Some other countries: the novels of 1990.
The Country of the Future: Wulfsyarn
Phillip Mann's Wulfiyarn: A Mosaic, the fifth of his future fictions, stands alone among the novels of 1990. It is the furthest out in time (about 700 years in the future) and in space (being set in outer space). Reprinted in the paperback VGSF series, it shares some of the standard SF space epic elements such as the concern with different life forms, and the imagined technology of the spaceship with its bio-crystalline intelligence, together with Wulf, the autoscribe. The book uses SF motifs not for their literal narrative interest however, but as elements in a moral fable of psychological and social integration which has much to say to the New Zealand of the 1990s. At the centre Mann offers a humanist view of the integration between sexual and spiritual as represented by the ideals of the Gentle Order of St Francis Dionysos, in 'an attempt to unify the best that Earth had to offer and at the same time nullify the destructive power of its institutions'. (1) In this view of human history, the destructive drive for power in humankind, represented by Achilles, has been ineffectually countered by the narrow spirituality and self-sacrificial love represented by Christ. As the logical and disinterested Wulf sees it, 'the Christian religion and kindred religions held back the spiritual development of humankind for over two thousand years and inculcated distrust and suspicion between the sexes as well as a fear of things of the earth and flesh'. What was necessary to control and channel the Achilles force was St Francis Dionysos' combination of Franciscan reverence for all forms of life together with a Dionysian love of the earth and the flesh, in order to free up 'the creative divinity within all humans' (p. 29).
The narrative carrying the weight of the moral fable concerns Jon Wilberfoss's quest through outer and inner space. His external quest is his attempt to lead a Noah's Ark expedition to return life forms to planets depopulated by the terrible War of Ignorance of 400 years before. This heroic attempt is however tainted by ambition and a repressed power-drive which leads both to the destruction of the expedition and the death of the life form that helped Jon to escape from an inhospitable planet. The internal quest is his attempt, with the help of Wulf and Lily the autonurse, to recover the repressed memory of failure, face his guilt, and emerge with a deeper understanding and greater integration. Space epic and therapeutic inner journey are united by the archetypal quest pattern and Mann's ingenious mode of narration, a kind of SF variation on the method of Plumb. The 'mosaic' is made up of the interplay betweeen Wulf's various third-person narratives (accounts of his own and Lily's historical pasts, and his reconstruction of Wilberfoss's) along with Wilberfoss's retrospective first-person narration of the quest, given in instalments, as he recovers it. Mann counterpoints these narratives with Wulf's description of the therapeutic process in the present. Wulf, the autoscribe programmed to look for historical patterns of cause and effect, is a brilliant invention, a way of getting something like an omniscient narrator while at the same time dramatising and relativising him. Wulf is himself aware of his situation:
While I have tried to write this biography in as disinterested a way as possible, I am now deeply conscious that it is myself, Wulf, that has selected the incidents, Wulf that has selected the words, Wulf that has made the guesses and Wulf that must take the final responsibility for all errors of omission and all errors of emphasis and for the very shape of the tale. My scent is everywhere. (p. 9)
Thus Mann shows himself aware to some extent of the post-modern crisis of narrative authority without accepting a completely post-modern attitude, for Wulf, who began 'life' as an automated inspector of pattern and colour in a carpet factory, can still speak of 'errors' and sees himself as discovering rather than manufacturing patterns.
Foreign Countries: Novels of Overseas Life
Wulfiyarn, which looks to the far away in time and space, is one of the most significant novels of 1990. By contrast, Margaret Austin's Amsterdam Affair and Stephen Picard's Hymn to the Moon, both first novels looking to Europe in the near past and the present, are relatively minor. Whereas Mann uses his imagined world to present a coherent moral vision, both Austin and Picard seem dazzled by the world they describe, a decadent and 'liberated' Europe of drugs, sex shows and high fashion. Neither novel presents a coherent judgment on its world. Austin deals with Amsterdam, the drug and sex capital of Europe of the mid-seventies, as experienced by Gay Morris, refugee from a provincial, puritanical New Zealand upbringing. 'I was going forward, to explore and find other definitions of myself ... creating my own role in Amsterdam's circus': such is her description of her experience. (2) The book presents a close-up of her life, the love affairs, the drugs, the experience of dancing in a sex theatre, 'throwing off decency, morality and respectability ... stepping--naked--into another world' (p. 57). Her progression is choreographed by Gilana, the elusive, bisexual American black. Although its general path seems Blakean, leading through Excess towards Wisdom, it is only lightly sketched. The novel takes for granted the evils of repression and the value of freedom, but its underlying view is not so suggestive or coherent as Mann's theme of integration. As a result, it leaves quite open the question of what that freedom is for.
Although Austin tells most of Amsterdam Affair from a relatively straightforward first-person point of view, she attempts another perspective near the end when for one short chapter we see the narrator through the eyes of Gilana. Picard in Hymn to the Moon (3) attempts a more elaborate counterpointing when he intercuts New Zealand narrator Salmon's first-person account of his relation with Lara, the exotic European object of his desire, with his third-person reconstruction of her past and her aphoristic journal entries in the present. It is a promising idea that Picard does not bring off successfully, for he lacks ironic distance on the characters, and makes no significant disjunction either between Salmon's sense of Lara and Lards sense of herself, or between Lara's sense of Salmon and his sense of himself. He attempts a Jamesian interplay between the innocent New Zealander and the corrupt European, between Waiheke Island and Russell in the present, and Lara's glamorous European world of high fashion, sick 'art' films, and expensive drugs and prostitution in the past. But neither the European nor the New Zealand world is fully realised, and the characters are too sketchy to hold interest. The more naively presented Amsterdam Affair is ultimately the more interesting, if only as biographical document.
