Cryptic crosswords and intellectual judo, Chris Else

Black Rainbow
Albert Wendt,
Penguin, $29.95

Octavio’s Last Invention
Michael Morrissey,
Brick Row, $27.95

The world of Black Rainbow is a futuristic parody based on New Zealand Pakeha values, a world without crime, poverty or unemployment founded on a comfortable, all‑pervasive Philosophy of Ordinariness. The novel tells the story of Eric Mailei Foster who, after several years of being ‘dehistoried’ by the Tribunal, is given the freedom of the state and embarks upon a quest, the Game of Life. Pursued by the mysterious Hunters, he sets out in search of his family. The central issue of the book is thus the question of cultural identity.

The treatment is allegorical rather than comic or satirical. The text is peppered with direct, anagrammatic references to literary and cultural figures, from Yoko Ono to members of the Auckland University English department, with a constant sense of hidden meanings and connections. This is the problem with allegory: the story always refers to something else and there is no layering of meaning which provides several levels of involvement or interpretation. Thus it is impossible to enjoy Black Rainbow as a straightforward satire on contemporary New Zealand, and still less as a serio-comic thriller. The many references to actual people constantly jolt the reader out of any absorption in the story. The book is ultimately a conundrum like a cryptic crossword or a game of bridge. Whether it is judged as a witty and entertaining departure or an irritating piece of self-indulgence will depend on the individual reader’s taste.

Octavio’s Last Invention is Michael Morrissey’s second collection of short stories. It differs from the first, The Fat Lady and the Astronomer, in containing less of the fabulous and the intellectual and more focus on character and relationships. The stories appear to be in reverse chronological order and, because of this, the book has a curious feel to it.

Morrissey’s characters tend to be psychologically isolated individuals who, on a fundamental level remain untouched by the life around them Relationships are based on tolerance or indifference, or else they involve a kind of emotional and intellectual judo in which the protagonists continually circle each other trying, and usually failing, to get a hold for a good throw. Morrissey’s treatment reinforces this sense of distance by feelings and emotion. In the later stories, such as ‘The Sylvia Zone’ and ‘Like Going to the Movies’, which comes towards the beginning of the book, the failure to engage is mitigated by a good-humoured eccentricity which provides a fair substitute for personal warmth. In the early stories, however, the lack of feeling leaves a chilly sense of personal alienation.

In ‘Day at the Circus’ Ralph’s only clear response to the death of his father from cancer is purely physical: He was puzzled by something moving on his face. It ran out of the corner of his eye and down into his mouth. Again, in ‘At Maisie’s Place’, Gretchen experiences the attentions of her lover with a detachment which stretches credulity: She watched her body being revealed. Whose were those breasts coming to life vividly? Reading this collection thus involves a journey from a quirky, surrealistic humour into a world which fails to recognise the validity of a direct emotional engagement.

Morrissey is always a skilful and subtle writer. To some extent, the problems of the earliest stories may simply come from the passage of time. The liberated individualism and self-sufficiency of the 70s and 80s encouraged the relegation of value and feeling to a private and personal level, things hinted at but never revealed. The insecurities of the 90s will, perhaps, demand a more direct response.

 

Chris Else is a writer and literary agent.

 

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