Very carefully sidelong postmodernism, Lydia Wevers

Songs Of My Life
Bill Manhire
Godwit Publishing, $24.95,
ISBN 0 99008877 82 x

I don’t think there’s any New Zealand writer who is as unanimously applauded as Bill Manhire. The inside cover of Songs of My Life is filled with praise from the prestigious literary reviews of the world (Times Literary Supplement, New York Times Book Review, Scotland on Sunday) who call him inventive, witty, flexible.

Most reviewers agree on Manhire’s double qualities of seriousness and humour — he is both entertaining and challenging, he is seriously funny. Most also see his work as representative of something deeply contemporary (if the contemporary can be deep), which may also be called postmodern — Fergus Barrowman claims, in his introduction to The Picador Book of Contemporary New Zealand Fiction that “his [Manhire’s] is the name critics reach for first when referring to postmodern tendencies in recent fiction”.

I don’t read every review written in New Zealand and not even every journal, but I don’t recall ever reading anything carping about Manhire. Even his well-known appearance in Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner only demonstrated how the Poms don’t understand local talk. Translated home, his references to silks and birdcages at Wingatui just proved his nonpseudness. It is as if something or someone is recognised in his work that everyone pays tribute to.

What is it about Bill Manhire’s work that keeps winning the Good Writing Award? The stories in Songs of My Life have all been published before, nine of them in Manhire’s 1990 collection, The New Land. A Picture Book, described by Charles Causley as a “totally convincing, beautifully composed portrait of a land and a society”. (Landfall 176) The other stories have been circulated in anthologies and magazines over the last few years and “The Brain of Katherine Mansfield”, a novella in the form of a choose-your-own adventure story for in-the-know adults, came out — of course — in Mansfield’s centenary year, 1988, with charming illustrations by Greg O’Brien which are regrettably not reproduced in this collection.

Songs of My Life, then, represents Manhire’s entire prose output written over about eight years. I find it annoying, though, that there are no dates, either in the acknowledgements list or in the table of contents. Only one story is dated and that’s for winning a Mobil radio award for dramatic production. I suppose that’s part of the “postmodern tendency”, though from a conventional point of view the bibliography of these stories might map a recycling and reiterative authorial praxis that you could also identify as postmodern.

It is also an economical collection. Manhire doesn’t write much. His collections of poetry appeared at well spaced intervals over 20 years and were never bulky and I can think of a great many writers for whom 16 stories in more or less 10 years would be an appendix. It’s an astute output and, given student/staff ratios at universities in the 1990s, probably not a choice. But whether it’s voluntary or involuntary, the relative selectivity of Manhire’s published work, especially his short fiction which is of recent provenance anyway, gives it some of its character. It is always very highly polished, reticent, a bit guarded, clever, contained.

Causley suggested an appropriate subtitle for The New Land might be Sideways Through New Zealand. He called this quality of containment “spare, carefully judged, nicely aseptic”. And this is exactly what strikes you about Manhire’s work and also, I think, why it is so universally praised. It is very carefully sidelong. His writing generally always seems to mean more than it actually says; the “simple-seeming” text, to use another of Causley’s phrases, suggests lots of hidden complexities, attitudes, inflections. It is studded with invisible quotation marks. Part of this is to do with Manhire’s gameplaying, particularly his play with grammars and vocabularies which almost always have some ironic reference to New Zealand — what we are, how we speak, the fragile, trailing threads of our written and spoken culture. In “Cannibals”, for example, the opening story of Songs of My Life, the story mixes the vocabulary and sentence structure of nineteenth century exploration and castaway novels — expository, complex sentences (“Pray tell, Mr Appleby,” says my aunt, “what are the great merits of the coconut tree?” “Why, I’ll tell you, madam.”) — with the attitudes and ingenuous astonishment of boys’ adventure stories. “We were clearly dealing with a highly intelligent, if savage, people. It was time to take command.”

The effect is a disingenuous consciousness about the genres and styles Manhire is using, a kind of diminishing irony, which shifts stories of cannibals and exploration firmly into the mode of pompous and romantic fantasy, making a postcolonial point about inscription and also making the reader a participant in a playful postmodern recognition that we all know adventure stories are silly and it wasn’t really like that but we enjoy these cartoon exaggerations precisely because we recognise their antecedents.