Two more fully realised novels deal with contemporary Japan. Ian Middleton's Reika, like his previous four novels, is a competently written realistic piece. The setting juxtaposes a rapidly changing Tokyo with a rapidly changing Auckland, the Auckland of Mr Pansonby. In Tokyo, the old Japan is 'endangered space' being taken over by 'the sterile uniformity, the gilt, the gloss, the speed, the cardboard food'. (4) In Auckland 'the terminal illness of the world' is likewise felt, with everyone 'running ... hell for leather on the dollar trail' in a pattern symbolised by the new mirror-glass towers springing up 'with rampant disregard for their setting and the earth that seemed to give them birth' (p. 117). The neatly constructed plot counterpoints Hisao's determination to marry the woman he loves, despite her lack of status, with Reiko's exchange of a loveless marriage for a relationship with New Zealander Andrew Spellman. At the end, Hisao and his wife honeymoon in a bit of old New Zealand (Golden Bay) and Reiko joins Spellman in a bit of old Japan (a traditional inn by the sea). It's neat but unsurprising: the rhetoric about McDonald's for instance, is as predictable as its food. Such tidy structural contrasts and parallels express Middleton's simplistic dualism, which is too sure of itself and for which the insufferably idealized Andrew Spellman speaks too unerringly. This wellmade book provides a coherent reading experience, but it lacks the complexity and surprise that would make one wish to return to it.
Jacqueline Owens' Bluest Moon, (5) her first novel, though less well-made is ultimately more satisfying, like a hamburger from the local takeaway shop instead of one from McDonald's. Too much beetroot perhaps, but more meat and less salt, sugar and MSG. Its flat yet solid social realism evokes a place and a culture in fine detail. The place is Mittsuhashi, a provincial Japanese town which Ian Richards calls a Japanese Invercargill. (6) provincial life is depressingly realised: the gossip and narrow social judgement; the authoritarian and sexist family and work life; the narrow work-ethic; the attempt to absorb western consumerism into a traditional hierarchical society, thus getting the worst of both worlds. Owens' adolescent protagonist Chikako revolts against her eminently rejectable home and work environments where her superiors are tyrannical and her work-mates conformist, while her father is manically workaholic, her mother uncritically sexist, and her brother spoilt. Like the characters of David Ballantyne's The Cunningharns, however, she has nothing to set against her provincial environment except meretricious escapism provided by the mass-media, in this case the image of a consumer-heaven California. Owens writes the novel from Chikako's point of view, in the third-person, with the implied author scrupulously removed from sight (thus avoiding such authorial mouthpieces as Andrew Spellman). The flat, detailed prose conveys a judicious mixture of sympathy and judgement in the treatment of Chikako, and no more of a wish-fulfilment resolution than one finds in The Cunninghams. This is New Zealand Provincial critical realism effectively turned on a new and different subject. Though a minor novel, the book fulfils its modest aim.
Closer to home are two novels set on neighbouring Pacific islands, Rosie Scott's Nights with Grace and James McNeish's Penelope's Island. Scott's novel, her second, is set in Rarotonga in the 1980s, a world of tropical ease and langour, but invaded by videos and a consumer culture. As Jack the New Zealander, the Andrew Spellman of the novel, states, "already the corruption is creeping up ... In five years ... it'll be like the fifty-second state. Plastic and Reeboks and hidden brutality". (7) The novel is less heavy than that sounds, for it is Grace's novel, not Jack's. Neither articulate nor political, she nevertheless makes the novel's key political gesture by breaking up the motel concrete laid over the bones of her ancestors. The social theme of multinational snakes in paradise is secondary to the love story, the familiar tale of Grace's first love, her sensual awakening, and her inevitable parting from her New Zealand lover: 'Different paths, she thought sadly, she could almost see the two tracks stretching out in front of her there in the hall' (p. 104). Scott's novel--really a novella stretched out with illustrations, blank pages, and wide margins--is less didactic than lyrical. As with many love lyrics, all depends on the lightness of touch in the handling of Grace's experience. Jane Hurley has attacked the book as 'a wish-fulfilment fantasy', and it certainly contains an element of that, especially in its attitude towards the allegorically named heroine (Hurley complains wittily that 'It's as if the book were a search for the holy grail--seen from the grail's point of view'). (8) The book seems to me marginally to succeed, however. Because it is short enough for the lyrical tone to be maintained, and nothing is lingered over, I was willing to accept it on its own terms, suspending disbelief even though the cloud of doubt begins to gather on the horizon.
Penelope's Island (9) is an altogether more substantial novel, with nothing lyrical about it. Set in New Caledonia between 1975 and 1984, a time of growing tension between the Kanaks and the Caldoches, it culminates in the massacre of a group of Kanaks by Caldoche vigilantes. McNeish depicts the complex interrelation of the metropolitan French civil servants, the landowning grands colons, the redneck small-farmer petits colons, and the Kanaks, while Penelope, the English-Hungarian photographer, an outsider scrambling to understand the society into which she has married, provides a cleverly chosen focus through which to view these events--we learn about the society as she does. Her education derives from her marriage to Felix, whose family are petits colons rednecks, and from her contact with the gentle Baptiste, brother of the leader of the Kanak movement. Three interrelated actions--the conflict between Kanaks and Caldoches, Penelope's growing understanding of the conflict, and Felix's movement from unthinking petits colons racism to support for the Kanaks--result in an education for Penelope, a moral victory together with exile for Felix, a miscarriage of justice in relation to the murderers, and suicide for Baptiste.
