The Writing Class
Random House, $38.00,
The Last Days of the National Costume
Allen and Unwin, $37.00,
Two writers of a similar age and stage in the development of their writing careers, lovers of language, skilled in a variety of genres, publishing novels within months of each other. Johnson and Kennedy started writing within a year of each other and have been recipients of various prizes, including Montana New Zealand book awards and University of Auckland literary fellowships. Their new novels are set in Auckland; though Johnson never names her city, what place other than Auckland can “a fast-growing city in the Southern Hemisphere” be?
Johnson and Kennedy are unashamed literary nerds: they love the idea of literature, they love to reference those who have gone before, both authors and their characters, and are overt about the relationship between reader and writer. Kennedy’s main character tells us midway through the novel: “There are more pages to go in this book, and so we know there is more. We’re privileged as readers and writers.” And Johnson makes the statement: “The beauty of the novel in full sail will never be lost, even as we choke in a plume of electronic soot.”
Open any page of either of these novels and you will find a reference to other books, other writers, the art of writing, knowing asides to those who revel in the art and history of literature. How wonderful in the age of “electronic soot” to be so old-fashionedly addicted to literature. And to believe that your readers will share your references, your literary jokes, your winks to the knowing reader.
Johnson references herself: “There was an interview online with the New Zealand writer Stephanie Johnson who, when complimented on her novel Rockin’ Robin, said, ‘oh no, that’s one of the American Stephanie Johnsons. There are several of us.’ ” And she quotes Anne Kennedy who “once remarked that all of us are writers and only some of us write it down”. And just in case you are tempted to make a theory about fiction, Kennedy’s main character does it for you: “if we don’t have any big stories to tell, we start feasting on ourselves. We eat our hands. It’s called literary theory.” Critic beware!
Johnson’s The Writing Class is more explicitly a book about literature, being described by the author as “a novel about writing”. It is both a writing manual and a novel in the traditional sense. Johnson manages this combination by making her main character, Merle Carbury (“Some people think it’s a name Trollope made up, but we do exist,” Merle tells another character, in a reference to Lady Carbury of Anthony Trollope’s The Way we Live Now), a lecturer in creative writing.
Merle teaches at a “beleaguered technical college that a decade ago had begun to confer university degrees”. She has been married for 30 years to Brendan who made cutting-edge documentaries until the money ran out, and he was made redundant. Now he spends his days at home in a polar fleece dressing gown, smoking under a tree in the garden. Merle’s “heart aches for Brendan, for the idealistic, take-no-prisoners, no bullshit lion-among-men that he used to be”.
The strongest part of the novel is the relationship between Merle and Brendan. One of Merle’s students reflects that “What seems to interest writers more these days are marriages that stay united … a whole universe of Indian and Arab writers rarely even consider divorce.” Johnson’s compassionate analysis of Merle’s and Brendan’s long marriage is unusual, particularly in New Zealand literature.
How satisfactory Merle’s and Brendan’s marriage is becomes obvious when compared to that of Merle’s student Jacinta and Hermann, a plastic surgeon. They and their twin daughters have emigrated to New Zealand and live in a McMansion somewhere by the sea. Jacinta believes Hermann “no longer has time for her”, and he sees a wife preoccupied with her writing course and neglecting her children.
It is almost a cliché that Jacinta has an affair with the other creative writing teacher, Gareth, who “does not make a habit of sleeping with his students”. For Jacinta, Gareth promises “a pairing of writers to delight and fascinate the world … she does not allow herself to alight on the fact that many of these pairings were miserable, impoverished, plagued by ill health of mind and body”. The reality for them is a poky flat, a small child missing her twin, Jacinta’s only writing space the kitchen (a cliché, she points out to Gareth) and Jacinta observing of Gareth, “Same book, different cover.”
The writing manual aspect of the novel is delivered through Merle’s classes, where she discusses beginnings and endings, planning and perspective, and the writer as performer. The novel is an example of all of these, presuming that Johnson herself expects to perform in public to promote it. Johnson’s strengths are in narrative, and evocation of place. The manual sections sit a little uneasily within these two aspects, and I am not sure if a prospective fiction writer or poet would derive enough advice from the writing manual sections.
