I associate being in Christchurch with knowing Fiona Farrell. Both of us came down from provincial North Island cities, Hamilton and Palmerston North, in the early 1990s. I came to teach in what was then the English Department at Canterbury University, and Farrell came as writer in residence for a year. The English Department, like most at that time, was a rather gothic institution and Farrell was a welcome contrast. She was lively, direct, deflating of pomposity, and among the Ichabod Cranes and Miss Havishams of intellectual life in those days she was always funny.
Those qualities are richly present in her writing. The title of her new novel with its vertiginous leap from the literary to the barnyard is classic Farrell (an earlier work was entitled Chook Chook). But there is another level here as well. One of the book’s concerns is language itself, its role in shaping our lives and consciousness. In a sense Book Book is about the way books don’t merely enrich our lives, they make us. It’s a notion close to other South Island writers, such as Margaret Mahy and Janet Frame, writers for whom the imagination is not a pleasant escape from reality but inseparable from it and for whom books make life rather than the other way around.
I think putting Farrell beside Frame is appropriate, in part because both threaten to do for Oamaru what Patrick White did for Sydney or Margaret Atwood for Toronto or David Malouf for Brisbane: make those places part of literature. Soon Oamaru will be an essential destination on the itinerary of the cultural tourist, following Janet Frame’s footsteps (and following Patrick Evans following Frame). Farrell’s Oamaru is more enticing than Frame’s because it is less gloomy and threatening. The mental hospital doesn’t loom quite so large, and the girls in Farrell’s novel enjoy growing up there more than the Withers children.
To say Book Book is Frame with a lighter hand is not to diminish it. Who hasn’t wished that Frame had given us less of the suburban apocalyptic, the metafictional divagations, the engagement with the Kantian manifold, the toying with her academic exegetes and more of the startlingly precise images, the exact registration of a recognisable world? Farrell treats the theme of the relation between fact and fiction, world and imagination, with directness and clarity: “In play, reality ran together with fantasy like currents in a single river in which Kate swam without a sensation of having crossed any boundary.”
Book Book has Frame’s lovely attention to things conveyed in precise images, like the lambs that “clickety clack about on little black high heels”. And there is a debt to Mansfield in the love of the Kiwi quotidian, the mutton sandwiches as well as the bright shouts of bays. Yet there is another quality in Book Book that one doesn’t find prominently displayed in Frame’s fiction: humour. Frame has plenty of black humour, but one could scarcely say that a comic sense of life is deeply worked into her writing. In Farrell’s new book humour is absolutely central yet it is also a deeply serious book.
New Zealanders have been slow to see that comic writing can also be intellectually rewarding (the Naked Samoans are showing the way on television). We don’t have a comic tradition in New Zealand, although Ronald Hugh Morrieson made humorous capital out of the gothic seriousness of provincial life, and reading Sargeson stories these days can produce comic effects unintended by the author. Farrell has done us a great service here. She’s taken the familiar stuff of New Zealand life, sitting in church in the 1950s for example, and conveyed it without strain or ideological purpose simply by focusing on sharp, funny, exactly perceived images:
Her mother nudged her again. Kate tried to concentrate. She looked at her Bible, reading odd bits and examining the blurred pictures of Canaanite temples at Megiddo and olive trees by the Sea of Galilee. Immediately in front of her sat her cousin Graham. His neck was pink where his hair had been clipped the night before with the silver clippers. Auntie Izzie had done all five boys, lining them up for a trim like sheep on a stand. The light through the milky windows shone clear through Graham’s ears. “Red sails in the sunset,” Kate would have said, if this were not a church and whispering were not forbidden. They shone on either side of his skull like iridescent insect wings. She would have liked to touch them.
Moreover, Farrell can write about sex without striking the political equivalent of the missionary position or hinting that she is looking for a late payment from ACC:
They had three jumps each, then tucked themselves in, Maura on one side, Kate on the other, and they tickled Bernard, who lay in the middle. Bernard had a penis that stood up when tickled, small and pink as a birthday candle. He possessed the enchanting ability to pee precisely on huhu beetles or slaters. Kate and Maura had tried to emulate him, standing legs astride to direct the flow away from socks and shoes, but somehow they never managed it with quite Bernard’s casual flair. They tickled and giggled and then curled to sleep, while Jesus opened and closed his eye at the foot of the bed.
That suburban Jesus who haunted Sargeson and drove him to rage against his fellow citizens has been converted into an amusing icon, like the statues of the virgin ex-catholic and kitsch artists collect. He has no power to terrorise, but he is worth preserving as a part of our cultural memory like plastic tiki and plaster ducks on the living room wall.
In other words, we can read our history through Book Book, not just the process of growing up in the 1950s, the wild university years, the OE, family and failed marriage, then the pleasant middle years, but the silly paradigms that have gripped our consciousness. Religion and its dissidence, hippiedom and accommodation with suburbia: Book Book moves us through the successive enthusiasms that have both liberated and imprisoned the baby boomers. What has been exchanged in the end is not simply one mental prison-house for another but the way in which we might see that history. Stripped of the Sargeson-Frame-Baxter vision of the artist as eschatologist, even the 1950s becomes a world we can visit with pleasure and amusement, without the pained embarrassment of those who still see its provincialism as suffocating and inescapable.
Farrell has given us the world we inhabit as it is, not as seen in nightmare. She has followed the example of Canadian and Australian novelists who have found rich material in the ordinary. It wasn’t until Elizabeth Knox, Damien Wilkins et al that our writers seemed able to write about the world where most of us live without turning it into a puritan delirium. Farrell focuses with precision, intelligence and love on a world that is recognisably our own in its habits of avoidance, its verbal tics and reticences, its dinner parties that collapse over inane politics, and its ancient love of baking.
Mark Williams teaches English at the University of Canterbury. He has recently edited Writing at the Edge of the Universe.