Big questions: part answers, James Norcliffe

Why Things Fall
Chris Else,
Tandem, $24.95

Love and War
Elspeth Sandys,
Vintage, $24.95

Jim’s Elvis
Colleen Reilly,
John McIndoe, $19.95

Why Things Fall at first glance seems quite a departure from Chris Else’s earlier ficciones, Dreams of Pythagoras (1981). Grounded in a recognisable reality of time (sections are specifically dated) and place (Auckland city and North Auckland), this is a multi‑layered novel which deals at the primary level with Paul Newton’s mid-life crisis, prompted by the death of his estranged father.

There is a lot of falling in the book. Among the more notable plummets: the plane Newton’s wife’s parents were on fell out of the sky; his father’s hot-air balloon crashes; his brother is guilty of autodefenestration, a fate Paul Newton himself all but succumbs to. However, it soon becomes apparent that Else is not interested in literal falling as such, but in the metaphysical questions related to a falling from grace and the means by which it may be possible to recover from this. In other words, in sin and redemption.

These are, as the blurb suggests, ‘big themes’, and in his pursuit of them Else covers a lot of ground: the I Ching and Taoism, the Hebraic and Egyptian creation myths, alchemy, astrology, Isaac Newton, Ernest Rutherford, Wittgenstein, Jung, mathematics, physics, the stockmarket and the New Age. This is perhaps one of the problems with the book. When you have a wonderful title like ‘Why things fall’ and proceed to answer it, it is, of course, necessary to range wide; but whether Else’s central situation justifies all the bother must be doubted. Part of the problem lies with his central figure. In the father, Waiter Newton, Else has created a larger-than-life free thinker who soars above his reality to land in his new Eden. This character is easily the most interesting figure in the book, gets most of the jokes, but, sadly, dies at the beginning and is seen thereafter only in flashbacks or through his journal. His anal-retentive son, the main protagonist, gets no jokes, gets instead an Oedipal relationship with his truly grotesque Presbyterian mother, and a Tamaki Drive lifestyle derived from his business of turning gold into gold.

His redemption in the crucible of sin echoes that of his predecessor Isaac (a beautifully realised vignette suggests how and why the bachelor scientist came to have progeny), but Paul is so possessed by gravitas and his obsessions so tacky that by the time Else offers him his return to grace we hardly care. He probably deserved to fall out of the window.

This quibble aside, there is much pleasure to be had in the sheer virtuosity of many of Chris Else’s effects. A complex timeframe allows for echoes and ironies, and the book is rich in telling detail.

Love and War in its own way asks big questions as well. There may be a hint of an antipodean Tolstoy in the title, a hint supported by nearly 400 pages of narrative. But the real suggestion here is whether all things are fair in love and war, and Elspeth Sandys’ conclusion is, for the most part, yes.

Set in the late 1930s and during the Second World War, the book’s period flavour extends to style as well. It adopts a very conventional chronological narrative in telling of the marriage of a scion of the Canterbury squirearchy to the son of a back-country North Island farmer. One odd decision, which is unsatisfactorily explained in an introductory note, is to omit New Zealand place names although actual places in Egypt and the Mediterranean are named. It seems unnecessarily coy to do so. Cairo exists, but so does Christchurch.

If the book, which was first published in 1982, does fill a gap it is in the attention it pays to often overlooked aspects of wartime New Zealand: the role played by farming women, the treatment of conscientious objectors, the suspicion directed at European refugees. It is quite convincing in its meticulous re-creation of a period now creeping towards the historical, and the book has sufficient depth to develop most characters just beyond the stereotype. The wartime scenes in Greece, particularly, are compelling and convincing.

The deadpan fatalism and the tendency towards dramatic coincidence suggest Thomas Hardy. Elspeth Sandys avoids the temptation of a tragic conclusion, though, preferring instead to offer a smiling-through-the-tears note of hope that almost begs for a mini-series.

There are few notes of hope in Jim’s Elvis, Colleen Reilly’s first collection of short fiction. These are reflective stories, mainly elegiac in tone, dealing with the casualties of the war of the sexes. Walter Newton, at one stage in Why Things Fall, remarks that he has committed the sin of fatherhood, for which there is no forgiveness, and Colleen Reilly’s various personae (who all speak with much the same voice) would seem to murmur ‘Hear! Hear!’ and then add ‘the sin of personhood, too’.

The trade-off, in Reilly’s post-Catholic view, for such a lack of forgiveness is, of course, knowledge. But it is a bitter knowledge for the most part, and these are bitter stories, to be taken sparingly with a glass of water.

 

James Norcliffe recently published a children’s novel, Under the Rotunda; he has forthcoming a book of poems, Letters to Doctor Dee, and a short story collection, The Chinese Interpreter.

 

 

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