Unacknowledged legislators, Diane Hebley

William Taylor (ed),
Penguin, $19.95

Slide the Corner
Fleur Beale,
Ashton Scholastic

Take Me to Your Leaders
Gaelyn Gordon,
Tui Harper/Collins, $14.95

Those who support New Zealand literature for children and young adults have always claimed the justification for its existence lies in the way it can portray ourselves to ourselves. Thousands of books from overseas are available to slake the common thirst for story. Many, of course, are vitally important to enlarge our vision of the universal human condition as it is experienced in other societies. But only New Zealand writers can validate New Zealand experiences.

This is exactly what editor William Taylor claims Zigzag does for young New Zealand males between the ages of 13 and 17. A collection of 17 wide-ranging short stories, Zigzag is important, says Taylor, because of the picture the writers “collectively paint of being young, male and growing up in our society today”.

So, what picture is painted of our society and how is it conveyed, not only in Zigzag, but also in other recent releases?

As must be expected in Zigzag, given its declared focus, the point of view is exclusively teenage male, expressed predominantly through the first person, past tense, and that past is an immediate past. Some of these stories slip into the present tense at the moment of crisis; two are told entirely in the present tense. Some stories sit even closer to the young reader by employing “mate-talk”, a term for using slang and four-letter words in narrative and dialogue. These techniques heighten immediacy and impact, contributing to the power and success of these well-shaped, well-resolved stories.

Some narrative distancing adds to the layering and interest of four stories in particular. Owen Marshall’s narrator in “The Big Time” looks back to tell his story which exposes the brawn/ brain syndrome in rugby and the self-interested manipulation of boys by coaches looking for “the start of coaching careers of distinction”.

Ian Middleton’s “Boy and Calf” is also written some time after the event, but it uses short, impressionistic flashes which convey the feeling that the agony has never left the narrator. Told in the third person, the story refers only to “the boy”, yet, ironically as it turns out, he quickly names the calf “Joy”.

The narrator in Tessa Duder’s “Not Just a Pretty Face” jumps a four-year gap to complete his satirical exposure of hypocrisy and betrayal and prejudice in the world of school rugby, sponsorship and advertising. This story bites deep into redneck fixations over the macho rugby image that cannot be allowed to be tarnished by the proven superiority of a ballet dancer’s body at full stretch.

The fourth writer in this group, Gaelyn Gordon, takes as narrator a fifth-form boy whose English teacher requires journal-writing and a story as part of his homework. The boy’s progress is interrupted by the teacher’s written comments which encourage and criticise, thus exposing attitudes to the business of writing as well as to material. There is an almost comic, satirical effect in that the power of the ending to the boy’s story leaves her almost wordless.

The New Zealand landscape is evoked where required with ease and pertinence. Towns are named, and topography, as in James Norcliffe’s downhill hairpin bend on Banks Peninsula, often adds to the drama for those who can visualise the area exactly. Images, such as Duder’s “like a King Country third-division hick at the end of his tether”, are meaningful in New Zealand terms and the vision of the landscape in the shapes of women, a device commonly used by male poets and other artists, helps Joy Cowley make a satirical point about ways of seeing.

In one form or another and in a variety of ways, these writers reveal a society largely selfish and callous, if not cruel.

The opening story, Richard Hobo’s “Eight Dozen Beer and Nothing to Do”, for example, presents the tragic consequences of irresponsible driving by those who care nothing for the fate of others on the road. Members of SADD will be pleased with its inclusion. Gordon’s boy tells of bullying and teasing in the playground, the consequence of which is death, or could it be called murder? The father’s treatment of his son in Middleton’s story is callous and cruel, not only in the way the boy feels he could never please his father, but also more obviously in the pleasure the father takes in throwing the boy’s loved calf into the bobby truck for disposal. The boxing match in Greg Newbold’s “First Fight” is an organised exercise in thuggery, and Alan Bunn’s “The Woolsack” is an account of shearers who bully, tease and torture their rousie. The aunt in Cowley’s “The Cleaning of Windows” carries out a harsh revenge on her brother. Both the aunt and the father in Norcliffe’s “My Ford Anglican” are hardly kind to the narrator, though a comic element makes the story more enjoyable. The girl in Jane Westaway’s “Poodle Eyes” selfishly lets Hamish in for a miserable weekend, but the ending is beautifully conveyed and just right for the tone of the story.

In short, these stories convey more misery than pleasure. In contrast to Duder’s companion collection for girls, Nearly Seventeen, the protagonists in Zigzag tend to be victims, though Craig Harrison’s animal impersonator in “Bear Market” is one who ends up declaring: “Yes, look out, world! I’m on my way now.” “Bear Market” is also one of few stories with a comic element and a touch of satire, two others being Diana Noonan’s “Mrs Watson’s Visit”, in which a safe-sex talk confuses teenage relationships and leaves out the element of friendship, and Norcliffe’s “My Ford Anglican”.

Two novels also contribute to the picture of today’s society in New Zealand.

Fleur Beale’s Slide the Corner is obviously intended as a novel for those mainly young males, who are interested in rally driving. The sport is presented here with a kindly eye for its mostly good, clean competition and little gamesmanship.

The callousness of parents, however, is exploited as motivation. Greg is 16, the middle child of three. Whereas his parents and siblings are academically bright, his skills show up in car maintenance and driving. His parents refuse to allow him to be different. They refuse to feed him until he agrees to study for a repeated attempt at school certificate. The father, especially, cares more for his self-pride than his son’s welfare.

Through his kindness Greg meets a young couple who give him a job, feed him and involve him in rally driving. Greg becomes a success, which includes showing himself to be superior to his father when it comes to car maintenance and driving. His mother soon turns to supporting him and his father begins to capitulate when Greg’s expert driving saves the family from an accident.

One might well call this a predictable formula novel – boy fights against parents’ wishes, finds his own talent, works hard, finds job and friends, gains confidence, finds a girl, achieves success. The characters, especially the adults, are drawn a little one-dimensionally larger than life, too.

However, their vitality gives them appeal and credibility. A nice balance is maintained between human conflict and rallying details, and the support given to Greg by his siblings, especially William who is a delight, saves the novel from extremism in family relationships. Greg’s bitterness, especially early in the novel, is relived by a rueful sense of humour that expands and mellows as the novel progresses.

The satire in Gordon’s Take Me to Your Leaders takes on additional power at a time when New Zealanders have just voted in a narrow-majority Parliament. Gordon’s inventiveness is shown to further advantage as she explores our “primitive” society through the inquiries of an alien’s mind. In this Book 2 of the Alfred Brown series, the alien Oppy works through Ruth, Alfred’s sister. She wants to investigate the workings of the Government. Parliament itself and the level of the debate there are seen to be very childish. The Ministry of the Future, the Department of Equity, the Squires of the Square Chairs and Blotto Topple are all satirical representations of the governing process, revealing money-grubbing, sophisticated partying and the inflated nonsense of officialese. Here is a far-from-admirable vision of how our Government functions.

These examples of fiction do, indeed, show aspects of ourselves to ourselves. If they are well read and enjoyed by the readers they are intended for and if those readers are sufficiently touched and motivated by the situations and plight of the characters portrayed – in other words, if their sensibilities are indeed enlarged by this literature – then there is a chance we may make some improvements towards a “decent society” after all.

Thus, if one replaces the word “writer” for “poet”, the relevance of Shelley’s dictum becomes obvious: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”


Diane Hebley writes for children and about children’s books. She is completing a picture book and a junior novel with her husband.


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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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