Fleeting glimpses, Ian Richards

The Peacocks
Barbara Anderson
Victoria University Press $29.95
ISBN 0 86473 333 X

An early graduate of Bill Manhire’s writing course, Barbara Anderson has risen in New Zealand literature in a fashion that has been as meteoric as it is well resewed. Nine years ago she published her first collection of short stories, I think we should go into the jungle, and since then she has produced five novels. Each book has been a popular as well as a literary success, and Anderson has joined that elite of New Zealand authors whose books are regularly published in editions overseas – an important accomplishment since the home market is so small. Readers of, say, the Times Literary Supplement are as likely to find a review in praise of an Anderson novel as they are articles about the latest Amis or Updike. This is a recent advance for New Zealand novelists, and it is likely to have some considerable impact on New Zealand fiction.

But what about short stories? Their market in New Zealand, and overseas, is dire. Thus Victoria University Press deserves praise for publishing The Peacocks, Anderson’s second collection of short fiction. It is a handsomely produced volume. And short stories do matter, despite the likelihood of their going the way of poetry to become a form that everyone writes and nobody reads. As New Zealand’s first established prose form, short fiction can lay claim to being the most advanced. Standards are high. Just as her first collection established her as a writer, so the best of this new volume will maintain Anderson’s status at the front rank.

The best, that is, because The Peacocks is a startlingly uneven collection. It appears to be the result of eight years’ worth of spare-time writing, fitted in between working on novels. Anderson begins the collection with an author’s note in which she makes a case for the essential difference between novel and short-story writing. Placing herself firmly in the Mansfield-Modernist camp she insists that, for her, “short stories may have virtually no plot”. Remarkably, most of the short stories and writers represented in, for example, Manhire’s Six by Six anthology of local short fiction appear to support her argument. Anderson quite rightly acknowledges that the variety of short stories is infinite. But, in New Zealand, mainstream short fiction seems to be small-scale, poetic, and from what Anderson labels the “fleeting-glimpse school”.

Anderson’s note mentions Raymond Carver, and his short, poetic monologues appear to have had great influence over the first two stories in Anderson’s collection: “The Westerly” and “We Could Celebrate”. They are also two of the strongest stories in the book. Despite Carver’s current éclat, this is a type of writing that Frank Sargeson would instantly recognise. Although it never hurts to have a movie made of your work, Carver’s success may lie partly in a readership which has grown tired of encounters with stories about stories and has renewed its interest in character and situation. Certainly Anderson’s skill at describing the minutiae of relationships underpins much of the success of her writing in both short and long fiction. All of the stories in The Peacocks are about changes in the relationships between characters.

In “The Westerly” Hilary, a motel-owner, observes a couple as they stay in one of her units and understands that the woman is trapped in an abusive relationship. But when the woman approaches Hilary to ask if she can stay on at the Hils’ Haven Motel, any chance of sanctuary is denied her, because Hilary’s own sense of haven is too fragile to allow it. The story works well, and Anderson’s construction of Hilary’s narrating voice never falters. “We Could Celebrate”, which describes the breakdown of the relationship between Cliff, a painter, and Carmen, his lover-model, is not quite so successful. Cliff and Carmen part because Cliff finally becomes more absorbed in his art than in his model’s life, even though they have gone together to a restaurant to celebrate Cliff’s upcoming exhibition. But alternating the narrative voice between the two main characters seems somehow to make each voice less convincing. Also the climactic moment, when a bunch of aggressive goons enter the restaurant, creates a problem of plausibility. It is hard to believe that, when confronted, such drunken yobbos would not relish the chance of a fight.

The two other notable stories in the collection are “I Thought There’d Be a Couch” and “The Grateful Dead”. The former, a story about the elusive nature of happiness, compares a young, yuppie-ish psychiatrist, Dr Celia Crowe, with her ageing, depressed patient, Mr Huxtable. Celia’s life seems perfect and, unlike Mr Huxtable’s, it seems important. She has little time or sympathy for the vague troubles of an elderly man. For Celia, people are simply problems to be dealt with, often by prescription medicines, but then she has not yet learned that her partner and best friend are having an affair. The story’s use of point-of-view is deft, and it ends with the arresting image of a child propping a bicycle against a plate-glass window. “The Grateful Dead” is a simpler, comic tale which also tells the story of an affair, this time between a child’s mother and a family friend. It follows expertly the non-sequiturs of a child’s talk, and the story would probably read well aloud to an audience. Of the remaining stories, “Living On the Beach” and “Glorious Things” seem rather predictable, like academy paintings, and “Balance” and “The Peacocks” are too slight to be worthy of mention. But all of these are well written, if a little too much like the many similar stories by other writers which portray sad and lonely lives.

Small-scale, poetic, fleeting glimpses: it is a very limiting conception of how short stories should be. Australians seem to like a fiction that is the direct opposite of this, which may explain our lack of literary connection with our near-neighbours. In any event, there are pros and cons to having a national body of short fiction which is made up of sparrows rather than kookaburras. Sparrow stories market well overseas, because they are not overly parochial, they are concerned more with universal human relationships than with laying bare and analysing the specifics of a society. The disadvantage is that sparrow stories can easily become stylised, to be churned out by imitators whose fleeting-glimpse writing is little more than decorative. New Zealand short story competitions now attract thousands of entries, with most entrants writing more or less the same stories, more or less well. Despite its title, The Peacocks consists of sparrow stories, some of them of the very highest quality, but written in a genre whose outlook is not good. As any economist will attest, nothing devalues a product like a glut of mass-produced, reasonable-quality models on the market. This is a pity, because The Peacocks deserves an audience in New Zealand – and because if short stories are devalued now, novels may one day follow.

Ian Richards is the author of To bed at noon: the life and art of Maurice Duggan, reviewed by Owen Marshall in this issue.

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