Imperfect sex, seamless Fat Janet Hughes

Carol Sinclair
Hazard Press, $19.95, ISBN 0 908790 89 9

Raewyn Alexander
Penguin, $24.95, ISBN 0 140 26037 4

Sailing Through the Amber
Susan Hancock
Black Pepper, $19.95, ISBN 1 876044 02 0

A first novel reflects not just the talent of the author but also the judgment of the publisher, who has to nourish promise while still delivering to the reading public. We make concessions for inexperience up to a point but in the end we require to be entertained. Leaving and Fat are both first novels by women writers. Each tells the story of a phase in the life of a young woman, filling in her past to account for her present and bringing her to the brink of a critical decision. The similarities are not so remarkable — many first novels explore just this kind of territory; but only a few make it out of the desk drawer and into print. Whether or not they deserve to do so is not just a question of inherent quality because editorial intervention — which we register only if it is inappropriately absent — complicates the issue. The question is not just whether or not a novel would have been better left in the drawer but also whether it has been brought to readiness for publication.

Leaving is yet another story about growing up in a repressive New Zealand environment (Wellington in the 1950s), in a strict religion (Brethren this time — the Catholics get a break) and in a dysfunctional family (a ménage à trois — now that’s novel, but it’s killed off perfunctorily five pages in, giving way to a very conventional arrangement, orphans living with grandparents). There is nothing wrong with choosing to work within established generic patterns. They afford accumulations of resonance to be exploited by any writer skilful enough to ensure that cliches are reanimated, not just exhumed. Carol Sinclair exhibits a good deal of the requisite skill, most evident in her handling of the ordinary traffic of her young characters’ inner lives and her choice of telling detail. The characters are convincing and engage our sympathy; and Wellington in the 1950s comes alive — or half-alive, for that is the point.

Such low-key material, organised with flair and handled with a satirical or an affectionate touch, can sustain a fine novel. But Sinclair too often disdains patient craft and strives sporadically after effect. Consider the opening lines of Leaving:

Perfect sex casts out fear. Lydia learnt this early in life. When she was 7, her father brought his mistress to live with them. This was 1945 — a bad year for middle-class adultery in New Zealand. Especially considering they were Brethren.

Never mind the self-conscious style, which is not sustained, or the utter ambiguity of “a bad year for”; consider instead the expectations this opening arouses. It surely invites us to expect an exploration of sexual obsession and some conflict between the imperatives of desire and religion. (The cover design, incidentally, conspires in this, with a reproduction of THAT Raymond Ching — the half-dressed girl drooping on the far side of a rumpled bed.) Nothing of the sort happens.

Instead, faith accommodates sexual transgression, in the mistress’s purpose-built flat, in the back seats of cars, cloaked in duplicitous silence. There is conflict but it cuts right across the lines that have been implicitly drawn. It sets an emotionally satisfying, chaste relationship with a non-Brethren boy against “perfect” sex with the Brethren boyfriend — if you can call sex that is “expert” but emotionally arid perfect. It conquers nothing, least of all Lydia’s fear, which is of the world outside the pale of her religion.

The problem is not that the plot should fall out thus but that the writer did not recast the opening once it had become inappropriate. An editor should have suggested such a rewrite and a publisher should not have cleared the book without it. In a similarly incongruous episode, poorly integrated with plot and character, a graphic artist’s “perfect” drawing is rejected by the client — on account of its perfection. The worst of it is not the improbability that a 1950s philistine would reject ultra-realism but the ensuing diatribe against the art establishment and modernism. Without “the right cryptography”, we’re told, “talent, effort, honesty — even genius — were worth nothing”. And Picasso’s “Guernica” is adduced as proof that the modernist aesthetic is fraudulent. Perhaps it’s unkind to speculate whether the writer’s being married to Raymond Harris-Ching as he is now known has any bearing on this but there is the cover and something seems to have occluded her literary judgment. What I find inexcusable is the failure of editor and publisher to exercise theirs.