Compared with much postmodern writing, Manhire’s is very readable. I think his work, rather than being effortlessly exemplary of what “postmodern” might be, is selective in its use of postmodern techniques. Postmodernism is a famously under- and over-defined term, as famously unstable as what it seeks to name, but if you accept that it describes, as Linda Hutcheon says, a “contradictory phenomenon, one that uses and abuses, instals and then subverts the very concepts it challenges”, then it is within this notion of challenged (or deconstructed) yet incorporated boundaries that Manhire’s fiction is located.

What I mean to say by this is that his fiction does not do anything really radical. It is, if you like, a “safe” version of postmodernism, elegant, disruptive of certain expectations the reader may have about stories and texts, very enjoyable, but it doesn’t knock you off your perch, you still engage with it as a reader in more or less conventional ways.

The stories which have the most obviously postmodern form — they break into paragraphs with suggestive titles, create circular plots, or point insistently to the unsaid spaces inside text like “The Poet’s Wife”, “Some Questions I am Frequently Asked”, “Nonchalance” or “The Brain of Katherine Mansfield” — use these structures to draw attention to structure and the ways in which it disappoints or dissatisfies your reading appetite, your hope of meaning. But at the same time the successive blocks of paragraphs, the suggestive titles, and the tone of knowingness convey that the reading experience is meaningful and you are learning something about the world and the text.

For example, the story which I find least successful now in rereading it in Songs of My Life is “The Brain of Katherine Mansfield”. At the time it was published, choose-your-own-adventure stories were the big new success story of children’s publishing and Manhire was using this genre to write something about being an adult, a New Zealander and was hailed as innovative, fun, witty. Eight years later I think “The Brain of Katherine Mansfield” has a set of very conservative boundaries in place. It is jokes-between-boys stuff and of course there is a satirical reflection here on the “stories for boys” genre as well as stories for boys versions of what it is to be an ordinary New Zealander — pragmatic, resourceful, gizmo-loving, unimaginative and often wrong, proudly monolingual and cultural, variously anti-women.

One of the text’s jokes is the shared recognition the reader/writer has about this. The sequencing of “The Brain of Katherine Mansfield” makes you either begin it all again after sundry kinds of wipeout or finish in order to start over as a pubescent fascist. But the shared field of reference, the expectation that the reader will recognise and understand the object of parody, also reinstals it. This is what New Zealanders are like: white, male and pleased that the brain of Katherine Mansfield has turned out to be a black jellybean.

In “Some Questions I am Frequently Asked” an anonymous questioner (Q) interviews an anonymous author — or answerer — (A) who is also by inference called Mr Austen. The text is full of slynesses which reflect in two directions — one towards who the author might eventually be and the other on the reader whose knowledge of the various discourses and other texts peeping out here might lead him (?) to a kind of joky challenge of one of the originating texts of deconstructive literary theory, Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author. The question the story makes the reader ask, frequently, is, Who is “I” ? When the interview begins Q enters A’s study through the back of a wardrobe. The interview is peppered with bits of A’s work, jokes, puns and missing characters, so that you, like Q, are always having to ask where one text stops and another begins. This is all familiarly postmodern.

There’s also quite a lot of play with the notion of being a New Zealand writer, including A’s response to Q’s question, “Would you like to be Maori?” A: “Pardon?” The joke beyond the joke here is that a hapless interviewer did once assume Bill Manhire was a Maori name (Man-here-ay), so for those even further in the know there is a deeper point of reference which reinstates the author, or at least some of his biography, in his text.

One of the irritating things about postmodernist writing of a more overtly referential kind can be that it creates a kind of elite readership (this is indeed one of its inheritances from modernism) which has access, for one reason or another, to the sometimes esoteric but always broad range of reference it uses to layer and expand the text. Manhire’s texts always have a cultural reference — New Zealand — which is very broadly suggested; lots of reference points are to do with how New Zealanders talk, the historical events we all know about (Tangiwai, Scott, the Queen’s visit in 1954), quirky bits of local urban geography, rising inflections, tag endings and the kind of thing we can all be counted on to have learned at school — Fairburn, Brasch and Shakespeare.

But the other persistently present reference point is the author, traces or versions of whom are constantly present. Lots of the stories have poets as their target. “The Poet’s Wife”, where the poet says excruciatingly cringey things (“you are my best poem”) and is a poseur, a drip and a shit; “The Moon At The End of the Century”, where the poets are too stupid to know about moonlight, silly and pretentious; Songs of My Life, punctuated by (comically?) bathetic songs written by someone whose job it is to write the songs of “my” life; or, in propria persona, “Wings of Gold”, a biofiction about Mr Bill’s visit to Kuala Lumpur for the World Poetry Reading.

