World-class in Timaru, Mark Williams

Chemistry
Damien Wilkins
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864734271

In a 1913 guide book, Forest and Ice, Blanche Baughan describes the Franz Josef glacier: “the grandeur of great, ordained descent, embodied here in a white stairway of the gods, magnificently sweeping down on earth from heaven”. Having swallowed beer, chablis and drugs in his mother’s house, Jamie in Damien Wilkins’ new novel, Chemistry, experiences a similar epiphany:

he was aware of an astonishing quiet – of such purity and distance he thought at once of the South Island, of the mountains especially and the lakes, snow and light. Could he truly be here? The liquid in his throat seemed suspended, eternal, all flowing – like a river originating in ice.

 

For both, the South Island’s splendid scenery seems to produce an ecstatic experience of identification with place, something quintessentially New Zealand. Yet Baughan’s rapturous prose is influenced as much by her interest in Eastern mysticism as by nationalistic nature worship; moreover, she wrote for travellers, seeking a romantic experience like that of the Swiss Alps. Concocted out of drugs and beer ads, Jamie’s sublime moment signals the overwhelming presence not of nature but of clichés about nature and the difficulties in attaching the representation of place to the purposes of cultural nationalism.

In spite of the  Clark Government’s efforts to foster links between nation and culture, most of the leading contemporary producers of “New Zealand culture” have abandoned the high purpose of cultural nationalism inherited from the 1930s. In the films of Harry Sinclair, the familiar themes of that nationalism are the object of satire. Local artists, novelists, and filmmakers no longer feel obligated to a local audience. The old struggle of the provincial artist to awaken the dull conscience of the race has given way to an adroit negotiation of the demands of the local and the universal. This is not unusual. Indian, Australian, and Canadian novelists and filmmakers have found ways of packaging local content to appeal to an international audience, and by and large the products of this negotiation – Midnight’s Children, Cat’s Eye, Oscar and Lucinda, Lantana, Earth – have been enriching for all.

2

The most successful New Zealand practitioners of this literary repackaging have been associated with Bill Manhire’s Creative Writing programme at Victoria University, the magazine Sport, and Victoria University Press. But the “Manhire style” of writing has met with some heated local resistance. It has been attacked by Mark Pirie, champion of the Gen Xers, in the introduction to his anthology The NeXt Wave (1998), and, most recently, by Patrick Evans in an essay in Kite. Evans, in a reprise of Pirie’s assault on slick salon-writing, attempts to come to grips with what he calls “a professionalisation of the role of the author and the commodification of the book”. One might object that terms like these, and “reification”, themselves belong to a professional discourse, the jargon of vaguely Marxist academia. The real problem, however, is that the pejorative bias of the terms allows a complex process of adjustment by individual writers to new demands and opportunities to be presented as a cowardly sell-out to big publishing and international capital.

What does “professionalisation of the author” mean? Looking back on the decade in which the Manhire school has dominated the writing scene, one is aware of a steady reaction against limiting roles (inherited from the romantic outsider figure of the 1960s) towards a more deliberate and conscious understanding of the writing process. The purpose of Manhire’s writing programme has not been to discover genius or even nurture it but to allow those with talent and application to learn the craft of writing well. The success of the Wellington school in allowing good writing to thrive has been amply demonstrated by the numerous translations of local success into publication in Britain and the US and reviews in the TLS. Evans likens this rate of success to a “conveyor belt”, producing authors even in the absence of writing.

The phrase “commodification of the book” suggests the death of originality and creativity as young writers pursue entry into a globalised publishing economy by producing blandly uniform commodities (“McManhire”). Evans observes a descent towards a homogeneity which only feigns (“fetishises”) originality. Preferring the first novels of Charlotte Randall and Damien Wilkins to their later less odd and local work, he yearns for the authentic number-8-wire productions of the eccentrically individualistic past, such as the bone people in its early raggedly uncommodified state before the multinational publishing industry eradicated the typos.

3

Damien Wilkins, according to Evans, has followed a steeply pitched version of the trajectory he describes from originality to fetishisation, the hand-rolled to the tailor-made. The “extraordinarily individualistic and original” early novels lapse into “the mode of the ‘international’ and the ‘universal’” so unredeemably that the later work reads as pastiche. Even the provincial location of Chemistry fails to reverse this decline:

Chemistry comes back home in its setting, but the Timaru it is set in is bland, processed, irrelevant, any-small-city-in-the-West – completely different from the intense, almost parodically localised setting of The Miserables, with its references to a “Wellington face” and a “Newtown beard”.

 

How is Timaru different from any similarly sized small city, its bright young escaping to Auckland/Sydney/London, its councillors planning a revival of the marina to attract tourists, its white working class drifting into aggrieved irrelevance? Wilkins’ Timaru is accurate precisely because, for all the particularity with which it is rendered, it is as infected by the international as the corn crops of Nicky Hager’s mind; it is inhabited by New Zealanders who have travelled and returned, bringing the memory of café society with them. It has art groupies discussing who’s in and out, pretentious warehouse conversions, putanesca with extra olives, and a poor-white crime culture that might have been lifted from a Dirty Realist Glasgow novel.

