Crazy richness shaped with formality, Peter Crisp

Vital Writing 3. New Zealand Stories and Poems, 1991‑92
Andrew Mason (ed),
Godwit, $29.95

Anti-criticism, for a meta-critical occasion. It is 1993The cards are nearly all on the table … A deep breath …

Changing motifs in speech, changes in the way we gesture at the world and at each other. Fresh cars, not theories, are needed. Good writers are good listeners. Innovative writers are innovative listeners. Often our language has little intellectual content, but it throws up patterns. It throws up concerns, fixations, fashions, lies, evasions, honesty. It sounds out a society too busy talking to listen to what it says. Those few who do listen, eavesdroppers with no axe to grind but insatiably curious about it all, realise with a shock that this, this auditory maze of serial monologues is their raw material as writers.

Cut to New Zealand 1991/1992, the place and period of the short stories and poems in Vital Writing 3. A communal consciousness draws up our reference-points: Irangate, Electricorp, differently abled, roller blades, Ruthanasia, power chucking, grey power, dark mass, the death of Superman, gluons, Napoleon’s pickled penis ... (No, don’t ask!) … What an amazing trivial, tragic, comic world is here. We’re looking at a comic-book of Western Civilisation. But it’s also New Zealand and how ..

…. and how do we get even a little of the crazy richness of this contemporary world shaped into the formality of writing – without tidying it up out of existence? It’s not a pure question. It’s not a question for the critics. It’s that impure question, a question for the writers.

In this collection of two hundred pages only forty pages focus directly on our complex present. Have our writers in the short games been so overwhelmingly retrospective – or unwilling to name the present in today’s words? The close-up through a rear-vision mirror is a favourite among literary snapshots everywhere. But perhaps we’re also avoiding unassimilable anger. Who isn’t tempted to be Peter Pan or Wendy – with Captain Ruth and Cabin-Boy Jim at the helm? Tick tick tick…’

Technique and matter are one issue – Siamese twins. The backward look may carry the future with it. New skills may help elucidate unsolved mysteries in our past. In Vital Writing 3 a poem by Allen Curnow sounds back to a boyhood moment, and shows how contemporary past clarities may be. Murray Edmond’s Home Movies poetic sequence also realises, with more openly varied technique, scenes and details from memory’s playback. Another contemporary voice, another contemporary approach … In fact the poets of this collection all show they are explorative, engaged with current questions of economy and form. Their voice, if not their subject, is today’s voice.

It’s a different matter with the short‑stories. Traditional voices haunt. There’s no contemporary vitality in the two fantasies, one by Margaret Mahy, the other by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. The extraordinary itself is sufficient? I suggest an amalgam of ten favourite storytellers from the fifties or sixties. Yes, 1 know, there’s a trio of apparent fantasies in Vital Writing 3. But that arch mock-fantasist Bill Manhire slips us a real-life voice, offering an oddity of characters and events, a sly meta‑criticism. He has, in wily fashion, the contemporary voice to a T.

Lloyd Jones’s Swimming to Australia fulfils the expectations of the ‘mainstream’ New Zealand short-story, yet his focus on the past is stylistically filtered through a young voice whose innocent idiom is by now too familiar. The sidelined first-person fares far better in Owen Marshall’s mellow, well-wrought tale, which also happens to fall closer to the present. And the centre-stage first-person?

Peter Wells’ fifty-page short story One of THEM! forms the impressively detailed confessional centrepiece of Vital Writing 3, yet the self/ lover preoccupations of the voice cut insistent as the knife-hard scoria of Rangitoto (where the story’s crucial action takes place). Within this intensely self-absorbed focus, though, a human record, honest and moving. … This can’t be a roll-call.

Apart from Manhire (and with a mellow nod to Marshall) the prose writers who really mix with contemporary matters are Gifkins and Stead in their different flirtations with a metafictional frame (one denying fiction, the other telling a fiction-about-a-fiction): and then …

… the best awareness of our contemporary auditory maze, traced with a short Ariadne thread just right for the occasion, is Shonagh Koea’s condensed crisscross of characters and voices in Naughty Maureen. It is the sort of voice I listen for. The world I know first-hand is here, in this clever redeeming miniature. With exceptions noted, it is too little elsewhere in the prose which the lion’s share of this collection – and of my small PS to it.


Peter Crisp lives in Napier reading poetry and other meters.



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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Poetry, Review, Short stories
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