Penguin Books, $28.00,
Etiquette for a Dinner Party
The Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 5
Owen Marshall (ed)
The problem with reviewing short story collections is that each individual story, even those that don’t work, opens up a new world for the reader, making it difficult to move on to the next without pause for reflection. When the volume in question contains stories written by many different writers, the problem, inevitably, is exacerbated.
In Owen Marshall’s eclectic The Best New Zealand Fiction, I found I could only do justice to each story if I limited my reading to one, or at the most two, a day. Attempting to jump from Charlotte Grimshaw’s gripping melodrama of revenge to Vincent O’Sullivan’s moving meditation on the death of a mother, or from Eleanor Catton’s disturbing slice of urban life to Graeme Lay’s take on marital infidelity, my mind was soon silted up with so many contradictory images I had to stop the search for connecting threads, and start taking each story at face value.
So I begin this review by looking at the most cohesive of the three collections, Paula Morris’ Forbidden Cities. According to the publisher’s blurb the link between these 13 stories is the fact of their widely differing urban locations – Auckland, New York, London, New Orleans, Shanghai, Budapest, Los Angeles. An impressive list by any calculation, but in my view not so much a linking device as an indication of the range of Paula Morris’ interests and imagination.
The unifying factor in this collection is to be found in its themes, in particular the theme of betrayal. Several of the stories are built round acts of marital infidelity. In the opening story, “Like a Mexican”, skilfully told in the difficult second person, the “you” of the story has an affair with a married Mexican banker; in “The City of God”, a middle-aged woman, visiting her daughter in Shanghai, stumbles upon her son-in-law’s Chinese mistress; in “Chain Bridge”, a 30-something woman visits her friend in Budapest, where she embarks on a relationship that she hopes will distract her from her recently ended affair with a married man; in “Many Mansions”, a separated couple meet at the funeral of the man’s mother, briefly connect, then part again; in “The Argyle”, two married business associates have unsatisfactory sex after an evening out in Los Angeles.
But there is more to these stories than an investigation of marital infidelity. Of greater interest to this reader, and I suspect to the author herself, are those betrayals that reach beyond the merely personal. In “Spanish Round the House”, a subtle picture is created of the devastation caused by the flooding of New Orleans, its impact all the more effective for its apparent distance from the event itself. In “Rangatira” (my personal favourite), the long slow betrayal of Maori by the courts and government of 19th century New Zealand is given compelling form in the story of the warrior, Paratene Te Manu, evicted from his tribal lands on Little Barrier Island. In the strange and not altogether satisfactory story, “Testing”, the need of a job, and the fear of losing it, creates an atmosphere in which betrayal seems inevitable. In “Red Christmas”, a mother’s drunken betrayal of her children casts a sombre shadow over the story of three Auckland street kids.
Betrayal, unsatisfactory sex, the unbridgeable distances between people (even – perhaps especially – between members of the same family), these are the themes that tie this impressive collection together. Plus the freshness of the language – “The motorway was a string of lights, stretching across the water like a washing line leading to the city”; “His face was blank and set, as though it was held in place by clothes pegs.”
Morris knows what she is doing. She doesn’t waste time explaining. The reader often has to wait till well into the story before learning where it is set, and who the characters are in relation to one another. This is not mystification for its own sake, but rather a consummate craftsperson operating at the top of her game. The only story that didn’t work for me was “Bright”. I couldn’t escape the impression that it had been written as a creative writing exercise. But that is a minor caveat when set alongside the range of this collection. A pity then that Penguin chose to print on what looked and felt like cheap paper. Both writer and reader deserve better.
It was not hard to find the linking factor in Sue Orr’s debut collection, Etiquette for a Dinner Party (also, regrettably, printed on cheap paper). It’s there in her distinctive voice, at once strong, clear, and relentlessly colloquial. One of the most successful stories in the collection is titled, “The Stories of Frank Sargeson”. Though there is nothing in this particular story to do more than hint at the author’s debt to Sargeson, his voice is a persistent echo throughout the collection. What Orr has done is take Sargeson’s particular brand of uncluttered realism and re-shape it for the 21st century.