Timaru is a small New Zealand city going through the translations of the late 20th century. Its stratifications of uneasy privilege and dispossession reflect post-Reagan/Thatcher/Douglas economics everywhere: the decline of the unskilled white working class, the technologisation of food processing, the addiction to a brand-conscious international style of the prosperous. The pared-back work force at the restructured cheese plant is pitched between the edgy but affluent middle-class lifestyle of chemist, Don, and the demented marginality of Shane, the unemployable junkie, forever lapsing into inept crime. If Shane’s trashed whiteness, marked by the moko he had done while “out of it”, registers the bitter conclusion of a traditional working class, the obsession with style of wife-beating architect Simon signifies an equally universal condition of the professional upper-middle class: a spurious postmodernism recycling the past as kitsch versions of authenticity.

What is absent here is the concern with New Zealandness as a distinctive quality. Wilkins’ Timaru is not a synecdoche for the nation. Its inhabitants are not fashioning a Kiwi identity. He is interested in the intersection of the local and the universal, not in diagnosing the state of the nation by way of representative characters. The point is not that he treats the New Zealand setting with indifference, or that it is blandly irrelevant, but that its New Zealandness is taken for granted, not a problem or a possibility to be worried at. There are epiphanies to be had, but not of the Okarito kind.

As in the films of the Sarkies brothers and Harry Sinclair, Wilkins’ New Zealand is presented as if seen from outside, by a consciousness distanced but not alienated, observing it with detached but alert interest and an eye for its cultural oddities. In other words, Chemistry doesn’t inhabit the cultural politics it represents. Wilkins observes the shifts in Pakeha registration of Maori culture from the 1980s to the 1990s. The distance between the Maori elders’ emotional investment in an exhibition and that of the chair of the Trust that administers the gallery’s finances (he “might pull the plug if he had to sit through another two-hour welcome in a language he didn’t know”) indicates how far biculturalism still has to go. Yet Don’s uncomfortable recognition that his wife’s knowledge of tangata whenua is deeper than his own is a sign that middle-class Pakeha have not simply abandoned the project.

The point is that cultural politics in Chemistry are not positioned so as to involve and implicate the reader in the way novels of the 1980s such as The Matriarch or Potiki or the bone people did. This does not mean New Zealand originality is being marketed for an international audience, stripped of its local resonances. Wilkins is too sceptical about the “cult of originality” to indulge the literary tourist. What is important here is a shift from the sense that New Zealand readers have a privileged relation to “their” novel, which speaks a language they know with particular intimacy, probes an experience of place peculiar to them, unlocks the meaning of their experience as a people.

4

For Evans, Chemistry (despite its location in Timaru) presents the same problem as Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck. The setting of the novel might be anywhere. In other words, it doesn’t quite fit into that increasingly fragile academic category, New Zealand literature. Perhaps we need as critics to attend to these novels not in terms of their truth to realities or categories we recognise but simply as novels, artifices open to all readers anywhere who possess the key of the English language. The marketplace they have entered is more exacting than one that demands recognition of place as a primary reading response. Like Midnight’s Children or Lolita, Chemistry is a novel which demands of its readers that they do not simply look through its language to what is represented.

Wilkins’ prose is less exuberant than Rushdie’s, less arch than Nabokov’s, but it is packed with brilliantly handled stylistic manoeuvres, able to slide from greasy realism to polished figuration in the space of a phrase. Wilkins writes with restraint, concision and a precise balancing of figure to its effect. There is none of Janet Frame’s mirror cities of language. Yet this is no stripped colloquial meanness. Here is Jamie contemplating a fellow junkie’s room:

In the grate of the open fire and around the tiled heart, cigarette butts – hundreds of them – made their own finger sculptures. He felt beckoned. On the windows, a yellowish substance coated the light coming through – the congealed exhalations of many afternoons and evenings. This room lacked mornings.

 

How smoothly the transitions are made from imagistic naturalism to a restrained species of symbolism. The room becomes a correlative for Jamie’s mind without losing its objectivity. Similarly, for all the grim seriousness of the novel’s content, Wilkins’ prose is at times blackly humorous, even playful. His metaphors can yoke together unlikenesses in a way that recalls P G Wodehouse: “The amorousness of a pair of librarians”.

Evans allows the genuine success spun off by Manhire’s Creative Writing programme, but is addicted to the notion that genuine originality is prickly, unaccommodated, unprized. For him, it appears away from the centres of literary power, whether in London, New York, or Nevada. Such a view leads him to champion marginal writers over the names fashionable in the mandarin centres of cultural power. It is necessary that such questioning occur, and the dangers of production-line writing need to be noted. No doubt Arundhati Roy’s conspicuous beauty helped to market The God of Small Things, and the photogenic qualities of some of our younger writers have smoothed their passage to success and prizes. But the danger of resisting too strenuously the lure of the established is that one will lose all sense of proportion, as when Norman Simms in an essay on New Zealand poetry in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics identifies “the new dynamic in N.Z. society and verse” with Michael Harlowe [sic], Norman Simms, and Don Long, and champions (in place of Ian Wedde) Vaughan Morgan, known as “the Wordsworth of the Waikato”. Provincialism can be carried too far.

 

Mark Williams teaches in the Department of English at the University of Canterbury

 

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