Literary litmus tests, Siobhan Harvey

Dark Jelly 
Alice Tawhai
Huia, $30.00,
ISBN 9781869694760


The Desolation Angel
Tim Wilson
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780864736482


Bird North and Other Stories
Breton Dukes
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780864736901


More than any other literary form, it’s the short story New Zealand writers have turned to when deliberating social mores and concerns. There’s something about the concision which has persuaded readers to favour it in addition to or above the lengthy labour of reading a novel. There’s something about the precision which has allowed readers to marvel at it, and given added esteem domestically and internationally to the best examples of the craft and their writers. The short story has woven itself into our historical fabric over the last 150 years, its ability to build something afresh, separation from “another”, atmosphere, obliqueness and familiarity being symbols of the things we’ve long prided ourselves upon. And, like this ongoing cultural negotiation and redefinition of nationhood, the short story remains experimental. In this openness to experiment lies its key ability to resurrect itself (in form, language, theme) with each generation. Alice Tawhai’s Dark Jelly, Tim Wilson’s The Desolation Angel and Breton Dukes’s Bird North and Other Stories prove not only how alive the modern-day short story is but reinforce the form’s enduring linguistic and thematic vitality.

Dark Jelly is Alice Tawhai’s third collection. Skilful is the first word that occurs at the book’s conclusion. After that comes light, for Tawhai is a writer intrigued by light – its symbolism and imaginative terrain, the liminal spaces and hinterlands beyond it. It’s no coincidence that her previous collection was entitled Luminosity. In Dark Jelly, everything shady, threatening and bleak is also explored. The result is 25 stories that illustrate and illuminate deeply confrontational, disturbing yet necessary subjects. “Everything You Hear” is the stand-out story, a tale which lit up the page when first published in Marco Sonzogni’s Lost in Translation: New Zealand Stories (2010). A second reading here only reinforces its splendour. On one level, the plot offers a warning against herd mentality. But Tawhai also examines the wider fallibility of perception and rationality. Fallibility is at the core of Dark Jelly’s other strong offerings. In “BIG Y, little y”, Yolanda, resident of psychiatric institution Mahuta Lodge, finds the solution to her condition outside medical know-how. In “Roses are Red”, misogynist prisoner Caesar discovers the shortcomings of his staunchly gendered opinions. Meanwhile, the title story sees the brutal world of drug-taking set against a child’s experiences of bullying and self-loathing.

Throughout the collection, Tawhai emphasises colours, their tones and textures, with a quarter of the titles referring to them, including “Red Moon” and “Violet”. Elsewhere, colour embroiders meanings, electrifies the prose, adds intertextuality and suggests links between otherwise unconnected narratives. For instance, the white, yellow and black which atmospherically open “BIG Y, little y” are lyrically revivified in the later story “East of the Sun”: “The black buildings of the rest home contrasted with the beds of orange marigolds. They were edged with the ocean-jewelled eyes of paua, and looked like traffic islands on the dark-green lawn.” Later, in the title story, these colours become something more brutal, mirrors of the subtext: “Blood, thick and purple like stewed plums, came out of her nose and mouth. ‘She won’t be sucking no white smoke up a pipe for a while,’ muttered somebody.” This is exact, succinct, cleverly-layered stuff. The use of colour might pass by on first reading, but Dark Jelly is a thought-provoking book worthy of multiple readings.

As with his first novel, Their Faces Were Shining, Tim Wilson’s The Desolation Angel is framed by themes of religion, disillusionment, scepticism and family dysfunction, by convincing, edgy personal narratives and by a distinct writing style that seems to pitch itself between the contemporary literatures of his present home, America (Egan, Moore, Eugenides et al), and his birthplace, New Zealand (Wilkins, Grimshaw, Catton et al). Not that there’s anything derivative about The Desolation Angel. Time and again, Wilson’s control of plot, voice and perspective is commanding. The title story, for instance, is a taut, stylish deconstruction of its protagonist’s slide into psychosis, Western consumerist excess and the bipolarity (passion-peculiarity) of fundamentalist faith:

“Why do you have this car?” said the Desolation Angel. The bonnet of my Audi Q7 is a triumph of symbolic aerodynamics. Also, I love it.

