Two out of four, Heather Murray

The Freedom Junkies
Cliff Taylor
Hazard Press, $24.95

The Age of Light
Simon Wilson
Penguin Books, $24.95

The Claim
Sally Marshall
Huia Publishers, $19.95

Jubilee
Nepi Solomon
Tandem Press, $19.95

 

Opening a novel by a new writer makes the heart beat a little faster: is this the start of a brilliant new career? Opening a parcel of four first novels, with their crisp and colourful jackets, is a cause of real excitement. Four new novelists, and the year barely halfway through.

The Freedom Junkies is Cliff Taylor’s attempt at a road novel in the Kerouac tradition. Levi Wilde, at 23, is already retired from a career as a journalist and newly returned from a lengthy stretch of OE. New Zealand suburbia stifles him ‑the noise of ever‑present electric drills and lawnmowers is unbearable. Even the wildlife of a Northland summer oppresses: “the tap‑tap‑tap of a sun‑stunned blowfly battening itself towards death on the french doors”. Not for him the obligatory quick trip to the usual culture spots in Europe favoured by generations of Kiwi OEers, then back to settle down in a proper job. “So what are you going to do? Stay on the dole all your life?” his anxious mother asks, comparing her son’s indolence with the energy of his sister, who funds her master’s degree by working as a programmer at night.

Travel has changed this boy for the worse: motivation, direction, even cheerfulness he lacks in appropriate quantities. His mum is worried. The two generations are out of sync. Levi is a New Age man, child of a universal drug culture, imbued with the travel ethic rather than the puritan work ethic. Travel is what Levi does best; he finds it limitless and emancipating: “Travel becomes an addiction. And I’m a junky. I don’t get DTs, I get itchy feet. And like any addiction, this one can leave you broke, twisted and lonely. But the highs, when they occur, are so good the risks to life and mind are rendered negligible.”

Eschewing a sedentary life, Levi and his girlfriend, Talia, see themselves as part of a universal youth movement, members of an instantly recognisable subculture which exists in a state of perpetual movement across national and, more important, personal barriers. London, Europe, Egypt, India, the Himalayas ‑ each place suggests fresh possibilities. While Levi’s approach to travel might be new to older New Zealand travellers, there is enough that is the same, and from an armchair it is stimulating to revisit old haunts with Levi and Talia and to enjoy their responses. Taylor is perceptive and sympathetic, as in this description of New Delhi on a bustling morning:

The city was alive, with people, animal, traffic, mud, noise. He found a skinny bicycle rickshaw driver who agreed to transport him for eight rupees. Levi sat on the uncovered seat of the vibrating tricycle, attempting to assimilate what was passing before him. He felt close to it in the flimsy vehicle, almost part of it. Mud splashed up from the wheels, passengers in other rickshaws stared across at him, smoke from cooking fires blew into his face, the smells of fresh cut timber, curry, rotting garbage, spice and incense, exhaust fumes, mud and manure assailed him. It was the body odour of the Asian city, as rich in diversity as Asia itself.

 

Whether The Freedom Junkies is a novel is a moot point. Levi sounds remarkably like his creator, the book his travel diary. There is “plot” provided by Levi’s friendship with Talia. It creates tension: how may a “free” man or woman be tied to a relationship? While Taylor himself may have solved this problem, “settling down” in Snell’s Bay to write this book, his hero takes off again with Talia on the next junket, leaving the reader with an uneasy feeling that Levi has deceived himself about freedom. Nevertheless, it is an attractive journey, marred only by a Barbara Cartland scene of romantic reconciliation upon a mountain in Nepal.

