Telling moments, Lawrence Jones

Collected Stories
Barbara Anderson
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864734980

In the “Author’s Note” prefacing her The Peacocks and Other Stories, Barbara Anderson said that she found “writing short stories requires a completely different technique from writing novels”, and that she especially enjoyed writing and reading those stories that most differ from novels in their structure, stories of “the fleeting-glimpse school of short fiction”. Certainly it was as a short-story writer that she burst on the New Zealand literary scene in 1989 with I Think We Should Go Into the Jungle, published when she was 63. She had attended what she called the “Last Chance Saloon” of Bill Manhire’s writing course in 1983 and within five years had had stories and plays read on Radio New Zealand, had published stories in Landfall, the New Zealand Listener, Sport and Metro, and in 1988 had won two short-story competitions, been placed third in another and shortlisted in yet another. That first collection was shortlisted for both the Goodman Fielder Wattie and the New Zealand Book Awards and was published in the UK in 1993, receiving reviews comparing her to Raymond Carver and Grace Paley, implying that she belonged with the best short-story writers in English of the previous 30 years. It was a remarkable debut, and it was as a short-story writer.

She followed immediately in 1990 with Girls High, a novel made up of 17 linked stories, taking a varied group of characters through one academic year at the girls’ high school that she had first introduced in the longish “School Story” and in the related but more restricted “Fast Post” in her debut volume. It was very much a short-story writer’s novel, a technical tour de force in which she demonstrated a full range of short-story narrative methods: a story-chapter entirely in indirect speech; one entirely in dialogue; some told in the first-person present tense; some in the third person limited to the inside views of one character; some in the third person with both the point of view and the focus moving through a range of characters; others in which the focus remains on one character but the point of view moves around.

After such an exhibition of the short-story writer’s art, it might have been anticipated that she would go on with more stories. However, her next book, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife was a “straight” novel (which won the Wattie Book Award in 1992), and she followed it with six more novels in the next 12 years, none of which could be described as short-story writer’s novels. In that time only one collection of short stories appeared, the slender The Peacocks in 1997 (Glorious Things, which came out in the UK in 1999, was basically the same collection, with the title story omitted and three others added.) The novelist seemed to have subsumed the short-story writer.

Now Collected Stories invites us to view the short stories on their own. Although it contains only three previously uncollected stories, the book adds up to a substantial body of work when one joins to them the 16 stories of the first collection, the eight of the second, and the three added to Glorious Things. Like the short stories of Janet Frame, Maurice Shadbolt, Fiona Kidman and Patricia Grace, these demand attention as stories, not as off-cuts from the novelist’s workshop (although “Real Beach Weather” from Glorious Things did become a chapter in Long Hot Summer in 1999).

“Short-story writers are good noticers,” Anderson commented in that “Author’s Note” prefacing The Peacocks. Her eye for social detail serves her well in these stories. Of course such details are also important to the novelist. But in the novel there is much more room to move, the details can work cumulatively, while in the short-story they must be more carefully selected to glow with suggestion.

In her 1998 “Beginnings” essay in Landfall 195. Anderson cited Henry James on the need for “specification”, indicated that such details can be taken from one’s own remembered experience, and gave as an example a description of a butcher shop in A S Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden: “Writers don’t have to invent each tiny fly that buzzes, each drop of blood that leaks”, for they can take something they have seen “maybe yesterday, maybe 20 years ago … learn to pick up the image, dust off the fly, and use the memory for verisimilitude.” Probably her own memory of Hawke’s Bay butcheries of more like 60 years before underlie her description of the butcher as seen through the eyes of the retrospective narrator of “The Grateful Dead”. Telling her she was a lucky girl to have such a pretty mother, the butcher took a piece of liver that was “bleeding tears of blood on the sawdust beneath”, “slammed it on an inadequate piece of paper on the scales” and then with both hands “stroked the skirt of his striped apron, leaving tracks”. The precisely seen details not only give verisimilitude; they also, more importantly, imply the grossness that lurks beneath the neat surfaces so valued by the narrator’s proper mother, who “never has a hair out of place” but who carries on an adulterous affair with a most unpleasant and devious neighbour.

