Greater than the parts, Janet Wilson

Mr Fish and other stories
Elizabeth Smither
Macindoe, $24.95

Elizabeth Smither’s second collection of short fiction gathered from stories published in recent years, displays at first sight the unfussed, unfazable and whimsical qualities for which her poetry has often been praised. But in demonstrating convincingly her powers as a prose writer, this collection as a whole seems greater than its parts.

Smither’s flair for the dramatic, her celebration of the ironic and mischievous in life at the expense of the magisterial or grandiose, her aptitude for making her endings throw out a question which causes another reading, her skill at fictionalising different levels of experience simultaneously, now show considerable consolidation. More than anything else, however, it is the lilting, subtle, sensuous texture of her prose, amply reinforced by the writerly quality of her characters’ names (never Anglo‑Saxon monosyllables, but names like Hermione, Helena and Fergus, straight from Shakespeare and Yeats, or names dating from the 1920s, like Magdalen, Petronella, Fenella, Agatha, Alexina, Hortense, Greer) which imbues these stories with a character which can only be called Smitherian.

Reading Elizabeth Smither’s prose resembles the sensation of travelling in the Deux Chevaux Citroën, one of the three cars which Mrs Pargeter listens out for in “Hostages to Fortune”: it purrs along sedately, it conveys more than a hint of the exotic, the erotic and even the idiosyncratic, yet with remarkable consistency and lacking any hint of obfuscation it remains always comfortable for passengers. However, unlike her heroine in “Dégustation Domestique” who develops a palate for ever more exotic dishes such as “Calamaretti Fritti” and “Carciofi alla Romana” as her marriage gradually collapses and who returns to the mundane offerings of fish and chips when it’s over, Smither never allows her penchant for the exotic, the fantastic, for the sly literary allusion to dominate her sense of composition. At any moment she can revert to the undecorated normality of fish and chips, bringing us down to earth. Characteristically she prefers only to imply that this level of apprehension exists, not to startle us into accepting it as an alternative modus vivendi to the more inviting inner world of the mind, the arena of the impossible and the fantastic.

Because Smither is such an accomplished stylist, it is easy to be lulled into luxurious acquiescence by her prose, to cruise along with the undulating movement from extravagant description to narrative or commentary and back again. But in her best stories it is impossible to ignore the impact of moments of insight and recognition and the judicious phrasing which creates it. The comedy of “Mr Fish”, for example, emerges from the cumulative effect of Alexina’s life crises, her plot summaries of the life of Mr Fish in the innumerable “plot notebooks”, her thwarted literary ambitions. These are unexpectedly fulfilled through her son George Gervais, the doctor, whose plots are constructed according to the formula of being a stranger overseas: “GG opens his arms and the plot rushes in, like an embrace from someone in Siberian furs. He cares nothing for it, and yet it always arrives”. There are further consequences, too, as the narrator whimsically reflects on the “literary genetics” which have determined the apparently inconsequential facts of her existence: Alexina’s aspirations, the formulaic novels of George, the combination of “plot and travel and poem”, contributing to her writing poems “which are not allowed plot at all”.

Her heroine’s cry of recognition might in fact be Smither’s own fictional manifesto, a writer of “plotless poems” who now writes stories in which plot and theme matter less than their embellished stylistic surface which might either reveal or conceal the pattern in events to which plots point. The quotation from William Carlos Williams that one critic has recently cited in relation to Smither’s poetry, therefore, might well apply to her prose: “The thing that stands in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose.” The challenge to Smither’s heroines and by implication to her readers lies in finding in the “occasion” of an event, a way to acknowledge some truth already stated, a fact which lies in front of one’s very eyes. In many stories in this collection there is that moment when aesthetics and art yield to the recognition of those more mundane things which “lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses.”

To ask what the point is of a Smither story, therefore, is not always the right question. Often it is the path not taken, the moment not noticed, the invisible side of life and the so-called mistaken notion which are ironically affirmed by the story’s outcome. In the shadowy “The Avenging Angel” the opportunity missed becomes more than a cause for regret; it leads to an isolating obsession. The middle‑class narrator blames herself for her lack of neighbourly sympathy to the abject, desperate Wikitoria Kemble; and after the conflagration in which Wikitoria dies, her recognition of neglect leads towards renewed hostilities towards the culpable, menacing neighbour who had seduced Wikitoria’s husband.

A similar contrast of values underpins the activities of the nuns of the delightful satire “Sister Felicity and Sister Perpetua” who try to christianise the working‑class citizens of the ironically named Victoryville, the neighbourhood into which they have just moved. It is implied in street names ‑ Repulse Road, Dreadnought Street ‑ and in the initially intractable behaviour of the residents. But the story gathers momentum through the nuns’ goodwill routine, their lists of successes and failures: “Several of the solo mothers had definitely regarded them as do‑gooders pleased to be provided with a penance.” It culminates in improbable success: their downing a bottle of Marque Vue offered by Cherie‑Lee, the battered housewife, “whose face had looked like a fruit salad, who had spent not one but several nights on their sofa”, and who asks for a rosary in return.

The equally humorous “Flesh” traces the contrasting responses of the newly‑marrieds, Eliot and Greer, to the decline of their once feverish sex life. Despite reading about sex, experimentation and the development of athletic skills, Greer finds that “suddenly their own, once‑sufficing amorous world, the mattresses, fields, forests of their lovemaking seem to have yielded no real evidence. The problem is there are no witnesses”. Eliot, by contrast, launches into pornography, Playboy and then another woman. Smither plays hard and fast with the confusions that married sex is heir to: “It is simply a state like looking at chicken legs in a freezer. The unnerving thing is it never adds up to anything”. Only after Greer weighs up the “lineaments of gratified desire” against the self‑conscious “techniques of gesture” and “techniques involving words”, does she hit on the axiom “If betrayal is flesh, then flesh is the solution”. Only then does she obtain a perspective and consider a possible future.

