Like You, Really
Penguin Books, $24.95
The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in Her Sleep
Otago University Press, $24.95
David Ling, $19.95
All the Tenderness Left in the World
Otago University Press, $24.95
On reading these four collections, I thought of a John Berger quote: “Never again will a single story be told as through it were the only one.” Taking that line out of context and twisting it to serve my purposes, I can sum up what is wrong with three of these collections ‑ all but Stephanie Johnson’s. They are told as if not only for the only time, but for the first time.
That is, in the authors’ opinion. The reader recognises the same old plot, devices and plaintiveness from a thousand stories written by women over the last 20-odd years. This would not matter if the authorial presence showed some knowledge of the fact, some degree of self-mockery. It is that knowledge and attitude that enables Johnson to come up with not only memorable turns of phrase, but confident use of structure and an overall attractive tone. With the other three ‑ Plumb, Sandys and Flannery ‑ it is like listening to a teenager who has fallen in love for the first time and has no idea nor will even consider that her situation is, also, a clichéd one.
One of the predominant clichés of this genre, as exemplified in Plumb and Sandys, is the division of men into either weak, silly creatures or brutes, either emotionally or physically. The first type of man provokes an authorially matronising, contemptuous tone; the second a fear and hatred. In terms of the male characters, then, these fictions are revenge stories. Just as male authors for centuries have sought revenge on the virgins, the withholders in their lives.
But there’s a significant difference between the male-authored virgin-whore split and the female-engendered boy-brute division. The virgin is usually given some qualities to admire: her beauty, intelligence, even her skill at teasing. At the very least she inspires lust in her men, explaining their addiction, making it an understandable, if self-destructive, addiction. And the whore-type likewise has qualities deemed desirable by male characters and male authors ‑ everything from her ready availability to her ‘heart of gold’.
The boy-man in so much contemporary women’s fiction is given no saving virtues; worse, there is no reason given for the women staying with them. Or to explain why the authors have to keep writing about them. And the same for the brute. Both types are chronically unfaithful, which seems to be a crime when committed by the men but not when committed by the women. Both boy and brute are emotionally immature and unresponsive, are irresponsible in matters of money and pitifully competitive in their friendships with other men.
Yet their women stay, or leave into the arms of another woman, but keep the fury or contempt towards the male. If lesbianism is seen as the only alternative rather than an attractive option (or even better, a fully-made choice) ‑ which it is in many of these fictions ‑ then it is no wonder the rage abides. And no wonder the authors are unable to distance themselves enough to create credible characters instead of one‑dimensional types.
In Vivienne Plumb’s The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in her Sleep, some of the stories make use of a surrealistic technique and imagery that obviously speaks clearly to the writer but not to this reader. I can guess at the meaning of the final paragraph of “Angelfish”, in which the practical, admirably scientific woman-speaker gets her vision of angels only after killing off (popping off?) the dirty-old-man Mr Popov. Or is it Gaz, her boyfriend, she has killed? Why do he and Mr Popov wear the same shoes: is it that all men look alike?
“Up North” opens with an attempted rape and a male passerby who refuses to help, which incident drives a wedge between the two women travelling together (why?), which wedge is dislodged only at the end when they have kept some marijuana for themselves that they were supposed to deliver to “Dave’s friends”. Why is this the device that brings them back together? What exactly is the function of Reg, “an old man” whom one of the women likes and the other doesn’t?
In “The Black Dodo”, a stalled writer meets the dodo after the death of her child JoJo. The dodo entertains, comforts and finally inspires her. She can write again, and it seems her reward is the appearance of the moa in the last paragraph. is the deliberate rhyming of the dead child’s name and the bird’s name suggesting that a woman’s creativity can only come at the loss of her maternity? Why extinct birds? Is it as embarrassingly obvious as it seems: female artists have been ignored (extinguished) for centuries, but now is their time?
There is the requisite use of “female magic” in this collection, too: in “Mrs Gittoes’ Compleat Art of Simpling”, the speaker wants a baby, her husband doesn’t. It seems the good‑witch Mrs Gittoes’ herbal cake is the impregnator. In “The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in her Sleep”, the wife’s mysterious gift is finally used to rid her of an unfaithful husband. In “Celestial Bodies”, a freakish star serves to transport the butch sister Dora to another and better place while the femme sister stays behind and regrets it.