The book is more than fictionalised journalism (and McNeish is a good journalist). The characters convince, the fictional events blend with the historical ones to form a seamless whole, and a complex attitude emerges towards both the fictional world and the historical world it represents. Although McNeish's sympathy for Kanak nationalism is clear, he also understands the dilemma of the Caldoches, prisoners of their past, locked into a situation with no right answer. McNeish's honest account of the situation and his characters' struggles with it; his refusal to take simple sides or show a resolution, indicate the quality of the novel. This contemporary version of the 'social problem novel' is one of a high order that does not sacrifice the integrity of its presentation to a political agenda. Both Nelson Wattie and Graeme Lay in their reviews found it a 'splendid novel', and I can only agree. (10)
McNeish has always been something of an unknown quantity as a novelist. He published five novels (if one calls The Mackenzie Affair a novel) before this one, and yet each, since it differs markedly from the others, represents a new start. This novel, his best yet, points to the factor that unifies his fictional and nonfictional work despite its diversity of subject and mode, that is, his focus on the intersection of politics and personal morality. This factor unites Danilo Dolci in Sicily, Mackenzie and Amos Poison in nineteenth-century Canterbury, a new teacher in a comprehensive school in London, a G. M. Smith persona in a fantasy Northland, Jack Lovelock in Berlin in 1936, or Penelope and Felix in New Caledonia. Perhaps because New Zealand appears in the novel only by way of Penelope's botanist friend Martin, the book has not received much attention here, but it is a significant accomplishment.
The Countries of the Past: Historical Novels
As is appropriate for the sesquicentennial year, historical fiction features prominently among the novels of 1990. Two of them, Gary Langford's Newlands and Margaret Blay's Victoria in Maoriland, take their history relatively lightly, playing picaresque games with it. Newlands is Langford's seventh novel but his first 'New Zealand' one, since the others have all been written in and about Australia after he emigrated in 1974. This novel, the result of a year as Literary Fellow at the University of Canterbury in 1989, is unabashedly a '1990' novel, with its hero, Reynolds Updike, celebrating his 100th birthday as his country celebrates its 150th. Certainly the book is New Zealand enough in its subject, for it concerns Updike's progress from small farmer to soldier-entrepreneur at Gallipoli, to Packard dealer in Christchurch in the 1920s, to minor New Zealand poet, to appliance manufacturer and principal in a divorce scandal featured in Truth, and finally to centenarian back on the farm at Okyku writing the memoirs which make up this novel. The book is also New Zealand in its primary literary resemblances, being like Plumb crossed with The Lovelock Version.
Unfortunately, such resemblances also clearly place the novel: Gee and Shadbolt need not fear a serious rival across the Tasman. 'Wickedly funny', claims the front cover, but neither adverb nor adjective is apt. Although Langford's picaresque magic realism has its moments, his comedy is fitful, lacking the exuberance and imagination of The Lovelock Version. It is most evident in the relatively simple Capping Concert-type scenes such as Reynolds caught in the bushes with Isobel Entwistle at her twenty-first, or Reynolds caught in bed with her sister Aggie, cast out at the crucial ejaculatory moment ('"STOP THAT!" ordered Aunt Edna, staring at my sperm as it attempted to fertilise the carpet, the chair where my clothes lay, the walls, door-handle and chest of drawers'). (11)
If the novel fails to rival The Lovelock Version as comic epic, neither does it equal Plumb as social chronicle, family epic, and character study. The social setting consists of mere listing of popular music, fads, etc. which prove neither relevant nor life-like, for they lack Plumb's dense historical suggestiveness. World War I, the twenties, the Slump and the postwar boom remain unrealised, like the Those Were the Days nostalgia cited in the Author's Note. The family history, which takes off from Langford's own much as the Chapple family's story derives from Gee's, likewise lacks intense realisation. Percy's death or the disowning of Douglas can be moving, but those moments fade in the comparison with the drowning of Rebecca or the disowning of Alfred in Plumb. Though an engaging character, especially by means of his narrative voice, Reynolds lacks depth, and the novel's authorial engagement with him remains primarily on the simple level of celebration. Langford makes some attempt to expose his masculine egotism, as when Reynolds' unhappy wife tells him, 'People don't mean much to you' (p. 95), but compared to Plumb's complexity and the richness of Gee's sympathetic and ironic engagement with his protagonist, the effect is relatively simple and superficial.
Likewise, Langford's mode of telling is simpler than Gee's. Although the prologue and an epilogue set in 1990 flame the story, the body of the book provides a straightforward, chronological first-person account with none of the temporal complexity of Plumb or Prowlers or Going West. The book's relatively simple attitude requires such a relatively simple mode of telling only; the result is a novel that is readable but ultimately forgettable, more an intelligent entertainment than a significant contribution to New Zealand historical fiction.
Margaret Blay's novel, her first, resembles Newlands in its picaresque structure, but whereas Newlands is openly masculinist in its celebration of its extrovert male narrator, her novel is subtly feminist in its ironic use of a naive female narrator. Victoria Brown, Victoria in Maorilands narrator-protagonist, is a proper Victorian colonist in all of her conscious attitudes, but blithely unaware both of her own simmering sexuality and of the most improper realities of the world she encounters. Her sexuality remains repressed and unacknowledged until she meets the travelling poet Albert Swindall, with whom she feels 'the dead weight of years of prohibition come crashing to the ground' when she is initiated into the joys of intercourse with him and then discovers the consolations of masturbation when he is absent ('How many spinsters, consumed from within, would envy me now! for I was very able to victual my own starvation, until I should again surrender to my dear Albert, or to one like him!'). (12) Her other experiences in Maoriland are never to her more than a 'half-apprehended dream' (p. 330), however, since she never fully understands what her narrative reveals to us: her female charge Cecilia has been corrupted by a child-molesting old cousin; her young male charge Hastings, has been driven to neurosis by his father; her employer the father is an alcoholic and has been carrying on an affair with Mrs Veyle the housekeeper; Mrs Veyle is the author of the pornographic fiction that Victoria finds in the house; the Maori cook whom she sees in relentlessly colonising terms ('Doubtless Lizzy wished to throw herself upon her knees before Her Majesty in gratitude for settlers who so profitably exploited the wilderness, and for her own assured status as Her Majesty's subject') is explosively resentful of her status (pp. 130-31); the Maori resentment at Pakeha appropriation of land is developing into the Land Wars, and the fire from which she escapes has been set as a gesture in those Wars. The earthquake and volcanic eruption which end the novel are more symbolic than literal, representing a final explosion of all that psychological and social repression. The pattern is strikingly like that of Penelope's Island, whose naive narrator can say of herself after the explosive political events happen around her, 'Once again (it is the story of my life). I woke up too late' (p. 145), but the tone is utterly different.