The Last Days of the National Costume takes place during the five-week Auckland blackout in 1998. Megan Sligo, known as Go-go from her private school days, goes to university to study literature because
I’d always read a lot of literature, and if you like reading novels, and want to take them to bits and put them together like a clock and hope that they’ll still work afterwards, and if your parents happen to be reading If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller and leave it lying around the house, then you end up doing literary theory at varsity.
(You can see here how Kennedy uses literature as a motif; statements of this kind permeate the novel.)
Go-go meets Art (art-artifice), who becomes her husband, at a lecture by Derrida at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington. He has a Fulbright to go to America, and so they marry and Go-go drops out: “You can spend a long time getting educated and drop out relatively quickly.”
In America she becomes a mender of clothes, and when they return to New Zealand for Art to continue his thesis on Settler Literary Ephemera (again, an inside literary joke?), she realises she has the skills for a business. She sets up Megan Sligo Mending and Alterations and “I was in business … earning more than Art.”
This is a fascinating and quite unexpected analysis of the ignored craft of invisibly mending damaged clothing, and of fabric – its feel, the moving colours, the uses to which it can be put. What intrigues Go-go as much as the fabric and the art of mending are the stories her clients tell about how the damage occurred to the garments they bring for repair. At first they lie but, as she becomes more knowing, they confess to her so that eventually “I could tell, just from looking at a garment, how a pocket parted company with a panel, how a skirt split its pleat.”
The national costume of the title is an Irish dance dress of the kind we might have seen in Riverdance performances. The story of the costume is one of migration, from Ireland to New Zealand to escape the “Troubles”. “The client”, the owner of the dress, tells Go-go the story over several days as she mends the costume. The client “was like Mr Rochester, and what I had discovered was, I quite liked Mr Rochester, even though not many women would.”
And because Go-go likes Mr Rochester she drags out the repair of the costume, something she can do because the client, a banker, knows nothing about sewing. She unpicks what she has done, and at one stage deliberately tears it. She is angry, suspecting her husband of infidelity, and tearing the costume is revenge – by doing this she will prolong her contact with the client. Which is exactly what happens, allowing time for the client to tell his story, and for them to grow closer and their respective partners to move further away.
Inevitably they have an affair, which ends only when they are mugged by street kids who steal the costume. Shane the client disappears from her life, and her marriage with Art survives. The electricity comes back on, and Auckland returns to something resembling normality.
How necessary is the blackout to Go-go’s story? “I might have mended that particular dress in a pool of electric light, which I, like everyone, took so much for granted, and nothing would have changed.” The lack of electricity creates a kind of madness which allows people to do things which in the full light they would not contemplate. For Go-go the significance of what happened is that “another man, apart from my husband, loved me … I loved him, of course.”
Go-go and her life as a mender are completely engaging. The literary by-play is fun, and the evocation of Auckland would convince the greatest sceptic of the charms of the City of Sails. The lack of artificial light allows us to see the city as it really is, the setting sun, the heat, the light falling across Newton gully where Go-go and Art live. But when Go-go and the client fall into each other’s arms the novel seems to succumb to cliché. We know and Go-go knows that her marriage with Art is built to last: “I knew maybe this bit of love would save me from being destroyed.” Maybe that security allows her the temporary madness of the affair with the client.
Back with Art and the mother of two small children, Go-go becomes a student of literature again, studying “current theories behind Deformance: The Subjective in New Zealand Women’s Poetry”. Addressing the reader at the end of the novel, she says:
I set out to write about culture, loss of culture, economic movements etc, but I’ve ended up telling you quite a bit about myself … I’d like to thank you … I don’t think I would have been successful in keeping it secret.
Culture, loss of culture and economic movements are all there, but what is important for the reader, as for Go-go herself, is her personal response to those impersonal events. Because that, after all, is the stuff of literature, of the novel “in full sail”.
Heather Roberts is a Wellington reviewer.