Tracing the Arc
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
On Make-up and Makeover
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
Notes of a Bag Lady
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
Until recently, the essay has been a neglected genre in New Zealand. “Name half-a-dozen leading New Zealand essayists” would make a great killer question for your next quiz night.
Not that there haven’t been distinguished essayists here and there. Bill Pearson said a great many pessimistic things about New Zealand life in the 1950s in “Fretful Sleepers”, an essay written in a grim monotone, much as one might grind out the grounds for one’s anger and disappointment with one’s teeth clenched. A little before him, John Mulgan’s Report on Experience was both an extended essay on what it means to be a New Zealander and an exploration of what war had taught him about the world and what the post-war future might be like. Both essays were the product of extended and serious thought, and demanded the same of their readers.
Apart from the mid 20th century offerings of Pearson and Mulgan, there has been little else. Established literary figures, from A R D Fairburn and Allen Curnow to C K Stead and Ian Wedde, have written literary essays, angled somewhere between anthology introduction, book review, conference paper and survey chapter, and they or their publishers have sometimes gathered them into volumes. But literary criticism and the essay are merely cousins; the first is written for fellow practitioners, the second for a wider audience.
What wider audience? Since the curriculum changes of the mid 1970s, schools have largely given up teaching the essay as a form. After a generation of neglect, it is hard to imagine many people coming out of secondary school today with an appreciation of good, clear expository prose and the ability to write it. They have a sophisticated understanding of the manipulative word tricks of the advertising copy-writer, but little notion of how to construct an argument to persuade a reader that your view is worth considering.
Part of the difficulty is a lack of opportunity to practise. Apart from this journal, most of our newspapers and magazines do not publish essays, and would decline one if it were offered to them. Yet the copy of The Economist that arrives in my letter-box each week contains any number of essays: clear and well crafted, persuasive to varying degrees, but always well-informed, urbane, and usually elegantly written. From the Spectator and the TLS to the New Yorker, from Granta to the Atlantic Monthly, there are plenty to be had elsewhere.
What would it take to revive the essay in New Zealand? Practitioners, an enthusiastic readership, supportive publishers. Lloyd Jones is doing his best to be the third of these by commissioning essays for his Montana Estates Essay Series. The first three titles were written by Vincent O’Sullivan, Damien Wilkins, and Kate Camp. Well done, Editor Jones: a nice balance between young and old, craft and chutzpah, and all capable of delivering the goods.
This next batch contains a pleasant surprise: an essay by John Saker, a journalist and professional writer, but not a literary chap. His essay, Tracing the Arc, is a perfect little example of what we have been missing out on. Saker was a Tall Black between 1975 and 1987, long before Tab Baldwin and fame on the world stage. His ostensible subject is the hook shot, a basketball shot that Saker first saw in his mid-teens, unforgettably executed by a visiting American basketball player, a shot he determined to make his own. But the hook shot is just a way in to a beautiful piece that covers the whole court. Saker probes the role of sport (especially rugby) in New Zealand society and what beauty means to us, while also telling us a lot about basketball: how to practise, what playing in the US is like, the role of innovation, the pernicious effect of Michael Jordan on styles of play.
Saker is a stylist. He loves language, and knows how to use it; his touch is delicate and sure. Much like his approach to sport:
My spirit sank every time a scrum was called. I’d look across that dark cave and see the heads of the opposing locks, wedged between the thighs of their props, looking like victims of the Terror. I have never felt such a loss of self as when I was thrown into that brainless stew of tissue.
Avenues for self-expression are hard to find in the forward pack. The ball, the game’s restless energy source, was always ahead of us, behind us, above us. It was hardly ever there to cradle and demand decisions.
Or his appreciation of beauty:
To simplify the concept of beauty, and to sidestep its emotional demands, we decommissioned the word itself. Somewhere along the line, “beauty” was smother-tackled by New Zealanders and came to groggily as “you beauty” or “you beaut” or just “beaut”, all of which are only fuzzily connected with the real meaning of the word. Typical of our way with words – no one can be sure whether you’re taking an aesthetic position or not.
Tracing the Arc is a satisfying read, full of fresh insights, nifty little twists, the odd sideways anecdote that throws an oblique light on the subject. More than that, it communicates something of the intensely aesthetic appeal of sport, and reveals the different facets of that appeal to spectator and practitioner. And it explains something about the Tall Blacks’ amazing success in September 2002, when they left the star-studded US team languishing behind them in sixth place. “It was an unadorned, truthful kind of beauty,” Saker summarises, pulling together the threads of his essay and tying them off in a few deft movements, coolly appraising their achievement, yet (like his reader) watching from the sidelines with an ardent heart.
Much of the pleasure of reading a well-crafted piece like Tracing the Arc arises from the match of author to subject. Saker has been playing basketball since his teens; he represented New Zealand for 12 years; and he has given a great deal of thought to its various aspects, from the physical, to the social, the cultural, and the spiritual. Paula Boock, on the other hand, seems not so well matched to her topic. Her essay, On Make-up and Makeover, feels as forced as Saker’s is easy. Where he supplies insight and the enlightenment of the well-chosen metaphor, she comes up with rhetorical questions, clever quotes, and examples produced by diligent research: “For centuries, women of the Padung tribe of Burma …”; “Walbiri women of Australia paint their bodies …”; “If a Hebrew woman untied her hair in public ….”
So many facts, so little argument. At the end of On Make-up and Makeover, I am clear that people adorn themselves according to the tastes and standards of their culture, and that those norms vary widely. Fine, but I knew all that before I started reading. The particular examples, scattered decoratively through the text, do not enlighten. But right at the end there is an anecdote about a visit to a lesbian beach (on Lesbos!) that suggests a different approach that could have been taken to the subject, one that would have considered the complex relationship between appearance and sexual identity, and what it means to choose a style that society perceives as Other. Paula Boock, the author of edgy and frank teenage novels about coming out, would write it superbly.
In Notes of a Bag Lady, Margaret Mahy is on home ground: not Saker’s basketball court or Boock’s dyke beach, but the shifty terrain occupied by the born storyteller – the place where identities are picked up, tried on, and discarded. Mahy tells us about her early years as a shapeshifter, from going to the fancy-dress ball as a witch (the ultimate un-Cinderella) to her dogged attempts to become Mowgli in Whakatane. So the imaginative child becomes the adult whose imaginings will thrill a generation of children: “For as long as I can remember, being in charge of the story has been a function I proposed for myself, and part of the story was living the adventurous life.”
“The adventurous life” for Mahy was inextricably linked with fiction:
Once, as I was running away with my two children from a burning car, I heard myself shouting as much to myself as the terrified children, “Don’t be frightened! Look on this as an adventure!”, and as I shouted this an image from King Solomon’s Mines imposed itself on the bare spare Banks Peninsula hills around me.
Equally, it seems to have entailed at times losing touch with more mundane matters – housework, for instance. For Mahy, “at the heart of all these other attempted identities, narrow and intense, was the inventing self, putting on, one after another, a series of passionately desired costumes none of which quite fitted me.”
There are six essays in the series so far. Though none of them yet has the trenchant wit of a Martin Amis or the cultivated neuroticism of a Jonathan Franzen, they are full of promise. All it needs, really, is a committed publisher, an enthusiastic readership (that means us), and writers with the intellectual confidence to take some ideas for a walk in an interesting direction.
Anne French is a Wellington poet.