Doors into recent fiction, Nelson Wattie

Vital Writing 1: New Zealand Stories & Poems, 1989-1990
Andrew Mason (ed),
Godwit, Auckland, 1990, $29.95

Closing the File and Other Stories: American Express Short Story Award Winners, 1984-89,
Godwit, Auckland, 1990, $24.95

New Zealand publishers love anthologies, presumably because local book-buyers do too. They, in their turn, probably hope to get from them an overview of New Zealand prose or poetry, Maori this, or women’s that without having to expend either too much effort or cash. The Auckland publishing house of Godwit has chosen to open its list with due deference to these market forces by bringing out two anthologies of recent New Zealand writing, beautifully printed and presented at reasonable prices. Do they help the reader, then, arrive at that overview?

As little as ten years ago the risk with similar anthologies would have been smaller, because it was easier then to construct convincing generalisations or frames of reference which might hope to do justice to the themes, ideas, social patterns, aesthetic structures or whatever of contemporary New Zealand writing. Now the range and diversity of such writing have increased so greatly that it is safer to think in terms of ‘vitality’, as the title of one of these books implies. Here we can find straightforward story telling next to experiments with language or time structure; even the settings, which used to be somewhere in New Zealand if a story was to qualify at all, are now as wide-ranging as the style or technique. Those which are set in New Zealand offer no unified or conventional image of that country either. The whimsical irony of Bill Manhire stands next to the more bitter variety of Vincent O’Sullivan, or the gentler ironies of Barbara Anderson, each mode suggesting a different kind of place. Even similar situations provide many different responses. Owen Marshall’s old man triumphs over adversity not with heroism but with an unsentimental pragmatism, while Kate Flannery’s old woman refuses to face the realities of life at all, Shona Koea’s connects her realities to a changed world, and Bill Manhire’s aging female discovers the tourist pleasures of her own home-country. Taken together, these stories make it impossible to repeat the earlier critical cliché that New Zealand writing prefers to concentrate on childhood and youth. They do not add up to a picture of one place but to a heap of unmatching shards.

A fact that strikes one is how most of the stories open with straightforward information about time, place or character. This is not true, however, with the most sophisticated of these fictions, those by Marshall, O’Sullivan and Anderson. It is also the traditional way of opening a tale, and abandoning it was one of Mansfield’s contributions to the genre in English. This is one generalisation one might risk – the manner of telling tends to be traditional. In a broader perspective, scholars of the ‘New English Literatures’ have remarked on the comparatively slight impact of the ‘modernist’ movement on ‘Commonwealth’ writing, and that seems to be confirmed here by this simple observation.

If we search further for common characteristics in these stories, we are likely to find it in their sense of time rather than (where we used to look) in their depiction of place. In a recent essay Robert T Robertson remarked how ‘The national literatures in English are long on space and short on time, and the converse, of course, holds for English literature’. Such definition houses are built of cards, and can rarely withstand the breath of too much empiricism; but once you are aware of it, you can hardly escape the profound sense of presentness in these New Zealand stories. The characters wear the present around them like a capacious mantle which leaves them space for much variety of action but shelters them from both the past and the future. Events are usually followed through chronologically, with little or no comment on motivation or reaction, adding a slight tinge of surrealism to the sturdy realism of the basic style. Naive painting, where explanation is not so much avoided as deemed unnecessary, might be a useful comparison. Present time has its own ‘vital’ quality which is apparently sufficient, the richness of temporal perspective apparently redundant.

You might object to this comment by pointing to those uses of past and future which do occur. Thus, John Cranna’s story ‘Archaeology’ might seem exceptional because it is set in the future – a ‘nuclear’ future. But while this is true for writer and reader, it is not at all true for the characters within the fictional world. In fact their dispassionate acceptance of the sequence of events and their uncommenting observation of the coming and going of natural and human phenomena make an excellent example of confinement to the present. The causes of their situation remain unmentioned and unreflected; the reader will have to do that work for himself.

Another exception might seem to be Forbes Williams’s excellent story ‘Malone’. For one thing it is curiously framed by the narrator considering the love problems of his fifteen-year-old daughter, although in the main part of the story he is only sixteen himself. But the detachment of the frame from the main narrative is radical, making precisely for that isolation of the present which is so characteristic. There is a temporal progress indeed ‑ but there is a strange absence of causality. Event follows event, unmotivated. The boy’s ultimate perception is that he inhabits – or is suspended in – ‘the vast, black-hearted expanse of space’. Or another example might be Owen Marshall’s ‘A Day with Yesterman’, a moving account of a day in the life of an old man who is profoundly conscious of his past and whose recollections form a part of his and the reader’s experience of the day. And yet, it becomes clear that this day is exceptional for its happy absence of pain. In the sequence of the man’s life it stands out as something separate, and his touching awareness of the fullness and beauty of the world around him relies on that ‘special’ quality. For all its awareness of other times, this story too can be seen as a paradigm, almost a sustained metaphor of the vividness and isolation of the present.

It would be tempting to go beyond these books and try to demonstrate that a broken and insecure relationship to the past and the future, with a correlate luxuriance in the present, is a feature of the national psyche. And if this is thought characteristic of much ‘modernist’ fiction, we need to remember that most of these writers are not so in other respects.

Tastes may vary on individual items. (For my own, I find Anne Kennedy too precious and Fiona Farrell Poole too pretentious.) The collections as a whole are alive, ‘vital’, a useful door into recent fiction.

The poetry in Vital Writing on the other hand is too slight in quantity to support a general response.


Nelson Wattie was David Stout Research Fellow at the Stout Centre in 1990 and is now living in Wellington.



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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Poetry, Review, Short stories
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