself whether there was some encoded meaning, dense irony or stylistic subtlety I was missing. I think not. It is almost the reductio ad absurdum of Adam’s dark preoccupations. Was she reaching the stage of self-parody before she had finished her debut volume? Or is this the curse of reading a whole lot of short stories together when the genre really requires that each be savoured on its own?

Adam’s best stories stand very well on their own. “This Is Better” (the one about the homosexual store clerk) deserves to be anthologised.

The blurb of Tina Makereti’s Once upon a Time in Aotearoa told me that it “explores a world where mythological characters and stories become part of everyday life”. I took a deep breath, knowing that wry, comic, serious, soulful or magical-realist blendings of the mythological and the mundane are now fairly commonplace (think The Almighty Johnsons et al). I shudder a little at the thought of them, knowing that their most common affliction is an arch tweeness. I suspect that while ancestral myths once explained the whole universe to a culture, their use in imaginative fiction now is most often a sign of how powerless they are. They have become literary decoration.

About half of Tina Makereti’s 13 tales have overtly mythological elements, from Tane creating Hine and fertilising her, to the tale of the birth of a “god-child”, to the story of Hine and Maui counterpointing a woman’s nervous breakdown. True to the “once-upon-a-time” part of the title, Makereti has a fondness for pat endings that spell out the meaning, as if she is saying “Now kiddies, the moral of the tale is …”. I feel queasy at a few occasions where mystic or ancient ritual elements seem to be masking fairly sordid physical reality: the schoolgirl killing her baby in “Topknot” or the old woman immolating herself to save her grandson from a p-habit in “Ahi”.

Having said these negative things, however, I have to admit that I really enjoyed this collection. There are no acrostics or cryptograms here. Makereti has the undervalued ability to write clear and clean prose. Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa is singularly direct in its acceptance of the facts of love-making and procreation and the importance of good parentship and family relations. I am sorry that “Tree, the Rabbit and the Moon” eventually drifts off into feyness, but it does present a fairly hard-nosed view of a hunt for a missing girl in an unwelcoming city.

Makereti also has a developed sense of humour. It takes a lot of gall to have a tale (“Shapeshifter”) told by that tacky Italian statue of Pania of the Reef that stands in Napier. “Blink” is an excellent exercise in sustained leg-pull as a woman tries to figure out whether her perfect boyfriend is in fact an alien. My nit-picking retires before the pleasure of reading these things.

 

Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian and reviewer.

Craig Cliff is the winner of the Best First Book in this year’s Commonwealth Book Awards.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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