Significant short stories, Lawrence Jones

Past Light
Catherine Delahunty,
Penguin, Auckland, 1992, $24.95

Dangerous Desires
Peter Wells,
Reed Pacific Writers Series, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

Everyday Life in Paradise
Ian Richards,
Godwit, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

Activity in the New Zealand short story has been intense recently, with a large number of collections published, many of them extending or going beyond the established traditions. None of the three volumes under review are quite as successful in their expansion of the old as Barbara Anderson nor in their exploration of the new as Fiona Farrell Poole, Damien Wilkins, or John Cranna, but all make significant contributions to the process.

The least of the three books is Catherine Delahunty’s. Its brief sketches of life on the Coromandel frontier are clearly in the tradition of the realistic yarn, almost updatings of Blanche Baughan’s Brown Bread from a Colonial Oven of 1912. What is new is the way in which they take a harder, less sentimental look at the frontier. The unglamorous difficulty of the life, especially for women, is shown vividly in such stories as ‘Hard Road to Half a Home’ or ‘The Brown Radio Knob’. These and others such as ‘Behind the Bar’, ‘Strangers’, and ‘A Round Dozen’ are uncompromising in their depiction of frontier sexual politics, whether in the bar room or the marriage bed. Not that the presentation of sexual experience is all grim, for there is also a frank portrayal of woman as desiring subject as well as desired object in ‘Suzanna Without Mercy’ and the lyrical ‘Blue Silk Petticoat’.

More radical in their treatment of erotic experience are Peter Wells’s five short stories and three short novels. The explicit treatment of heterosexual desire in ‘Of Memory and Desire’ is radical enough in a New Zealand context, but the treatment of homosexual desire in such stories as ‘Dark and Light’ puts the book almost off the map. All the stories celebrate desire as a ‘kind of life-force’ that ‘lit up the entire globe in great flames of energy and flowed, man to man, woman to man, woman to woman, all over the Earth’. However, all also show the dangers, costs and difficulties. The most obvious danger is AIDS, which kills the ex-lover and close friend of the protagonist of three of the stories. And the cost of desire is paid by the children in ‘Bum to You Chum’, who had been deserted or disowned by their mother as she followed her desire from partner to partner. The difficulties may be social, as in the narrow and homophobic social values which restrict the narrator of ‘One of THEM!’ both as external restraint and internalized prejudice, or they may be more personal, as in the failure of the Japanese lovers of ‘Old Memory and Desire’ to bring off the consummation they mutually desire. Their bittersweet tone, captured in an admittedly ‘prancy’ prose, is most poignant in ‘One of THEM!’, with its funny, sad, intense evocation of the narrator’s terrible desire to become part of ‘Lemmynme’ with his rebellious friend.

Ian Richard’s volume is not so powerful although more radical in its deviation from the New Zealand tradition. The six longish stories are all variations on a Vonnegutish postmodernism involving metafiction and black humour. All have a first-person narrator (inside or outside of the story) who stands at a great distance from the characters seeing them as specimens of a shallow New Zealand society that tries to familiarize ‘the dangerous, the unpredictable in our lives’ and to ‘ignore the evil that we see about us every day in la vie as she is vied’. His ironic narratorial comments, his use of names from Morrieson and Mulgan, intentionally repetitious parodies of ‘realistic’ descriptions, his elaborately interwoven plots interspersed with digressions – all serve to distance the characters and hold them up as examples of stolid New Zealanders who, like the couple in ‘The Squalid Tea of Mercer’, are surprised more than either of them could have imagined by a life more mysterious and complicated than each had dreamed’. As in Vonnegut, the irony is a form of black humour, a way of dealing with a terrifyingly contingent and meaningless world by laughing at those who fail to recognise its true nature.

Richard’s ironic distance from his characters stands in sharp contradistinction to Wells’s passionate identification with his or Delahunty’s sympathy for hers, just as his postmodern narrative games contrast with Wells’s heightened realism and Delahunty’s more documentary mode. Each book in its own way shows something of the increased range and variety of the contemporary New Zealand story, its movement beyond ‘barbed wire and mirrors’.

 

Lawrence Jones is Associate Professor of English at the University of Otago.

 

 

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