Tragedy not dystopia
Eleanor Toland’s review of Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise (NZB, Winter 2013) is based on a set of misconceptions. Toland yearns for New Zealand settings, so she must have enjoyed Mann’s Pioneers; but hers is a curiously literalist conception of how fiction works. The Disestablishment is a full-bodied narrative, not an allegory. A strongly New Zealand reading is nevertheless possible. Sydney Parkinson’s exclamation about New Zealand’s potential to become “a second paradise” rings in our ears. Settlers come to Mann’s Paradise, bringing alien plants; miners come and open up the land; eventually environmental scientists come too and clash with the farmers; and politicians see the landscape principally in terms of commercial tourism. Sound familiar?
Mann deals in big ideas, but is too engrossed in storytelling to be didactic. His imagination proliferates so abundantly that he hardly knows when to stop. His novels are always about the human condition, however. The great set piece in this latest novel – in which Hera and Mack act as spiritual parents to the twin dendron, while a comic duo on the space shuttle provides a commentary – shows human beings in remarkable sympathy with what Toland clumps together as “sentient weeds”.
Toland calls the novel quasi-religious. Mann’s Paradise is thoroughly pagan. The fate of Mack is the very reverse of an Adam being expelled by an avenging angel, except that to suggest that Hera and Mack are an anti-Eve and Adam gives too much weight to Genesis.
Dystopias are fashionable, but this novel is most certainly not one. We know very little about the previous organisation of settler society, but enough to know that it was no utopia. What is happening now is that the sister spirit to Earth’s Gaia is rejecting the imported species of plants, and the humans that introduced them. However, all the last humans on or near Paradise have a positive relationship with the planet. Paradise has not rejected everything of humanity nor is Paradise “unknowable”.
Comparisons with Orwell’s late novels and with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are ludicrous. By the time Orwell wrote 1984 his faith in positive social change was nil. The lower classes are merely “proles”, without name, face or voice. Winston and Julia are isolated, their doom inevitable. Enter Paradise with those cultural coordinates, and you are lost. Mann’s novel has a large cast of lively, individualised characters; he is an incurable optimist, and his tone remains robustly cheerful.
As a perceptive reader said to me recently: “He’s got this amazing sense of the tragic. There’s all this stuff, but behind it all it’s like a Greek tragedy.” Why do we come away from this novel curiously hopeful? Precisely because the novel is tragic, not dystopian. Despite the harrowing events, we believe that Paradise, though damaged by human invasion, can mend itself, and the dendron regenerate, because the key human beings in Paradise’s past and present have, with all their fatal flaws, been good people. That is the tragic paradox of this frequently very funny novel.
Lindauer not Goldie
I would like you to acknowledge some serious errors in Mr Blackley’s review of my book (NZB, Winter 2013). Mr Blackley says I quote Peter Tomory incorrectly stating “Goldie was no Gauguin”. P37 of my book clearly states the quotation correctly as “Lindauer was no Gauguin”, with the corresponding footnote on p188. He also criticises me for not exploring further “a mysterious Veblen effect”. This is clearly and concisely explained on pp66-67. I
believe this is the first time this economic convention has been covered in any similar book; however, it is hardly rocket science. In a most fallacious conclusion Blackley states: “What is clear is that buying cheap and selling dear is fundamental to the industry.” What is fundamental to the industry, which the reviewer has somehow missed (specifically in the chapters devoted to buying and selling art), is that art dealers (and auctioneers for that matter) sell on commission only in most cases. In the chapter titled “Selling Artwork”, I explain the decline of “secondary market dealers” where probably only five now remain in the New Zealand market. Nevertheless these dealer galleries (of which we are one) sell almost exclusively on a commission basis. Embroiling the old chesnut English turn-of-the-century art dealer Joseph Duveen in the argument only indicates how far out of touch Mr Blackley is with the current market. I can only suggest he re-reads the book more fully and carefully, particularly as he is lecturing on art collecting in his spare time.
May I break the tradition of letters that only protest against the shoddiness of your reviews? I just caught up with your Winter issue and noticed nothing shoddy among many delights: David Hill wittily using an obsession with cloaks to conceal his critical dagger; Anne Else adroitly referencing Alexander Pope; and telling upsurges of personal memory from Simon Upton and Dale Williams. And several more. You are (mostly) fulfilling the NZB founders’ vision that New Zealand should have good reviewing as well as good literature. Thanks.
New Paltz, New York
In her coverage of Lynette Robinson’s Where the Rainbow Fell Down (NZB, Winter 2013), Catharina van Bohemen locates Holy Name Seminary at Mosgiel when it was at Riccarton in Christchurch. At Holy Name the Jesuits taught philosophy to prospective priests before they moved on to Holy Cross College in Mosgiel for their theological training by members of the Vincentian order.
Her claim that “misogynous Jesuits shackled the seminarians to perpetual adolescence with a regime of games and pettiness” is sharply at odds with the practice of priests there in the 1960s such as James McInerney, Frank Vandervorst and Bernard O’Brien, whose intellectual capacities and selfless commitment to gospel values were remarkable, and van Bohemen’s sensationalist nonsense does their lives and achievement disservice.
Thank you for publishing an excerpt from Too Many Cooks (NZB, Winter 2013). I was very pleased to see it and liked the two bits you chose to quote at the top and side. Good choices.
I also want to thank NZB for recognising that ebooks are actually books – you are ahead of most of the New Zealand publishing scene and most of the other organisations that allegedly cater for all New Zealand writers. I think the New Zealand book awards should be called the New Zealand print book awards – it would be a more truthful description of what they are.
A book is a book is a book – it is not the cover, or the artist, or for that matter, the publisher. A book is a story, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, written by a writer, and anything else, while pleasant to the eye or touch, decorative flourishes. So whether a book is in print or ebook form it is still a book. It is the words we read. The only book that is better in print (at the moment) is one that contains art reproductions or photographs – but this is changing fast.
I agree wholeheartedly with Peter King (NZB, Letters, Autumn 2013). Not only because I’m not one of the literati either, but because what he says makes sense. I think his letter should be framed and hung on every publisher’s wall. This is the 21st century but you’d hardly know it.
It is ironic that I, at 84, should be saying this – and setting up a website, writing novels, publishing interviews with other writers and a poem by one of our poets online every Wednesday, don’t you think? In the 1970s and 80s we called it taking the power back. It feels really great. Maybe more of your readers should try it.
My thanks to Professor McIlvaney for so neatly illustrating a point I was trying to make in my review of The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature (NZB, Autumn 2013). He takes me to task for failing to explain “who is in the book and what [I] think of the selections”, for neglecting the editors’ attempt to rehabilitate colonial literature and for comparing this anthology to another, Great Sporting Moments, edited by Damien Wilkins. He complains not because I failed to inform him – he clearly knows the AUP anthology well – but because I did not give due respect to the work of his fellow academics.
Instead I had the temerity to compare their scholarly achievement to a bunch of pieces selected by a novelist and literary magazine editor. In general, therefore, he comes across as an aggrieved member of a literary elite that, like all such social organisms, is largely ignorant of the assumptions it operates under and has little idea what outsiders think of it.