Carnage on the coast, Paul Millar

Nine New Zealand Novellas 
ed Peter Simpson
Reed, $39.95,
ISBN 0790009927

I’m not going to begin with a long, theorised discussion if the novella; there’s plenty of that around, and Peter Simpson’s introduction explores some of the key issues surrounding the conventions of the genre. I’ll simply observe that the best novellas try for something like the three unities of classical theatre – unity of time, place and action – with a couple more tacked on for good measure. Let’s call them unity of mood and unity of voice.

Unity of voice is a good place to start. Two-thirds of these novellas are narrated in the first person. I don’t know whether novellas in general are predominantly first-person narratives, but it would make sense if they were. When the products of the genre tread the fine line between being damned as baggy short stories or scorned as failed novels, it’s easy to see why a single consciousness becomes an attractive way of ensuring the focus doesn’t waver.

What of the novellas not written in the first person? One is Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s Pallet on the Floor. Despite the attention paid him these days, he remains the great underestimated New Zealand writer. Morrieson successfully fictionalised the darkness at the heart of 20th-century Pakeha New Zealand and made humour from it. I don’t mean black, diminishing humour – regional people are easy targets for satire and sarcasm – I mean the far more difficult good humour only found in writers who feel great sympathy and passion for the people they live among. Morrieson didn’t set out to explain, expose or chastise his neighbours (even if they felt he wronged them and retaliated by demolishing his birthplace to make room for a fast-food outlet). Pallet on the Floor may lack the “insouciance of his other books” and have a “gloomy and pessimistic … tone … only occasionally enlivened by mordant wit”, but it is still full of Morrieson’s vividly realised, small-town characters. This complexity of people is the reason Pallet on the Floor is the hardest text to shoehorn into the novella genre. It’s an acceptable length, but otherwise there’s little to appeal to the novella purist. Then again, my great-grandmother could have counted novella purists on one hand, and she amputated a finger chopping firewood. Pallet is hilariously nasty, and I for one am pleased Simpson has it back in print

And then there’s Ian Wedde’s acclaimed Dick Seddon’s Great Dive. It may be written in the third person, but the shifting narrative consciousness is so carefully controlled and assiduously shared between his protagonists Kate and Ching it easily meets the most stringent criteria for unity of voice in a novella. Over the years Wedde’s piece has acquired a companion story of its almost mythic origins: how Robin Dudding let it take over an entire issue of Islands; how it won the 1976 New Zealand Book Award for fiction; how it was “recognised on publication as one of the first substantial fictional representations of the counter-culture scene of the late sixties and early 1970s”. Read now, however, the novella hardly lives up to its reputation. I’ve admired Wedde’s writing since I first encountered Symmes Hole, but Dick Seddon’s Great Dive seems surprisingly dated, and the enveloping torpor contrived. This could be a generation problem. My own equivalent “scene” was the very late 1970s and early 80s, when repeated exposure to versions of the 60s counter-culture revolution had rendered it mainstream, and ageing hippies were becoming embarrassing. Consequently I don’t get any sense of the immediacy and revelation that must have attended Dick Seddon’s Great Dive on publication. Ching’s suicide and Kate’s loneliness lack the edge of tragedy, for any edge is ground away by a monotonous round of parties, journeys, sex, drugs, more parties, and a million lungfulls of smoke.

I received much greater pleasure from the opening piece in the collection, Janet Frame’s Snowman, Snowman. This novella represents Frame at her most creative and challenging, and it is a bold editorial decision to begin with it. What other writer could get away with a slice of London suburban life mediated through the transient view of a snowman in dialogue with the Perpetual Snowflake? And yet it works magnificently, completely vindicating Simpson’s decision, and setting a demanding standard against which every other novella is measured. Frame’s autobiography suggests that her living situation in London at the time contributed to the permanent sense of impermanence suffusing the novella. She, like the snowman, had “dropped in” from somewhere else, becoming less herself and more a creation of her new environment, until making sense of herself depended on the sophistication of her understanding of everything around her.

