Difficult presents, Chris Else

The Spaces Between 
Russell Haley
Adastra Productions, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473203856

 

Little Sister 
Julian Novitz
Vintage, $29.00,
ISBN 9781869798246

 

The Intentions Book 
Gigi Fenster
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780864738233

 

The Spaces Between is Russell Haley’s eighth book of fiction. Its protagonist, Jervis Kraik, finds himself in Whare Moemoea, an off-beat medical institution on Auckland’s North Shore. He has been attacked in downtown Auckland and left unconscious in an incident he barely remembers. He suffers from hallucinations and finds himself inexplicably talking in a South African accent, a discovery that challenges his sense of identity and forces him into a self-protective silence.

Through a series of dreams, memories and hallucinations, and encounters with visitors and the institution’s staff, he gradually recovers, although his road back to health winds through a psychic landscape of doubt and paranoia. What is the relationship between his daughter Lily and his psychotherapist Grayson? Who is the mysterious Christopher Mamut? Is his nurse Moira entirely trustworthy? Are the inconsistencies in their stories evidence of some sinister plot or merely the products of Kraik’s disordered mind?

Haley has used the institution as a metaphor for the human condition before. Readers familiar with his earlier work will recognise the similarities between The Spaces Between and his 1986 novel The Settlement in which the protagonist, Walter Lemanby, is confined to somewhere like the old Carrington Mental Hospital after a fall from his roof. Here, as the blurb says, “he convalesces among bizarre inmates and staff” and “enters a dreamlike world where the imagined is real and reality wavers under the pressure of language”.

Central to Haley’s work is the idea that each of us creates our own reality but that the created world is never under our control. Beyond the reach of our assumptions and our conclusions are alien forces which may be benign or indifferent or downright life-threatening.

The Spaces Between is no mere rewrite, however. Haley has moved on in the intervening years to a literary vision that is gentler and more life-affirming. Kraik’s paranoia is naturalised by taking place in the familiar world of present-day Auckland amid landscapes populated by native birds and trees. His doubts and his paradoxical experience are not explained but are generally explicable in terms of the attack he has suffered. The book has a gentle, almost tender tone, and draws on the atmosphere of Haley’s beguiling Harry Rejekt stories: The Spider Web Season (2000) and the novel Tomorrow Tastes Better (2001).  Kraik’s paranoia is gradually assuaged through a process of self-discovery that leads to an acceptance of his own failings and a Rejekt-like wonder at the strangeness of it all. Ultimately, meaning must be found not in the words but in the silences, the spaces between them.

Paranoia also suffuses the atmosphere of Julian Novitz’s second novel (and third book of fiction), Little Sister. As with The Spaces Between, there is a narrowly circumscribed narrative present through which the back-story is constructed bit by bit through recollection and flashback. There are four point-of-view characters here rather than just one, however, and this creates a quadrangulation that places the reader in a more enlightened position than any of the protagonists.

The plot involves three students in their last year at high school. The first section focuses on Shane, who is in something close to a fugue state in the bush outside the house of his girlfriend Eileen’s father. Gradually it becomes clear that he has killed the man and that the key to the motive for this crime is Eileen’s younger sister, the eight-year-old Carla.

Section two is presented from the point of view of Will, Shane’s and Eileen’s friend. He is waiting to be interviewed at the police station early in the morning after the crime. His anxiety-ridden reconstruction of events and his reflections on the past flesh out the picture of Eileen’s and Shane’s relationship. They also create a mystery around the person of Carla and suggest that Shane’s crime might have been a tragic mistake.

Section three moves to Eileen, on the 10th anniversary of the murder. She is in Melbourne and still haunted by her father’s death. Inexplicably, she finds herself stalked by a young woman who claims to be Carla. Eileen knows this to be impossible but the confrontation triggers a process by which she finally begins to face up to the violence in her past.

