The self-loathing of a Stead novel, Damien Wilkins

The End of the Century at the End of the World
C K Stead,
Harvill/ HarperCollins, $39.95

C K Stead has always suffered from a surfeit of lucidity. This may seem like a wrong-headed thing to say. Surely those values enacted by his sentences – intellectual crispness, sure-footed syntax, cogent demonstration – are what make him so listenable. Also, with The End of the Century at the End of the World the Stead novel now has a kind of generic confidence; it knows what it’s about, and we know it too.

In this way, TECEW might act as a coda to the rest of his fiction. The conflation of recent antagonisms allows the appearance of many of those elements familiar from previous work but here given a keener edge. Politics refracted through personal relationships; revisiting of key social epochs; detective work; the local writing scene and the writing of novels themselves. Public intrigue and suburban domesticity figure again as the twin geniuses of Stead’s fictional world, contriving a sort of novelistic kitset whose business is efficiency and charm. This, I think, is the charm of the well-made, the not-insubstantial satisfaction of uncluttered expression.

So in what way might such clear-sightedness become an impediment? Are we simply accusing the writer, as Stead has spoken of Maurice Gee, of competence? Chastising him for that excess of craft by which we sniff out the professional? TECEW, like all the novels, is at once both highly literary and extraordinarily penetrable. This itself has been the source of some confusion – he’s so damn approachable, something must be wrong, or at least up. The main character here is writing a thesis on an imaginary New Zealand author, entertaining the possibility that Katherine Mansfield didn’t die in France, and tangling again with an ex-lover from the 60s student radical days who is now a Minister in the 1987 Labour Government. The novel is comprised of various ‘documents’ – Laura’s fiction, Dan’s fiction, letters, TV transcripts.

Now, taking our cue from a critic like Mark Williams and his book Leaving the Highway, we might agree that what is up here is a playful and teasing manipulation of viewpoints which leads to ‘a deeper version of the truth than a mere historical record would have allowed’. Williams places those cautionary quotation marks around truth, I suppose, to signal indeterminacy. Yet this overstates the issue in Stead’s case. Nor does the characterisation of mischievousness quite account for the experience of reading a Stead novel.

In TECEW there is, crucially, no real argument that TV Frontline has distorted the truth. Whoever’s version we take, there is nothing in the novel to suggest that Dan is acting for personal gain or that he is anything but the victim of Terry Scobie’s petty vindictiveness. Nor is the reader, despite facing these proliferating versions of the same story, ever in danger of getting lost. There is nothing like the giddiness we feel on looking up from the sentences of Absalom, Absalom or JR. On the contrary, Stead is insistently helpful in guiding us through the shifts. He is a curatorial writer whose work produces an odd phenomenon: while constantly promoting notions of ‘freedom’, the sensation is one of programme and of predetermined ends. We are told so often that this is one version of the story and any other might do just as well that we begin not to believe it. The accumulations have the curious effect of flattening everything out. There is no ‘deeper’ in Stead’s fiction.

The questions which punctuate the novel reveal a profound anxiety, not about personal identity or about ‘truth’. They reflect, rather, a deep-seated ambivalence and scepticism on the part of the writer about the whole business of the novelist. I do not mean, as Williams means, that Stead is making a point of this, nor that his apparent depthlessness has made him the postmodernist par excellence. It is not narrative strategy that interests us so much as the registering of certain pressure points where temperament and psychology threaten to overrun mere literary technique.

Stead is almost chronically bored the moment he starts writing a scene. His narrator has scarcely offered us anything to go on and she says, ‘What else?’ A new section begins ‘End of party dialogue.’ The slightly exasperated tone is neither stylistic affectation nor impatience with the conventions of novel-writing. It marks, rather, that oddly productive resentment at the heart of Stead’s creative enterprise. He hates the work. It is the novel itself, which will get written only through an act of personal forcefulness, that prompts this insolence, this offhandedness. I want to distinguish here between the banal laziness of authorship – which may be easily corrected by more regular work habits, more thorough research, more vigorous editing – and founding aversions and anathemas. The former accounts only for the appearance of a work, the latter for its feel, its temper and its temperature.

TECEW is a very hot book if we gauge the emission of its own self-loathing. Look at how much envy this novel displays for poetry. It is not a matter of simple characterisation that people in this novel are always ready with apposite bits of poems. There is an appeal to immediate density, a solidifying of abstracts, a ‘depth’ which, far from reflecting back on its speaker, creating a personality and its social milieu tends to underline the character’s disadvantaged position, locked as he or she is within the prosaic. Curnow’s famous poem which appears as an epigraph is already an admission of defeat. See the condensed workings of an intellect which can fashion music from an idea, a concept rhythmically motored by an image. Here is Stead as the doorway, hasn’t even shown us his place yet, saying this is as good as it gets, folks.