“Coral and Zetta”, the longest story in the collection, is also the most confused and confusing. It makes metaphorical meals out of the practice of suttee, voodoo, baking. The problem is, the metaphors are private – the author’s, not ours.
This story also contains the baldest statement of authorial position:
“They’re a bit scared of us, the men,” thinks Carol. “We women are the unknown factor, the joker cards of the world. We can’t be relied on, we suddenly turn coat when it’s least expected.” And she wheels out to the night, to the sea, feels she’s calling up the spirits of water, wind and night. The lady in the moon, the one women have always talked to when they wake in the night and roam their houses crying to themselves, singing their babies to sleep and waiting for their men to come home. “
And there’s this portrayal of a male:
He likes to pretend he’s into all those health foods, he thinks the women like that. He’s good at standing in the kitchen eternally chopping up pieces of dried fruit for muesli and leading everyone to believe he enjoys cooking. … He wears … a t-shirt that says “Save the Whales” or “Save the Little Spotted Crake”. Women like that sort of thing. … he’s been toying with the idea of learning Maori, or maybe one of those “Learn to Believe in Yourself” classes. You can meet a lot of women that way. … But he stays clear of the loud opinionated ones. He prefers the clumsy ones with no self-esteem. They’re easy to mould to his ways.
There are some assumptions in that first example that I find insulting, and some contempt in the second I find embarrassing.
Out of the 17 stories in Elspeth Sandy’s Best Friends, seven are concerned directly or indirectly with the intertwined lives of two couples: their bad marriages and worse friendships. The stories are mainly made up of dialogue, very little of it worth listening to, with the men definitely coming off the worst. But some of the other stories are readable, especially “The physics lesson” in which, interestingly, the main characters are a boy and his teacher. (Interesting because the other stories, centring around women’s predicaments and traumas, are not nearly as well written.) The boy and his teacher are sympathetically drawn and their story tightly told, with an authorial control not often evidenced elsewhere.
Kate Flannery’s Like You, Really, also has a core group of characters, the three generations of women in one family. The further away in time that the characters are from the author’s own generation, the better the stories, with the war between the sexes in past times presented ironically. There are some lovely set-pieces to do with family life, and some memorable imagery, for instance, in this passage describing a nun’s pristine cell:
But here, on this bedside table is a bottle of Black Rose talcum powder, suddenly, shockingly, the only colour in the room, a gaudy, sluttish red and black, emitting messages from outside; a worldly badge right beside your narrow bed, unconsecrated, impious, profane.
But I still had the feeling with Flannery’s stories, as with Plumb’s and Sandys’, that this has all been said so many times before and why don’t the authors seem aware of that? This is not a problem in Stephanie Johnson’s collection, All the Tenderness Left in the World. The stories explore the same ground as the others’: family relationships, hetero‑, homo‑, bi‑ and incestuous relationships, New Age concerns, mentors with feet of day. But, on the whole, they do so with humour or – in those where nothing in the situation can be seen as funny – with well-controlled and self-aware rage. Both genres come in for mockery, as do all the kinds of sexual congress. There are some very funny one-liners as well as evocative descriptive passages. The following example shows Johnson’s ability to take a cliché of modern fiction – the New Age shop – and lift it from triteness through imagery and structure:
Dolphins … were a large part of the Ecotique’s trade. There were dolphins carved from New Zealand greenstone, of agate from Botswana, petrified rainforest from Brazil and red jasper from deep in Australia’s interior. There were six-foot dolphins of shiny white porcelain, and at the other extreme, tiny ones fashioned from Indian tiger’s eyes, small enough to dangle from an earlobe. One whole wall of the Ecotique was entirely taken up with books and videos on the dolphin, including a stack of bi-monthly magazines, Living With Porpoise.
Not all the stories fare equally well, while all of them do show women as in control, in charge, the strong ones. The twist is that some of these women, especially the mothers, use that strength as cruelly and determinedly as the brute-male referred to at the beginning of this review.
The Plumb and Sandys collections perpetuate the myths of our time, without exploring them. The Flannery book deals in fictional material with a longer tradition, but still without standing back from it far enough. Stephanie Johnson, on the other hand, specialises in the art of dismantling myths. She doesn’t always succeed, but when she does, applause is due not only for her entertaining style but also her bravery. Though I suspect she’d laugh at that description of herself.
Colleen Reilly is a Wellington writer and teacher of English. Her collection, Jim’s Elvis, was published in 1992.