The uncomfortable and the familiar, Hamish Clayton

The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories
Paula Morris (ed)
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143006817

A new collection of contemporary New Zealand short stories from Penguin, edited by one of our foremost authors, surely signifies an important publishing event. No doubt this anthology, comprising 31 stories from both established and more recent names, and surveying the last decade or so of the genre on the local front, will be well received by enthused reviewers and readers alike. Almost certainly it will be called an important collection. But what, exactly, does that mean?

Measuring 10 years of literary activity with over 400 pages of short stories feels like a lot of material covering a relatively short space of time; it seems reasonable to say that – if this anthology is anything to go by – New Zealand short stories and their writers are thriving. Certainly the collection continues a long and celebrated tradition of the form in New Zealand: our most enduring literary superstar, Katherine Mansfield, made the short story her own, while a number of later writers, concerned with the business of creating a New Zealand literature, also made their reputations with short fiction. Here, Maurice Duggan, Frank Sargeson, and, a little later, Owen Marshall, are the names that most easily spring to mind, but try thinking of significant local prose writers who haven’t tried their hands at short fiction, and you begin to see how important the form is to the wider literary scene in New Zealand. In that case, an anthology of contemporary short fiction seems like a good idea, perhaps because it offers a way of measuring the current state of the local literary product generally.

Editor Paula Morris explains in her introduction that she “would not include people simply because they were important names in New Zealand literature, especially if they were novelists only posing occasionally, and not always convincingly, as short-story writers.” All the same the contents page reads like a roll call of established and more recently noted New Zealand novelists: O’Sullivan, Grace, Stead, Ihimaera, Kidman, Farrell, Wilkins, Perkins, Gunn, Duignan and Catton. Similarly, Morris is wary of gathering “a list of usual suspects”. And yet several of the usual suspects do duly appear: noted short story writers like Marshall, Anderson, Grimshaw, and Nixon together with relative newcomers such as Julian Novitz, Sarah Laing and Anna Taylor. Most major New Zealand writers active in the last 10 years, then, are present, whether accepted presences or those whose stars are still rising.

Yet if the anthology as a whole is to tell us anything about the state of local letters, the absences, too, feel significant. It’s a shame that, although it’s 20 years since the last Penguin anthology appeared, the current edition only stretches back 10. But while the shortened mandate produces some surprise omissions – Lloyd Jones, for one – there is a larger point to be made here: over the last 10 or 15 years, the most remarkable New Zealand fiction has been characterised by a vibrant subject matter, familiar yet curious, which has dared to re-imagine, one way or another, how New Zealand itself can be seen. Alongside Jones’s own The Book of Fame, you could include Nigel Cox’s The Cowboy Dog, and Dylan Horrocks’ superb graphic novel, Hicksville, as exceptional and acclaimed efforts which have boldly re-drawn the picture of our national literature through their subtle yet forceful challenges to the canon, and hence their re-imagining of what we think of when we think of New Zealand literature. Unlike Jones, Cox and Horrocks are not short story writers, so they are naturally excluded, but, more tellingly, it is the energy of their fiction – the pure galvanising force which permeates their work – that often feels lacking throughout large swathes of Morris’ selection. It might seem a harsh criticism to make, but parts of this anthology feel weighed down by a preponderance of the drearily domestic. It’s a harsh criticism because capturing the dreariness underlying the everyday is, no doubt, part of the point of the individual stories. Although they usually handle themselves well enough, I wondered, simply, if 31 stories, when they’re so often riffs on that overarching theme, was overdoing it.

Still, if you like the template, then you’ll find lots to like here. The grimness which marks many of these stories is not the grimness of, say, Raymond Carver, where ordinary, usually blue-collar, lives are explored through prose pared down to the bare minimum for maximum emotional effect; the local short story writer’s language of choice is, demonstrably, on the whole far too elaborate, far too floral, for that. Yet nor is it the grimness of Mansfield, where the beauty of description and the brilliantly wrought impression of experience redeems the stifling unease of her characters’ situations. Most of the people in these stories are people whose relationships don’t quite work, who do normal things, who move through life reflecting on experiences which seldom end with closure or wisdom, yet whose lives do include big moments, and hence the opportunity for weighty reflection. While they contemplate the love affairs that never were, or marriages that have ground down to the humdrum of the routine, or the necessity of working in meaningless jobs, they face as well their family secrets, suicides in their midst, pervading states of mental depression.

Perhaps that sounds like business as usual for our short-story writers, but looking beyond these you will also find, quietly nestled in the best pieces here, a desire to disrupt the form itself, to go beyond the usual boundaries of short fiction. These were the stories to which I gravitated. Damien Wilkins’ “A Wide Clear Window” is perhaps the story that best points to a willingness to experiment, but interestingly – crucially, even – Wilkins’ experiments are with form rather than subject. Almost unwieldy sentences unravel and meander, deliberately taking the reader away from the repeatedly declared subject matter, “the writer who is the subject of this story”, but who also goes both unnamed and unseen. True, perhaps the experiment feels forced at times, but there is no denying that Wilkins demonstrates how the mundane of the everyday can still make for riveting reading.

On the other hand, David Geary’s captivating “Gary Manawatu [1964-2008]: Death of a Fence-Post-Modernist” contains moments of crazy joy and heartbreak, but it is the form as well as the content of the story that most marks it out as something special. It feels like a personal eulogy – though I haven’t checked and part of me doesn’t want to – for a friend of Geary’s, an artist whose madcap vision and enthusiasm disguise an inner heartache and lifelong yearning, but whose largely undiscovered creative exploits also re-weave the yarn of some of our most enduring artistic myths, combining Mulgan’s man alone with Crump’s good keen man, adding a dash of Tama Iti’s activist artist and throwing in a measure of Len Lye’s outsider genius to boot. Geary is unafraid to tell the story in its own terms, unconcerned with the oft-repeated maxim that a short story ought to behave like a poem. Instead his language is refreshingly uncluttered by the fussiness of the misfiring poet and his story sings with its own voice, a voice that feels held together with number 8 wire.

Another bizarre treasure is Tim Jones’s “The New Neighbours”, where shape-shifting aliens subject themselves to the snobbery attendant on moving into the worst house on the best street in an affluent New Zealand suburb. Elsewhere Duncan Sarkies, William Brandt and Jo Randerson spin yarns out of quite different whimsies but to similar ends, where darkly comic effects disguise potentially far-reaching speculations on the worth of the values we supposedly, perhaps mistakenly, hold dear. Sarkies’ classic skit of a date which ends in a hospital A&E, Brandt’s rat-catcher fable, and Randerson’s witty workplace narrative contrived entirely in management-speak all parody character types we are all familiar with – probably uncomfortably so.

Fittingly, it is the mixture of the uncomfortable and the familiar which marks out the most interesting and relevant stuff here, coming to a head in the closing piece, a strong offering – perhaps the best in the anthology – from Witi Ihimaera. Ihimaera knows how to explore a culture with equal parts celebration and lamentation and at times the directness of his story-telling and his handling of cultural elegy recalls Kazuo Ishiguro’s remarkable Japan novels. Perhaps more than any other, this piece shows, cannily, both where the greatest strength of local letters is to be found, and where the most interesting and lasting work needs to be done, if New Zealand writers are to produce work that is meaningful at the site of the local but which resonates in universal terms as well.


Hamish Clayton is a freelance writer. 


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Posted in Literature, Review, Short stories
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