Leaving passed my basic test of readability. I read to the end not because I had to review it but because I wanted to know what happened next. But pleasure and curiosity only just conquered irritation. There are weak spots all through the fabric of the writing, metaphors that don’t work, superfluous “quites” and “rathers”, over-explicitness and some gauche local colour touches (“It was a Wellington earthquake” — as if we imagined it was an imported one). They are local flaws which could have been fixed very easily and (assuming of course the writer’s willingness) they should have been. Giving a new and promising author a break is a laudable purpose but unless the book is thoroughly ready for publication the writer is liable eventually to find it an embarrassment to reputation and wish it had been left in the bottom drawer. In these terms Leaving is often marginal.

By comparison, Raewyn Alexander’s Fat is seamless. Editorial changes may have been necessary — we simply can’t tell and that’s as it should be. It is a singularly accomplished first novel and my only real complaint is the overly cryptic title, the pertinence of which still escapes me.

Fat is narrated by Poppy, an engaging, opinionated, resourceful young solo mother with a sardonic eye, a tart tongue and a huge appetite for life. She says she is a “maid to a hooker”; minder-administrator-accountant to a very expensive prostitute in a very discreet brothel. Cheerfully blunt about the seedier tasks that fall to her, she revels in her job much of the time, using it the way she uses cocaine and diet pills.

I pretend. I say, if I could earn what I do now as a manager of a bar of somewhere or by getting a degree, then I’d do that. But it’s not only the money. My life is interesting. Iris [the hooker] is a terrifying doughnut monster. I listen to [the madam’s stories], I listen and laugh and gasp with fright… I can do 10 different things at once, I’m an octopus woman with a cellphone and a dragon-hoard… I take a day and shape it according to my wishes. I feel clever…

And then, typically, Poppy’s mind spins off on a train of loose associations, some of which incidentally serve the interests of plot and characterisation.

Fat is enclosed in Poppy’s psyche, depending for success on the appeal and consistency of the narrative voice. Facile comparisons to the detriment of Leaving would be unfair; I should emphasise that Carol Sinclair set herself a more difficult task than Alexander’s, simply because the lower middle class in the 1950s is duller than the 1990s underworld; Wellington during six-o’clock closing can’t compete for inherent interest with present-day Ponsonby road. Lydia, repressed and unsure, would make a dreary narrator compared with the streetwise Poppy and Sinclair was wise to choose third-person narration. The rather bland, cautious style of Leaving is as attuned to the ambience it recreates as Poppy’s lippy monologue.

That so much of the appeal of Fat inheres in Poppy’s quirky voice may of course prove a limitation. You could thoroughly enjoy Leaving without much liking Lydia, but if you didn’t warm to Poppy I doubt you’d finish the book. However, this scintillating surface is not the whole substance; beneath it a meticulous craft operates unobtrusively. There is a well-constructed plot in which the sex/drug subculture gets too dangerous even for Poppy — not quite the “ripping thriller” the blurb promises, but it doesn’t pretend to be. As Poppy is forced to reconsider her priorities and come down from her permanent high, the skill with which the style has tracked her mood swings and stimulant abuse becomes apparent.

The internal monologue is superficially random, driven by the character’s appetite for stimuli and her reactivity. Seemingly accidental associations are pursued until external events interrupt and redirect her thoughts. But along the way significant information is delivered, very strategically. Plot and characters are pieced together jigsaw-fashion, the whole picture gathering intelligibility exponentially. So too is Poppy’s past made pertinent, unlike Lydia’s, which is delivered in a lump at the beginning of a linear, episodic plot; Fat’s intricate time-scheme is articulated effortlessly, beginning confidently in medias res.

Everything in Fat is accomplished through the manipulation of detail and I took much pleasure in the texture and power of the language. Alexander manages to make the narration sound as if it were spoken without sounding gauche, condescending or inept. Poppy does much of her thinking behind the wheel or in cafes and you can readily imagine yourself listening in the passenger seat or across the table. The level of colloquial features is nicely judged, just enough to foster the illusion of spontaneity but never compromising the expressive power of the language.

Her harnessing of this power reflects, I would imagine, Raewyn Alexander’s background as a poet. Poppy specialises in vivid figures of speech, often tartly comic: “a frilly silver box like a toad in a negligee” (and we instantly see the box’s owner as just that); “bonsaied models in flippy frocks”. Sometimes they capture atmosphere: in a cafe, for instance, aromas mix with “chatter and a suspended belief in hurrying”. When Poppy is more than usually wired — on cocaine, pills, excitement or fear — the similes get more risky (“I saw the seriousness jump at me like a curse”) and the metaphors call for greater leaps. In place of cool, caustic wit we get an impression of imperilled control.