In the best stories Smither juxtaposes character through contrasting styles, controlling various viewpoints to permit a relativising, ironic perspective rather than a resolution of differences in her open‑ended conclusions. In “Handbag”, a doctor’s encounter with his patient emerges through contrasting metaphors. Monica’s sensuous yet ominous image of the surgeon who “continued to hold her hand in his soft pink‑lined one, so pink it looked almost indecent, like a particularly luscious flower while with the fingers of the other hand he lifted her fingers one by one”, is counterbalanced by the brutal change of gear at the end, when he compares the uterus which he had just removed to “a very old handbag”. “Or if you want to get away from handbags ‑ useful things most women consider them ‑ think of a piece of overcooked liver you wouldn’t offer your cat.”

In less successful stories such encounters are opaque and the point of view is projected too strenuously, through imagery. Smither brilliantly sets the tone of “Extravagance”, for example, in the opening sentence: “The farm was poor, low‑lying, its driveway pitted with milky puddles, the colour of untrustworthy eyes.” Later, painterly images of paintings remind her of Aunt Cora, epitome of “ridiculous extravagance”, and reconfirm the narrator’s desire to live; but her private musings, anxieties about her “extravagance”, and the categories of excess and thrift which her parents impose, although finely realised, cause the story to wander. “Extravagance” suggests that Smither’s flaws of over‑embellishment might stem from her strengths, tempting her to press her imagery into the service of sustaining a too‑slight plot line, allowing description and figurative language to substitute for development of character and story.

Smither’s exploration of the effects of illusion creates a literary structure which contrasts to that of the “realist” plot. She also embraces a non‑indigenous, cosmopolitan outlook and tends to avoid the particularising definitions of New Zealand setting, background or characterisation. In “Mr Fish”, one of the few stories with the distinctive local flavour, the Taupo setting remains unobtrusive, the salient features being the rainbow trout, the descriptions of the lake, the name of the hotel. instead the story focuses on Alexina’s embryonic plot outlines in this secure retreat where all geographical realities are known and affirmed, whereas her son, the inveterate world‑traveller, “let the plot come to him as though he‑was blindfolded, pinning the tale on a donkey map of the world”. Only in the aptly titled “In the Blue Mountains” is setting fetishised. The magical mountain air and exotic colours inform the experiences of the four women writers on tour, but this landscape more than triumphantly transcends the present for them: ‘The blue drops had done their work of levitation for the day”; the witty comparison of the mountains’ blueness to a blue rinse, like a matron’s hair, reaches into their unknown futures.

“A new blue rinse, that’s what it makes me think of”, said Ruth … Below them another angle of the valley sloped away to be subsumed in the first trees, then, as the trees thickened, the same perm‑like appearance recommenced. An evenness so soft and gentle Susan wanted to run her hand over it.

These stories therefore, essentially display the shape of everyday life, but a life which has been transformed and transported by the intrusion of the unknown and unfamiliar, like the computers in the story “Librarians H”, or the unexpected. In this respect Smither’s approach to fiction is not unlike that of the Russian formalist writers: creating a fictional world by defamiliarising everyday reality sufficiently to render it surprising, but not so much as to make it unrecognisable. Her heroines (in all but one story, the protagonist is a woman), middle‑class, often middle‑aged, suburban women with the preoccupations of this group, succeed by their capacity to be taken in by life, to be challenged and surprised, to find themselves where they are. Furthermore, being accomplished writers like Elizabeth Froude in “Mr Fish”, or Margery and Ruth in “In the Blue Mountains” or nascent poets, it is the texture of their thoughts and responses which is so engagingly registered. Although victims of brutal marriages, battered and deposed wives, haunt the pages of Mr Fish, their struggles are rarely foregrounded, neither do questions of moral and political responsibility, or issues of ideological difference take centre stage. Instead, as in “My pipe has fallen on your balcony”, it is the suggestion of danger, the hint of temptation, which encounter invites, that tantalises Smither and the reader.

Magdalen pressed the pillow over her head and tried to be consoled by its over‑laundered smell. But it smelt of defeat. She clenched her teeth and lowered the pillow onto her chest and clasped it tightly like an old bear. I mustn’t regress, she thought. My first wicked city and a pipe.

The parameters of violence are as alien to her temperament as is identification with New Zealand landscape. Confrontation of any kind ‑ between the sexes, between publisher and writer‑when it does occur, emerges through a wider, shaping perspective, as Greer finds in “Flesh”, upon discovering Eliot’s infidelity. “But this, it seems is just another stage of love, of that version of it known as marriage … the wounded‑but‑still‑active phase”. Inequality, like poverty and despair, therefore, is recognised and assimilated to the socialising, civilising sensibilities of her heroines.

Smither might be contrasted to New Zealand women short fiction writers such as Fiona Kidman, Kate Flannery and Barbara Anderson, whose roots lie in realism, and she might be compared to writers like Patricia Grace and Fiona Farrell, who could be described as magical realists; but she belongs to neither school. Showing her penchant for the bizarre and fey, her ability to reinvent the immediacy of the moment, her breadth of literary allusion, the poetry of her prose, Mr Fish and other stories confirms Smither’s transformation of her poetic aesthetic and practice into the parameters of short fiction: in doing so she has created an accessible, varied, delightful form that few will dare emulate, but many will admire.

Janet Wilson is a senior lecturer in English at Otago University.

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