Degrees of Separation
Work in Progress
Black Swan, $27.99,
If I didn’t know better, I might conclude from these novels that New Zealand wasn’t pleasant enough to stay put in. Eldred-Grigg’s protagonist pulls youths in Shanghai, Chloe’s husband in Emma Neale’s fourth novel is unfaithful in Honolulu, and Laurence Fearnley, following the logic of geography (and an Antarctic Arts Fellowship), locates her latest in the freezing southern wastes. The old tie to Europe is honoured by Paul Thomas, who sets much of his action in England and France. Is all of this the familiar Other Man’s Grass Syndrome, the suspicion that somewhere else is always more interesting than where we happen to be? Or is it even a displaced late manifestation of colonial cringe?
No, surely not – at best, these are only parts of the answer. Like Shakespeare’s forests, the various elsewheres in these fictions are serving fundamental catalytic functions as well. The locations, while interesting in themselves (and part of New Zealand’s continuing process of accommodation to the geographical facts), bring about self-examination, or trigger transforming crises, or oil the rites of passage.
Fearnley’s Sally is a composer, a divorcee, and the mother of a teenage daughter. During her brief visit to the Antarctic, we see her responding to the landscape, to the quiet, and to the scientists and others she’s thrown together with. It’s possible to convey in words a composer’s inner life, and the aesthetic struggles that may be enacted there (we think of Thomas Mann), but very little of this comes across in the portrayal of Sally. We do, however, see a woman alert to others, sensitive to beauty, dignified without being stuffy, attracted to Craig at the base but faithful to new partner Manu back home in Dunedin – an amiable if rather savourless woman. It’s Marilyn, a communications operator who makes rather a hash of reading the news on the base radio station, who hits a crisis. In the Antarctic for months rather than Sally’s couple of weeks, Marilyn has time for a relationship with Tobin, and by the time she’s in the plane heading home to Chris she’s pregnant, guilt-stricken, frightened of the future.
These two women are the focus of most of the narrative, and themselves bring into focus the experience of the Antarctic. Sally is profoundly affected by “the immensity of the space”, by “the vastness of her surroundings”, by “the unexpected variety of landscapes”. The narrative is candid about the rough charmlessness the Antarctic is capable of, but shows Sally making a virtue of this:
How different things would have been, she mused, if as a child she had flicked through the pages of her Ladybird book and seen illustrations of Scott’s party struggling over grey, stony ground on their way to the Pole. To have seen the Antarctic represented as something akin to the mounds of coal piled up at the Christchurch gasworks would, undoubtedly, have changed her perspective on events.
The need to rethink the received heroic image is given a bitter twist at the close, as Marilyn thinks of Chris, who has always dreamt of the Antarctic:
she imagined the colour draining from his face, his smile evaporating, as, word by word, she shredded his image of the Antarctic as if it was no more than a tattered black flag flailed in the wind. Now, when he looked at a map of the continent he would be unable to see his hero, Hillary, driving out across the pure, untracked territory before him. Instead, he would visualise his girlfriend on a bunk, her naked body shuddering like a seal humping its way across the frozen sea, as some man, a nobody, fucked her.
This is strong if melodramatic writing, full of human understanding and with other depths as well. Fearnley shows landscape’s supposed mirror of human conduct shattering: this radical questioning of anthropocentric projections upon the world out there is the paramount strength of Degrees of Separation, in an ecological as well as aesthetic sense. Interestingly, it is not accompanied by an equal even-handedness in gender thinking. The men get short shrift: Manu is a cipher, Tobin is the cliché man who doesn’t want deeper involvement, and the bird scientist William, to whom the third major narrative strand is devoted (though only a token 40 pages), is an overdrawn dry stick, caricatured as an emotional non-starter incapable of love, so fixated on his research that he can’t even handle his sons on a holiday.
Tellingly, it’s here that Fearnley produces one of her most striking narrative misjudgements. Having told us that one skua chick will drive a younger from the nest, and having followed this with a fight between William’s young sons, she can’t let the reader note the self-evident parallel but writes: “He had observed one son attack the other as if watching the elder of two skua chicks attack the younger, weaker one. Much as it now appalled him, he had treated his sons not as human beings, his own flesh and blood, but as case studies in a research project.” In a handsomely written novel, this laborious signposting is a nuisance.
Emma Neale shares Fearnley’s inability to give three-dimensionality to her male characters. Like Fearnley, she titles each section of her narrative from the character it focuses on, but those parts supposedly devoted to Colin turn out either to be really about Chloe (who turns up unannounced at his home) or about Anna and her “miscarriage and a procedure to … you know, clear everything out.” (This comes complete with dialogue along the lines of “I mean, it’s my body. Right? So there’s no … drama.”)
In fact, Relative Strangers is pretty unilaterally the story of Chloe, and the two problems in her life: the long-standing grief of having been given away for adoption by her mother, and the new grief of being betrayed by academic husband Allan, away making whoopee at a Honolulu conference. The second of these is powerfully handled – the few paragraphs in which Chloe, recognising the leather jacket worn by her husband’s lover as one she herself once gave him, revisits in her mind the day they made love on the jacket and he asked her to marry him, are among the most affectingly written in the novel. The emotional disorientation Chloe is plunged into by Allan’s infidelity is charted with feeling conviction by Neale (and rings true in a way Chloe’s encounter with her “birth aunt”, indeed the whole of the adoption strand of the narrative, doesn’t).