Repeatedly Anderson gets just the right social detail from worlds she remembers: the dressing gowns of the teachers at the 1940s Hawke’s Bay boarding college for girls of “Peppermint Frogs” – “the plaids, the camels, the florals and the sad”; the dressing-table mats made by the recently deceased unmarried librarian of “Discontinuous Lives”, on which “three flesh-pink mini-hands hold parasols, six tiny feet wade among button-hole stitch, forget-me-nots, lazy daisies, and blades of single stitch grass.” Such details not only reveal the social background but also build a sense of the characters, as do their exactly observed idioms and mannerisms. Some of these characters in the more “vivisective” stories (S L Goldberg’s term for Joyce’s Dubliners) are the butts of humorous satire. In “Up the River with Mrs Gallant”, the tourist couples and their fatuous guide are skewered through indirect speech, a flat third-person account echoing their idiom as it reports what they say and do. More typically, the exact idiom and gesture reveal characters, usually women, who are trapped in futile lives that they cannot change but only live with. For many of them their situation is what Mavis recognises as hers in “So Lovely of Them”: “It’s simply a matter of doing the best you can with what’s left.”

Anderson in that 1997 “Author’s Note” compares stories she likes to Diane Arbus photographs that catch their human subjects “at a particularly telling moment”, leaving them “suspended in time and place” as they reveal themselves. Many of these stories end with such freeze-frame epiphanies: Mavis weeping in frustration at her marriage, disguising from her brutally uncomprehending husband the cause of her tears; the “competent” Sheila’s unexplained but symbolically revelatory outburst to a puzzled friend at the end of “Egypt is a Timeless Land” as her husband stares out the window; the narrator’s despairing “Forget it” to her angry estranged husband in “Shanties”; Noeline’s pitiful Miss Brill moment, overhearing what her new friends really think of her, in “The Daggy End”. The realism is unsparing, the sympathy implicit.

In many of these stories the freeze-frame ending gathers in one moment the implications of a sometimes considerable span of life that has been shown to us in the body of the story, either directly or in memory. In “The Peacocks”, for instance, the final image, seen from the outside, is of Denise suddenly breaking down. The story opens with her visit to her doctor to confide her obsession with the image of peacocks, and continues with her sudden freeing from the obsession after she leaves his office. Thus on the bus to work she feels she can safely remember the actual peacocks of her experience, kept by the village shopkeeper when she was a child. She remembers that in her childhood the inner image of the “shimmering colour” of the display of the peacocks was the talisman she used to offset her feelings about her mother’s suicide and her father’s neglect, and that the shopkeeper’s later banishment of the birds to the “dank stinking shed” where he “killed the odd ewe” was traumatic for her in adolescence. Believing herself finally freed from the obsession, she happily enters her work in a medical laboratory, where “all was observation, order, routine” and “There was always an answer”. When at the end of the story the point of view changes to see Denise from the outside – her sudden rigidity, her violent gesture of brushing to the floor the slides on which she has been so carefully working, her gasp about the peacocks screaming inside her – the reader has enough clues to see that the scream of the peacocks is really her own, a breaking forth of her repressed pain from her own loveless life for which she has been able to find no answer.

Not all of the stories end with so bleak an epiphany. Some of Anderson’s characters are shown recognising and coping with their situations – not a resolution but at least a kind of affirmation. In “Living on the Beach”, Mary is in the difficult situation of being sole carer for an aging and dependent father. However, although she is a reticent person whose life has been severely restricted, she has the ability to take pleasure from small things: a humorous moment with her father, a swim in the ocean, a good conversation with a neighbouring widower and an appreciation of his positive encounter with her father. The story ends with the image of her bellowing out “Frankie and Johnny were lovers”, as she strides along the beach against the wind.

Paula, in the previously uncollected “The Man with the Plug in His Nose”, can appreciate the irony of the gap between her hopes for her marriage and the actuality: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. A Yiddish saying. And right on the button.” She has the strength and courage finally to leave the marriage, the flexibility to enjoy an encounter with a Canadian man, the realism not to expect too much of it (“Partners? Wives? Not a mention. Oh well.”), and the resilience to murmur, as she lies in her backpackers’ dormitory bed, “grinning into the darkness”: “’So what! … . Don’t fuss lady’”. Nothing has been resolved, she is moving into the unknown, but she senses she can handle it.

Anderson’s stories present a gallery of characters, mostly women, with their usually difficult life situations revealed and not resolved, seen against an economically and suggestively depicted society. She restricts herself to worlds and occasions she knows: a girls’ high school, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, small-town New Zealand life in the 1930s and 40s, middle-class marriage. Most of the stories, she says, “come from brief glimpses, from things I have imagined or remembered or half-forgotten, and a combination of these.” And she has the command of the techniques of the short-story – the control of narrative point of view, the selection of detail, the exact and economical language – to bring these glimpses to life on the page. As she has said, speaking of some of her favourite stories: “From such brief moments can grow stories as unforgettable as great dramas.” These stories, the product of 20 years of intermittent writing in the genre, aspire to such quality, and enough of them achieve it, to make this volume stand independent of the novels as a considerable accomplishment.


Lawrence Jones is a Dunedin literary historian. 


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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