Keri Hulme’s new collection Stonefish is so unremarkable it sent me back to the bone people to see what all the fuss had been about. How could a Booker Prize-winner produce so slight and incoherent a book? Or, more to the point, how could a publisher send a book like this out into the world? There is much talk in America these days about the failure of publishers to edit the books they publish. One finds sloppiness everywhere: errors of fact, meaningless repetition, baggy, tiresome prose. While this is hard on the reading public, it is the authors themselves who suffer most from the lack of thoughtful, attentive, focused editing, since nothing will irritate a reviewer more than the feeling that a book is not finished or that no one cared enough to get it right.
Obviously, though, we are dealing here with a different situation. Hulme has famously resisted editing, reportedly refusing in the case of the bone people “to allow anyone to ‘go through [her] work with shears’ or be ‘a silent partner’ in her work.” This is an ideological position. It suggests that the relationship of author to editor is like that of student to teacher or child to parent, that it reflects a fundamental imbalance of power. In such a universe it is incumbent upon authors to resist editorial efforts to usurp or control their work.
I can see that for Hulme in the early 1980s there might have been something to this. I doubt that the publishing world was ever as hegemonic as this implies, but we all know stories about talented, eccentric people who have had trouble getting a fair hearing from the powers that be. But all that changed with the Booker in 1985, which instantly removed any barriers that might have existed for Hulme in the publishing world. If there has been any imbalance of power since then, it tilts the other way. Some might say that winning the Booker vindicated Hulme’s position with respect to the editing of her work. Rereading the bone people, I think, on the contrary, that she was lucky. It’s a fine book and still very interesting to read, but it is not holding up as well as I think it would have if her worst excesses had been edited out.
Which brings me to this new collection, though I hesitate to use the word “new” since eight of the 19 pieces presented in Stonefish were first published before 1995, and some as far back as the late 80s. Stonefish is a grab-bag of Maori myth, science fiction and something that feels almost like memoir, with some poems and a couple of traditional short stories thrown in, all cast in a kind of cryptic meta-language that leaves the reader feeling like a fish tossed up on shore. “What mean?” as my mother used to say.
In one variant the pieces display a lack of specificity. They seem to be set in some other time – the future? the mythological past? – to be happening to people without names or attributes, to be taking place somewhere indeterminate, to be narrated by someone who never bothers to tell us who she is. In another, they exhibit a kind of mystical verbosity: “You grow jaded, she said to me, as she waxed and waned in terrifying shadowiness, now a luminosity without definition that filled my room, now a pinpoint of intense dark.”
There are exceptions. In “Hatchings”, to my mind the best of the lot, a widow’s life is intertwined with her amateur study of moths. Alone in her house she drinks her tea and “notices, on one of the branches with dry leaves, a dry leaf that isn’t … . It is a male, his russet plumes absolutely still, and he is still until an instinct from the deep past sets him briefly moving, like a dead leaf trembling in the breeze.” Trapped in a marriage to a hard man, she writes, in a moment of daring, to a noted entomologist, sending him a copy of her moth diary. One day a letter from him arrives:
“Dear Mrs. Lex … I was grateful for the opportunity to read your carefully kept observations on the Antheraea eucalypti pupa hatchings … and wonder whether you may have other records? … It is important that precise observations come from as broad a range of nature-lovers as possible, whether lay people like yourself or professional scientists. This is the way we learn and get to really know how Nature works.”
She can still recall the happiness, and the way her hands shook as she read … . She had written back within the week, explaining that the other moth diaries had met with an accident but she would faithfully keep and send more.
There is a certain conventionality here, the “kindly tufty whitehaired” professor, the taciturn war-damaged husband (who, incidentally, burned the other diaries), the timid housewife, and yet the story works. We feel for the widow, we like her, we want to learn more about her life, we want her to gain her share of happiness.
At her best Hulme can be a wonderfully economical writer, producing prose as spare and lean as the lives of her characters, intuiting what it is that makes them tick, exploiting the familiar but giving it the kind of twist that makes us want to read on. The irony of this collection – in fact, the irony of her entire oeuvre – is that at her worst she comes across as someone writing lines of code. Take “The Trouble with A. Chen Li”, one of a number of stories in this book that should probably be classed as science fiction. A narrator about whom we know nothing “falls” into a place with no features (well, ok, a grassy plain with an occasional rock stack), rides around on a hovercraft with “gyroscopic inertial control”, thinks endlessly about food, and concludes sententiously: “Now … I realise we are Something Else’s game.”
Or “Midden Mine”, which is a long and almost interesting story about an archeological dig, except that there are some extremely important elements – such as the relationship between the three principal characters and the reasons for their various forms of despair – that are buried so deeply in the tale that it is almost impossible to prise them out.
To my mind what this book represents is a lack of judgement on the part of the author, the editor and the press. All writers are sometimes incoherent, many are poor judges of their own work. It may not be entirely clear to Hulme that less is more of some of the things she obviously cherishes – the gnomic pronouncements, the telegraphic prose, the ludic passages concerning food – and that she is often asking more of her readers than is quite fair. But this is what editors are there for: to do for writers what writers cannot do for themselves, to keep them from making bad decisions, to encourage them when their decisions are good. It is not a competitive but a co-operative relationship, not a form of repression but a kind of aid.
Writing is an act of communication, at least published writing is. People may write privately whatever they like, but when they go out into the world with their ideas I think we have to assume that they want to communicate with other people. And that means thinking about how a reader is going to feel. Is a reader going to find this book funny? Is a reader going to understand what the author is trying to say? These are questions that have to be asked in the course of the publishing process. The presence in this book of a glossary of Maori words suggests that someone wanted to make sure that everyone who read the book understood what these 70-odd words referred to. But did they ever ask themselves what the stories were about?
Christina Thompson is editor of Harvard Review.