Checking out Gen X, Sarah Quigley

The NeXt Wave
Mark Pirie (ed)
University of Otago Press
IBSN 1877133 44 2

At the Wearable Arts Awards in Nelson this year, there was a lot of congratulatory talk about how far New Zealand has come in the artistic expression stakes. And deservedly so. We are stamping our mark on the international scene not just in design and the visual arts, but also in literature, music, and film. Our artistic achievements have finally caught up with our sporting prowess: we have our own voice, our own look, our own history at our backs. The Pacific Rim identity has been established, and is here to stay.

But our loud assertions are in themselves a manifestation of continued insecurity. We may claim that our café society has the sophistication of Paris, our Montana Awards the prestige of Pulitzers. Yet we remain a small nation which is still, at times, painfully conscious of a need for identity. And as such, our society is both less diverse and more self-conscious than is perhaps ideal for artistic development. We welcome innovation yet are sharply critical of it. We race to embrace the new and the avant-garde, yet equally quickly become disenchanted and devalue what we have only just promoted. In other words, our cultural movements are short-lived and, almost before they have formed, the backlash has arrived.

Such reactions are nothing unusual; they have formed the shape of New Zealand’s literary history. The Georgians were dismissed as precious by the writers of the 1930s, who were in turn pilloried for being male middle-class Eurocentrics. The feminist writers of the 1970s are now pronounced obvious, the writers of the 1980s conservative realists. And so on. Movements and counter-movements – they’re not only inevitable, they’re necessary for growth. But the rapidity with which they occur in this country (emphasised by the smallness of our population) is in danger of becoming destructive rather than constructive. And so it is in the case of that recent phenomenon Generation X.

The reaction to this supposed new generation illustrates as clearly as any New Zealand’s tendency towards swift acclaim and swifter denouncement. In the space of a few years, Gen X writers have been identified, promoted, and slammed as a gravy train for publishers and a band-wagon for the media. Mark Pirie’s anthology The NeXt Wave has appeared at the right time. It proceeds not only to define and demystify this group of young writers but also to present some of their best work and let it speak for itself.

A twenty-something graduate of Victoria, Pirie himself can be classified as an X-er. In his comprehensive introduction to the anthology, he defines himself and his peers in terms of age and cultural influences: a generation born between the 1960s and mid-1970s, brought up in an age of technology and TV, sharing general systems of belief. Interestingly, Pirie’s definition focuses as much on what his generation isn’t as what it is. He tends to see Generation X writing as the result of a series of anti-establishment reactions – the rejection of organised religion, a move away from conscious political correctness, a dislike of elitist postmodern theory. The balanced, almost cautious tone he adopts in his preface in a way pre-empts the ambivalent undertone which characterises the whole anthology. At the same time as promoting the Gen X label, he also undercuts it. He always places the term in inverted commas, and states more than once that this is no definitive collection but simply a selection of “recent young writing in Aotearoa-New Zealand”.

He presents us with 33 writers, working in both poetry and prose. Some, such as Tina Shaw, Laura Solomon, Emily Perkins and Robert Sullivan, are already well-established in the field of New Zealand literature. There are also newer and no less striking writers who have not published books but whose writing has appeared in literary magazines such as JAAM, Takahe, and Sport. Pirie has ranged widely in his search for material, and his list of contributors at the back of the book testifies to his belief that modern writing transcends the boundaries of genre. Some contributors are better known in areas other straight literature: there is work from singer and songwriter Andrew Fagan, from rap artist Dean Hapeta, from actor-playwrights Lynda Chanwai Earle and Jo Randerson.

Despite the variety of styles and material, there are certain trends which underpin the anthology like struts. Pirie’s introduction is helpful in pointing the way to these, and his suggestions are enforced time and again by the work itself. In a way, the words of these Gen X-ers define their writers more clearly than any considered discussion. Their description of themselves is usually voiced in a wry tone and is often deliberately contradictory, as in James Brown’s “In Point of Fact”:

I am always right.
Nirvana is
riding elevators
called Otis …

I am always wrong.
I surprise myself
by not being hurt.
When I was young
I got the jug cord.
Everything bores me.

A similar self-awareness is also displayed in such work as Grayson Cooke’s excellent story “Can I Play With Your Janet Frame?” His narrator is bored and worldly-wise, talks in desultory half-sentences, but still recognises and achieves truths. Asked if there is a “language of shit”, he answers:

Yeah, it happens around you every day. Idle conversation, cereal-box philosophy, black and white short-films with jump-cuts and girls in leopard-skin jackets. We’re doing it right now. We’re recycling. We are the mouths of the world. Without us the world would stay silent, some empty-faced mute stuck halfway between vomiting and swallowing.

It is this casual nihilism which has drawn most criticism from the older “establishment” reviewers, who dismiss it as fashionable posing. These keepers of high culture, Pirie states, are reluctant to acknowledge any literary merit in “Gen X” writing. Certainly a cynical tone is of the moment, immediately marking such work as late-millennium literature. Yet a dip into this anthology emphasises that such work cannot be dismissed as empty, for it is as true a mirror as any contemporary writing of any time.

Cynicism, moreover, does not preclude humour – as demonstrated in Nick Ascroft’s witty poem “Saving the World from Sincerity”. He writes with tongue firmly in cheek, stating that our only hope is “a stance / Of red-blooded, fresh-aired facetiousness”. Much of the anthology’s prose is also laced with a quick irony. David Lyndon Brown’s “Cracking It”, a story about cross-dressers cruising the Auckland streets, displays a skilful blend of wry dry comedy which teeters on the edge of slapstick but never falls. On the whole, however, the laughter of Gen X tends to ricochet back on a reader rather than reassure: it is laughter not only against the characters but the world in general.