If Newlands unwittingly evokes comparison with texts by Shadbolt and Gee, Victoria in Maoriland is consciously intertextual, playfully implying a range of texts. For one thing, the situation of The Turn of the Screw is reversed: here we see not a governess projecting her repression-induced sexual fantasies on her innocent charges, but one who is blind to the palpable corruption taking place in them. At the same time Blay evokes the world of gothic fiction, especially Mrs Radcliffe's novels and 'The Fall of the House of Usher'. The novel gestures towards Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey, while the style is Victorian pastiche, with its formality, euphemisms and circumlocution. All of this textual play is part of a humorous satire whose primary targets are Victorian colonising attitudes. The game palls and goes on too long, but the novel is both funnier and more innovative than Newlands. Victoria in Maorilandis a promising novelistic debut for Margaret Blay.
Two other historical novels, Rachel McAlpine's Farewell Speech and Maurice Shadbolt's Monday's Warriors, resemble Newlands and Victoria in Maorilandin their irony and their first-person or restricted third-person point of view, but they differ widely in their revisionist use of actual historical personalities and events. McAlpine's novel, her third, focuses mainly on Ada Wells, the author's great-grandmother, and the women's movement in Christchurch before and immediately after women's suffrage was achieved in 1893. Ada is flanked by her beloved and more famous colleague, Kate Sheppard, and by her unloved and obscure daughter Bim. MacAlpine's mode of telling is a kind of documentary realism which uses first-person retrospective narrative in a way different from the methods of Langford and Blay, but similar to Mann's. Part One contains the intercut accounts of Ada and Kate. Ada, aged 69, is writing a formal memoir in 1932 at the behest of her friend Wilhelmina Sherriff Bain, perhaps the same person as the Wilhelmina Sherriff Elliott who published in 1924 a truly dreadful moral tale entitled Service: A New Zealand Story. Kate, aged 83, is dictating her memoirs in 1933 at the command of her friend the poet Jessie McKay. Part Two contains Bim's account, 'My Famous Mother', dictated into a tape-recorder in 1975 when she is 88.
The three accounts combine to tell the human story of the suffrage movement and its aftermath, both the victory and the costs. Kate's and Ada's accounts, an unofficial history to place next to the official version, reveal the importance of passion as an energising factor in the process. Kate, a lively, self-centred, charismatic narrator, tells how the experience of conceiving a child by a man other than her husband (one of McAlpine's admittedly invented episodes) brought about a sexual awakening which led directly to her political awakening:
I had never in my life doubted that I was a person, a valuable human being. It was the gentleman from Napier who helped me to understand that I was also a woman; yes, specifically female. From this understanding there emerged another devastating insight. I gradually realised that, being a woman, I suffered from all the disabilities of a woman.... When I came full circle in my thoughts, I grew more sure that if I wished to overcome the disabilities of being a woman, it was not enough to behave as women had always done.... No more discreet manoeuvring behind the scenes!' (13)
Ada, a stiff, formal, proper, consciously 'unselfish' narrator, recounts how, despite herself, she came to realise that her devotion to Kate and the cause had a sexual element (another of McAlpine's inventions):
I stumbled to her drawing room. I stood in the centre, unseeing, appalled at the thing in my heart. Was it evil? How could I know? I searched for a name, a label. I rejected all except 'love'. (p. 91)
While Kate and Ada's work for women's suffrage was fuelled by their passions, the political change in 1893 could not really meet their needs, and both women move on into an anti-climactic old age: Kate with her international reputation, her life with the Smiths, her ultimate marriage to William Smith after the death of his wife, and her failing health; Ada, with her lonely peace crusade and her dedication to alternative medicine and 'higher spirituality'.
Part One might seem enough in itself, the story behind the story. The truly original section of the book is Part Two, however, the story behind that story. Bim intends to vindicate Ada by showing that she was at least as important as Kate, but what Bim actually shows in her naive and literal way is the dark side of Ada's story, the human costs of her effort. Without realising that she has done so, Bim exposes Ada's unhappy marriage and her husband's alcoholism and violence. Worse, she reveals Ada's rejection of her self, and the continuation of bad parenting into the next generation when she rejects her own illegitimate child. When she dedicated herself to social causes to relieve and prevent suffering in the outside world, Ada, like George Plumb, was blind to the suffering she caused to those immediately around her. Yet the final effect of the novel is not to undercut the suffrage cause but to make it more human. The book lacks the shape and intensity of the Plumb trilogy but shares with Gee's books the successful creation of living, interesting voices. 'I needed to hear them speak and I gave them each a voice', McAlpine states (p. 7), and this is the book's triumph. Events sometimes flatten out into a chronicle, but those three voices live throughout the telling, which is no small accomplishment.
