From trad old to power web, Lydia Wevers

Stevan Eldred‑Grigg
Penguin Books, $24.95
ISBN 0 140 25244 4

A Many Coated Man
Owen Marshall
Longacre Press, $24.95
ISBN 0 9583405 2 8

Janice Marriott
Reed Children’s Books, $14.95
ISBN 1 86948 928 4

My mother didn’t like reading New Zealand fiction. Why is it always so depressing? was her standard cry as she tossed aside another New Zealand novel, as if fiction’s primary task is to reassure, comfort and cheer up. It is a view I have heard echoed elsewhere, most recently at a talk I gave in Wellington to a group of women of around my mother’s age. My mother, who was married to a Jew and who spent the war in occupied Holland and kept sane by reading Jane Austen, had perhaps a right to avoid anything depressing for the rest of her life, but I don’t think the circumstances of her own life were the explanation, or at least the only explanation, of her reaction to New Zealand fiction.

I don’t think fiction should be required to supply the want of happiness or entertainment in our lives, though that can be one of its most seductive and lucrative effects, but it is noticeable that over the history of New Zealand literature comic writers, romance writers, thriller writers, any writers who could be said to fall over the line from “serious” to “entertainment” are pretty thin on the ground or just pretty thin, while the long low cloud of social realism hung (hangs?) over the land.

In one of the four Burns lectures he gave at Otago in 1966, James K Baxter said two broad categories of the function of art were art as therapy and art as prophecy and he had come to regard art as therapeutic not prophetic (“The Virgin and the Temptress” from The Man on the Horse). I think Baxter was right, not so much in his abstract statement, but about how New Zealand writers have often gone about their work of writing ‑ the wish to create a canon, a kind of prophecy, has gone with a desire to excoriate a nation, reveal its bitter and passionless heart. Baxter’s poem about puritanical New Zealand, the “Ballad of Calvary Street”

On Calvary Street are trellises
Where bright as blood the roses bloom
And gnomes like pagan fetishes
Hang their hats on an empty tomb
Where two old souls go slowly mad
National Mum and Labour Dad.

is the best known of a body of work Baxter devoted explicitly to the scourging of New Zealand ‑ though all his work is aimed at that goal ‑ and takes as its centre the family. Baxter was of course only following a well-established tradition already 20 years old by the time he got to it in the 1950s, a tradition in which the prophetic (usually male) artist offers his therapeutic vision of a cramped and loveless social unit to the larger society it reflects. It’s depressing work but it’s how we are. Well, is it how we are?

Any reader of Stevan Eldred‑Grigg’s Mum, the final instalment of his Oracles and Miracles trilogy, will instantly fall into recognition of the tradition and its generic exemplar, Mum, whose pink fluffy slippers and lumpy legs (minus a body or a head) rest on the 3‑inch black capitals in the title, her title, on the pale lemon cover of this book. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read Frank, Sargeson, Baxter, AP Gaskell, OE Middleton, John Mulgan, Maurice Duggan, Janet Frame, Vincent O’Sullivan, Maurice Gee or Marilyn Duckworth to find that Mum is very unattractive indeed. Repressed, incapable, dour, forbidding and still a powerful mystery, or a mystery of power, Eldred-Grigg’s Ginnie has turned unsurprisingly into her forebears, trapped by poverty of every kind.

Mum is not a good novel. It doesn’t treat its subject with distance or subtlety, all the characters tremble on the edge of caricature if they haven’t actually fallen over and the plot drives predictably towards what the reader can see is inevitable from the start, namely the bitter disillusion of the central male character. But because Eldred‑Grigg has overplayed his hand ‑ the gap between Mum and her children is too great, their shift into the middle classes too extreme, they conform to luridly improbable stereotypes ‑ this trad old version of the New Zealand family seems finally to have stretched too thin. What has been chillingly plausible as a cradle of the passionless people in earlier writers, the family full of complex silences, repressions and hypocrisies dominated by incomprehensible and warring parents. especially in the child’s‑eye‑view fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, has become a not very plausible reflection by two of Mum’s adult children on a figure who doesn’t seem substantial enough to provoke all this emotion. You just want them to shut up and get on with it.

What is interesting about Mum, and I think rather dated, is that the family is represented still as the final indissoluble context for the adult subject ‑ both James and Viv are locked in a defining relationship with Mum, despite their spouses, their new middle‑class lives and language, their children. When Sargeson, Frame, Gee or Duggan wrote about the family in this enclosing bounded form it was generally from the viewpoint of a child whose confrontation with the regulatory structures of the family revealed an unarticulated psychology and one which could, in metaphorical extension, be applied to a society and a nation.