There’s a sort of double bind going on here. On the one hand you are asked to acknowledge the presence of poets, a poet, in this fiction and in New Zealand culture, postmodernly transformed and shifting as he or they might be, and at the same time you are invited to ridicule poets, to see them as not really serious or important. But doesn’t this separate out the poet behind the poet who, in an act of personal and cultural selfknowledge, gestures towards the place of poets and sketches their kind while distinguishing himself from it?

I feel as though I’m always on the trail of the author in these stories but only catching up with the shadow he throws, while being made aware that it is a shadow, that some more real and serious present (and presence) is shaking the puzzle up. In Songs of My Life (and doesn’t this title become resonant?) you are always relentlessly returned to the artefact, the game, the text, the adventure story, the fiction — have a look at the last lines of many of the stories — as if writing must not allow itself to make connections back into a world where our actions have permanent consequences and ironic retellings of master stories might transform something. Manhire’s stories are always beautifully self-contained and wittily reflective and they don’t fill you with despair but with the pleasure of the text and the cleverness of the author. But doesn’t this mean they remain sidelong?

The story I like most in Songs of My Life is “Wings of Gold”, the story about the World Poetry Reading — perhaps because it is centred on a biographical event and the author-function, as Foucault would have it, is acknowledged and not shadowed. Manhire’s characteristic ironic tone (according to Linda Hutcheon, irony has a “governing role” in postmodernism) is flattened into a dry reportage: “Mr Bill” and his flat voice — not quite short of irony — are the window through which we see the World Poetry Reading and Malaysia (according to him a culture without irony but maybe this is something the monolingual western poet doesn’t have access to?).

“Wings of Gold” doesn’t — overtly — play games. Like the moon it reflects, within the frame of Mr Bill it is true. But there’s nothing tricky about this, or nothing trickier than texts and authors and readers always have been, and it does allow fairly direct access to Mr Bill and what you might make of him, as well as a pretty good view of what it might have been like, there at the World Poetry Reading. Something has transpired.

And while I found myself in admiration of Manhire’s writing, I was aware it was for slightly different reasons. Not the clever circularity or the chains of allusiveness or the parodic mixing which I think of as characteristic of his work, but his ear for the inflections of what people say who are talking in English as a second language (did he take notes?), the deeply familiar — to me — experience of being a foreigner in a culture which could never be yours, the touchingly tentative friendships and temporary relationships among the poets, his own sudden and engagingly foolish burst into defiant nationalism — all these things seemed to return me as reader to a recognition of the postmodern condition and not just an acknowledgement of its artefacts. Mr Bill of “Wings of Gold” reminded me of Frank Bascombe, the disingenuous, disaffected, dysfunctional (these are all postmodern words, the “negativised rhetoric of postmodernism”) hero of Richard Ford’s Independence Day, who, as he bumbles and errs his complicated, over-aware, ironic and cynical way through the Fourth of July, is not unlike a self-referential ironic Kiwi writer swept through Malaysia in the very international and heterogenous company of world poets.

One of the characterising features of postmodernism has been described as the presence of the past, a phrase first used about architecture to describe its ironic and critical dialogue with architectural forms. I think the condition of postmodernity as we live it in the world is also marked by the irruption and usually disruption of the presence of the past, especially politically. We have to deal with current events, history in the making, and the changes they effect on our present, our global civilisation and consciousness of what that might be, our societies, wealth and power structures, and we also have to deal with the commercialisation and trivialisation of horror: a postmodern disjunction between events and our understanding of them.

Thirty-five people are shot at close range at a tourist attraction in Tasmania and the only glimpse of an explanation offered by Martin Bryant is that a lot of bad things happened at Port Arthur. A Hutu baby is filmed stirring to look at the camera beside her mother’s murdered body. These are the grotesque versions of postmodern mixes, of collapsed boundaries, of the disjunctive combinations that litter postmodern texts. These kinds of events and their consequences seem very distant from the stories in Songs of My Life. Manhire’s work is not confrontational and the political dimensions of the postmodern age don’t surface in his work.

Of course, this is to imply criticism of something he is not trying to do. But I offer it as an explanation of both why his work is so consistently praised and why it doesn’t feel as though its in the mainstream. Songs of My Life is not disturbing. It offers you a kind of membership of the postmodern readers club that requires expertise but isn’t too difficult. The games Manhire’s stories play are played beautifully; I admire their cleverness and elegance; but I also wonder what it has to say to me about the darker side of the postmodern age I live in.


Lydia Wevers is writing a book on landscape and cultural history. 

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Posted in Literature, Review, Short stories
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