His lips curled dismissively. “I can read you like a cheap novel. This isn’t a car, it’s a wound, an open mouth crying for approval.”

The luscious prose, inventive imagery and protagonists authenticated by the accuracy of their fakeries are what make this story brilliant. They are also the outstanding attributes of the collection as a whole. “The Desolation Angel” seems destined to become a cornerstone of future New Zealand short story anthologies, as do stories like “The Dress Your Daddy Is Wearing”, “The Big Overseas Experience”, “Suits” and “Coming and Going”. The first of these is constantly resourceful, defying the reader’s expectations from the off with paragraphs portraying a battle-scarred, dress-wearing, nurturing anti-hero. “The Big Overseas Experience” deftly handles multiple points of view, while “Coming and Going” examines a family of dislocated, dysfunctional characters.

Breton Dukes’s first collection, Bird North, offers a portrayal of a New Zealand – its peoples, landscapes, customs – which is more mellow and discreet than Tawhai’s and Wilson’s, but no less nuanced. His short fictions, like those written in first books by earlier IIML graduates like Craig Cliff, contain a frisson of homage to, and intertextuality derived from, earlier masters like Sargeson, Duggan and Middleton. For instance, Dukes’s protagonists are young, emotionally stymied, culturally confused Pakeha males, fleshed out in ways which reinforce their multiple, divergent alienations. The difficulty for Dukes (and indeed for any New Zealand short story writer whose work ghosts that of earlier authors) is to balance evocation with distinctiveness. Bird North’s first two pieces, “Shark’s Tooth Rock” and the titular story, achieve a commendable equilibrium between the two. In the former, too chilled-out Ross and Greg undertaking a spear-fishing trip could easily be grandsons of Duggan’s drifter Buster in “Along Rideout Road That Summer”; while, in the latter, middle-aged hunter-cum-mountain-runner Bird could easily deputise for Mr Williams in Sargeson’s “A Man of Good Will”. But, equally, the economical prose, authorial direction and ambience in both stories seem individual, as this description of the Te Anau hinterland in “Bird North” illustrates:

Marcus stood and went around a stump, past Bird, and to the edge. It wasn’t so much a hole as a crater. The floor and sides of it were lined with more moss. It was perfectly round and the right size for a merry-go-round.

Through these two stories and others like “Argentina” and “People and Animals”, the strongest themes from post-war male story writers – such as disaffection and the homo-eroticism of mateship – are updated and intensified. Todd in “Argentina” and Benny in “People and Animals” find intimacy a fraught yet ultimately liberating experience, offering a “New Bloke” spin on Sargeson’s and Duggan’s romance-phobic protagonists. This said, there are times when Dukes’s attempts to expand the short story’s boundaries do fall short. One wishes for more (name, personality, sub-story) of the Asian couple in “Shark’s Tooth Rock”, while the omniscient, postmodern ending to “People and Animals”, though beautifully rendered, feels inconsistent with the personal perspective elsewhere.

A review like this might seem to demand a conclusion which ponders the general health (or otherwise) of the New Zealand short story. However, such an overview would be restricted to its moment in time. Instead, if Tawhai’s, Wilson’s and Dukes’s collections are taken as litmus tests, they demonstrate social and literary shifts away from the work of their predecessors. In their ability to reflect present-day social strengths, weaknesses, fortitudes and foibles, in their diversity of voices, atmospheres, geographies and protagonists, and in their evident authorial control, these three collections show us how relevant the short story remains.


Siobhan Harvey’s poetry collection Lost Relatives appeared last year.


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Posted in Literature, Review, Short stories
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