Monday's Warriors, the second in Shadbolt's historical trilogy and his ninth published novel, presents as much a male world as Farewell Speech does a female one. It depends on only one narrative voice, that of a laconic, third-person narrator who restricts himself mostly to what Kimball Bent could know and see and hear, for much of the text is in witty, elliptical, mannered dialogue. Bent is a literary type, the picaro, coming to historical life in New Zealand in the 1860s, and the story can be read as a picaresque narrative which incorporates adventures ranging from the darkly humorous, such as his near-rape by the amorous Captain Clark being interrupted by a Maori attack, to the pathetic, in the death of his wife and children, and the horrific, in the final battle with his archenemy Fluke which is decided by the dying Demon. At the centre of Bent's story, however, giving it more than picaresque shape, lies the story of Titokowaru, which provides an ironically revisionist account of the wars in Taranaki. As W. H. Oliver has pointed out, the novel 'turns ... on its head' the colonial novel's convention that the reader should identify with the isolated colonisers in a hostile world. Instead, the story centres on the colonised, or those resisting colonisation, while the colonisers are 'flat characters, almost cardboard cutouts, devoid of dignity and presence'. (14) Shadbolt presents the story of the campaign from the Maori point of view, Jamie Belich's history rather than James Cowan's. But that revisionist version is further ironised by Shadbolt's interpretation of the central event, Titokowaru's loss of mana because of his sexual adventuring the night before a planned major battle, a loss which results in the withdrawal and dispersal of his forces. Titoko's 'wriggle' with his lieutenant's wife Hine is seen by Shadbolt as his 'wriggling' against his fate, 'the only really interesting movement', according to the epigraph from E. M. Forster. That is, Shadbolt interprets Titokowaru as deliberately provoking the confrontation that breaks up his army in order to forestall a battle which he fears he will win, just as he has won most of the previous battles in the campaign. Since another victory would prolong a war he knows he must eventually lose, he carries out his own imaginative version of throwing the fight.
Thus by one of history's ironies, Shadbolt returns to the kind of theme with which Ada Wells, who believed in a God of Evolution, would have been familiar, that 'stemming the British Empire's tidal march' was impossible for the Maori in the 1860s. (15) In 1890 the view would have been that the force behind that tide was the evolutionary progress of the Anglo-Saxon race, and any sympathy for the Maori would have been extended to a worthy but more primitive race that rightly had either to die out or be assimilated into the blood of the conqueror. Shadbolt in 1990 seems to believe that the tide is simply a blind surge of history, one in which (in this case, at least) the most worthy and competent were stranded on flooded tidal flats, while the least worthy and competent were riding the waves over them. Monday's Warriors, like Farewell Speech, threatens at times to flatten out into historical chronicle, but Shadbolt ultimately pulls it together by the ironic shape of Titokowaru's story. The novel lacks the fierce feeling and narrative impetus of Season of the Jew, but its ironic resonance makes it one of the major novels of 1990.
Monday's Warriors is the best of the 1990 crop of historical novels, but it is not the most ambitious. That description must be reserved for Shirley Corlett's first novel, The Hanging Sky, a big book that weighs in at 467 pages to Monday's Warriors' 308 in its attempts to account for 600 years. Wisely, Corlett does not try to follow her one Maori family throughout, but selectively focuses on four crucial periods. The first is the 1390s, where the family are involved in the late stages of moa-hunting in the South Island. The second moves the family's survivors from Taranaki, where a family member had been taken as a slave prisoner in the 1390s, to the Ureweras in 1755, and chronicles several generations of the struggle for leadership up to 1847. The third follows the family through the Christianization process and the land losses of the 1850s and 1860s. The last and fourth traces the rediscovery of her Maori past by one family member in the 1980s.
Nothing of Shadbolt's irony or complexity underlies this novel. Instead, Corlett offers a simple appreciation of Maori values, especially the sense that 'the land throbbed and breathed with the life force'. (16) A sad kind of irony arises, however, from the Christianized Te Apa's inability to communicate this spiritual relation with nature to his missionary teachers, and from the inability of Charlotte Stanton, the frail and discontented wife of one of the more limited of the missionaries, to tell Te Apa her doubts about the missionary enterprise which he accepts with such fervour. Charlotte expresses the book's utopian hopes in the 1850s:
A new people is being formed here.... I only hope that white and brown can come together eventually in peace. There is a scent in the air of an emerging country whose people will give it a unique personality. (p. 303)
By the 1980s that new culture has not yet fully emerged, for Corlett sees the Maori as still paying the costs of the colonisation process. The book implies that a successful bicultural future can be achieved only if the Maori past and the Maori relation to the land are recovered. The recovery of her Maori heritage by Teena, the central figure of the last section, points towards that possible future: 'Now I understand what this real solid thing inside me is.... It's the life force which binds me to the land and to the heavens and to the shadowy world of my own past' (p. 467).
The Two Nations: Once Were Warriors
It is a long way from Teena's family's middle-class house in Waikanae to the semi-slum of the Heke family in 'Pine Block' outside the Rotorua-ish 'Two Lakes' in Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors. But that 'real solid thing' that Teena claims to have found is definitely what Duff's characters need, and the only answer that he can present to the overwhelming problems of their world. Although Duff's and Corlett's books were coincidentally reviewed on the same page in the Listener & TV Times in November 1990, they are very different. Peter Hooper's modest and I think accurate description of The Hanging Sky as 'an historical romance demanding to be taken seriously', (17) scarcely fits Duff's book. It certainly demands to be taken seriously, not because it is earnest and conscientious like Corlett's, but because it threatens to punch you in the nose if you do not. 'Historical' and 'romance' it is not, but rather a bitterly energetic anti-romance in the immediate present. Bianca, the most 'Maori' of Teena's family in appearance, hates being treated as a 'black arse' (p. 421), and is finally destroyed by her experience. Although she represents the extreme range of negative possibility in the novel, her experience would approach the norm in Duff's world. At least she has a middle-class family to drop out of, whereas all of Duff's characters have been on the scrap heap from birth. Homelessness is the only social state beneath them, and they are not very far from that. Their world is totally separate from the middle-class Pakeha world in which Teena's family mostly lives. Beth Heke thinks, 'May as well be from another country, the contact the two races have'. (18) That 'another country' reminds me not so much of James Baldwin's Another Country as of the 'two nations' of Disraeli's Sybil, for Duff's novel is a true contemporary New Zealand equivalent of those Victorian social problem novels of the 1840s and 1850s dealing with problems the first Pakeha settlers came here to escape, the problems of a society with a 'second nation', an underclass whose needs were being dangerously ignored by an exploitative ruling class.
