Europhiles, Neo-Americans et al, Margot Schwass

The Flamingo Anthology of New Zealand Short Stories
ed Michael Morrissey
HarperCollins, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86950 335 X

Editing an anthology of New Zealand fiction must be one of life’s more thankless tasks. Whether motivated by even-handedness and some sense of fair representation, or by shameless partiality, editors’ selections – in fact, their very selection criteria – are damned with a fervour usually reserved for All Black selectors and weather forecasters.

Where selection is dictated strictly by chronology – as for example in the Oxford University Press anthologies begun by Dan Davin in 1953 – editorial choices are mercifully limited. More taxing is the task facing editors seeking to set a standard – like Marion McLeod’s and Bill Manhire’s definitive 1984 collection, New Zealand’s Best Short Stories – or trying to ring a fence around a particular school of work as Michael Morrissey did with his earlier anthology of postmodern short fiction, The New Fiction. In fact, even such seemingly anodyne criteria as “contemporary” New Zealand fiction, “young” writers, or even – God forbid – “New Zealand writing” rumble with hidden menace. Who’s contemporary? How young is young? And what about expats/migrants/itinerants and all manner of other imposters who don’t fit the bill of official passport-bearing New Zealand writers?

From the moment they draw their line in the sand and say “These are the stories I have chosen”, anthology editors face accusations of poor judgement, favouritism and personal whimsy. Predictably, Michael Morrissey’s new anthology has already been castigated for these and various other sins of omission and commission (among them dropping the first “I” from the beginning of Maurice Duggan’s “Along Rideout Road That Summer”). The Introduction announces an apparently revolutionary intention – an anthology which “is both historic and contemporary”. Given that nothing predates Katherine Mansfield, traversing fewer than 100 years in a volume that runs to some 500 pages does not seem quite as ground-breaking as the claim suggests. Still, the historical breadth does offer the opportunity to track fictional preoccupations and changing fashions over a reasonable continuum.

More interesting is Morrissey’s classification of the stories (cautiously acknowledged as “a broad generalisation”) into two main camps. In one corner, we have the baroque, metafictional Europhiles (including Mansfield, Frame, Stead and Smither among others) and in the other, the spare, heartfelt Neo-Americans (Sargeson, Marshall, Jones, Perkins, Morrissey himself). Raising their tent on the periphery are the social realists – including Shadbolt, O’Sullivan, Kidman, Grace and Ihimaera – while two writers (John Cranna and Peter Wells) remain resolutely uncamped. For the large part, Morrissey says, somewhat glumly, the selection attests to the predominance of realism in New Zealand’s literary landscape.

Several nagging questions surround Morrissey’s classifications. Did his definitions precede or derive from the stories he selected? And did the classifications determine a perhaps unrepresentative selection from each writer’s work – have stories been chosen, for example, to show an author at his/her Neo-American best rather than in more typical Europhile mode? And what are we to make of those who don’t make the cut at all – Maurice Gee, Bill Manhire, Fiona Farrell, Barbara Anderson, William Brandt, for starters? Are they absent because they don’t deserve to be, because Morrissey doesn’t like them or – less acceptably – because they didn’t fit the grid he has superimposed on the collection?

No doubt Morrissey’s categories will be debated, dismissed or devoured by those who enjoy that kind of thing. Alternatively, they may be simply set aside where they can neither diminish nor enlarge the reading experience. For me, the sustaining pleasure of this anthology – after a recent diet of hefty novels and histories – was rediscovering how short stories work in delicious ways that novels rarely do.

First, there’s the sudden immersion into the world of the story, without recourse to explanation or preamble – as in the opening sentence of Mansfield’s “A Dill Pickle”: “And then, after six years, she saw him again.” Then there are the glancing, oblique incisions short stories make into human experience, the inexplicable shards of character they scatter before you: “Mr White’s mother died, and he went out and bought a particularly ugly disembowelling sword to commemorate her passing.” (Sheridan Keith, “Pleasuring Mr White”) And of course the enjoyable tension between precise description and tantalising irresolution: “‘You couldn’t imagine how bright and brave he was,’ she would say, drawing on the tablecloth with a fork, little runnels that led to nowhere, and wearing Thorstensen’s secrets like jewels.” (Shonagh Koea, “The Dancing Master”).

One commentator on the short story form, Frank O’Connor, has described in The Lonely Voice how the best short stories tend to coalesce around a brief instant of heightened understanding or clarity – “the significant moment”. And indeed the Flamingo anthology provides plenty of such moments: Fred, in Sargeson’s masterful “A Great Day”, rowing determinedly back to shore with his eyes closed and cotton wool in his years to shut out the cries of his drowning mate; the soon-to-be-cuckolded Bertha in Mansfield’s “Bliss” in raptures before her pear tree, disconcerted by two passing cats; the pomegranate juice staining the table-cloth under the watchful gaze of the sinister Pale Suit in John Cranna’s “Visitors”; Perrin’s haggard arrival at the Alexandra Hotel, a travesty of his first flamboyant entrance, in Peter Wells’s threnody to HIV, “Perrin and the Fallen Angel”.

But an anthology, by its very nature, promises something more than a succession of significant moments. You’re invited – expressly or not – to experience the stories as a kind of continuum, to listen for resonances, to recognise familiar bends in the road. Here, for instance, Morrissey draws attention to the fact that the anthology begins with Mansfield and ends with Perkins, both of whom published their first collections in their 20s.