I sometimes wonder whether writers of fiction appreciate the level of commitment they expect from their readers by way of time, energy, and goodwill. They expect us in the midst of busy lives to stick at it, and often we do, to our lasting advantage. But often the writer asks too much and gives too little. I find now, ever‑conscious of time’s winged chariots, I am reluctant to persevere as once I might. In the case of The Age of Light, my tolerance ran out fairly quickly. Entering the world of a novel, the reader looks about for identifiable markers to fix a point, anything that will bring one in touch with the writer. Simon Wilson is stingy with his markers, in fact seems wilfully to be making things difficult. Does he think we have all day? Part of the problem with this futuristic novel is that Wilson is not clear in his mind about when the action takes place. The new millennium has arrived, but the characters wear recognisable clothing ‑ jeans and trainers. The new millennium could be only six years off, yet the behaviour of the people in the story and the institutions seem light years away. Life has deteriorated, the individual is terminally isolated, savagery is universal, relationships are fraught and sketchy.

An underground computer group plans to sabotage a telecommunications event. There are terrorists, people who murder with nailguns, a mysterious thing called ForceLink, a Fan Club, an evil Helios Corporation, and a class of outcasts called Groppo. Since non‑communication has become an art form in the new age, conversations are oblique and truncated in the extreme:

“How long have you known about this?” she said.

In answer she got a hand, flicked up, a shrug, a swallow of beer.

“Alright,” she said, fetching a beer for herself. “Two dead. Still a few to go. Who are they?”

“You’re a bit slow on it.”

“Up yours,” she said.

What the fuck, let it snap. She tried not to shout. “I’ve spent the week playing diddly with myself,” she said. “While you, you’re like a rabbit with two dicks. I can’t go near the ForceLink, I find out what’s going on because I happen to be in the room. You really put the hit on that poor drongo.”

 

On and on it goes, failing to enlighten, the writing failing to attract. In the end one fails to care. Let them all stew.

Beware the middle‑aged zealot who, after half a lifetime of troubling publishers not one jot, suddenly materialises with a mission to save the world, and to that end, the MS of a novel stuffed into a carrier bag. Over lunch once I was harangued until the soup grew cold by such a reformer who carried about her person the ‘green’ novel which would prevent armageddon. Mainstream publishers had turned it down. What could she do? Naive then and anxious to do my bit for the world, I suggested one of the smaller publishers, or failing that, try self‑publishing. Today I would tell her that the publishers probably do know best, and that having got the thing off her chest, she should destroy the MS and take a long shower. Her novel did eventually appear, but it sank immediately, its thin framewotk of plot and character unable to bear the cargo of conservation propaganda.

Issues alone do not a novel make, though some publishers advertise their fiction according to whatever trendy issue the novel airs. So how do issue pedlars assume that by hitting the reader about the head with the blunt instrument of his or her particular issue, untransformed by any art worth mentioning, that a genuine contribution to the genre is being made, for which a ‑reader should spend good money? Probably (and ironically) they do not read much themselves. Blind to the great “classic” writers, ignorant of the best contemporary practitioners, they blunder on, assuming that merely putting one word after another is a miraculous achievement in itself and that what they are trying to say has not been said already. But usually it has, more coherently, and with lashings more intelligence and style.

A little learning is indeed a dangerous thing for embryonic writers. Dangerous also is easy access to correspondence courses and writing schools, which, while they do turn up real talent, need also numbers to make a profit. Talented and untalented are encouraged alike. Not in itself a bad thing ‑ anything to sharpen communication is a bonus. But the trouble starts when the course graduate is encouraged unrealistically to publish.

Witness the case of Sally Marshall’s novella, The Claim (85pp). The writer has a burning issue: justice for Maori over land grievances, Seemingly ignorant of what has been written about this sad topic, of the battles fought and won by Maori to obtain their due and of the genuine acknowledgment by a pakeha majority that atonement for past ills is needed, Sally Marshall, through her strong female hero, Susan, pokes the dying embers for another blaze. Predictable and unsubtle, Marshall sees everything in black and white. All pakeha are mean, tight‑mouthed, and racist, Wellington (a gem of a city if ever I saw one) is “such a prick of a place”, men in power are “sycophantic creeps in crumpled suits”. Even Maori men fall short of the expectations of their women, with no idea about commitment, loyalty, or integrity, having sold out to the hated pakeha system. All except Kara, the man in Susan’s life:

At last I’ve found a man who shares my dreams, my pain, my commitments. He is unafraid of the warrior in me. What I’ve learned with Kara is how important it is to help our men become warriors too. Our men are all up the creek without a paddle. Off course. They’re fighting the war on the rugby fields, in the street, in pubs. Our best warriors are in the prisons and the gangs. And all the time the white men go on raping us, our earth mother, our kids.

