Not what they seem, but more so, Lloyd Jones

The Stories of Bill Manhire
Bill Manhire
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864739254

Bill Manhire turns 70 this year, as does another eminent poet of his generation, Ian Wedde. Brian Turner is 72. Vincent O’Sullivan is fast approaching 80. C K Stead is already there. Also this year, Elizabeth Smither and Fiona Kidman turn 75. Joy Cowley is 79. The extraordinary James McNeish just clicked over into his 85th year. Patricia Grace is eyeing 80. Owen Marshall turns 75 and Witi Ihimaera 71. There is a sense of something fine and grand entering its twilight. And so, with typically brilliant comedic timing, Bill Manhire has chosen a drawing of a baby’s face for the cover of his collected stories.

All the stories have appeared in other collections, bar two new ones, but in this re-jigged line-up they rub shoulders in exciting new ways. There is much game-playing, the cocooning of story, as well as a near constant awareness of story-making, rather than story for story’s sake. These stories are fictive, gleefully imagined, served persuasively by a trustworthy voice, but there all pretence at realism departs. Realism can quickly date, like bell bottom jeans. But Manhire’s brew of story is made in a different pot altogether, and it is one of the reasons why his stories remain as fresh to read today as they did on first publication years ago. More so, and indeed the achievement is all the more impressive when one realises that he has cleared out a patch of his own and made it over in his own inimitable way. I can’t think of another book of short stories quite like it published since, well, whenever.

A drawing of a baby on the cover of a book could seem a bit twee. I thought so myself, but as I reacquainted myself with these stories I began to see its place and suitability. Nearly all these stories look at the world from a position of presumed innocence, a readiness to take on the world on its own terms, in all its surfaces and language. And, like the good cultivator he is, he has picked the fruit nearest to hand – family, place of origin, a childhood reading of South Seas tales.

“Highlights” is the perfect place to begin. Specifically the section set in Rotorua, where the language frequently fails the thing it is meant to represent. The grown-up narrator is on holiday with his elderly mother, a former touch-up artist employed to highlight black and white photographs with daubs of colour. The story jags around on those bits of Geyserland that first meet the eye. Puzzling notices about the health-giving qualities of a swimming pool are quickly superseded by warnings of its possible danger to health. A hoolahoop and traffic lights in Siena have the same chameleon qualities. Things are not what they seem. Or they are, but more so in their exaggerated or faux form, or less so because of the very same thing that made them more so. A contradiction, but a lively one to entertain, that is played out across the Manhire storyscape.

Many of the stories are extremely funny. At times it is as if Evelyn Waugh ranged over the same landscape, but with his tongue stapled to the roof of his mouth. A taciturn kind of humour, then, where the eye does all the work. One of the cage-rattling highlights is an off-the-cuff remark from the mother – “I never liked the way your father put his tongue in my ear.” It still appals and delights as much as it did years ago when the story first appeared.

The usual anxieties about our place in the world are dealt with amusingly in the dislocated landscape of Siena (where someone thought it would be a good idea to name the rivers and other natural attractions after famous Italian cities). A place that is not a real place (in language). As the names go astray, so do the story’s characters. Twice the sentence “Sky like an instrument panel” appears. It is not a case of editorial negligence. Nor is it there to remind the inattentive reader what he missed the first time around. The repetition is more practical, like repeating the line “he went to the door”. Sky in “Sienna” could be a device for the purposes of play or the “country” of Playstation. A lamb hilariously recites the foundation myths of Papa and Rangi, but they seem no more real than naming a waterfall after Firenze.

Manhire is one of the better literary scavengers around. However, the found material, to my mind, does not find an entirely convincing home in “Ponies”. A wonderful line attributed to Antarctic explorer, Bowers, claims “pony droppings distorted by a trick of the Antarctic light could look like a herd of cattle on the horizon”. The story’s parts – the flaky entrepreneurial Jason Stretch, the prospect of nuclear winter, persuasive observations of the new glass-over Wellington with its own distorting effects and a diverting passage on the ponies used in Scott’s fateful expedition – don’t quite elide as smoothly as they should, but in and of themselves are rewarding. “Ponies” ends with the narrator’s distorted view of Jason Stretch on an escalator in the new BNZ Centre: “I can’t remember now, just a few weeks later, whether he was rising up out of the earth or descending into it.”

These short fictions wilfully burst free of the traditional short story – and thank god for that. The interview form in “Some questions I am frequently asked” encourages digression. There is a chance to “say things”, to extemporise, that is more difficult to achieve in traditional short story forms. Several stories are embarked on, grow limbs, but are dropped and that is, one feels, enough to get some sense of the outline.

