The Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 1
ed Fiona Kidman
The Keys to Hell
Jo Randerson, illustrations by Taika Waititi
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
First, a simple bibliographical description. Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 1 contains 20 stories by 20 authors. Ten of the stories are by men and 10 are by women, but this was “not planned” according to Fiona Kidman’s introduction. The stories are arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname, so we begin with Norman Bilbrough and end with Judith White. Six of the stories have appeared in print before. The rest were submitted directly to the editor. All but one were written (or at least copyrighted) within the last four years. All but one of the authors are New Zealanders or New Zealand-based, and the exception (the Frenchwoman Nadine Ribault) tells a story set in New Zealand. Most of the stories are set in New Zealand, but Craig Marriner and Sarah Quigley deal with New Zealanders overseas, Stephanie Johnson’s and Louise Wareham’s stories are set in America, Vincent O’Sullivan’s and Julian Novitz’s in Britain, and Peter Wells’s crosses the Tasman. Only Peter Wells and Maurice Gee tell stories that aren’t principally set in the present time – Wells in the 19th century and Gee in the 1950s. The volume ends with notes on the contributors, who also comment (sometimes a little redundantly) on the genesis of their stories. Full credit to James George for simply remarking “I prefer to let the story speak for itself.”
So much for the bibliographical description. Now for the hard stuff.
This book was produced in conscious emulation of the regular Best American Short Stories, but it trades under the more cultured title Best Fiction. “Fiction” is, alas, one of those words (like “text”) that can suggest something dauntingly intellectual, whereas a “short story” is – well – a story. The editor explains why she chose the title.
There simply weren’t enough New Zealand short story outlets for her to choose from, so she stretched her selection criteria to include extracts from novels in progress.
This can create problems. It is no criticism whatsoever of Kelly Ana Morey to say that her novella extract, “Tide”, is unresolved. It draws us into an unsettling domestic situation, it sets up a mystery and then… presumably we have to wait for the completed work. For this reason, “Tide” is the most frustrating of the volume’s five novel extracts. On the other hand, Maurice Gee’s novel extract “Alice and Gordon” gives us such an assured account of its narrator (a rather prim and judgemental woman who is a chemist) that it stands as a character study in its own right; though it will, of course, be interesting to find out how the narrator’s relationship with her hapless brother develops in the finished novel.
Paradoxically, the novel extracts by Julian Novitz and Craig Marriner, while not resolving everything, do come to clear and distinct conclusions. Novitz’s “Holocaust Tours” is the best satirical piece on offer – a sharply-etched tale of the way even the most solemn things can be debased into currency with personal agendas attached. In this case, discussion of genocide becomes the occasion for PhD theses on the aesthetics of Holocaust memorials and even chat-lines to pick up the opposite sex. Marriner’s “The Evolution” is a bleak journey from Berlin to post-Communist Poland, with a punch-line. The fifth novel extract, Louise Wareham’s “Miss Me a Lot of”, also has a sort of punch-line. We are convinced by the narrator’s unsympathetic portrait of her business-obsessed, cliché-bellowing American father, until another character reminds her how much her own sensitive, alternative lifestyle depends on Daddy’s cash. A fruitful moral ambiguity emerges, as it often can when we begin to distrust the narrator.
Which brings me to another bibliographic statistic. Fully 14 of these 20 stories are written in the first person. In some cases the distance between author and narrator is quite clear. “Pictures by Goya”, Vincent O’Sullivan’s story of adultery, is narrated by a woman. Stephanie Johnson’s “The Night I Got My Tuckie” is narrated by an American teenager, who makes ironic comment on visiting New Zealanders. In both cases narrator is clearly not author. On the other hand, author’s identification with narrator seems quite close in Tracy Farr’s “The Blind Astronomer”, James George’s “Walking to Laetoli” and Judith White’s “The Spare Room”. Or am I simply saying that these authors extend to their narrators more sympathy than I would show them? Owen Marshall might possibly be at one with his narrator in “Fellow Citizens”, with its account of a South Islander feeling out of place in Auckland as he attends a boring teachers’ conference and then encounters alien cultures.
One of the subtlest uses of first-person narration is in Albert Wendt’s “Robocop in Long Bay”. A New Zealand-Samoan student complains at length about the tedium of having to attend a church-organised picnic, and the hypocrisy of his Samoan parents’ generation. Much of this sounds like the standard sulky teenager (of any culture or ethnicity) who is reluctant to join in family activities. The story shows us that there are some rational, objective grounds for the narrator’s complaints. But our distrust grows when he articulates his own belief in business success, so much at odds with the communal values he has claimed to be championing. Wendt, like Louise Wareham, builds a depth of characterisation on this narrative ambiguity.
