Our very own (belated) brat-pack, Stephanie Johnson

The Picnic Virgin New Writers Chosen by Emily Perkins
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 86473 368 2

Without exception, the stories in this slim volume are lively, energetic narratives peopled with sharply drawn, vivid characters. This is the strength of the collection as a whole, though it is compromised by the sameness of many of the voices. There is a certain monochrome tone of self-consciousness that sometimes verges on peevish neuroticism.

By its very nature and form, the short story lends itself to the examination of a single perspective and most of these stories conform to that stricture entirely. Here we have, for the most part, the examined life of the extremely self-aware, well-travelled and comfortably well-off twenty- and thirty-somethings. Rarely do the stories take a political standpoint. If they do, the narrative returns sooner or later to a narrower, personal dilemma.

Virginia Fenton’s “Graffiti” is a case in point. This is a skilfully told piece, written in the third person and shifting from the past to the present and back to the past again. The main character is a small boy, the child of an anti-Springbok Tour protester. In flashback its theme is the faith of a child in the omnipotence of his mother. In the contemporary story the child has grown to a man frustrated with his gentleness and lack of drive. “Graffiti” flirts with the broader picture, but returns to the microcosm of one individual’s foibles.

Tim Corballis’s “A New Journalism” is possibly the most political in the collection. He is precise not only in his evocation of the confusion of late 20th century environmental activists, but also in the scrambling of the mind after one or two strong joints. His voice, which seemed to me to have a lot in common with editor Emily Perkins herself, is contemporary, world-weary and wry.

There are some famous names here: Catherine Chidgey, Sarah Quigley, Duncan Sarkies and David Geary. William Brandt and Kate Camp are also included, who between them carried off the prizes for Best First Book at the recent Montana Awards. There is also a wonderfully amusing story by the famous ex-Shortland Street actor Michael Galvin. It is a painfully honest investigation of ego and ambition, and perhaps because Michael is one of the older contributors, the story has a maturity and warmth that some of the others lack. Chidgey’s “The Real Valerie” has the same quality, as does playwright Geary’s “Brand Loyalty”. His central character is possibly the most neurotic of all, but a marvellous, self-effacing irony underpins the sexual and consumerist dilemmas of his hero. Here he muses on giving up smoking:

But I’d be stupid to say I could give them up because I’ve tried so many times. I’d just be another fool at a party, talking about yoga, and asking to borrow a rollie, then sneaking into the toilet for a puff of Ventolin, while the others are out the back smoking dope.

Sarah Quigley’s “Transportation” concerns itself with two couples, four urban sophisticates who eat Edam and drink vodka. The story is funny and barbed, but the unattractive central personality reaches such a nadir of self-pity and hypocrisy that the reader is unconcerned about her eventual fate.

Of all the stories in the collection, only “The Real Valerie” and Eirlys Hunter’s “The Cadwallader Papers” take an historical context. Chidgey’s multi-layered, confident story evokes the lower middle-class, suburban New Zealand of the 1960s, while Hunter’s is a sly, clever exploration of a 19th century theatrical entrepreneur’s journey to Invercargill.

In her introduction Perkins writes that all the stories have a “sense of play: a humour … that allows the language and the structure and the subject matter of their fiction to be treated with confidence and freedom.” For the most part, this generous editorial statement is absolutely correct. There are only two stories that flounder and pale beside the others; one that is utterly unreadable; and several that shine brightly. I look forward to more prose from Geary, to Lee Maxwell’s novel The Emerald Budgie and anything by Anna Jackson, William Brandt and Eirlys Hunter.

“At the end of the twentieth century here comes the future” is the legend Victoria University Press has bravely emblazoned across the back of the book’s cover. Perhaps we have gathered here representatives of our very own brat-pack, which, characteristically, has arrived in New Zealand a generation after it arrived in New York: there are occasional and sometimes unsuccessful nods towards post-modernism; the distinctive brat-packish use of the second person; and a recurring obsession with the self-image and ego.

Stephanie Johnson’s novel The Whistler was shortlisted in this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Short stories
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