By now the story has moved on, the puzzle of the crime replaced by the mystery of the stalker’s identity. Section four shifts back to the time of the murder. The somewhat debauched English teacher of the three students awakes on his sofa and struggles off to work. His reflections add an outsider’s commentary on the relationships between Shane, Will and Eileen. As with the earlier sections, they also provide an unwitting clue to Carla’s identity. The mystery remains open, though. We can only guess at the chain of events that led to Eileen’s experience with her “little sister” in part three.

Some readers are likely to find this lack of closure frustrating. Novitz, perhaps aware of a problem here, adds a metafictional twist to the narrative by calling the teacher Mr N and telling us that, at one stage, he was writing a book about the murder. This device throws the problem of closure back in the reader’s court.

Little Sister is a clever book in the best sense of that term. It is artfully constructed and the writing doesn’t put a foot wrong. If the later sections don’t quite live up to the promise of the first, this is only because the first is so good: a taut, elegant study of a character under extreme stress. Compared to Novitz’s first novel, the ambitious but somewhat disorganised Holocaust Tours, it shows a writer who is now in control and moving on to a new kind of maturity.

A key element in both the Haley and the Novitz novels is the relationship between a father and his daughter. Gigi Fenster’s first novel, The Intentions Book, explores the same territory and uses a similar tightly focused narrative technique. The story opens with Morris Goldberg, a semi-retired metadata analyst, discovering that his daughter Rachel is overdue on a solo tramping trip. Over the ensuing 24 hours, as bad weather closes in, Morris and the rest of his family wait anxiously for news and Morris is led to reflect on his past: his relationship with his parents, with his over-solicitous aunt and uncle and, especially, with his dead wife Sadie. Memory and dream and conversations with Sadie merge and intensify until Morris is led to confront the traumas of his childhood.

The mood of the writing is not paranoid, however. Morris’s problem is not the threats that reality poses but a form of emotional detachment. As the blurb says, somewhat melodramatically, he is “a man who can’t cry”. In part, his problem comes from the fact that he is an introvert in a family with its fair share of emotional extroverts, but there are other reasons for his alienated state to do with his withholding mother and his unreliable father.

The theme of emotional withdrawal and psychological alienation has a long history in New Zealand writing, going back at least as far as Frank Sargeson and John Mulgan. The standard treatment results in an emotional distancing in the writing itself, which, as R A Copland says in his introduction to A P Gaskell’s All Part of the Game, arises from “the apparent incapacity of the narrator to interpret fully the material he provides”. Fenster’s approach is quite different. She explores her characters with a tolerance and humour similar to Haley’s. The result is that despite Morris’s detachment he is a thoroughly likeable and engaging character.

If there is a fault in this novel, it is to do with its narrative structure. The first and third sections deal with the concerns of the family as the events around the search for Rachel unfold. The middle section, about a third of the total pages, focuses almost entirely on the relationship between Morris and Sadie, and on Morris’s childhood. Thus, we are offered two storylines and what seems to be the main one – Morris and Rachel – turns out to be secondary after all. The result, for me, at least, is that the book seems too loose in its construction – an impression that is strengthened in the comparison with Novitz’s tight control over his material.

Still, a little wandering can be forgiven in a novel in which tramping is a figure for life’s journey. An intentions book is the place where trampers record their plans. If they fail to return when they say they are going to, a search and rescue effort may be triggered. Fenster’s foray into the hinterland of fiction brings us safely home with only a few moments of alarm.

Three novels, then, with similarities in technique; three novelists at different stages of their careers. This is too small a sample to warrant any meaningful generalisation but it is curious to note that, instead of presenting narratives that unfold into an open future, all three of these novels are essentially backward-looking, built around the need to interpret or come to terms with a difficult present. They are all concerned with matters of guilt, responsibility and self-acceptance. Hope, confidence and optimism are not general assumptions but individual and hard-won achievements. Maybe this is the temper of our times.

 

Chris Else is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

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