A fiction of this kind, which ventures everything on its truth-to-life, stands or falls by its ability to make the reader care about the protagonist, and success in that depends finally on the sinew and sensitivity of the language. Isabel Archer’s fearful marriage, in The Portrait of a Lady, would be merely another of life’s banal miseries without the infinite nuance of James’s style. Readers of Relative Strangers have to overcome the various stylistic obstacles Emma Neale strews in our way. There are moments of jarring contrivance: “Colin stopped like a clockwork mechanism that had suddenly run down”, or “She closed her eyes as if she were already halfway through a jack-knife dive, bottomless water hurtling towards her.” (Paul Thomas does this sort of image better. When his narrator writes, “Her disengagement made me feel like a cold-calling telemarketer”, the analogy hits the mood squarely on the head.)
After 120-odd pages of Chloe’s story, the first paragraph in a section headed “Colin” is as corny a cut as anything in Hollywood:
Chloe’s jagged version of the events that had propelled her here dwindled away. Her profile was lit by the last of the sun. Against the light from the living-room window, even the delicate fuzz of hair on her cheeks was visible. It was like the fibres on daisy stems, those tiny strands he’d noticed for the first time last night as he drank a bottle of Monteiths on the back lawn … .
Paul Thomas has no such difficulty with continuity in his latest novel, Work in Progress. It’s a polished, buttonholing performance, beginning in a present when writer Max Napier is dropped by his agent and his lover, and doubling back to recount his past life and loves in Paris and Sydney, before picking up the narrative back in Auckland when Stanley, an acquaintance who has made his pile, throws a party for Max’s 50 birthday and gives him a ticket to Paris, to revisit a past and a woman he’s still hurting for.
The characters are mostly disillusioned, articulate chatterers, and the novel is full of dialogue in which Frenchmen are (of course) wily and worldly about love and sex, and other men are full of disabused male knowingness about life, the universe and everything. “‘You know, you hear a lot of shit about the real America,’” says Stanley.
Most of the time they try to tell you the real America is a bunch of inbred retards out in the boondocks who really, truly believe there were such people as Adam and Eve … . Personally, I’m not sure that’s any more typically American than a bunch of faggots in a Manhattan salon discussing ballet.
The same tone, a roughed-up version of those declamatory cultural overviews that Robertson Davies put into his characters’ mouths is present in the first-person narrative of Napier:
What used to be skiting is now confidence, self-belief, being positive, feeling good about yourself, having attitude, and adopting this mindset is the key to everything we desire … . All we have to do is believe. Not in a Higher Being or Big Brother or a Little Red Book; in ourselves.
As if that weren’t enough, the next paragraph goes on: “When Marxism was revealed as the economic equivalent of the emperor with no clothes … and social democracy ran out of steam, that only left man’s exploitation of man ….” Argh.
Preachy one moment, entertaining the next, insufferable the next, Work in Progress isn’t at bottom about Max Napier at all, who wouldn’t be out of place in a fiction by Kingsley Amis. The story of Napier is a male, elbows-out, know-it-all story, indifferent to correctness and often abrasively cynical, but Thomas likes to surprise by sounding notes of intelligent tenderness in human relations. In fact he’s that rare beast among contemporary novelists, an impassioned moralist. Indifferent to the registers of sentiment or social-worker niceness, he writes a father-and-son dialogue (in the 10th chapter) that combines plain talking with affection, and both with a sense of the large moral context of lives. Thomas is a smart, energetic writer; at moments I wish he’d jettison some of the wearisome worldly wisdom and tell a plain, wonderfully human story. It’s there in this book, kicking to get out.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s protagonist has a dying father, too, but Manfred can’t be bothered thinking about his “dreary dying old doddery dad” and loathes the thought of “a stint more dad duty”. This moral ugliness pervades Shanghai Boy, making its narrator one of the most unappealing in recent fiction. Contemptuous of his Chinese students (whom he dismisses as “cheats and flatterers”), revolted by girls (who invariably have buck teeth or cold sores) but uncaring in his treatment of his male lovers, shrilly envisioning human life worldwide as an imprisonment under a “limitless lifeless immensity of concrete brick steel glass mortar”, this man has traded one unhappiness in New Zealand for another in Shanghai, and no matter how hard he fucks he can’t drive the demons away.
Eldred-Grigg tries to establish crime-story suspense, but in the end the question of whether Manfred has killed one of his students is far less interesting than the glimpses we’re given of that extraordinary 21st century metropolis Shanghai, with its towers of retro Art Deco, its sampans, canals, motorways and industrial parks, its streetside stalls selling crickets, its bungalows, its furniture like “Las Vegas Louis Seize”. No, this is no Shakespearean elsewhere that can catalyse new life. This is hell.
Michael Hulse, who teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick, has translated fiction by Goethe, Jelinek, Sebald and others.