The superior claims of poetry set up quite a din in this novel, and we might wonder why Stead, himself a poet, is not a more poetic novelist. Even when, occasionally, he reaches for the lyrical, the language is still quite tailored, gathering its grace from economy and restraint. For the most part the writer is decidedly uninterested in ‘effects’: ‘The sun was beating down on Dave’s car. He wound the windows down … The air was dusty. There was a haze over the city.’ This is the revenge of the purely serviceable and that it is Laura’s ‘bad’ attempt at a novel might suggest only how low fiction can fall and still do its work. A basic division of labour occurs here; to poetry’s angel, prose is the necessary donkey. And this novel never forgives itself or finally the reader, for that failure.

I think we uncover the pertinent prejudice if we turn the question around and ask what does Stead value in other people’s novels? Above all it is clarity. Stead’s persona in his book reviews is often a kind of clued-up amateur who announces his willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt while all the time known that the recipient is a goner at the moment of giving. Here he is concluding his review of Australian novelist Tony Maniaty: ‘As for that final scene in which the President’s mysterious mistress, Ancora Dias, with “perfectly conical breasts” and “teeth like marble”, emerges from a closet bearing a knife and launches herself at our hero – I think I know how it all ends, but even after careful re-readings I’m not absolutely certain.’ The humour here perhaps obscures the serious consideration by which the judging has been done. Stead has uncovered an inadequacy of thought, that crucial absence of clarity. At the very least, he is saying, we should be able to follow what happens in fiction.

The necessary mystery in a novel for Stead can be supplied only by arranging the units of prose. The units themselves are always transparent. Again, what I am saying is that the obsessive manufacturing which a Stead novel displays should not be obscured by handy recourse to authorial strategy. My argument is that the curious disparity between the novel’s acts, its running self-publicity, and the actual experience of reading the thing is grounded in a critical bias which on closer inspection begins to look like an impasse.

The frequent recounting of dreams in TECEW also points to the relative thinness of the waking world of prose. Laura, convinced by her thesis supervisor’s gloss, still confesses her preference for ‘pure dream’: ‘To be more exact, I hold to that moment of surprise when I woke laughing and understood nothing.’ Intellect and explanation, she writes, have eroded the primal satisfaction. But do we really believe her? Her distaste for thesis jargon hardly accounts for this sudden inflammation of longing. Moreover, the language itself betrays the insincerity of the moment. Here is prose’s explicating role at its most insistent. Look at the directive for exactitude. At the very moment of desire for almost preliterate experience, literacy is underlined.

Now what I want to suggest is that this is more than a paradox, one of those circumscriptions language has a habit of involving us in. That would confine the moment to a literary problem, the insolubility of which would result, at its fullest extension, only in the end of Stead’s career as a novelist. A novelist, after all, faces the end of his or her career once a book is completed. We are all familiar with the complaints from even the most swift and prodigious practitioners about indirection, lassitude, doubt when contemplating the next one. The lesson Stead faces is different from the commonplace in two important respects: the frequency of its occurrence, and the doggedness with which the lesson is denied. What Stead stares down, on almost every page of his novel, is the end of his thinking.

There is no other New Zealand writer who places such value on clear thinking, on making himself understood. The horror of the current cultural climate for Stead is that people have lost their minds. At various points, however, the fiction asks us to do exactly that, to substitute for the long-winded and transparent workings of prose thesis the short-circuit of pure image, the opaque revelations of poetry. Here we approach the impasse. ‘Turn off your mind machine,’ Stead has Laura tell herself after she has slipped dangerously from clarity. ‘Get on with your word work.’ If we take this as a formulation of Stead’s own task, the dominant note is one of diminishment, of checked ambition and progress circumscribed by propriety.

The writer’s intellectual pride and sense of occasion will cause him to fashion familiarly elegant escapes from this lessening world – that is, to turn the plot – but this does not interest us so much as the prospect of a personality coming face to face, head on, with its own incarceration. Now that would really be the end of something.

 

Damien Wilkins has published a book of short stones, The Veteran Perils. He holds a 1992 Whiting Fellowship from the Mrs Giles Whiting Foundation, New York.

 

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