Strangers in a strange land, Chris Else

A Spider-Web Season and The Transfer Station 
Russell Haley
Hazard Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1877161799

 

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold …” This line from Yeats is the epigraph to Russell Haley’s first book, The Walled Garden (1972). It suggests, at the very least, a preoccupation with meaning and coherence, a touch of metaphysical angst. Some nine books later, in his most recent work, Haley gives a dedication which prompts us to identify him with its main character. The closing lines of The Spider-Web Season have moved a long way from Yeats’s apocalyptic despair: “he believed he could have said without any qualms that he was happy.” There is a journey here, a path which might be worth retracing.

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The first point to note is that even at the beginning Haley resists the Yeatsian sense of doom. Although the ellipsis at the end of the epigraph evokes the second line of the couplet – “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” – the poems in The Walled Garden seek to avoid such disorder. The longest, a 10-page sequence, which gives the whole collection its title, tackles the problem head-on. How is coherence possible in a world without a centre? The walls of the garden provide a frame with which to begin. Within this enclosure, Haley creates a shifting flow of images and associations, the most persistent of which express both unity and contradiction: the lion and the unicorn, the notion of twins which are identical but distinct, the form of a statue and the rock from which it is made. The garden, which is at once a creation and a natural thing, is itself an image of the mind and of the process of writing. It is inescapable – “all traces lead to the walled garden” – and ever present – “As we move / the garden moves with us.” Instead of demanding that the world make sense or that literature make sense of it, we are offered a shifting triplet of relationships between the writer, the work, and the physical reality in which both are situated. Somewhere within this irreducible triangle lies the possibility of a satisfactory resolution.

At the end of the poem, however, the pessimism creeps back in. There is a downward movement as if what has gone before has been an illusion or a piece of self-deception:

The doors slam shut and lock
blood stems the throat like mud …
I can cross the garden in three paces
what is real are the walls
one turn of the spade reveals
wet paper under exhausted soil …

 

The other poems in the collection range widely over the themes and approaches which crop up again and again throughout Haley’s later writing: the childhood in Leeds, the blending of past and present, the characters with military uniforms and odd names, the fascination with arcana and curiosities, the method of associating and juxtaposing elements to create a non-rational flow of meaning. In the end, though, the book doesn’t quite work. Just as “The Walled Garden” itself fails to provide an answer, the collection overall lacks a sense of unity and the combination of personal reference and associative technique makes much of it seem unnecessarily esoteric, especially now to a New Century sensibility.

3

Haley’s second book, also poems, On the Fault Line (1977), arose from a trip to his native England during which he discovered both his commitment to New Zealand and his ambiguous relationship to it. This experience provided a new focus for his work. He gave up poetry for the short story, first with The Sauna Bath Mysteries (1978) and then with Real Illusions (1984), and began to explore what quickly became a central metaphor in his fiction:

As a migrant, living now in this part of the world, you have to stretch your skin between here and there. You have to get used to cries of “solipsism” from both critics and friends.

But you have no real country out there. It is all in here. So juxtaposition rather than “realistic” continuity becomes the way you re/present the world through language. There is no consistent edge or boundary to the real.

(Afterword to Real Illusions)

 

The shifting triangle between writer, work, and reality emerges now in a new form. It goes something like this. The migrant experiences a dislocation between self and other. He/she does not belong in the country he/she has chosen but he/she has rejected the place he/she comes from. The migrant is continually faced with the strangeness of the world about him/her and with the ambiguity of his/her relationship to it. In addition, the migrant’s identity, sense of self, is not grounded in his/her immediate surroundings. It is brought to the situation rather than arising from it. It is based, therefore, not in the present but in the past. Often, in the context of the inner, mental landscape, that past may seem more certain and more real than the world of immediate experience. In trying to interpret the immediate world and to come to terms with it, the migrant must rely on these inner resources in a way that makes all meaning an individual construction. He/she is stretched not only between here and there but between then and now. The results of this process are a kind of illusion, a balancing act, an achievement of meaning and coherence which is constantly under threat. Writing is one way of achieving this balance and the work created is both an image of the writer’s mind and a representation of the tension in which the migrant exists, a tension which is an instance of a more general human condition – the metaphysical uncertainty which Yeats fell prey to:

We are all composed of tenuous substance. Mother and father call to you through blood and genes but time stretches us in every way until we are a thin vibrating membrane. And how delicately then the mind is poised like a spider skimming over an elastic skin of water. How easy to collapse inwards with the pressure of an event or touch against others in affinity and merge.

