David Ling, $24.95,
Four Ways to be a Woman
Black Swan, $24.95,
Denis Baker’s first collection of short stories and Sue Reidy’s second novel both examine the roles into which gender locks us at the turn of the millennium. And the future is not looking good, with the sexes staring, uncomprehending, at each other.
Baker’s stories focus principally on 30-something guys, drifting from failed relationships and striving to establish connections with father, friends, women even. But ultimately the search is for their own centre and a place in which they are at home. They are not men alone in the classic Mulgan tradition. The settings are urban, and they are city slickers even when they go bush. They do not live in solitary confinement, but terrible loneliness and a sense of alienation infuse even the most comic stories.
The narrator of the first story, “Access”, suffers insidious sadness coupled with guilt. The past is not another country, but surrounds him and fills his dreams. He lives alone, in a small, shabby room, in a state of enervating depression. His son is the centre of his life and the cause of his malaise, maimed by an accident that should not have happened. It is beautifully constructed, moving from internal monologue to a trip to Orakei Wharf where the hooking of a fish, which should have been a joyous climax, serves only to recall horror and guilt. The imagery of butchered and gutted fish repeats and extends the horror that ruptured the lives of father and son. It is an intensely satisfying, appallingly sad and humane story.
“Neither Sane Nor Merely Dedicated” is another story exploring the father/son relationship, but from the point of view of the son striving to reach his withdrawn father. Again there is a fishing motif: the father sits with a rod and line trailing from his suburban verandah. It is a retreat of desperation, “the ultimate act of removal”. Again, the narrator is divorced, with one child – a son. And again he is surrounded by the past, the life without substance that he has lived since his childhood. In realising that he has reached the future he spent so many years fleeing, he finds acceptance and love. The story has an elegiac tone in its evocation of the father’s fight against the impossible, small odds of his life, but ends on a note of carefully guarded optimism, or at least a sense of continuity, as the narrator hears his own son calling. Chilly imagery and spare prose frost the tale of an unfulfilled life.
“Getting Away From It All” is a micro-mini-saga of getting the big ones – fish, of course. The tone is casual and matter-of-fact, that of a man too busy with a nine-to-five job and DIY duties to spend time on the frills of fine writing. Iron men for a day that tests their friendship to the limit, Phil and his mate take off to fish in Taupo. Their mutual incompetence – “About as much threat to the trout as a weta in a wheelchair” – almost leads to disaster. Gently mocking mateship and boys going bush, it is a comic gem.
Baker is better with men than with women, who are pushed to the sidelines as mother, ex-wife, waitress or unknowable girlfriend. The fish-free stories in which they appear tend to be less successful, as if their presence causes the writer to falter, unsure of his ground. Marita in “Brilliant”, an Auckland comedy of manners, is a case in point. Impossibly beautiful, she is the arch-bitch, selfish, superficial and snobbish. And she is a prize trophy for Richard, a mere photographer’s assistant. Though there are some great lines like “Jesus, Marita. Talent isn’t sexually transmitted, you know”, Baker seems less at ease with the smart satiric style than with the more psychologically penetrating and poignant stories in which he excels.
Does it say something about New Zealand society that men and women seem to find it impossible to write convincingly about each other? Where Baker’s women are bitches or bores, the men in Sue Reidy’s Four Ways to be a Woman are a sorry lot. Colourless and basically well-meaning, there is not even a real bastard to spice up the women’s lives. Well, there is, but he wears a Gaultier frock. Not that he is a transvestite, just a fashion victim with tacky, dated taste. Otherwise Reidy’s men are conspicuously lacking in vitality, wit or charm, apart from a cocksure, ageing Romeo whose retribution is an untimely death. A good man is surely hard to find.
There is a Catholic ex-priest, a nice man, though his fashion sense has been ruined after years in a cassock. He is a great cook, yearns to be a dad and is quite amazingly tolerant of Agnes whose conversation tends to the bluntly interrogatory. Or perhaps it is Reidy’s method of not very subtly conveying vital information. Whatever, it is intensely irritating. Matthew, Bridget’s husband, is a solidly reliable lawyer with classic good looks – in other words, a bore. And Clare’s partner, Adrian, is a successful architect with superb taste and zilch personality. Athena has given up the quest for a male lover and thinks a woman might be a better bet.
The female characters are carefully differentiated but curiously bland, failing to make the leap from page to life. Friends since their convent days, they live in Auckland’s smarter suburbs and, approaching 40, their biological clocks are ticking loudly. Only Agnes, a stylish and hedonistic photographer with a taste for young blokes, resists the maternal urge. But instead she makes out with the ex-priest – and he wants to fill the nest with fledglings. Life is hell, but they find a very modern way out of their dilemma. Athena should stand as a warning to them all. She has produced a daughter, Jewel, who is arrogant, rude and contemptuous of her long-suffering mother. But who can blame her? For her mother is a New Age cliché, of marshmallow brain and elastic will. Fortunately, however, Rita, Athena’s successful journalist lover, proves to be a better man than any and whips her into line.
Clare is fabulously successful in public relations and lives in luxury in Epsom with Adrian, who, having suffered the perils of parenthood, is in no hurry to try again. She knows there is something missing from her life, the patter of tiny footsteps to be exact. What is she to do? (The penultimate chapter tells all.) Bridget is happily married to the boring lawyer and a successful artist, too, but a baby is the acme of her hopes. Then breast cancer hits and survival becomes her imperative. This is all very sad and good, but with the details of her illness and treatment the book begins to read like a manual for dealing with cancer, well-intentioned but tedious.
It is difficult to believe in any of Reidy’s characters, so schematic is their place in the novel. The writer appears to have taken four contrasting types, shaken them about but failed to stir them into vitality. They are, anyway, so appallingly self-absorbed and lacking in irony or wit that they do not deserve the kiss of life.
Susan Budd is an Auckland reviewer.