Gee-whizz, Roger Robinson

Maurice Gee: A Literary Companion: Fiction for Young Readers
Elizabeth Hale (ed)
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781877578847

Maurice Gee published Under the Mountain in 1979. It was a success in print and on TV, but for some years it was possible to regard it, and his subsequent work for young readers, as a sideline, a paying Saturday morning job that freed him for the serious adult writing. Times have changed. Any assessment of Gee today has to describe the complete oeuvre, and give his work for young readers more space and centrality than, for instance, Nelson Wattie and I gave it in the mid-1990s in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. That’s partly because Gee has doubled his young readers output since then, partly because attitudes to children’s literature in general have matured. Mostly it’s because Gee’s later books for young readers make apparent that he writes them with the same meticulous care as his work for adults, with the same moral concerns, and using many of the same finely-honed techniques of melding narrative and setting with metaphor. So a book of serious critical commentary on the work for young readers is to be welcomed.

This one is a collection of eight essays by six writers, with editor Elizabeth Hale providing three. It is part one of a planned two-volume series. The treatment of Gee’s adult fiction, by Lawrence Jones, will follow. The overall aim, announced here in a joint note by Hale and Jones, is to “discuss all of Gee’s published fiction, from ‘The Widow’ in 1955 to The Limping Man in 2010” and to “present all of Gee’s fictional worlds, from twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century New Zealand to the post-apocalyptic work of the Salt trilogy.”

This volume makes a pretty good start, with some useful if undemanding summaries of plot, character and moral theme, no serious weaknesses, and two outstanding contributions to appreciating Gee. Its first subtitle, A Literary Companion, is a bit misleading, since it’s not a “companion” in the accepted sense, of being a combined reference work and literary commentary in alphabetical format. It’s what used to be called “a collection of critical essays” and, before that, “essays by several hands”. I suppose those phrases look less than seductive in a 2015 bookshop. But, in a looser sense, the essays here are companionable enough, being enthusiastic in tone, extensive in coverage, accessible in the writing, and mostly free from academic pretension (apart from some pious genuflections, when big names like Bakhtin or Bloom get their toes kissed to give authority to notions that are perfectly simple).

Two essays bring the edge of sharper insight. Sight and insight have always been important metaphors for Gee. In The World Around the Corner (1980), Caroline discovers some magical glasses that enable her to see the world with enhanced clarity, and reveal things that are usually invisible. That, for me, is how literary criticism should work. If it doesn’t send me back to re-read the primary work with sharper vision for its skills and informed perception of its meanings, what’s the point?

Louise Clark does that outstandingly well, with her account of Gee’s writing in terms of his own metaphor of “writing horizontally” for children as opposed to “writing vertically” for adults. Clark is alert to the ways in which he goes beyond his own misleadingly modest descriptions of his writing procedures: for instance, how, even in the early fantasies, he does much more with his settings than merely provide “a landscape whenever a rest is needed”. The second part of Clark’s essay is an important discussion of how his later realist-historical fictions like Hostel Girl move closer to the adult writings, in their psychological complexity, their intense interaction between the human narrative and the geographical, social and historical setting, and in the concern for the same issues – class structures, family, violence, and the perplexing grey area that overspreads good and evil. Clark’s knowledge of Gee’s influences, especially Alan Garner, adds to the sharpened vision through her critical spectacles.

Vivien van Rij also brings new clarity, writing about The Champion and The Fat Man. She gets straight to the point, that “The settings … transcend historical reality to become microcosms of conflict that involve the particular, cultural and universal”, transforming New Zealand reality into landscapes that are “primordial and anthropomorphic”. Van Rij is acute in unpacking Gee’s always revealing names (“ ‘Rex’ has connotations of ‘wrecks’ and ‘king’ ”). And she is good on the literary, historical and cultural allusions – Zane Grey, Paul Robeson, Tarzan, Sargeson, movies like Scarface, Laurel and Hardy, Joe Louis, the Nagasaki A-bomb, Rockfist Rogan. It’s a revealing account of the low-budget mixed-brow print-and-movie cultural mishmash that boys of modest means like Gee came through, during and just after WWII.

Being one of them, my boyish toe was trodden on at one point. The 1940s weekly The Champion that gave Gee’s story its name was absolutely not a “comic book”. It was a “story paper” or “boys’ magazine” with very few pictures, no strip cartoons or speech bubbles, and with stories or serial episodes of several pages, quite demanding in narrative terms, which is why Rockfist Rogan and its other heroic figures won bookish devotees like Gee and me. Van Rij seems to have looked not at the cheap smudgily printed weekly paper, but the grander 1950s Champion Annual, which I never saw, because my family and probably Gee’s couldn’t afford it. Anyway, 1950 was after Gee’s Champion days (born 1931).

Kathryn Walls focuses on another element in the making of Gee’s literary consciousness – his writing mother. In The Champion, for example (Gee’s story, that is), Walls identifies close verbal parallels between Rex’s final meditation and the ending of Lyndahl Gee’s poem “Mihi and the Last of the Moas”. “Gee would have been 11 or 12 when it was published in 1943 … but he may well have been exposed to an earlier version,” Walls says. Her discussion of the active influence of Lyndahl Gee’s writing, and Gee’s uneven success in trying to “steer clear” of it, makes interesting reading. But, strangely, it’s like a story without an ending. Although Walls steps outside the collection’s young-reader brief to deal with the significant traces of Lyndahl Gee in Meg, she does not mention surely the key work for this ambivalent influence, Access Road. As New Zealand Book’s review pointed out in 2009, lines of poetry by Lyndahl Gee are included, and attributed to the compulsive but frustrated and modestly competent writer Rowan Beach, who is the novel’s invented female narrator. Gee even brings closure to this last of his adult fictions with her search for a rhyme. Tribute, satire, filial valediction, or apology?

That gap made me wonder about the decision to treat Gee’s adult and young readers’ fiction in separate volumes. Walls’s topic was not the only one that I felt cried out for the whole oeuvre to be expertly consulted. No doubt students of children’s literature will be grateful for the guidance on plot and “moralscape” these essays provide. I did wonder, however, what they might mean to actual “young readers”. So I outsourced that enquiry. My mid-teens literary consultant (Maria Slade Robinson, Whakatane High School) reported:

I read most of Maurice Gee when I was in primary, and simply enjoyed the worlds he created without thinking about how or why the books were written. The excerpts you sent, like Claudia Marquis on the “Early Fantasy Novels”, helped me to understand why I and many other children connected to Rachel and Theo, and other protagonists. It gave me new insight into Gee’s ideas, and I felt compelled to dig out my old copy of Under the Mountain.

 

So that anxiety is laid to rest. This volume, it seems, fulfils its modestly stated aim, of being “a useful companion in the reader’s exploration of the worlds created by one of New Zealand’s finest writers.” It lacks any sustained attempt to describe the language that makes him so fine, but that’s a standard omission in Gee criticism. (At one point his language is called “startlingly Miltonic”, which had me gasping, until I realized the writer didn’t mean language, but moral concerns – good and evil, temptation and choice.) The best essays go beyond exploration, to give us, like Caroline’s glasses, enhanced insight. With Gee’s writing there are always worlds within.

Roger Robinson, Emeritus Professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington, has previously reviewed several Maurice Gee novels.    

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