(“Looping the Loop”, Real Illusions)

 

There is a range of tone and technique in Real Illusions but what dominates the book is a landscape – the bush and iron sand beaches west of Auckland – and a sense of a particular past. The stories have a variety of protagonists, many of whom seem to share a common set of Yorkshire ancestors. There is a furniture-salesman father, who has come down in the world since serving as a British naval officer in Russia during the war. There is a mother with a quirky sense of humour and a talent for mimicry. There is a great-uncle with one leg. In the end, these characters, some of whom appear as ghosts, seem much more substantial than the inhabitants of the present. Several of them are recognisable from both The Walled Garden and The Sauna Bath Mysteries. One suspects they are Haley’s relations to the life.

Real Illusions contains some of Haley’s best work. It also seems to have laid some ghosts. In “The Polish Village” a son has a bitter confrontation with his father, who ends by rejecting him. It concludes with the son’s anguish as he rides away in a bus: “I sat in a rear seat looking at the back of heads and tried to control spasms of love, waves of hatred.” The painful realism here is counterpoised with the comic exorcism of “Occam’s Electric Razor”, in which the protagonist shaves his dead father’s old slippers with his father’s old razor:

 

When Holliday finished he had the black relief skin of his father’s feet standing, slightly splayed, on the Evening Post. He’d had to empty the razor nine times. The hair of whatever creature they had been was mingled with the red and grey of his father’s face. And they stood there like something pure. So pure they almost disappeared.

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After Real Illusions, Haley abandons most of his Yorkshire relatives and also the juxtapositional, associative technique of the poems and so many of the stories. From now on he adopts a more conventional approach, donning the masks of various literary personae. He also begins to work with longer narratives, although not always with complete success. His first two novels, The Settlement (1986) and Beside Myself (1990), both show some difficulty in meeting the demands of larger structures, the one foundering between two competing story lines, the other failing to deliver on a promising variant of the migrant theme – the analogy between dramatic acting and self-consciousness.

Much more satisfying is The Transfer Station (1989), a short story sequence with echoes of Yeatsian doom. An old man lives alone in a world, which is at once familiar and also thoroughly strange. It is Auckland’s West Coast but the sea is polluted and the landscape is dominated by a huge rubbish disposal plant. Enormous trucks roar up and down the roads ferrying loads of garbage. Even odder, the official language of the country is now French. The old man is bitter and cynical, angry at the changes that have taken place in the world about him. He suffers all the dislocation of the immigrant but this is not elevated into a vision of disaster or even a paradigm for a generalised existential condition. Survival is the issue, toughing it out, making do, appreciating the good things – like a drop of whisky and some friendly company – even though there seems to be less and less of both as time goes by. Supported by the memories of his dead wife and intrigued by two young women, who have come to the transfer station to mourn a friend who died there, he finally reaches a kind of minimalist contentment, in which it is just “a matter of getting by. And that seems to be enough for the time being.”

These three books were followed by a gap of nine years before All Done With Mirrors (1999), Haley’s best novel, a charming evocation of a character, who is the opposite of the old man in The Transfer Station. Tilly Katterfelto is an optimist and a traveller, open to all the oddities and the strangeness of life. In her world, lack of order is not a cause for bitterness. It is an occasion for curiosity and fascination or, if it becomes too distressing, a reason to move on. In the end, though, she finds a cure for the migrant’s sense of separation. Love gives the opportunity to dissolve oneself in the being of another.

Haley’s most recent book includes both a reprint of The Transfer Station and a new sequence of stories, A Spider-Web Season. Harry Rejekt, the central character in the latter, lives a life of whimsical independence on a chunk of land somewhere near Tirau. Harry has all of Tilly’s openness to experience but none of her sense of going somewhere. Like the old man in The Transfer Station, he gets by, but he manages to do so without anger or resentment. He doesn’t strive for meaning. He invents stories in which the characters are named after elements of grammar. He responds to the flow of life. A trip to Auckland in pursuit of the woman he thinks he loves gets hijacked by a puppy he finds on the roadside. In the end the puppy becomes more important to him than the woman. It is real whereas she is an idealisation. The struggle in the earlier work to find a means of coherence has resolved itself into acceptance. The world has no centre. We are strangers in a strange land. But does it matter that much? A lightness pervades where the striving once was, a lightness which is prefigured back in The Walled Garden.

 

the centre of all is everywhere

in the brim of your hat

& the light in your hair

This, perhaps, is wisdom.

 

Chris Else’s most recent novel, The Beetle in the Box, will be reviewed in our June issue.

 

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