Displacements and disorientations, Tessa Barringer

Penguin 25: New Fiction
Graham Beattie and Stephanie Johnson (eds)
Penguin Books, $29.95
ISBN 0 14 027502 9

Another 100 NZ Short Short Stories
Graeme Lay (ed)
Tandem Press, $24.95
ISBN 1 877178 26 8

Sex & the Single Mayfly
Isa Moynihan
Reed Books, $19.95
ISBN 0 7900 0560 3

It has become something of a commonplace to remark on the long-standing preference New Zealand writers have shown for the short story. Because the genre lends itself so obviously to the ephemeral publishing forum of local periodicals and magazines, and thus commands a specifically local readership, it has in the past allowed writers to develop a strong sense of national and literary identity. Now, in the late 90s, the genre’s brevity and flexibility make it equally well suited to the exploration of the displacements and disorientations that are so much a part of any contemporary subjectivity. Given the well-documented relationship between the short story and national identity in New Zealand’s literary history, any anthology that promises a cross-section of new work also suggests an opportunity to look at ourselves, to see the state of the nation as reflected in the state of its art.

2

Penguin 25: New Fiction appears at first glance to offer just such an opportunity. It is an anthology of 25 previously unpublished New Zealand short stories, commissioned by Penguin to mark 25 years in New Zealand. Its “new fiction” designation invites certain expectations, not only of new writers and new stories but also of a “newness” that will challenge or at the very least unsettle the literary Establishment. The best of the stories in the collection do fulfil those expectations, and it is worth noting that these stories are all written by relative newcomers to the literary scene. The most striking, for me, was Briar Grace-Smith’s “Rongomai does Dallas”. This powerful piece vividly evokes the confusion and complexity of life in a post-modern post-colonial world while still remaining firmly grounded in a distinctively New Zealand reality. The ease with which Grace-Smith achieves this is both admirable and enviable. Also memorable is Jane England’s historical story, “A Perfect State of Nudity”, which is made up almost entirely of the dialogue that takes place in an interview between a newspaper editor and a woman who has recently been rescued after having been shipwrecked in New Zealand and taken prisoner by Maori. The editor can barely contain his fascination with hearsay reports that she was “kept in a state of perfect nudity” during her captivity and, as the interview progresses, the reader is compelled to consider the way in which her story is being reconstructed in the light of his salaciousness and, by inference, that of the paper’s readers. The sparseness of the narrative and the subtlety with which it comments on the appetites of today’s media give the story a sharp contemporary edge.

However, despite the quality of many of the individual stories, Penguin 25 does not really live up to its claims to be the best of “new” fiction. There are few stories here that challenge the reader, and few that really question the literary status quo. Though I enjoyed, for example, Waiata Dawn Davies’ “The Bridge” and was amused by its self-reflexive comments on the state of New Zealand literature, it is very reminiscent of what John Barth described back in the late 60s as “the literature of exhaustion” and as such, though perhaps new to some, is hardly “new” in a wider literary context. Elizabeth Smither’s “Sand Crimes” and Marilyn Duckworth’s “The Last Laugh” are both very accomplished stories but though they may be previously unpublished and therefore new in one sense, they are not really “new” in another and seem instead like more of the same. The stories by Raewyn Alexander and Kirsten Warner, though slick and clever, are slightly fey and lack the strength and substance found, for example, in Emily Perkins’ collection, Not Her Real Name.

Overall therefore what this anthology offers is perversely less than the sum of its parts. The individual stories are all well written, and most are successful on their own terms, but their cumulative effect is oddly uninspiring. Though the disruptions of reality and meaning, the self-conscious textuality, genre-shifting and hybridity that characterise much contemporary writing are evident, their effect is muted. The diversity manifested in Penguin’s earlier anthology, Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories, published in 1989, is ironically not a distinguishing feature of this collection. Though the obscure extremes of post-modern fiction are not to everyone’s taste, and the self-obsessed voice of the “X Generation” may often seem more attitude than art, these two movements are unarguably part of what is new in our fiction and deserve better coverage than they are given here. Michael Morrissey observed in his introduction to The New Fiction (1985) that anthologies are important to give shape, status, and recognition to fresh developments in literature; this anthology does not fulfil that brief and so, sadly, appears as something of a wasted opportunity. Its diffident tone reinforces Lydia Wevers’ assessment that the size of New Zealand’s marketplace may well lead to “a dearth of really experimental writing” in this country.

3

Whereas I had high expectations of the Penguin offering, I expected much less of Graeme Lay’s Another 100 NZ Short Short Stories. I had not read the first collection and acknowledge being somewhat prejudiced, not only by some rather scathing reviews but also by the perception of the collection as having commercial rather than literary merit. I was however pleasantly surprised. Though the stories are all, obviously, very short – none more than 500 words – the quality of the writing is on the whole not compromised and what the stories lack in depth they certainly make up for in variety.

