Surprising ourselves, Lawrence Jones

Loving Ways 
Maurice Gee
Penguin, $29.95, ISBN 0 140 25789 6

Little Masters
Damien Wilkins
VUP, $24.95, ISBN 0 86473 298 8

The reader of Loving Ways will quickly recognise family resemblances to earlier Gee novels. The structure within two chapters reveals itself to be like that of Crime Story or The Burning Boy (a pattern that can be traced right back to such early stories as ‘The Losers’). There is a single complex situation involving a group of focal characters of relatively equal importance, with the third-person point of view shifting from one to another. In fact, that third person point of view perhaps implies the structural pattern from the first sentence, for it proclaims that this is not to be a retrospective first-person narrative with a single central character on the model of Plumb.

That is not to say that there are no surprises. Just as Gee ingeniously varies the Plumb model in Going West, so here he varies the third-person model in the “Interlude” between his two main sections, giving us the vividly-realised interior monologue of Robert himself to supplement and contrast with the third-person accounts seen through the eyes of his three children, May, David and Alan.

The fictional world contained within this structure and revealed by this narrative method is again a relatively familar one. The setting is the Nelson of The Burning Boy and Prowlers and the Golden Bay of the narrative present in Sole Survivor. The characters are strongly individualised but bear family resemblances to other Gee characters: Robert Macpherson joins George Plumb, Noel Papps and others in Gee’s wonderful gallery of of old men; his son David is another of Gee’s violent males understood from within; his other son, Alan, is reminiscent of Robert Plumb in his way of opting out of a relationship with a dominating father (a professional soldier to Robert Plumb’s pacifist, but each finding a way to stand alone outside a hurtful relationship); their sister May is like Gwen Peet of Crime Story or Meg of the Plumb trilogy, a woman consciously putting together again a broken life.

As in so much of Gee, the focus is on the family, on its potential for inflicting deep hurts and on the difficulty of playing the hand it can deal one. The three siblings all must find a way to handle having an unloving, tyrannical, narrow father and a dead, invisible or deserted mother (they each have a different mother). Each finds a “way of loving” — David by domination and control, leading to violence, Alan by escape into a disciplined military order and distance from feeling, May through a series of errors to arrive at a withdrawn but creative life with her second husband Evan.

May, in turn, as an unhappy and traumatised parent following her disastrous first marriage, presented her daughter Heather with her own problems and Heather’s answer follows the family pattern — leaving home, breaking off relations with the parent and finding her own little world to order (ironically, caring for her terrible grandfather and running his orchard). At the end, May, speaking of David to Alan, says, “He’s like that because of Dad. Like you and me”, and Alan answers, “Not entirely”, which in a sense is Gee’s answer. That is, his characters suffer from their family environment and are dealt bad hands, but they still have some freedom as to how they will play them and David plays his destructively, while Alan, May and Heather, however twisted, do make constructive adaptations.

Family tensions, stressful interpersonal relationships, difficult moral choices, opportunities for moral and psychological growth taken or denied -— the human territory is as much Gee country as the physical territory. And the resultant tightly-structured plot, exploding in violence and resolved in understanding, is likewise characteristic.

Violence is as much a part of Gee’s plots as sudden death is of Thomas Hardy’s and as necessary. Neither the free, unplaced violence of some postmodern writing nor the melodramatised violence of popular culture, it is motivated, judged, understood. What David does is appalling but explicable, a response to his upbringing yet finally his responsibility. As in all of Gee’s multiple-centre structures, we get a variety of points of view so there are no externalised villains. David, seen from within, is understandable, if terrifying, and Robert, heard from within, is even oddly attractive in his meditation on the women in his life.

With the focus very much on the family, there is less of a social dimension than in Crime Story — none of these characters are “Roger’s children” but rather they are all Robert’s children. The mode of presentation is also relatively restricted and there is less technical experimentation than in Going West . However, there is a more assured control than in either of those novels and the result is a worthy if not particularly unexpected addition to a rich and fully achievedoeuvre.

It is still too early to speak of Wilkins’s oeuvre, although Little Masters is his fourth book, his second novel. His career so far has been a series of surprises and this is another one. We cannot yet speak of “Wilkins country” and the first response to this second novel is the sense of how different it is from The Miserables, as different as Saul Bellow from Henry James. That first novel was Jamesian in its narrow focus, three days in the life of Brett Healey; in its use of the limited third-person point of view, situating us in the mind of Healey, and in its complex, relatively formal style appropriate to that mind; in its resultant inwardness, its concentration on Healey’s attempt to think and feel with and understand what he has seen and experienced; hence in its emphasis on perception, “perception raised to the pitch of passion”, as has been said of James.

What was un-Jamesian and perhaps more characteristic of Wilkins, was its comic inventiveness, its rich range of anecdote and character, linked primarily by Healey’s perception and memory of them, not by any tightly-constructed plot. If to James the underlying plot model was that of the well-made play, to Wilkins it seemed to be that of the modernist short story or poem. The unifying factor was not in the development of a sequence of events but in the development of Healey’s consciousness as he moved towards the realisation that he was struggling to find something like the novelist’s sympathetic imagination and memory, to “remember with the utmost accuracy” the truth of “the people who had mattered most to him in his life”. The book was thus perhaps implicitly a kunstlerroman, a portrait of the artist as a young man.