The voice as always cool, detached, insists on accepting the rules of the game at face value. The more absurd the story, the more real it reads. These are the conditions in which the story must live – and any question as to whether their bones are true or false is neither here nor there. It simply is. As in a board game.

And, as is the country – in both its sense and awareness of itself. Story is reeled out, updated. In “The Age of Sails” just when we are settling into the burgher’s sombre recital of “firsts” achieved by Dunedin to a possibly bored Queen on a royal visit (cringingly on the money), the reader is lurched into a creative writing workshop and reminded that, however plausible and real life is in “The Age of Sails”, it is all made up. Everything is. Including the Queen. She is as much a prop in the mad exercise as the parade passing under her eye – the pipers, the kapa haka party on the back of a lorry (wonderful). The most faithful “reader” of all turns out to be the narrator’s aunt who produces a newspaper photo of herself holding up a photo of the queen to the queen, with the caption: “Yes, that’s me.”

Business ventures pop up with a surprising frequency (a reminder that business also involves daydream, alternative realities, levers on market persuasiveness), and its foot soldiers deploy language, as a writer does. The board game in “South Pacific” is returned to in a kind of snakes and ladders format in “The Brain of Katherine Mansfield”. In “Cannibals”, a chief among the cannibals reveals an instinctive ability for Monopoly.

“Cannibals” is the stand-out, a tour de force when it was first published. It still is, more so, I think, as it is magnificently its own thing, concocted from close reading of boy’s own adventures and pirate stories in the Pacific, with a few more contemporary and surprising elements thrown in. A pirate ship is sunk by a submarine – a Russian, American, French submarine – no one is sure. Such uncertainty is a standard wobbly plank in a Manhire story. The surfaces of the world are undependable, they slide, and bump. And our place in it is constantly shifting, creating new disturbances, requiring new accommodations.

Manhire is a very good mimic, and the narrative voice adopted for “Cannibals” is straight out of the old books of South Seas tales. Its direct and English twee-ness is hilariously inappropriate to each new catastrophe which befalls the narrator. The “facts” are haphazard, comic. A Welsh rugby supporters group is shipwrecked (of course) and a survivor floats ashore on a rugby ball (and why not?). The ludic quality in “The Brain of Katherine Mansfield”, on the other hand, runs a bit thin. The reader’s pact is broken by the constant shifts and page-turning jumps to catch up with the plot changess. But, this is a small complaint. Two new stories (“The Death of Robert Louis Stevenson” and “The Ghost Who Walks”) round off the collection, with “Under the Influence” – a memoir of the poet’s growing up in pubs – providing a neat coda.

There is throughout a consciousness about the making of story which in another sense is the making over of the new land (in all senses of the proposition). Writing tips are offered to newcomers. In “The Poet’s Wife” we learn “the poet does not live in Dunedin. He lives in the imagination.” And in the Stevenson story the narrator in a letter to Henry James writes: “My two aims may be described as – 1st. War to the adjective 2nd. Death to the optic nerve.” Weirdly that brings us back to the “tongue” and “ear” moment in “Highlights”. Attention to sound (as in song) has always been a hallmark of Manhire’s poems, which he has carried across to his short fiction. The spindle for the Manhire yarn is often nursery rhyme. Its whimsy appeals. It is funny. It is not serious. It is off to the side, as it were.

Childhood impressions cut deepest, and we are reminded in “Under the Influence” of the particular and unique way language came to Manhire as a boy. His father was a publican, and the family moved around pubs in Central Otago. One imagines voices dancing on the periphery of his hearing, and on the hour drifting towards or away, and breaking up. And then there is the public bar with its braying mob and its particular tics and evasions. The publican R P Heron in Manhire’s Siena is persuasively described: “He swayed forward on his toes and gave a delicate shrug, like a diver on a high board.”

It’s also curious to note how much contemporary life has come to resemble board games and play. Story has been let out of its cage. Even the media have finally come around to admitting they too are in the game, as in chasing the story – pushing it along, allowing for dramatic development, conflict, denouement. Gamers and cyborgs and Second Lifers and New Life participants enter made-up worlds as eagerly and guilelessly as entering a supermarket. Story has been so heavily franchised that its original home now seems quaint. In the process, I wonder if we are being made over as readers. After dipping into The Wire (first series) or Breaking Bad or Fargo, it is hard to turn with much enthusiasm to Guy de Maupassant or Frank Sargeson or Katherine Mansfield. The subversive, then, might be the last frontier. And if that’s your thing, then look no further.

Lloyd Jones’s A History of Silence: A Memoir was reviewed in our Summer 2013 issue, available in our online archive:

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Posted in Literature, Review, Short stories
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