Sure it’s not all high art and there are some stories that simply don’t work, some that rely too heavily on the twist in the tail, a few that are too cryptic, and some that are no more than anecdotes; but all are short, so when they don’t appeal, at least their flavour doesn’t linger long. And the ones that are good truly are little gems. Finely polished and honed, they beg to be read again and again. John McCrystal’s “Life &Times”, which opens the collection, is one of the best. It is a poignant account of a relationship charted in the pattern of its love-making. Beautifully written, the story moves lightly from self-deprecating humour to a tender lyricism. It shows the productive limits of this short short genre at its best, wedding an easy prose narrative with the evocative power and compression of poetry.

Though lighter in tone and significantly less substantial than Penguin 25, this anthology is in many ways a more enjoyable and satisfying read. It encourages participation, invites innovation, and offers the opportunity of publication to a wide range of writers, both aspiring and established. In this felicitous combination of the literary and commercial, Another 100 NZ Short Short Stories looks set to be as successful as its predecessor, if not more so.

4

After the eclectic and somewhat fragmenting experience of reading two anthologies back to back, it was a relief to settle into a collection that was the work of just one writer. Isa Moynihan’s Sex & the Single Mayfly won the Reed Fiction Award in 1996 and is a richly diverse collection made up of ten self-contained stories followed by a sequence of ten linked pieces which tell the story of Lanny, a young girl growing up against the constraints of small town life in Ireland. This growing-up theme pervades a number of the stories and is given a firmly feminist slant as they reflect on the price of social compliance for women.

In “Breakthrough”, a story that is very reminiscent of Frame’s Scented Gardens for the Blind, we meet Elaine, a child closed in the silence of autism. The first breakthrough comes with a trip to Sea World when Elaine’s affinity with the underwater world stimulates her to begin drawing. Her parents are overjoyed and daily look for further signs of improvement. However, when Elaine’s behaviour suddenly becomes violent, the Doctor decides to prescribe a new drug regime. The resulting breakthrough, which sees Elaine beginning to make primitive attempts at communication, has an unlooked for side-effect – her artistic ability is gone.

“Morphing” is another story of transformation which follows a young girl out shopping on her father’s credit card. Her mother has recently died and she must now handle the transition to adolescence alone. She dutifully purchases the required gingham school uniform but then rebels and buys what she wants. When she meets her father later in a coffee bar, he has been drinking and does not at first recognise her in her new clothes. The look in his eye as he approaches, signals an interest that disturbs and frightens them both. Less subtle is “A Case of Display” in which a young wife begins, through her women’s support group and poetry appreciation classes, to question some of the feminine practices of display which package women for male consumption. This is an amusing, well-written story but is a little too obviously driven by its feminist agenda.

“True breeding: a fable” is a much more ambitious piece in which Moynihan extrapolates a bizarre dystopian vision of the future. The story is set in a world of women who, three generations back, separated themselves from men and settled on another planet. The order of their world is occasionally disturbed by questioners who, like the narrator of this story, challenge the status quo. Such women are sent back to the men. The sexual politics of the story become ambiguous when the narrator, on arrival and with high ceremony, is publicly mated first with one fine young man and then with a whole string of them, one after the other. She somewhat wryly welcomes her fate, seeing herself as the true Eve – not some slender nymphet in a loin cloth but a primordial mother with great hanging breasts and distended belly – the founder of a new race of men. The essentialism implied here is disturbing and provocative, though not unqualified. The title story “Sex & the Single Mayfly” also takes sexuality as its subject but is much more subtle in its effect. Set in a research laboratory, the story is composed of oddly intense and lyrical soliloquies, made by the mayfly, which are juxtaposed with accounts of the sexual behaviour of the laboratory staff observing them. The tension between these two voices enhances the satire but also lends a strange poignancy to both narratives, especially when, at the end, a single mayfly, confused by all the artificial lights, returns alone to the laboratory and is thus prevented from fulfilling her biological destiny.

The Lanny sequence, which concludes the collection, is made up of a series of self-contained but closely linked fragments. Some are strongly narrative while others are more lyrical and impressionistic. One of the most powerful of these is the opening piece, “Death of a Maiden”, in which three-year-old Lanny, at the beach with her grandmother, witnesses a young woman being pulled dead from the sea. Her distress is subtly interwoven with her confusion from the night before when her mother, miscarrying, was rushed to hospital. “Women in Black” tells of Lanny’s first day at school. The strangeness and brutality of the world of children and the child’s sense of abandonment there are beautifully rendered. “The Amusements” tells of another more disturbing initiation on the cusp of adolescence and is counterbalanced by “Vestal Virgins” which tells of Lanny’s response to the quiet constraints of life in a convent boarding school. The cumulative effect of these fragments, and of the collection as a whole, is impressive. As I reached the last page, I couldn’t help wishing there was more.

Tessa Barringer lives in Dunedin where she teaches part-time and works as a freelance reader and editor.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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