Like the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell or Disraeli or Charles Kingsley, Once Were Warriors is strongest in its presentation of a place and a way of life. Duff's fully realised depiction of Pine Block community, 'a closed circuit of energy which feeds on self-hatred and discharges only in violence', as Michael Gifkins describes it, (19) vividly images forth the state houses and ruined cars, the economy of unemployment and welfare cheques, the escapes through alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and gluesniffing, the pub culture with its macho ethic, the gangs, the public and familial violence, and the broken remnants of a traditional Maori culture.
The book is superior to, say, the fictionalised Blue Books of Disraeli, in capturing this second nation from within. Duff internalises his social realism by the use of a multiple selective point of view combined with free indirect thought and interior monologue. He presents this world through the eyes of different members of the Heke family; the idiom is mostly theirs, although Duff can be clumsy in handling the method. Sometimes he interweaves the idiom of the characters and that of the narrator too quickly, as in this passage of free indirect thought filtered through the minds of some drunks outside the pub: 'Change. Everything kept changing. Mood, thoughts, emotions, visual feedback (aural) even ya fuckin ears started playing tricks on you. The pisser, your attitude's range of change seemed to bring itself out in the pisser, all of you' (p. 71). The change of register is too abrupt, the vernacular of the characters and the pedantic language of the narrator grating against each other. The novel contains a great deal of life, however, and Duff often gains vivid effects through a more controlled counterpointing of the language and point of view of the narrator with those of a character or several characters. Thus the novel captures the characters' inner experience of their world. We see Joke Heke's macho code of violence from within, especially in the magnificent pub-fight sequence in chapter 6; we see his wife's view of that world of smokes, alcohol and violence--she is both at home in it and yet critical of it, sensing what is wrong with it, giving her drunken version of her 'once were warriors' sermon to an imaginary audience in her head; we see their oldest son Nig, though turning to a gang for identity, still feeling a real dislike of the violence and a love for his sister Grace; we see Grace coming to realise clearly at thirteen how dysfunctional her family is, desperately wanting some alternative, some way to fulfill the potential that she senses will be lost in her. The world of Pine Block is seen and felt through these characters. Rather than worked-up representative types like Mrs Gaskell's workers, they become individuals known from the inside.
As with the Victorian Social Problem Novels, the real difficulty arises with the plot, and especially the resolution. Most of the Victorian versions tried to use the plot to resolve problems defined by the book. Once Were Warriors, which attempts the same trick, is no more convincing at the conclusion than Mary Barton or North and South. Duff realistically portrays the road downwards, the party, the drinks, the fights, the loss of the youngest son Boogie to the Welfare Home, the drunken rape of Grace by Jake, Grace's further violation and suicide, and finally Nig's initiation into a gang followed by his death. Throughout it all Jake digs himself into a deeper and deeper hole and vainly tries to punch his way out. Though melodramatic, this is all depressingly convincing, but what is not so convincing is Beth's conversion to Maoritanga at Grace's funeral and her transformation of the community with her self-help programme. As much authorial wishful thinking surfaces here as in a typical Victorian salvation through inheritance, rescue by a fairy godfather figure, or emigration to Canada. Nig's tangi provides an emotional climax and an chance to show the possibility of change even in Jake, but it is something of a cheat, like the rising music that closes a melodramatic film.
Underlying this rigged plot is a simplistic vision most explicitly articulated in the indirect discourse account of Chief Te Tupea's oration:
Nor was Chief into blamin people, the Pakeha, the system, anything for the obvious Maori problems; you know, our drop in standards just in general. He didn't care bout no damn white people to blame, no damn system meant to be stacked against a people, he just toldem: Work! We work our way out. Same way we lazed our way into this mess. (p. 191)
Duff's book is a reaction against sentimental liberal dogma that insults Maori people by denying that they have any responsibility for their state, or seeing them as victims rather than as agents. But in opposing a sentimental liberal environmentalism, Duff closes his eyes to many unpleasant truths. As Peter Beatson has pointed out, the book is trying to find 'cultural and moral solutions to socio-economic problems'. (20) Perhaps Jake Heke lost his job because of his drinking, violence and absenteeism, but what about those who lost forestry jobs in the post-1984 economic restructuring, however well they had worked, whatever their attitude and productivity? Duff's picture of a self-hating, violent, self-destructive community is persuasive, but his vision of their having 'lazed' into the mess and of their being able to work their way out of it is too simplistic, more the work of Duff the newspaper columnist and media personality than Duff the novelist. Still, it is a considerable achievement to have brought that world to such vigorous life on the page. Nothing else in New Zealand fiction is quite like this novel. It is a striking debut.
Another Country: Sexual Boundaries
Although several of the other novels touch on racial and cultural issues, only Once Were Warriors focuses on the contemporary nation of the Maori underclass. But a surprisingly large number focus on the other country of alternative sexual orientation. No less than four 1990 novels have male homosexuality at the centre, a fifth has an important lesbian component, while several others, both historical and contemporary, have homosexuality or lesbianism as a sub-theme. Certainly in the divided and diverse New Zealand of 1990, varieties of sexuality that must always have existed have become more publicly visible.