The subversive sense of humour in the writing of this anthology is often coupled with an objective tone. Jo Randerson, for example, in her prose piece “John and the King” employs the distancing device of fable. Although her theme is the insidious nature of evil, her tone is even and childlike: her projected country is a happy place where “you could even hold hands in the street without anyone laughing and pointing”. When a law against meanness is mooted, however, the result is a shot of cold hard reality and Randerson’s conclusion is voiced with a devastating simplicity:

the king made up the rule and everything and it was just getting ready to get signed when this funny little messenger from the country nearby said, no you cant make that rule up and everyone said, why? and the messenger said, because you cant get rid of meanness. it is everywhere and it is half of what makes the world go around.
this made people very sad.
one man called john tried to kill himself.

In this case, as in many others, a deadpan tone and an unadorned style mask an implicit sadness. Jeanne Bernhardt’s story “The Sight” deals with the bleak subject of sexual abuse by holding it at arm’s length. Structured and controlled by repetition, narrated in an unemotional tone, the story is nonetheless achingly moving. There is a similar paradoxical blend of emotion and objectivity in many of the NeXt Wave‘s love poems. Some, like Andrew Fagan’s “Instasex”, are more like anti-love poems:

Just add alcohol
paw vigorously for five minutes
then molest.
(Better with lights on).

or Mark Pirie’s own “Big Screen Love”:

When the director
calls, “Action!”
I’m going to grab you
and fuck your brains out …

Yet in its very subject matter, Get X Writing is revealed to be less of a negation and more a continuation. Central preoccupations will be familiar to any reader of any age: familial or sexual relationships, anger against society, a search for a persona1 or cultural identity. The work in this anthology simply represents a further stage of development – both stylistic and thematic – of a long-standing literary tradition. Pirie claims that literature needs to be taken out of the universities and put back on the street: in other words, to be made more accessible. Taking issue with “alienating and intellectually obscure high Modernist” poetry (and citing CK Stead, Ian Wedde, Michele Leggott, Alan Brunton and others), he suggests such an elitist stance has discouraged the growth of poetry in this country. In fact, some of his selections require as much work on the part of a reader as the Establishment writing he disparages. The rap rhythms of Dean Hapeta, for example, although hard-hitting even in this form, may have been better to remain in performance than being reproduced in print:

Communication relatin’ statin’ yo this ain’t no fakin’
It’s truly communication we’re makin’
Ain’t talkin’ no shit so quit thinkin’ nothin’
Get on up in ya mind and stay thinkin’

Such writing may well prove as inaccessible to the general reader as “the clever word-play” dismissed by Pirie as interesting only the academic critic. It is impossible to deny that even this anthology will find its main readership amongst the university-educated and middle-class conservatives whom its editor denounces. Furthermore, the majority of his contributors- including himself – have tertiary degrees, several others have held writer-in-residence positions in tertiary institutions, or are university lecturers. There is nothing at all wrong with this: it is just that occasionally Pirie’s strongly voiced protestations are undermined by the selection of work which follows.

Yet there is a boldness and diversity about this collection which makes it both necessary and compelling reading. Unusual typesetting (Randerson’s dagger piece enclosed in a box, Scott Kendrick’s “The Lambton Shuffle” snaking down the page in two curvy columns) is indicative of an open-mindedness which is refreshing, and sorely needed in a literary culture of this size. In his Janet Frame story, Grayson Cooke satirises our tendency to “celebrate every banal facet of New Zealand life”, and it is undeniable that New Zealanders are all too good at navel-gazing. This anthology is evidence of a new willingness to accept innovation on all levels: thematic, stylistic, attitudinal.

Thankfully, the obsession with global isolation and cultural narcissism is now no longer an issue. The settings of these pieces are both New Zealand and elsewhere. Ingrid Horrocks’ quirky story “The Missionary Position” takes place in Japan, Perkins’ charade’s in “Let’s Go” roam through Prague. So at ease with travel is this new generation of writers that separation from family or partners – though lamented – is accepted almost as the norm. The voice of talented poet Kapka Kassabova is perhaps most striking when it comes to issues of alienation. In her “Ghosts on the Phone” there are a “hundred thousand miles” and “six hundred and fifty-two days / of silence” lying between narrator and lover. If there is such a thing as typical Gen X writing, the song of solitude and of distance is a recurrent theme:

they were two of a kind and now
they live elsewhere
from each other
or just elsewhere …
on both sides of a forgotten country
they call there but never
by its real name, never home
never Home, they don’t know why

This poem, similar in its elegiac tone and theme to earlier New Zealand writers such as Ursula Bethell, underlines the sense of a continued tradition of restlessness. A glance at the contributors’ list confirms that we have remained a nation of exiles and travellers. Now, however, writers are not only from England but from Bulgaria, Samoa, Niue, Hong Kong. And there is more than resignation in the voice of these 1990s writers: there is a new acceptance of distance and a belief in a shrinking world which is truly modern.

Is Generation X a new departure, then, or the continuation of something older? On the whole it seems to have been hailed too much as the former – an isolated phenomenon – when it is really the next inevitable swing of a cultural pendulum. To realistically place such writing in context, and to select a truly representative body of work, is a huge task riddled with cultural minefields; Pirie has tackled it with assurance and intelligence, and his book looks set to join the landmark anthologies of our national literature. In fact, this could well be the anthology of the 1990s. The next step will be an even more challenging one: for New Zealand to start looking beyond its current obsession with labels, and see future writing for what it is rather than what it represents.

Sarah Quigley’s short story collection having words with you was published earlier this year.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Poetry, Review
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