Perceptive short stories and a chill exploration, Sarah Sandley

Swimming to Australia
Lloyd Jones,
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1992, $24.95

Arena
John Cranna,
Minerva, Auckland, 1992, $24.95

Intelligent and insightful, Swimming to Australia is novelist Lloyd Jones’s first collection of short stories. Witty and ironic turns of phrase, constantly surprising and delighting, reward a re-reading. The quality of perception is also to be savoured: in ‘Swimming to Australia’ and ‘Who’s That Dancing With My Mother’, where the narrators are adolescent males, Jones accurately captures the pathos of children who recognise in adults imperfections that they are powerless to change.

Jones focuses on characters either engaged in an attempt to understand what it is to be a New Zealander, or unthinkingly acting out of a sense of cultural normalcy. The way in which machismo myths can blunt an individual’s power to think (and feel) is illustrated in this incident in ‘Swimming to Australia’, in which the stepfather tends to his young daughter’s broken wrist: ‘He gave it a waggle and pronounced it okay. He had done the same thing plenty of times in his younger days on the rugby field, at worst he had sprained his wrist’. And in ‘Broken Machinery’ a man’s inability to cope with the fact that his wife has left him is marked by first verbal and then physical withdrawal:

Dad rang twice in the last week of November. The first time to say he’d found a buyer for the house, and the second time to say he was moving to Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

 

Other stories contain incidents in which characters scrutinise photographs of themselves, their families, and material objects in an attempt to isolate and fasten down a sense of self in a particular place, at a particular time. In ‘Photographs’ the family’s first car, an Austin Healy, is recalled:

My father had copied the motoring magazines he used to get from the library and driven the car onto the lawn. Like so many other families in this planned neighbourhood, we had a garage and a driveway before we had a car… Before the photo was taken I cut the grass, then spent an hour with a knitting needle picking grass blades from the tread of the new black tyres.

 

John Cranna’s first novel also deals with cultural issues, but here any similarity ends. Arena is an absorbing and chilling exploration of a mind on the edge of understanding. The novel opens with the narrator and his pregnant lover finding shelter beneath the grandstand of the eponymous arena. This stadium is home to the impending ‘Games’, a cultural showpiece for the aryan ‘Guests’ who have displaced the indigenous population. Deracinated, this native population is without a collective past, and driven by impulses that they cannot name. One of the more unsettling signs of this is a constant shift in the nature of the relationships portrayed, with a play on the host-guest theme. The caretaker, who later becomes ‘keeper’ and ultimately ‘father’; the baby ‑ born shortly after they move in with the caretaker ‑ grows to maturity in under a year, and dominates the adults who surround her; and it is eventually revealed that the narrator’s lover (and the mother of his child) is a Guest rather than a host.

The prevailing mood of threat and insecurity is the result of the narrator perceiving events and people as discontinuous and incomprehensible. (In fact, to recall the novel has the same surreal quality as that of a recurring dream.) It is in this context that one of its main concerns, the act of narrating, comes to the fore. As the Games approach, the children who have gathered themselves around the narrator’s daughter begin to perform their own bizarre, ritualised dance: ‘… we need a narrator … We want you’, they tell him, and he replies: ‘But I don’t know the story’. The novel, however, ends with an affirmative ‘Yes’, as he takes on this responsibility, thereby committing himself to both cultural and social regeneration.

My only regret was that Cranna chooses to have the narrator flee the arena as the climactic Games commence. Admittedly this flight is in some ways consistent with his mentality, but I had looked forward to an uncomprehending and horrific glimpse. This would have provided a powerful counterpoint to the children’s dance, and without this climax the novel might be thought over long.

 

Sarah Sandley, who lives in Auckland, has just completed a Ph.D. in English at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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