The one novel that makes overt claims to be gay literature is Glynn Parker's Passion, which focuses on the affair of a middle-aged academic and a part-Samoan teenager. Structure is provided by counterpointing over six days at Easter: the adolescent Tommy struggles through an attempted reconciliation with his biological father, an uptight Samoan Christian who raped Tommy's Pakeha mother and who is now looking for a son to replace the son from his Samoan marriage who is dying of leukemia, while Philip the philosopher academic struggles in his turn to find wholeness in a life in which his promiscuous and uncommitted homosexuality is at odds with his proclaimed ethical values. Parker gives the two characters almost equal narrative attention, but Philip is the focal character, and the affair is seen primarily from his point of view. This closeness is both the strength and the weakness of the novel. On the one hand it allows us to see from within Philip's division between conscious values, carnal urges, and a self-hating analytic intelligence, and to experience how that division is temporarily overcome by his affair with Tommy. Their relationship combines genuine loving concern with intense passion, and leads to a significant if overly explicit and rhetorical epiphany:
The grotesque video of carnal fantasies had in one fell swoop been wiped from his brain, and with it had gone the warring trinity of his emotional, moral, and rational selves. There now was just one, lone, single Philip; there was wholeness. It had come to him, for the first time in his forty-seven years, in the embodiment of a radiant little boy who had suddenly grown into a full-fledged lover, who had resurrected all of him, a reluctant Lazarus, to living and loving. (21)
On the other hand, in the aftermath, the lack of narrative distance from Philip becomes a liability. Parker effectively presents his character's realization that the affair is merely an adolescent phase for Tommy, a homosexual version of the tried and true formula of the bitter-sweet, doomed love between an older woman and a young male, but Philip's botched suicide attempt is also botched narrative. The plot does not let him get away with his self-indulgent play with love and death (shades of Death in Venicd)--he gets too drunk and vomits back up the suicide pills--but the book lacks a position beyond him from which he can be judged. The implied author seems to share Philip's anguished inability to accept his own homosexuality. Thus, while it is devastating about the superficial aspects of gay culture such as the cult of youth, the vanity and the compulsive promiscuity, the book romantically places the only genuine homosexual relationship in the forbidden category and then indulges in a self-pitying renunciation. The implied author seems unable to accept homosexuality as a given, with its own joys and sorrows analogous to, say, those of Maurice Gee's self-analytic heterosexual characters such as Noel Papps in Prowlers or Jack Skeat in Going West. Kai Jensen tellingly compares the novel to those of Dan Davin, and indeed it reveals some of the old-fashioned earnestness and lack of distance on the problems of self that mark Cliffi of Fall. (22)
Just as earnest and traditional, and much closer to Davin in other ways, is Felix Donnelly's Father Forgive Them, also a first novel by a writer who has previously published only non-fiction. (23) The narrative perspective on homosexuality comes not from within, as in Passion, but from a sympathetic position outside. The novel, even more traditional in method and structure, and with a shifting omniscient point of view, contains in its crowded plot enough events to serve for several books. Primarily the chronicle of two generations of the Olive family in Auckland, though that is ineptly intercut with a sketchier chronicle of the family of Matthew Olive's friend Raoul in Auckland and Sydney, it presents a grim picture of Catholic working-class life over the past fifty years, and especially the repressive effect of the Church on sexuality. Donnelly presents Bruce Olive as a crude, sexually frustrated, angry Catholic family father whose sexual impulses have been thwarted by the Church's teachings on contraception, which his wife fully accepts, while his appalling authoritarian and masculinist prejudices have not been challenged by any viable alternatives from the Church. Thus, his sexual energies, with the church's implicit approval, have been diverted into masculinist bullying. For Olive, Christianity has meant grudging sexual abstinence and foregoing of meat on Fridays rather than a loving acceptance of and compassion for his fellow human beings including his family. For this pattern of feeling the Church is shown to bear considerable responsibility. Its dead hand has been just as harmful on his wife Norma, whose loving qualities and desire for goodness have been deformed into grotesquely denying shapes by the teachings of a Church more concerned with buildings, authority and petty prohibitions than with love. The novel also pans over the other family members, including Eugene, Norma's cynical brother who opted out of training for the priesthood, and over the equally dysfunctional family of Raoul, but finally it focuses on Matthew Olive in the second generation, and more specifically on his homosexuality. Donnelly follows Matthew through his broken marriage, his discovery of his homosexuality, his rejection by his family, his affair with the more experienced Raoul, and ultimately to his death from AIDS following Raoul's AIDS-induced suicide. Matthew's dying gives Donnelly a chance to contrast his sister's self-righteous rejection (she has become a born-again fundamentalist and sees AIDS as God's punishment), Bruce's evasion of relationship, and Norma's loving acceptance when her love overcomes the attitudes taught her by the Church. Donnelly gives the final word to Matthew's angry young brother Philip, who speaks for the implied author with his impassioned impromptu sermon at Matthew's funeral: "you and I and all of those thousands of self-righteous pricks out there have got to face that by our attitudes, by our put-downs and persecutions, we're driving people into worlds of deceit and self-worthlessness" (p. 256). Donnelly's book, dedicated to 'all those who live with prejudice, ignorance and rejection' (p. 3), is interesting not as a novel but as a document that reveals changing attitudes towards sexuality and homosexuality within the Church.