Eldred‑Grigg’s adult children don’t seem to have achieved much self‑knowledge but are always explaining; and the object of their explanations, Mum, becomes an ever less compelling focus of attention the more they talk about her. The power she continues to wield over their lives becomes a proof of the novel’s inability to construct characters out of Mum’s children. (Actually Mum‘s back cover has one of those typos publishers must pray don’t get away from them. It claims the novel ends with a “powerful resolution” which is “as stunning as it is surpising”. Indeed!) As a rerun of the New Zealand family it takes all those terrible ironclad domestic archetypes of gaunt pietistic women, inadequate fathers and excluded “different” children, seething and boiling away with unarticulated passions and stretches them till the fabric tears.

Owen Marshall, whose story “Mumsie and Zip” is the blackest and most brilliantly sinister portrait of the surburban marriage in New Zealand fiction (how’s that for an unqualified judgment), doesn’t appear to deal with the family as a subject in his novel A Many Coated Man. While painting the house Aldous Slaven (like Frame, Marshall goes in for suggestive but not quite explicable names) has lost his balance and been forced to grasp the power line. When he recuperates in the burns unit, he discovers he has received a gift of oratory so persuasive he can summon thousands to listen to him for hours, such enormous crowds he becomes a threat to the political establishment. After he’s spoken Slaven can’t remember what he’s said, and the novel avoids accounting in any discursive way for Slaven’s electric attraction.

The family, marriages, small town New Zealand, clubs, sport, the South Island, have always been the narrative and material location of Marshall’s fiction. Like Gee who in a recent North and South article called his territory “the whole middle class thing”, Marshall’s fiction has focused on people and situations the middle class white reader recognises and has met.

In some ways A Many Coated Man leaves Marshall’s typical fictional environment behind. It is set in the next millenium, though this is very un-insistent in comparison to, for example, science fiction. The major differences lie in a political agglomeration ‑ the state is bigger and apparently more totalitarian, though for some this may be a moot point. The world is physically not so different and technologically still in grasp, and the need for prophets is about the same. It’s obviously time for another messiah and Slaven’s disciples quickly gather. New Zealand as a cultural location though is immediately recognisable. At Slaven’s first huge rally with its line of portaloos and lone vinyl banner it is “all so ordinary, so do‑it‑yourself, so low‑key New Zealand”. (p37) The enthralled audiences are “normally morose New Zealanders” (p90) and Slaven, who can speak with “strangers about vital and personal things for hours on end”, finds he has “nothing of urgency to say to his son”. (p96) Slaven’s wife is a recognisable part of the fiction family too ‑ she is a wonderful manager and capably organises everything around her not very capable husband and yet “he has a sense of both guilt and remorse concerning their marriage and yet finds as ever that he has neither the courage nor the words to speak. He can barely admit to himself what a falling away there has been; gradually, imperceptibly almost, the erosion of love’s isthmus until they are quite separate again.” (p60)

Yes, Slaven is a man alone. Modified for a new terrain and a different role, but recognisably still the prophet in a strange land, separated from his closest social and biological bonds and embarked on an odyssey which culminates in a mythic annunciation, in Slaven’s case a sniper’s bullet. Slaven’s own father, on whom he reflects from time to time, was an army man, tough, regulated, disciplined; his son’s own principal interest is in shagging and raking off profits from his father’s infatuated followers; together the three men describe a progression familiar in New Zealand fiction (particularly Gee’s work) of decline from the patriarch, usually a decline in moral terms anyway, and often a shift into pronounced difference as well. The family in fiction often works to give birth to a lesser darker version of the heroic stereotype. In fact the most powerfully paternal figure in Marshall’s novel is the mythically named Caretaker, functionary in the mental hospital in which Slaven is imprisoned, whose face Slaven never sees and who effects his escape. He is Maori, rare in Marshall’s work, and I don’t think I need to spell out the Caretaker’s significance.

I had mixed reactions to Marshall’s novel. It doesn’t seem to me to imagine the future as satisfyingly as it could, as say Sleeping Dogs does, and Slaven’s progress as a prophet seems too often to get bogged down in a sort of turgid prose where you can’t understand what his attraction could possibly be and 1 hate taking things on faith. And isn’t some of the vocabulary a curious survival from 1970s rugby clubs? Does anyone actually say “shagging” any more? But that very word is a kind of pointer to a half buried, infrequently glimpsed culture on which a figure like Slaven is built ‑ the family‑centered and family‑disturbed version of New Zealand we know so well this century still shoring up the next. And Slaven does in the end become a figure of power, as the narrative leaves the rallies and moves into man on the run ‑ that figure resisting and evading authorities which is central perhaps to all cultures and certainly to our own.