 

Marshall treads a cliched path, but the fault is only partly hers. She has been poorly advised to publish. She should read plenty, then try again.

Jubilee by the pseudonymous writer “Nepi Solomon” is altogether a different and better prospect. Deceptively “slight” in what it tries to achieve, the novel succeeds in bringing a small rural Maori community to vivid life,

New Zealanders frequently take pen‑names. A modest people and self‑effacing to the point of disappearance, we love disguises. Our literary history from the nineteenth century is full of men and women being evasive, but the pseudonym becomes something of a cleft stick: while it allows the shy writer to test the waters and to elude publicly the critics’ strictures, it prevents the successful anonym from enjoying public acclaim. How to retain the disguise, whether to come out from under and when, are hurdles Nepi Solomon will have to face, for she has no need to blush modestly. She is the discovery of Yvonne Kalman, who is willing to be interviewed on her behalf. But the publisher claims to know nothing, and Kalman is sparse in detail. Solomon, when “he” isn’t in jail, lives “somewhere near Te Kuiti”. The erstwhile Paremoremo inmate sent unsolicited and undisciplined scraps, bits and pieces showing flashes of talent to Kalman, who helped sort and polish. The odour of a very large rodent hangs heavily upon the air near Te Kuiti.

For there is nothing amateurish about Solomon’s book. It does not look cobbled together from scraps by the combined efforts of an ingenue and the writer of popular historical sagas. The most impressive feature of the novel is its seamless whole. Practising the Aristotelian virtues of unity in action, time and place, the whole work glides on without a sideways glance towards its clearly‑defined purpose. To borrow a horsey metaphor, this novel is a thoroughbred, not an ounce of extra fat. No flogging tired old nags, no riding bobby horses.

A Maori, Billy Williams, is married somewhat tenuously to a pakeha woman, Pauline, who feels the need to expand in other directions. Billy, a likeable but ineffectual man, is chosen to chair a local committee which will plan and stage the school jubilee. That means he will have to do the work ‑ in theory, since the Williams family knows Billy will heap the work onto them so that his drinking time is preserved. Her face as white as the fish‑shop paper which houses their evening meal, Pauline “had that hard look in her eyes”:

Through the rain she could see … a tank‑stand that needed painting, a fence waiting to be fixed, a patchy blue and brown Mark 3 Zephyr that was towed here almost good as new nearly two years ago, a wilderness of weeds that was a thriving vegie garden before she started that job in Te Kuiti and Billy agreed to take it over, and remnants of a load of firewood delivered last winter and never stacked away under the tank‑stand on account of the junk already there. Beyond, a bedraggled hen in a nest of weeds…

 

The action covers planning the jubilee, and how that impinges on the Williams extended family, and the district. As the Little Red Hen found, there are few to do the work. But inertia triumphs, the community rallies in spite of itself, the jubilee is staged to wide satisfaction. A few affairs are conducted on the side, a youthful romance blooms, Auntie Minnie and Uncle Potu remember what it was they love about each other, the local gang of alienated youths is bound once more to the communal group, and Billy is a hero in ways he never envisaged. It is all heartwarming stuff and Chaucerian in its display of, and care for, humanity’s many-faceted whole. Wit and good nature abound, villains are only temporarily bad. Each character, no matter how minor, becomes a real person. It is a subtle work; no loud political banners are hung out, but a good deal about human relationships, and about the ties that bind, is suggested in a most refreshing way. The novel travels at a cracking pace. So two out of four. Not a bad percentage.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin editor and writer on New Zealand literary history.

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