You will note that this review of Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 1 has jumped about all over the place, piled on the factual details and named far too many individual stories. There is a reason for this. Even if they have been selected and gathered by one editor, 20 stories by 20 different writers are 20 distinct experiences. I do not believe that worthwhile generalisations can be made about their themes or viewpoints or, for that matter, what they indicate about the health of New Zealand society or literature. I can make some purely subjective judgements. I found Sarah Quigley’s “The Ice-Cream Girl” the saddest story in the collection. I found Peter Wells’s “The Mummer’s Song” (with its very moral viewpoint) the most surprising. But other readers will call it another way, which is how it is with short story anthologies.
I understand that this is the first in what is intended to be an annual “Best New Zealand Fiction” series. Good.
A collection of stories by one author is a different proposition.
Finding the keys to Hell is a difficult business in an age when many don’t believe in an afterlife, let alone in eternal damnation. For Christians, Hell is separation from God, and loss of the Beatific Vision (flames and smoky pits are folklore, not theology). Maybe for agnostics, Hell is lost potential, wasted effort, futility, the sense that life goes nowhere. But then, for agnostics, life comes to a definite end – so their Hell can’t be all that hellish. Eternity doesn’t come into it.
Of course there is another way of approaching Hell. It can be viewed as a purely aesthetic opportunity for writers to pile on the picturesque chthonicisms. Baudelaire might have believed in a literal Hell, ditto Rimbaud when he spent a season there. Huysmans almost certainly did. But don’t most of their latter-day readers really enjoy their respective Hells as a pleasurable excursion into Hallowe’en-land?
Jo Randerson’s collection is called The Keys to Hell, from the title of the last, and by every measure the best, of the 12 sketches it contains. I say “sketches” because it’s hard to call some of them stories. Sometimes as brief as a couple of pages, many of the contributions are really observations, described (but undeveloped) situations, prose-poems, even (in the case of one called “Gazelle”) throwaway jokes. Most are written in the first person.
Jo Randerson writes and performs her own stage material, and some of this book might go down better in performance, as dramatic monologues. A mother confesses her son can never really belong to her (“One Day Among the Rhododendrons”). A Russian submariner – maybe on board the Kursk – faces his last moments trapped at the bottom of the sea (“Kolesnikov”). A grandmother in the Frozen North tells her grand-daughter that the most dangerous wolf is the one that seems most protective and comforting (“My Four Wolves”). A successful man expresses his complete and utter complacency about his own life (“This Life of Mine”). They all read like good, self-revealing scripts for a character-actor to broadcast. Taika Waititi’s line illustrations don’t add a great deal to the text, and wouldn’t look out of place in an old Dell action comic. (Cultural studies experts can figure out whether that’s a compliment or not.)
There is a kind of proto-Christian strain running through some of the sketches. “Being Sure About Friends” rewrites a Gospel story with Jesus’ disciples clearly not having a clue what He’s on about. (But then, come to think about it, that’s what the original Gospels imply anyway.) The redemptive power of suffering surfaces and resurfaces. The doomed Russian submariner decides it’s best to look at inevitable death with eyes wide open. A cow narrates a story about a cathartic fight she has witnessed. In one folkloric effusion (“The Hag”) it is the sick and apparently helpless girl who takes on the task of saving a town from a plague-demon. Suffering is noble and meaningful and probably points to the Cross.
Yet Jo Randerson does not always seem to be in control of this demanding material. Dramatic monologues degenerate into “raves”. Too often, whimsy butts in – in the machinery of “vapour-demons” in one Icelandic tale, or in the device of having a story (“Orphan”) spend two-and-a-half pages apologising for itself, or (worst of all) in the cow’s monologue, which has such arch phrases as “the emotion of being wronged is a strong one, and hard to lay a hoof on”. When we come to “The Hag”, Jo Randerson clearly revels in the pus-and-poo-filled details as she describes a gangrenous old whore. For good measure, she throws in the kind of metaphors that would earn the sternest censure if used by a male writer (“after a pint or two all tunnels look remarkably the same to a well-stoked train”).
Everything in this book is defiantly non-naturalistic and most sketches lack any specifically New Zealand frame of reference. This didn’t worry me in the least. But I still felt relieved to encounter the title story. Told in the third-person, it is the most carefully crafted piece in the book. It is also the most traditional, built like a moral fable as Saint Peter confronts a woman who knows everything about how to win salvation except the most obvious thing. Here the author has stepped back from her material, structured it, and avoided “raving”. It is right that the collection is called after it.
Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian and reviewer.