In “Velocity”, an untrained vet assistant sacrifices his relationship to his obsession with a racing pigeon; in “Friday Lunch”, an Auckland taxi driver shares his gourmet secret with a sympathetic female passenger; in “Fee Simple”, a bored real estate agent suffers a mental breakdown; in “The Death of Mrs Harrison”, a family keep vigil at the bedside of their dying mother and grandmother. And so on.
None of which means that Orr is a clone of Sargeson. Far from it. Skilled though she is at capturing the male voice, there is something unmistakably female in her approach to her characters and the situations they find themselves in. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the story, “Look Ma, No Hands!”, which charts a young man’s difficulties in coming to terms with his widowed mother’s affair. The sly humour of this story – another of Orr’s strengths – is beautifully captured in both situation and language. Here is Jim, the protagonist, having breakfast with his mother, painfully aware of the third place setting at the table: “He picked up the jam jar, stabbed at its contents with his knife, spread the thick blend of dark red fruit across his toast. It looked like road kill.”
Inevitably, in a collection of this size, some stories are more successful than others. “Things To Do and See in Chicago”, with its neat ending, struck me as contrived. As did “Hangi”: I admired the audacity of its premise (staging a hangi in a village outside Paris), but was unconvinced by the characters. There were times too when I grew tired of the colloquial voice, and longed for a story that broke free of the straitjacket of realism. But these are minor criticisms. What this collection lacks in variety of tone is more than compensated for by the occasional shocking revelation. The last few paragraphs of the title story pack a devastating punch, as does the climax to “How Women Behave When Men Are Losing Their Wives”. Orr writes mostly of “ordinary” folk, but she is not afraid to look at what lies beneath the veneer of civilisation.
In his introduction to The Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 5, Owen Marshall declares that the aim of this, as of earlier collections, is to “provide a showcase of writing produced in the last year or so by authors with a close connection to this country”. “For a story to succeed,” Marshall writes, “there needs to be a sense of entity and balance – an artistic completeness … .” Discussing his criteria for selection, he cites as the most significant factor the pleasure principle. In other words, the stories gathered here have all, in their different ways, given him pleasure.
In the face of this the reviewer’s task is relatively simple. Do the stories live up to the standards Marshall has set or not?
First let me say that many, perhaps most, of the stories succeed admirably. For every pat ending or over-explanation, there are stories that reach, or at least come close to, Marshall’s rigorous criteria. Carl Nixon’s “My Beautiful Balloon” is one such, a skilfully crafted story of a balloon pilot’s re-connection with a Japanese woman, seven years after the crash that killed her husband. Then there is Julian Novitz’s chilling re-creation of a student business enterprise; Vincent O’Sullivan’s despairing vision of the failure of a mother’s love to bridge the gap between parent and child; Lizzie Harwood’s initially confusing, but ultimately gripping, tale of infidelity in Paris; Charlotte Grimshaw’s “Opportunity”, an account of a woman’s revenge, told with all the sweep and verve of an Alice Munro story.
But there are disappointments: Paul Chapman’s “Manoeuvres” seemed to me to stay too close to the autobiographical writing that, according to the author’s notes (something I would like to see done away with!), underpinned it; Craig Cliff’s “Copies” gave away the theme – “Life is a series of imperfect repetitions” – in the first sentence, then laboured the point through to the end; Alice Tawhai’s promising “Pants on Fire” didn’t quite hang together as it should.
Other stories, while well-crafted, failed to engage my sympathies: Shonagh Koea’s “A Room for Baskets”, a cool little tale of the meeting of two strangers in a cafe in Broken Hill; Peter Wells’ complex weaving of a story of two teenage girls hitchhiking in the North Island, a story which lost some of its credence when he used the word “panties”, not, I think, current jargon among today’s teenagers; Eleanor Catton’s evocative tale, “Necropolis”, which, for all its brilliance, left me wondering what, actually, it was about.
In the end, though, much of what one likes or dislikes about a story is inevitably subjective. “Artistic completeness” can bring real satisfaction, but it’s only when the heart is involved that a story stays in the mind, working its magic long after the book has been closed. The fact that not all of these stories yielded the pleasure described by their editor is hardly surprising. Any other editor would have made a different selection. But, as collections go, this one is up there with the best. I look forward to volume six.
Elspeth Sandys is a Wellington writer and reviewer.