Although I didn’t find the Mansfield-Perkins connection particularly meaningful, the anthology certainly gains texture and shape from the existence of common preoccupations and echoing voices running through it. Take the sense of personal dislocation and isolation found in many stories. Call it alienation, call it Man Alone, this has been a constant groundnote in New Zealand fiction from at least the time that Samuel Butler’s narrator got lost in the Southern Alps in Erewhon and suffered “dreadful doubt as to my own identity”. It’s a short step to Janet Frame’s protagonist in “How Can I Get in Touch with Persia?” who senses “his skin was too tight, it would not fit”, and from there to Emily Perkins’ Billy outside the psychiatrist’s: “Standing outside this building feels familiar to me, like standing outside buildings is something I’ve done all my life.”

The short story is a particularly good vehicle for evoking this sense of the individual “standing outside” the mainstream. Its inherent compression and tautness allows the yawning gulf between the isolated individual and an indifferent world to be explored without the need for explanation, closure or resolution. There are many forms of standing outside suggested in these stories. At one level, there is the rootless drifter, unable to make connections – like the narrator in Sargeson’s “An Affair of the Heart” (“I may as well tell you that I’ve not been what people call a success in life …”) or the expatriate New Zealander in Russell Haley’s “Dutch Mosquito”, disorientated in Europe by his surroundings and confused by a past that constantly erupts into the here-and-now.

Then there is the invisible isolation of those with ostensible connections – spouses, lovers, families. For Margaret in Fiona Kidman’s “Dry Rot”, on holiday with her husband to try and save their shrivelled marriage, their unbridgeable separateness is confirmed when they make love: “her eyes widened at the sight of his face. ‘Edward,’ she said in a kind of startled wonder, as if his face was so unrecognisable that it shocked her. ‘Edward’.” For Bridget in Shonagh Koea’s waspish, ironic tale “The Dancing Master”, the realisation comes when the enigmatic Thorstensen, her husband’s boss, sweeps her off to dance and in a few moments forges an intimacy which decades of marriage to dreary Bernard have never achieved. Alienation of a different kind is explored in Patricia Grace’s enduringly powerful story, “Journey”, its protagonist making the archetypal journey from country to city, from a place of belonging to a place where he is simply a foolish old man. While the story teases out a range of social issues – the competing values of Maori and Pakeha, the fundamental relationship with the land – its strength lies in the rhythm and cadences of the old man’s voice, at once elegiac and energetic, sliding between Maori and English as readily as between the present and the distant past.

From cultural dislocation to social dislocation, where Janet Frame’s “An Incident in Mid-Ocean” is an obvious example – a lonely spinster, captive to assorted personal terrors, yearning for the world of colour and light she sees on TV and on foreign stamps. Miss Abson’s only regular social contact is with her psychiatrist until she befriends an eight-year old boy – who, in the way of small boys, is at once trusting, indifferent and malicious. The final glimpse of Miss Abson alone again in her meagre flat, where “the tide rises higher … And soon all is submerged in the tide, and drowned” is an image of total isolation, a frightened surrender to a world both hostile and indifferent.

Compared with this rather Anita Brooknerish piece, a completely different voice – edgy, hostile – is heard in Emily Perkins’ excursion into the marginalised and increasingly unhinged world of Billy in “Barking”. Unlike Miss Abson, Billy is all snarling aggression (“Who the fuck is she, to watch me and decide I’m some loner freak? Who does the bitch think she is?”) as he spirals downwards from drama class dropout to psychotic stalker. Emily Perkins’ control over Billy’s voice and his warped vision of the world – fractured by the occasional glimpse of how others see him – is beautifully sustained and truly chilling.

Indeed, there is a lot of full-blown madness – perhaps the most extreme form of personal alienation – in this anthology. Weedy Fred plots the downfall of his burly companion and rival Ken in Sargeson’s “A Great Day”, the full intensity of Fred’s jealousy only revealed on the final page. The protagonist of Janet Frame’s “How Can I Get in Touch With Persia?” digs up his mother’s corpse and puts his faith in the power of electricity to restore his world. In Owen Marshall’s magnificent dissection of old age, sadism and revenge, “The Rule of Jenny Pen” (for me, the jewel in this anthology), we witness both the benign craziness of senility and the psychosis of the tyrant. In Sheridan Keith’s “Pleasuring Mr White”, it’s the turn of masochism while in “Dancing in the Dark”, Rosemary blankly recalls Tessa, her fickle teenage friend with her bouncy blonde hair: “Her pretty curly hair went like a lifeless wig after the baby … She went sort of loopy afterwards, she got very fat. They’d been driving along the motorway … She just opened her door and rolled out, into the traffic.” Clearly, you don’t need Ronald Hugh Morrieson to confirm what we’ve always suspected: that there’s something very nasty indeed in our collective literary woodshed.

In the end, of course, an anthology is not just a bag of mixed lollies. It is an entity with its own shapeliness and form that bears the impression of the diverse narratives it holds. For some readers, labels such as Europhile, Neo-American, social realist or lyric sensualist may be helpful in calculating the sum of the anthology’s diverse parts. For others, it will be sufficient satisfaction to read intently and remain alert to the contrasts, continuities and resonances that exist between the stories. And to enjoy again the moments of exquisite artistry deployed in the service of such an apparently artless fictional form.

Margot Schwass is a Wellington writer, editor and publications consultant.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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