Following Frame’s story is one of the collections pleasant surprises. Maurice Shadbolt’s writing can be a little overcooked, but Figures in Light is as fine a novella as you’ll come across; intense and tightly focused, it reunites as adults a brother and sister who must bury their father. Together again, they rediscover a childhood intimacy developed following their mother’s early death. But the purity of the early relationship is complicated by adult knowledge and grief, arousing an incestuous sexual tension.

Key moments in Shadbolt’s story occur in the father’s beach house “at the extremity of the beach, against a hillside and above rocks washed by surf.” It’s almost a rule of thumb that when you encounter water in New Zealand fiction a character is about to come of age, have sex, or die. The coast dominates in this anthology. Wedde’s Ching drowns himself in the Tasman, only realising in death that he meant to make a grander gesture in the Pacific. In Morrieson’s catalogue of carnage, murdered Joe Voot dies in the sea, while Spud McGhee disposes of himself and the Breens over a cliff and down into the snoring waters of the Wainongoro River. In Russell Haley’s excellent, futuristic novella The Transfer Station, Pakeha are a colonised minority and suicides die in seas poisoned by the (French) colonial administration.

The real victims of colonisation in New Zealand fight for their land in Witi Ihimaera’s The Halcyon Summer. This is the other novella narrated in the third person, but, as with Dick Seddon’s Great Dive, the focus is very tight (a young boy’s consciousness), and the remaining unities are carefully observed. Tama’s coming-of-age story, set in his grandparents’ coastal hamlet, is Ihimaera’s homage to Mansfield’s novella At the Bay. But it is also the type of thing he does best, turning childhood experience into a story with universal implications. As Tama comes to understand his whanau’s intimate connection to this piece of coast, he comes to understand his role in resisting injustice. If this novella has a flaw, it is Ihimaera’s inability to trust the power of revelation. Tama’s awakening is sufficiently compelling to carry the reader, and the author’s explanations – ”he realised how vulnerable and how unprotected they were against the ills of the world” – simply blunt things.

Keri Hulme, on the other hand, conscientiously practises the “show not tell” dictum. The water’s edge in Te Kaihau/The Windeater is a place of magic and mystery. Hulme’s narrator couples on the beach with a stranger, only to discover when the next day dawns bright that her lover wields a feathered penis. This revelation precipitates a terrifying ordeal in reluctant pursuit of a demigod, with the narrator’s mythic heritage becoming more real than reality, quite possibly suggesting, as Simpson argues, “the powerful and dangerous heritage of being Maori”.

The death knell of Mike and Monica’s relationship – the key moment in Mike Johnson’s Frames happens (you guessed it) on a beach. Johnson’s novella situates New Zealand in a larger world of politics and art. Mandela is about to come out of prison, Neruda is the voice of the temporary exiles living their stories in Spain, Tel Aviv and Tangiers. But any novella that begins with exhortations to “remember Neruda” needs to work hard to avoid cliché. Johnson is an excellent writer, but the arch self-awareness of this text seems awkwardly postmodern. Or is that the intention? Frames’s real strength is Eleanor, the silenced daughter of the doomed relationship, bouncing on her trampoline in and out of her parents’ consciousness as they wallow in angst and introspection. Only at the end, when she confounds her father’s narrative by insisting on the immortality of her teddy, do the remaining pieces of the story slot into their appropriate, inconsequential places.

Chad Taylor, author of Simpson’s final selection, is a writer I admire immensely and almost never read for pleasure. In A Pack of Lies Catrina takes her ex-lover Babe, now pregnant, to a surprise out-of-town birthday party that never materialises. There are no beaches here, only a hot pool at a seedy motel, and a relentless tone of grimy, urban nihilism that is pure Taylor. It’s another clever selection on Simpson’s part, ending as he began with a challenging read, and implying in the trajectory from Frame to Taylor both continuity in the New Zealand novella and a strong future for the genre.

Nine New Zealand Novellas is a companion to Simpson’s 2003 compilation Seven New Zealand Novellas, a finalist in the 2004 Montanas. These two books, with their intelligent selections and lucid introductions, collect together some of our best writers and showcase a range of New Zealand’s most interesting prose.


Paul Millar teaches at Victoria University of Wellington and is currently writing a biography of Bill Pearson.


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