Finding the inside story, Tessa Barringer

Pieces of Music
Michael Jackson
Vintage NZ $19.95

Lester Earnshaw
Hazard Press $24.95

Sandspit Crossing
Noel Virtue
Random House NZ, $24.95

Michael Jackson is an internationally renowned anthropologist, Noel Virtue once worked as a zookeeper in Wales, and Lester Earnshaw is the founder and president of a communications manufacturing company in the United States. The only thing these three novels appear to have in common, apart from being written by expatriate New Zealanders, is that they each arrived on my desk for review on the same day.

Michael Jackson’s Pieces of Music is his third novel. Spanning a 20‑year period in the author’s life (half of which he spent abroad), it explores his experiences as an aboriginal welfare worker in Australia, his involvement in community development in the Congo and his ethnographic work in Sierra Leone. Although his work is not widely known in New Zealand, Jackson has published four collections of poetry, two novels and four anthropological monographs; he has also won numerous awards for his writing, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1976, the New Zealand Book Award for poetry in 1981 and in 1983 he held the Katherine Mansfield writer’s fellowship in Menton.

Through a series of loosely‑connected, “autobiographical fictions”, Pieces of Music sets out to explore not only Jackson’s eclectic and extraordinary past but also the manifold and fragmentary nature of “identity” and the role of narrative and storytelling in acknowledging and reconciling the many facets of the “self “. “Narrative,” Jackson tells us, “is grounded in the journeys we embark upon every day” and as we return each evening “to a home, a hearth … to share food and drink [we] tell each other stories about our day’s experiences”. He goes on to say “our sleep is conditional upon the resolutions we have reached” (p1), suggesting the importance of story‑telling in stabilising and making coherent our view of ourselves and of the world around us.

According to Jackson however, no life is a seamless whole, a single story. It is a random montage of many diverse stories. He therefore chooses not to give a traditionally linear representation of his experiences, but offers a collection of fragments which, like the souvenirs of long-ago excursions, “disclose no underlying order but go to show how accidented is the landscape of an individual life” (p163). These fragments are linked associatively, rather than chronologically, so that the structure of the text mirrors the process of remembering in which “memories … whirl, propelled by a force beneath, with different memories rising to the surface at different times and thus denying the existence of ‘pure autobiography’ and confirming for each moment, a separate story” (Janet Frame, To the IsLand ).

As he tells the stories that arise from each moment, Jackson allows us to share the experiences and encounters that have shaped his sense of “self” and his view of the world. in particular, he focuses on those moments which disrupted accepted attitudes and values, destabilising moments which turn the notion of “self” from a noun into a verb. It is moving beyond “the settled area of the self” that Jackson believes we find ‘our point of departure for understanding others” (p1). Pieces of Music records Jackson’s excursions into this interstitial space (between subject and other) as he attempts to bridge the gaps of understanding that divide us from each other and from ourselves. It is a task which he describes as both necessary and dangerous for “in sharpening one’s own ideas through dialogues, real or imagined, with others” he suggests there is always the risk that those others will be “eclipsed and their sense of who they are for themselves … lost” (p8). Jackson attempts therefore to hear as well as tell both sides of the story; for too often, he suggests, we hear only the outside story and are not even aware there is another story inside that one (p39).

Early in the text Jackson describes the “audacity of the author”, saying, “we go ahead and grant ourselves all kinds of authorial privileges as if we were exempt from discretionary rules. We gatecrash the lives of others, presuming to enter the consciousness of people whose language we do not speak, whose experience we do not share, whose concerns are beyond our grasp” (p7). It is his sensitivity toward and respect for the voices of others that is the most striking feature of Jackson’s writing as he recreates for his readers “those moments of intimacy when the gap between oneself and another seems to close” (p70).

His text develops into a polyphony of voices, their songlines, discrete yet interwoven, create haunting and at times unsettling harmonies; ‘pieces of music” that take us from ourselves, transporting us to other places and into other lives. It is a text which opens to the reader, inviting us to embark on journeys of our own. It makes no attempt to construct a finished picture into which all the fragments fit like the pieces of a puzzle, for ‑ as Jackson’s childhood friend Maciek tells him ‑ “there is no picture and no puzzle, only a lot of individual pieces trying themselves out against others, looking for a perfect fit, but discovering that each of us is for the most part a jagged edge laid open to the world” (p156).

Lester Earnshaw’s first novel, Olivia, is also the narrative of a life, another ‘autobiographical fiction”. However, unlike Jackson’s fragmentary view, this life is represented as a coherent whole. The narrator, Cameron Mountjoy, is telling his “story” for the benefit of his long‑lost daughter; a daughter whom he has not met until late in life when ill health demands that he find someone to care for him. Beginning with his childhood in the small North Island town of Otane and his early fascination with radios and electricity, we follow his experiences as a radio operator during the Second World War, we witness his postwar efforts as a housing contractor in Auckland and finally we watch him establish his electronics empire in America.