Alexander juggles the interests of plot, character, background, voice and atmosphere with a deftness that suggests a versatile talent. But her achievement in Fat is confined by the limits of a particular ethos (perhaps on its way to becoming a genre) which I’ll call streetsmart for lack of a more literary label. It will be interesting to see whether she can subsequently operate outside of this mode, which of itself will be distasteful to some readers; also whether she can create characters as vivid and distinctive as Poppy but quite unlike her. It may be that the narrator of Fat is a projection of herself, to be followed if at all by clones or variants; but looking at the sharply delineated bit characters and especially at the dialogue I suspect otherwise.

The title of Susan Hancock’s volume of short stories, Sailing Through the Amber, strucks me as a welcome change from cryptic single words and the opening story bore out its promise of lyricism amply. “Mollie’s Windows” is lyrical, lucid and disconcerting. It traces the emotional curve of a day in a woman’s life, using light on, in and through windows, as a correlative. There is a complex symbolic traffic between the intensely vivid imagery and the woman’s psyche. The light figures as cause and effect, projection and influence, image and medium; her state of mind is reflected and affected, colours and is coloured.

The storyline is exiguous. We learn a little about Mollie’s circumstances, watch her wash her windows in a sunny mood, learn a little about an old acquaintance she meets at the pub. There is just enough said and seen to discompose Mollie’s humour and worry us. We know enough to fear knowing more, and our understanding is reinforced by the negative transformation the imagery takes as she walks home, and tries to shut out the light of the moon. That is all. It is an exquisitely crafted story, calling often on resources more common in poetry than prose, with a formal elegance at the opposite end of the spectrum from Alexander’s also poetic language. The imagery renders elusive permutations of mood concrete and intelligible. The minimal action is thought-provoking and open-ended but not baffling or cryptic.

Most of the stories deploy similar resources in differing proportions: striking visual imagery; fractured relationships; lyricism; fragmentary dialogue; loose or open ends. Many of them can stand proudly in the line traceable back to Mansfield, though few combine the elements quite so lucently and elegantly as “Mollie’s Windows”. And some left me feeling frustrated or baffled. One such was the title story and the title itself bears upon my irritation.

I misunderstood it. Out of context, I took it to refer to mood, a cruisy sense of moving easily through a benign, enchanted atmosphere like the golden light in the McCahon on the cover. And so often Hancock’s imagery colours the very air with projected mood — in “Mollie’s Windows” it is sky-blue with heat, good humour and birdsong. But I had it wrong, I discovered when I read the story. It was about traffic lights:

…sailing across the gap between the red and the green … sailing through the amber, I call it, because as you take off, through all the warning signs, the moment you cross the grid you go into freedom. The Greeks call it chiasma, the place of absence at the centre of a crossroad … a dark space in the middle of the night.

And I continued to understand imperfectly, not just because our traffic lights don’t show amber before green as Australian ones do. My problem was with the obscure, teasing connection between the metaphor and the fragmentary action. Sometimes Hancock’s rich imagery fills the air and colours the light till they are no longer transparent and all that is illuminated is the character’s or narrator’s mood. Reading these stories felt a bit like navigating something thick and syrupy, warmly glowing but ultimately a hindrance to progress. Amber, perhaps?

Some of these stories I think suffer from an excess of refinement or sophistication; they ask a lot, perhaps a little too much, of the reader. At times they made me think longingly of the way Poppy in Fat projects her subjectivity on to everything but in a way that defines what it bounces off, like radar. The reader doesn’t have to feel trapped in her often frankly distorted perception, like an insect in amber. Hancock’s stories demand effort from the reader but at least they do not make one feel got at. They maintain a cool distance, where so many short stories resort to tricks to manipulate our sympathy or understanding, by way of compensation, I suppose, for lack of space in which to engage us less forcibly. The effort called for may be too much for some readers but in most instances it is richly rewarded. Even the most challenging stories are elegant examples of the storyteller’s art, exhibiting a graceful, distinctive style and an exceptionally sure touch.


Janet Hughes teaches English and writes. 

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