Little Masters, in contrast, is Bellovian rather than Jamesian, in its ampltude and diffusion, although it might be called Jamesian in its focus on innocents abroad, in this case New Zealanders in England rather than Americans in France or Italy. There is no single focal character but rather a variety of them: primarily Adrian, a New Zealander of Polish extraction, in London with his recently-claimed son Daniel, and Emily, a New Zealander in London as nanny to a young American girl, Michaela; but there are also secondary centres in the Clovers, Tim and Jilly, and their nanny, Emily’s schoolfriend Sarah, and even in Adrian’s friends David and Catherine.

The point of view moves from character to character in an increasingly wider circle, the changes becoming more rapid. Seen through this variety of eyes is a rich range of comic action. There are some wonderful comic set pieces: Adrian’s farewell party with his family in Wellington; Michaela, taking over a magician’s show at an American bierfest; the eccentric environmental scientist Harry Denisson watching the Dutch highway patrol reducing his ancient borrowed VW to a car cube; the fire at Harry’s house and the interplay between his teenaged daughter and his strong and impulsive wife Becks; Daniel’s injury and Adrian’s cousin Stefan’s response to it and the resultant quarrel with Catherine, prickly partner of Adrian’s friend David. There are even inset stories in the eighteenth-century manner — Emily’s mother’s radio play and her short story (published separately by Wilkins in Metro). The comic inventiveness reaches a climax of sorts when almost all of the characters are brought together at the Clovers’s country house for a pastoral weekend which includes a snowstorm, a power failure, sheep sheltering in the house, a bite from an imported spider from an agricultural research station, the birth of a lamb and the death of a dog and various human confrontations, a Bellovian comic potpourri.

This wealth of comic action is not held together by a single consciousness and the plot links are of the loosest kind. There is a kind of parody romance, for Adrian and Emily, separate and unrelated for much of the book, are brought together briefly towards the end, kiss and then part again, but this strand only playfully holds out the hope of traditional unity before denying it. There are links by recurrent motif but, as in some postmodern fiction, they are there more for their own sakes than for any deep significance.

What are we to make, for example, of the title? Both Adrian and Emily are to some extent ruled by their “little masters” Daniel and Michaela and Sarah revolts against hers, the Clover children; Tim Clover is given (and hides) some “little masters”, engravings in the manner of Durer done by the master’s pupils and at the end Tim discovers Vanessa Clover happily defacing one of them; the cover, with its juxtaposition of a Jacques Stella 1657 engraving of “The Games and Pleasures of Infancy” with a contemporary photograph of children in similar poses plays with the conceit.

But what does it all mean? Need it mean anything? Or is it purely an aesthetic device of the surface? What about the parallels between the inset radio play, about an Italian New Zealand family and Adrian’s experience with his Polish family? Is the short story by Emily’s mother about the daughter at the police academy a transposition into another key of Emily’s experience, as graduate school student, with her mother and grandmother? Emily’s employer, Michaela’s mother, comments of the story,: “So it’s generational. I love generational things. Everything is generational”, and she goes on to speak of her own life. Certainly the “generational thing” is central in Gee’s novel and there is something implied about family as environment and the pains and responsibilities of bad parenting. But here, as in The Miserables, while families are right at the centre, in rich variety, there does not seem to be an overriding moral concern or attitude on Wilkins’s part. There are no sharp moral judgements such as Gee’s (however understanding and sympathetic), no separation into sheep and goats (and no sense, as in Bellow’s fiction, that most of the goats are nannies, for even the difficult wives and partners, Becks and Jilly and Catherine, and the stroppy nanny, Sarah, are treated with a comic expansiveness and sympathy).

Perhaps the comic invention and the relative universality of sympathy, as well as the virtuosity of the writing, are what unite Wilkins’s diverse works to date. Little Masters is not a kunstlerroman, but it is perhaps the kind of novel that Brett Healey might have written as an expression of sympathetic imagination. Perhaps some years down the line, when that writing career that Wilkins has begun so well is further developed, we will come to see The Miserables and Little Masters as we see Gee’s “The Losers’”and In My Father’s Den, as the models by which his fiction has developed, representatives of different modes for expressing an underlying personal vision.

On the evidence of the books that we have so far, that vision is, unlike Gee’s, not ex-puritan or even post-puritan, but rather is something quite beyond those categories. It is perhaps best encapsulated in the strange all-dialogue prologue, a session between Theresa, Adrian’s cousin and her therapist (neither of whom appear in the novel again) concerning her relation to her family. There Teresa says all people are psychic and then explains: “What I meant by psychic was simply that we’d surprise ourselves with our powers of discernment if we just paid the slightest amount of attention to other people. We would surprise ourselves.”

In this novel Wilkins constantly surprises us by the sympathetic attention that he pays to his rich cast of characters, an attention which, unlike Gee’s, does not seem to ask to be justified in moral terms but seems to be there for its own sake, a self-justifying good, a love of the world because it is there, that is most uncharacteristic of our fiction to date, so marked by its critical realism and moral seriousness.

Two novels, then, from writers from different generations at different points in their careers, both utilising multiple focal characters and a shifting point of view, both dealing with families, both capturing place and time and a rich range of humanity (Gee’s Junior Mott, for example, is as arresting a minor character as Wilkins’s Becks Denisson), but very different in plot structure and underlying vision. Perhaps the differences are generational as much as personal. At any rate the two books show well the tonal range possible within a basically realistic mode and are evidence of a literary diversity that can only be fortunate for us as readers.

Lawrence Jones lectures in English at Otago University      

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