The Grass Catcher: A Digression About Home
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
The protagonist of the present-day portion of Symmes Hole (1986), Ian Wedde’s canonical and underread novel about settler colonialism, is obsessed with history. He digs and delves in it, but his tools are not always archival in nature. Early in the novel he gulps down an unnamed psychoactive agent that fuels a long hallucinatory reverie of Pacific history. Why the drug? It has its comic uses, of course, but its chief interest is to give history a paradoxical sense of reality, as if the events of the past could be brought right up close and visible by chemical means. The drug does not give its taker any certain, magical knowledge of history. In fact, quite the reverse: it allows rumours and legends into the story as well, and troubles the veracity of the whole picture. But it imbues the past with the glow of urgency. As such, it is one solution to a literary problem that is common, but not limited, to historical fiction: how to make done deeds, matters of dry historical record, leap across the gap that separates them from the pressing concerns of our lives now. In his altered state, Wedde’s researcher need not go looking for the past ‒ the past comes to him. The danger (and the source of much humour) is that it makes history meaningful at the expense of making the historian a dissociative, drug-addled lunatic whom no-one else would go near.
The Grass Catcher, Wedde’s memoir-essay about home, comes at the other end of a long and distinguished career as a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry ‒ one that has earned him the ONZM and a period as poet laureate, among other recognitions. In it, however, we encounter another urgent history, pressing itself on the attention of another obsessed researcher. This time, the researcher is Wedde himself, and the past comes at him in the form of particular objects and memories, seen as if through the lens of the history drug. The childhood memory of the grass catcher on his father’s lawnmower is experienced with a shock of “fantastic weirdness”, related somehow to the “ordinary familiarity” of the object. One part of Wedde’s method is to take seriously these urgent memories ‒ to trust them, while not necessarily regarding them as accurate representations of the past. They are inhabited by the objects that give the book its chapter titles: “The ivory bracelet”, “The shit” (not quite an object), “The ball gown”, “The blanket”, “The rook’s nest” and, of course, “The grass catcher” itself.
Although there is no mention of drugs here, the danger of dealing with the obsessive type has not entirely gone away. Is there not a hint that his interest, his method, his obsession is not quite, well, normal? Why dig and delve? Doesn’t most of the world carry on happily (or unhappily ‒ but we’ll come to that) with its present, leaving the past to its faded and dusty silence? Wedde knows all this, and contrasts his own temperament early on with that of his twin brother Dave. Although there are times when his remembering and Dave’s take place in the book together, as it were, in conversation, Dave is also set up as a figure of an equanimity opposed to the author’s own searching discontent. It is a graceful contrast, and Wedde himself does not always come out the better for it. It serves now to cast suspicion on Dave’s contentment, now to problematise Wedde’s own angst. By the end of the book, each position, each character has been thoroughly examined in the light of the other.
The topic of all these memories and conversations ‒ the place, if you like, where all those objects come from ‒ is home. Remembering returning to the family’s garage at night and seeing the grass catcher become a strange, amorphous, unrecognisable object in the car headlights, Wedde writes:
I arrived home then, and it was both a comforting place I lived in with my family and a place whose spookiness excited me into a kind of private trance; and again, many years later when I remembered the grass catcher, I arrived at a place that was at once homely and unheimlich.
That last, Freudian, word is another way to talk about the urgency that memories can take on, and though it is generally translated as “uncanny”, the relationship to home is important. Wedde fastens repeatedly on the un-homely aspects of home, the things that hint at trouble and dissatisfaction there. The doubleness of home, its status as at once intensely desired and in some way impossible and strange, becomes one of the guiding structural devices of the book.
Although Wedde’s approach to it is never simple, his central narrative is a story of “childhood homelessness”. In 1954 their father took up a job as an accountant at a paper mill in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the young family left Blenheim for good. This move is evoked as a change of circumstance rather than a rupture in the twins’ concept of home: as an old colleague of his father remembers it, the two boys roamed the town like two white-haired goats; and, as they remember it, their experience there, as it had been in Blenheim, was one of ever-expanding territories around the assumed “safe home-house” in which they actually lived. The rupture occurs in the imagination, with the young Wedde’s introduction to the haunting miracle of literary metaphor. This adds to his already well-established fantasy life the possibility that things might be simultaneously themselves and something else, and sparks a secret writing practice which opens up a gap between him and “the ones who seemed fearlessly at home”. Compounding his sense of unsettlement is his parents’ later decision to leave their 10-year-old twins at boarding school in England, while they continued with their own travels. Sons and parents never again lived together in a “family home” for any extended period of time.
This simple summary can hardly do justice to the book’s many layers, however. Indeed, its pleasure and achievement come from the way in which Wedde repeatedly revisits his past, often from oblique angles. The loosely chronological narrative works at the same time through digressions and interruptions – “layers, erasures and additions” – which allow him to go back and add new meaning, forming a kind of palimpsest of memory. Nothing that takes place early in the book, then, should be taken at face value ‒ the whole structure, the whole dissatisfied implicit question of what went wrong back then, and of what was going on in his parents’ and his brother’s lives as well as his own, is subject to wholesale reversals, including perhaps the greatest and most redemptive, the shift from Oedipus to anti-Oedipus, from Freudian digging (and blaming) to Deleuzian celebration of (his parents’) desire.
It is only really the inclusion of a substantial dose of family history that detracts from the achievement of The Grass Catcher. There are efforts to link this material to the overall project, but these chapters remain largely irrelevant and somewhat boring, at least for these two readers. Unfortunately, their inclusion close to the beginning of the book may put some readers off. It shouldn’t. The Grass Catcher is ultimately an original, compelling, and rather brilliant work that could simply lose some baggage. We’ve not encountered anything quite like it, and have found ourselves thinking and talking about it for days.
It is perhaps unfair to mention another doubt, since it is not clear how Wedde could have circumvented it. The dissatisfied obsessive is contrasted throughout with his satisfied twin, and it is perhaps something like Dave’s contentment that he arrives at, at the end of the process. There is, however, another contrast that arises on his adult trip back to Bangladesh, or his discussion of his time in Lebanon. There, the obsessive historian becomes the nostalgic Westerner following his whims, while around him the ordinary life is that of poverty, prejudice and political turmoil. It reveals the whole problematic as something of a luxury, something that was already clear enough as Wedde freely travels New Zealand and the world in his search for home. It means that the transformation offered by the book leaves us somewhere just a little too comfortable ‒ a place where Wedde and his interlocutors share good food and wine, and from where, although there is pain in the past after all (even Dave admits it) and some very itchy feet, the world seems more or less okay as it is. Bangladesh, Lebanon, Palestine ‒ Wedde lives in these places, revisits them, and then they fade as he leaves them happily behind.
Tim Corballis will be the 2015 Writer in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington; Ingrid Horrocks teaches literature and creative writing at Massey University.