This work is competently written and readily finds its place amongst the masculine and rather dated tradition of postwar provincial writing. However, though one must acknowledge the success shared by both the protagonist, Cameron Mountjoy, and the author (their lives are remarkably similar, though at no point does the text openly declare itself autobiographical), the relentless self‑absorption of this first person narrative is at times too overbearing. While Jackson spent much of his time listening to the stories of others, Earnshaw’s narrator is far too busy talking about himself to hear what anyone else has to say. The “others” he encounters are marginalised and silenced, their stories trapped inside his; even Olivia, the long‑suffering daughter to whom the whole narrative is directed, never appears as anything other than an audience for her father’s memoirs.

It is Earnshaw’s attitude toward women that is the most disturbing aspect of this work. The blurb suggests that “always at the centre are the women in his life”, yet his narrator treats these women (individually and collectively) with remarkably little respect. He appears to have no qualms about exploiting them, he is fiercely possessive if they show any signs of independence yet repeatedly refuses to make a commitment to any of them, saying: “if I expected to attain my goal in electronics, I [had to] watch my step with the ladies. 1 could become bogged down’ (p111). While such attitudes to woman may be consistent with the period of which Earnshaw writes, they are not significantly moderated by self ‑reflection in the framing narrative. Neither the narrator nor the author appear to gain sufficient ironic distance to suggest any change in attitude or even a recognition of their chauvinism.

Though the narrator supposedly reaches some kind of death‑bed reconciliation with his lost family, his behaviour in the narrative’s present suggests that little has changed: : he rejects his daughter’s only child because he doesn’t approve of his long hair and earrings ‑ “It crossed my mind, too, that likely he could have AIDS or something” (p172) ‑ they are reconciled only when the boy submits to his grandfather’s will, cuts his hair and accepts an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker in his grandfather’s company.

Earnshaw’s story may well appeal to readers of the same generation who can identify with his experiences, but for those of us a little younger his narrator too often manifests the kind of attitudes and values we find least admirable in the older generation. After the intellectually and aesthetically satisfying contrapuntal effects of Michael Jackson’s Pieces of Music, Earnshaw’s writing soon reveals its narrative and stylistic limitations. Jackson’s quicksilver text, with its strange and unexpected harmonies, is vibrant and full of life; by contrast Earnshaw’s left me with an uncomfortable and oppressive sense of claustrophobia ‑ a feeling which was not much relieved by my encounter with Noel Virtue’s new novel, Sandspit Crossing.

An accomplished writer, Virtue has already published five novels as well as a non‑fiction account of his experiences as a zoo‑keeper in Wales. His work has been warmly praised by overseas critics and he has been shortlisted for a number of literary awards both here and in Britain. Sandspit Crossing, like its predecessors, is set in small town rural New Zealand,

it explores the destructive effects of fundamentalist religion and the narrative is characterised by its highly idiosyncratic use of the New Zealand idiom. While in his previous works

this combination is, on the whole, successful, in Sandspit Crossing it becomes formulaic, overworked and rather tedious. Those who laughed and cried over the impossible redemption of little Elsdon Bird, who were harrowed by the savage abuse of Billy Bevan in the Country of Salvation, will, I fear, be sadly disappointed by Noel Virtue’s latest effort.

Despite a formidable cast of quite extraordinary characters and an action‑packed plot, this caricature of life in a small New Zealand town never gets off the ground. The plot revolves around the town librarian, Miss Magdalene Maidstone, who roars about the countryside on her Harley Davidson struggling to keep alive the community and its spirits. Her most lively encounters are with an evangelist, Enoch Fulk, and the impassioned and desperate town butcher, Reginald Wallace Ritter, whose enthusiasm for sausages, sodomy and spinster librarians eventually unleashes chaos on the town. The humour is, at its best, black and rather grotesque and is reminiscent of some of the less attractive aspects of the work of Ronald Hugh Morrieson, to whom Virtue has dedicated this work.

The reader however never becomes fully involved in these bizarre goings‑on, as our contact with Sandspit Crossing and its strange inhabitants is always mediated by the narrator. This disembodied voice recounts events in an irritatingly glib manner that both distances and alienates the reader; consequently neither events nor characters ever acquire significant depth or substance. The problem is exacerbated by the narrator’s excessive use of exaggerated idiom. In earlier works, Virtue employed his particular variation of the New Zealand dialect effectively, with idiomatic language appearing primarily in the direct speech of the characters. In Sandspit Crossing however (where there is little dialogue) it dominates the narrative voice and threatens to overwhelm the text; in the absence of any contrast, it soon loses its effectiveness and becomes irritating.

Like Earnshaw’s Olivia, Sandspit Crossing demands that the reader remain passively outside the text, we are not encouraged to become active in our reading and interpreting, instead we must sit still and be told. After the subtlety and sensitivity of some of Virtue’s earlier works, such an overbearing authorial attitude is disappointing. The reader is left feeling that, as with Olivia, the really interesting stories remain trapped inside this rather claustrophobic narrative.

Tessa Barringer is a graduate student at the University of Otago completing a PhD thesis on Janet Frame.

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