Slaven is not himself a paternal figure, if there is a patriarch it’s the dead army father or the Caretaker, but there isn’t a Mum either, so in that sense Marshall’s novel represents a shift away from malevolent female power that is Eldred‑Grigg’s subject, the sort of power evoked in the United States term “momism”, used to describe 1950s culture in there.

If you look at a couple of novels from the Listener women’s book festival women are still figures of power but it’s not a power attached to their roles as mothers but to their sexuality. Barbara Else’s Kate in The Warrior Queen responds to her husband’s infidelity exactly as a mating animal would ‑ she marks out her territory ‑ and the same metaphor is extended, though more subtly and complexly, in Sheridan Keith’s Zoology where people are creatures with relatively short lifespans and strong urges before they are anything more sophisticated and the imagery constantly makes this point. The decoration of his daughter’s lounge makes Stephen think of sharks and lizards. The family structure is less important than its founding relationship between sexual partners, which shifts the emphasis from sociology to zoology or what I was taught at school, human biology.

And I think you can argue that a shift has taken place, notable particularly in writing by women, away from a sociological, social realist representation of the family‑as-nation, man alone trapped in a Kiwi suburb, or what was often denigratingly referred to as kitchen sink realism if women wrote it, into the family as a web of power relations in which the balance of power is always shifting and contested and the subject is shifting too depending on where things are ordered or disordered from.

Kirsty Gunn’s Rain or Elizabeth Knox’s Pomare are both written from the point of view of children, so in this sense they can be read as a reply to child’s‑eye vn4ting of the 1950s and 1960s when these writers were children, represent the family as the place where children happen to be and where their negotiations with adult dispensations take place, but where adults are otherwise far on the edge of the gaze, because the children are so intently preoccupied with what’s within their sightline and their own, already complete subjectivity.

Janice Marriott’s Crossroads, a novel for teenagers also represents the family as a structure that has to be negotiated but only one of the networks which a teenager must negotiate and not the most important. It’s true there’s a looming significant mother, but it’s her absence that’s significant (she’s dead) and the manner of her death which has to be negotiated.

In none of these novels can you imagine the children in the kind of relationship that’s the reason for Mum nor in the position of say, Dan Davin’s or Gee’s young male characters, whose subjectivity depends on its relation to their family, especially their parents. Gee has described the family as a “torture machine” ‑ this is a remark in response to Graeme Lee which may be self‑explanatory ‑ “The unnatural closeness within a family has always meant the potential for domination ‑ for one individual to take possession of the others”. (North and South, September 1995, p99) True, but in recent novels by women familial closeness is broken into by the many other transactions anybody has to make to negotiate their social context and their subjectivity.

I am not going to broach the whole enormous field of cultural difference and how Maori writers represent the family in what would be an add‑on to this discussion, and some of the differences will be all too obvious, but it is worth remarking here, as a kind of posthumous aside to my mother, that the representation of the family by Maori is not depressing, despite the poverty, the violence, what some people see as the sentimentality and the obvious and huge social cost paid by the Maori family.

I think this reflects, among other obvious things, the opposition of the Maori representation of family to the puritanical, repressed hypocritical and I hope historical white nation‑family represented in pakeha writing, those lumpy legs in pink fluffy slippers astride some landscapes of the past. And of course while the family continues to be the mechanism by which we order our social and sexual lives it will also continue to be perhaps the most potent and certainly ubiquitous and fluent metaphor of the family as nation.

So maybe a lightening up is on the way, the tight nuclear, middle‑class white family breaking up a bit, shifting ground, more articulate, less repressed … maybe. There doesn’t have to be progress. We’re not some large animal lumbering towards a boundary in the history of evolution but there is always change and it would be nice to have more fun on the way.

I like Shonagh Koea’s breakdown of the family in Sing to Me, Dreamer. Margaret, who ran away from home and into disgrace to become the Hindu consort of a Maharajah, returns to small‑town New Zealand to claim her mother’s estate. She deconstructs the last barrier with her mother as she dismantles the wall of boxes with which her mother blockaded her childhood room, left as it was for Margaret to return to, and finds each box is filled with treasure‑rings, diamonds, necklaces, sovereigns. The family boundary doesn’t have to be warping, damaging and tight ‑ it can be a wall of treasure and, like Margaret, you can sell it and go off with a circus.

Lydia Wevers is a Wellington critic and writer.

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