On message, Isa Moynihan

Is She Still Alive? 
Tessa Duder
HarperCollins, $34.99,
ISBN 9781869507107

Alternative Medicine
Laura Solomon
Flame Books, $30.00 (approx), 
ISBN 978095562514

Tim Jones
Vintage, $27.99,
ISBN 9781864919844

In her introduction to Is She Still Alive? Tessa Duder says the stories are about “ordinary, middle-class women”, now in their 50s and 60s, coping with the enormous social changes of the past half-century, as well as with ageing itself. The three longest stories (the title story, “Post Mortem” and “Mother Earth”) cover 42, 56 and 63 pages respectively. Of the three, “Post Mortem” is the least successful, rather labouring the topic of obesity and the advertising of junk foods. Although the writing is passionate the “message” is too overt, as are the graphic descriptions of obesity and ugly ageing: “those majestic, overhanging terraces of pink blubber … the obscenely fat and pendulous upper arms”, and so on.

In “And I have chosen you”, the topic of advertising and the sexualising of young girls is addressed, but this time the format of aspiring schoolgirl writer seeking advice from older, established one lends itself better to the didactic tone. A few sly digs are aimed at the kinds of questions writers are asked, the assumption that their writing is autobiographical, the expectation that they have time to help students with their homework assignments, and, finally, a scathing attack on the intellectuals who dismiss those who write for children as suffering from arrested development.

There is a welcome leavening of black humour in three over-the-top self-portraits: Hugo Markham in “Vanessa” is the kind of manipulative, self-aware prat that gives actors a bad name; Maria, in the eponymous story (a sequel to Twelfth Night, set in present day Auckland), is the female equivalent; and Ruth Malfroy, narrator of “Just a Housewife”, reacts to the award of a QSM with such exaggerated disbelief, and protests her unworthiness at such length and with such over-the-top humility that it just has to be a send-up. She knits “wee matinée jackets” for “poor little scraps” born prematurely, plays the piano untiringly for children’s ballet classes (watching chubby six-year-olds “pointing their clumsy wee toes”), and enjoys seeing the glow on little faces as they overcome their problems with reading. There are brief moments of self-awareness when she recognises the cost to her long-suffering husband.

It is depressing to think that women in their 60s and beyond are mainly concerned with cherubic grandchildren, ungrateful children (and their unworthy spouses), and horrible husbands, such as the incompetent blow-hards of “Fair Stood the Wind for France” or the selfish, insensitive Howard Rex. Not to mention the ills of age: obesity, diabetes, impotence, loneliness.

Since the stories are for “women of a certain age”, they must be taken on those terms – although “scintillating” (as on the cover) is not the first word that springs to mind to describe them; neither can they be dismissed as fitting into what the egregious Hugo Markham describes as “short fiction’s menstrual school”. This is professionally skilled writing with a deliberately limited range of characters and subjects. It will be interesting to see what kind of writing will be inspired by Duder’s 2007 experience as artist in Antarctica.

Laura Solomon published two novels in this country before heading overseas some years ago, and Flame Books is a newcomer on the British publishing scene. It does not appear in The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook 2008, but describes itself as aiming “to publish the most exciting contemporary English-language fiction by excellent new authors.” Unfortunately there are design/layout flaws, such as very narrow margins and lack of story headings, and the copy-editing is woefully inadequate. The informal “alright” appears several times (as it does in Duder’s collection: has the usage become acceptable in formal writing?); there are errors at the semantic level: “incriminating” for “accusatory” , “flaunting” for “flouting” (twice); obvious typos: “a plaque of locusts”; possible typos: “lead” for “led”, “swatted” for “swotted”. But the worst example of careless – or non-existent – editing occurs on p197: “like he were a maestro”.

In general, the 18 stories in this collection take off with opening lines that engage one’s interest and develop the theme in a brilliant shower of symbols and images which sometimes, however, fall to earth in a closing that is either redundant and obvious or obscure and apparently irrelevant. Language too alternates between formal and casual, with too many incongruous Americanisms: “critters”, “ruckus”, “shucking off”, “peepers”, “moniker”, “bored of” etc.

Animals, birds and insects abound: there are bees, a praying mantis (as a rather  obvious symbol for a predatory female), butterflies, spiders and their webs; there are alligators and an eel, and of course the axolotl. On the cover the strange amphibian resembles a human foetus, its gill-feathered head and lizard tail a compact symbol of evolution/transition. In the longest of the stories, “Piano Lessons/War Stories”, the unfortunate axolotl is thoroughly exploited to represent cannibalism (of the family kind) and regeneration, as well as death from neglect – all leading to an ending that has become a cliché of war stories: “There is good reason for it, the silence that returned soldiers keep.” Another story, “Sprout”, is more successful: theme more focused, metamorphosis of woman into bird more effective. Here, and in other stories, there are welcome flashes of humour: the duvet/lover had “a plumage retention issue”, a feral cat suffered “an abusive kittenhood”.

The surreal is a difficult genre to use successfully. Although it allows the writer to use striking images, the relationship between the real and non-real has to be symbiotic and unforced. In some of these stories the metaphors and symbols seem to be driving the story instead of arising naturally from it. But if Solomon’s reach exceeded her grasp, at least she aimed high.

That 16 of the 27 stories in Tim Jones’s collection, Transported, were previously published in magazines and anthologies including Best New Zealand Fiction 4 (2007) testifies to their appeal to both editors and readers. They contrast brilliantly with the other two collections not only in variety of style and genre but also in originality of ideas. There are satire and surrealism; dystopias and parables; 19th century pastiches and contemporary vernacular – sometimes juxtaposed, as in “The Visit of M Foucauld to His Brother Wayne”. And all spangled with literary references and other, sometimes arcane, allusions.

Possibly inspired by The Wide White Page, Bill Manhire’s anthology of writings about Antarctica, Jones’s longest story, “Cold Storage”, pays tribute to H P Lovecraft, master of chthonian gothic, in which “anatomically unlikely beings” await reanimation. In future dystopias, cities are under water (“The Wadestown Shore”) or there’s standing room only (“Filling the Isles”), and Antarctica features as the only remaining unpolluted world.

Other targets for Jones’s skewering wit are politics, corporations, advertising, xenophobia, pretentious lit crit and (my favourite) the invasion of the local arts scene by bureaucracy and commercial jargon. In “Said Sheree”, poets are ranked in tiers “for funding purposes” and are reassessed and reclassified every autumn. Both “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev” and “Best Practice” give us caricatures of the worst excesses of corporate values in the best traditions of brilliant cartoonists who can sum up a complex situation in a few slashing strokes.

So, dazzling and highly entertaining and, for that reason, somewhat lacking in the canonical requirements of depth and layering. But sometimes an epigram says more than an essay. In Best New Zealand Fiction 3 (2006) Fiona Kidman says she has observed a world trend – “the return to narrative story-telling as high art” rather than linguistic pyrotechnics. Judging from these three collections, perhaps the narratives will be about bird people soaring above flooded cities where the ageing obese cling to the wreckage –possibly in Antarctica.


Isa Moynihan is a Christchurch reviewer. 


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Posted in Literature, Review, Short stories
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