Can you believe what they say? New novels and recent history, John Needham:

Besides Myself
Russell Haley
Penguin, Auckland, 1990, $19.95

Night at the Embassy
Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University Press, 1990, $24.95

Newlands
Gary Langford
Penguin, Auckland, 1990, $19.95

Like a lot of middle-aged men, Midge, the out-of-work hero-narrator of Russell Haley’s latest novel, has a number of problems. At the root of them is an incapacity for belief. He finds it impossible, for instance, to trust his women – who he calls ‘fucking friends’ rather than ‘lovers’, since he doesn’t, of course, believe in ‘love’ either. Nonetheless (and also of course) the story revolves around his relationships with women, especially with Claire, his estranged wife, and Estelle, his new lady-friend. Most of the novel alternates between the developing affaire and flashbacks of his marriage. The affaire takes place in New Zealand, while the scenes from married life come mostly from a trip to Europe, so there is an old world/ new world interest thrown in. You can see the essence of Midge’s problem in the way he tells his story. ‘How do you start a story that doesn’t look as though it’s ended yet?’ he asks at the beginning. And, as the novel closes he is still trying to make up his mind about Estelle. Life, in short, is felt to be endlessly unpredictable. But Midge’s life is also a ‘B-grade movie’, as he puts it. He feels that he is always acting out stale roles and scenes, and in the final one he confesses that he is rigging the story; ‘You’ll have noticed how I even arranged a sunset.’ On the one hand events are always chaotic; on the other they are always re-runs of old tales. This seems contradictory, but it rests on a common set of modern assumptions: that we are condemned to live in an illusory world generated by our conventional and ultimately arbitrary words, and that behind this is a chaotic and hostile ‘reality’ which we can never understand. This is the mind-set that destroys the capacity for belief.

Midge eventually reaches crisis-point while playing in a phoney advertising film. He walks away, but still has a sense of unreality; ‘I’d escaped from the film but I still had to get beyond the boundaries of the set.’ But if there is nothing behind the B-grade movie except chaos, how can this be done? The answer is, by a ‘miracle’. Midge realises that he must go back to Estelle, whom he has almost lost through his lack of trust. He now feels, and desperately, that he can’t reach reality without the Estelle-miracle. Poor Estelle, doomed to shoulder the burden of her man’s failure of belief. Perhaps even poorer Midge, his sense of reality rotted by a facile scepticism from which he can find no escape except into sentimentality. But in any event Russell Haley has portrayed an important and typical modern case, worth anyone’s careful consideration.

It would be absurd to describe Elizabeth Smither as a victim of fashionable ideas like Midge, but in her new collection of stories, she confesses to a related problem. In ‘Excerpt from A Journal of an Academic Year‘, a writer in residence imagines the thought-and-word processes of rigorously logical academics as being like locomotives, whereas her own are like horses. This makes her uneasy, but still she longs to ‘race alongside them like a horse in a field against a train. Of course the horse very soon reaches the boundaries of his field, and has to go sideways where the train goes on. The horse follows the hedge or goes into a corner and kicks its heels.’ Smither’s own writing here exemplifies the equine mode that she is talking about; it is a model of the virtues of thinking metaphorically; it creates images and feelings as well as ideas. And the book is full of similar successes. For instance, a wife, furious at her photographer husband’s recent penchant for taking aerial photos of landscape with a nude in the centre (and always the same nude), confides in a friend: ‘It’s like looking down at a starfish, a terribly well – delineated starfish. Sometimes he gets ten acres into a shot. I could bear his past ladies somehow, it was like someone dropping stitches in knitting and catching up, but this is so foreign. So I walked out and here I am’. It would be hard to over-estimate this sort of achievement; this creation of a person called Bee – who seems, of course, to create herself. ‘Oh, no, he hasn’t run off darling,’ she exclaims on another occasion. ‘He’s simply never home. It’s as though he can’t stop travelling. Do you think travelling could be a kind of diarrhoea?’ In fact Smither’s practice contradicts her own theory. Her creative word-horses are much less wild and aimless than she thinks. But since she feels uneasy about not being a train, she sometimes behaves a little too much like a horse, kicking up her heels in compensation for not being able to keep chugging on in a straight line. Her metaphors are sometimes wilful, her tone sometimes merely whimsical, and her continuities sometimes obscure. To exaggerate the unreliability of horses is the most common defect of current literary thought. Derrida for instance does it so violently that he no longer dares to ride on them at all; he merely walks them round on a tether; and since he also acknowledges that word-trains are myths – though many philosophers still think they’re travelling on them – he is left without any means of verbal transport at all; hence the failure of his books to get anywhere. It is indeed true that all words are horses, whether used by scientists or poets, but it is necessary to add that there are word-horses of many kinds – trotters, draught-horses, showjumpers, race-horses, skittish foals, old hacks – and they reliably perform an enormous number of tasks. Smither gallops them around exhilaratingly, but needs also to practise more sober movements – and to forget about the mythical trains.

As the blurb indicates, Gary Langford’s latest novel is something of a sesqui book. Its narrator hero, Reynolds Updike, is celebrating his hundredth birthday in the same year that New Zealand is celebrating its hundred and fiftieth. The novel tells Reynolds’ life-story, following the broad outlines of the century and bringing in many of its famous features – Gallipoli, the roaring twenties, the depression, World War II, the post-war boom, and so on.

The book is a family saga – in an author’s note Langford says that he is using his own family history – full of births, marriages, deaths, and financial vicissitudes. Though sometimes sad, it’s mostly comic – often on the subject of sex. An early event that becomes a recurrent symbol occurs when Reynolds’ coitus with Aggie, his future wife, is rudely interrupted by an aunt, who flings open the bedroom door with an outraged cry of, ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?’ Pausing only to remark, ‘I hadn’t realised that Aunt Edna was dim-witted before,’ Reynolds leaps to his feet and advances towards his vacant trousers, still ejaculating with such élan that his semen liberally sprays not only the carpet but also the ceiling. If you like this, you’ll love the book; if not, not. I enjoyed many things in it, but found the success uneven. At Gallipoli for instance, Reynolds ‘has seen the boy next to him – they shared jokes together, they got drunk in Cairo – with his chest blown in and when he turns to his best mate on the other side – they grew up together, volunteered together – he finds his mate’s head blown off.’ I feel obliged to say that this is thin, unrealised writing; there is nothing there. But of course there has been so much theoretical insistence that words can never really connect with the world, that it has become increasingly difficult to make that sort of criticism, and increasingly tempting for poets and novelists not to bother.

These novels all show that there are good writers about, but that they’re not being well served by literary theory. Scepticism about words has been a growth industry for almost a century. This constant preoccupation with their unreliability is like seeing technology purely in terms of the harm it does. The theorists need to think again; above all they need to let us freely acknowledge the belief that we all actually live by: that we are capable of accurate impressions of the real world, and that our words are capable of expressing them. The art of the novel would be one of the first to benefit from the recognition.

 

John Needham is in the English Department at Massey University.

 

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