Noel Virtue's third novel, In the Cauntry of Salvation, is another traditional family chronicle focusing on religion and sexuality, but in this case the religion is fundamentalist protestantism, and the family pattern patriarchal rather than matriarchal as with the Olives. Restel, the self-righteous and bullying patriarch of the miserable Bevan family, is a puritan of puritans who can tell his wife Cushla that her desire for sexual intercourse for any purpose other than procreation is 'the sin of lust'. (24) His concepts of appropriate gender roles are even more rigid than Bruce Olive's, and enforced with even more parental violence. Poor Cushla, like Norma Olive, is loving but neither bright nor strong, and the boys, Seddon, Billy and Colin, are all warped by the father-dominated family environment. The novel traces the repression, explosion and ultimate dispersal of the family. Seddon, having initiated young Billy into masturbation and fellatio, moves out of homosexuality into a loving relationship with Beth, an older woman. Colin rebels against the family and marries a Maori girl, Ruihi. Billy, the central character, fails to have his homosexual inclinations beaten out of him by his father, and ends in a relationship with Rewi. He is still thrashed by the local homophobes, but comes to be at peace with himself and begins to establish himself as a poet. Cushla finally leaves Restel and, like Mrs Crawley in Sargeson's 'An Affair of the Heart', awaits the return of a beloved Billy who will never come back.
More anti-puritan than pro-homosexual, the novel nonetheless implies an acceptance of both heterosexual and homosexual love, when Billy moves out of the country of salvation, hoping that 'one day he could just walk away from everything, down that road he reckoned people like him had to walk along, to be free, marching to the music of a different saviour' (p. 208). Only the 'reckoned' in the above passage points to the by now familiar stylistic pastiche of the book, its insistent laying on of the Kiwi idiom of a previous generation. It does not rain but it 'buckets down', the boys 'tuck into' what else but vegemite sandwiches, and some sentences are so overloaded with Kiwi idiom that they read like parody: 'By the end of the day, having slogged his guts out because the boss had shoved off to the boozer, Seddon felt too brassed off to think about much of anything' (p. 143). Like Father Forgive Them, the novel reads as a period piece, but is evidently meant to do so.
In contrast to these three earnest, traditionalist mappings out of the country of homosexuality, Gaelyn Gordon's Above Suspicion, her first adult novel, is up-to-the-minute in idiom and subject, and lightly ironic in its attitude to homosexuality and everything else. It is not 'about' homosexuality but takes it for granted. James Irwin, a brilliant, handsome, amoral, ruthless young homosexual academic, has been murdered by his lover, Maxwell Ridgeway, a sincere, bumbling middle-aged philosopher (again!). As we finally discover, the murder was committed not out of jealousy but as a planned moral act, for Ridgeway had discovered that Irwin was dealing in drugs and even using young Shane Wakers as delivery boy. The smelly, prematurely cynical, self-serving Shane could scarcely be seen as corruptible, but nonetheless that was Ridgeway's view. The novel turns on the working out of the mystery by Rangi Roberts, a sexy, thick and sexist Maori police sergeant, and his helper, Ashley Pike, aided by Tina Langhurst, young, beautiful, politically correct and sexually liberated (the relatively thin and typed characters ask for such tags).
With its quick cuts from scene to scene, its rapid juxtapositions of different points of view, and its fast-moving sequence of misunderstandings and discoveries, the novel works as a sophisticated entertainment. Gordon offers no exploration of homosexuality and no apology for it. Rather, as she does with Tina's self-conscious feminism, Rangi's unthinking masculinism, Ashley's absurd over-valuing of Rangi, or Portia Waiters' soap opera sentimentality, she laughs at homosexuality ironically. The novel takes none of its ideas seriously, but uses them all as counters in a humorous game. From the standpoint of its satiric irony, homosexuality is not privileged, and Tina's politically correct ideas, which cause her to condescend to and totally misunderstand Portia, are as much fair game as Rangi's box of traditional male prejudices, which lead him totally to misunderstand Tina. It all moves at a cracking pace, with the speech and free indirect thought of the characters presented in a range of up-to-date idioms and jargons totally different from Virtue's pastiche kiwiana.
Even more inclusive in its sexual range is playwright Renee's first novel, Willy Nilly, (25) in which the marriage of Polly and Luke brings together a variety of characters: Polly's family, including her lesbian mother and partner and ex-partner, his gay biological father (by artificial insemination) and her partner, among others; Luke's family, including his straight dentist father and proper neurotic mother; and the next-door neighbours, including Maori mother, alcoholic and mostly absentee father, and unhappy son. It is very much a dramatist's novel, with its short time-span, limited settings, and a structure made up entirely of dramatic scenes with fast-paced dialogue, but with a single point-of-view focaliser for each scene. The scenes play off different combinations of characters against one another as the plot moves through a series of revelations and comic resolutions, all coming together in the final wedding scene.
The novel, like Gordon's, is an entertainment, but more comic than satiric, as befits a book that ends with a wedding. Instead of laughing ironically at the characters and what they represent, the book engages in a comic laughter of acceptance. Gay, lesbian and straight sexuality, racial, class and generational difference--all are accepted, and generate a generous humour. In the book's social vision, lesbianism is not privileged but rather is simply accepted as another mode of relationship.
Third-Class Country: Life at the Edge
Thus far I have looked at novels dealing with life distant in time, space, race, social class or sexual orientation from the supposed social centre. Another group of novels deal with characters in present-day New Zealand who are primarily Pakeha, heterosexual and originally middle-class, but who have been pushed out to the edge by their personal and/or psychological difficulties.
Midge Cochrane, the sexually-obsessed heterosexual male protagonist of Russell Haley's second novel, Beside Myself, like Passion's Philip, seeks wholeness through sexual relationships, but he is a special, existentialist variety of seeker, faced with a Sartrean consciousness of 'the division which comes from self-awareness'. (26) Socially he is of our time, being caught in the 'low-energy homeostasis' of unemployment (p. 25). He has lost both a 'perfectly safe and secure and superannuated and boring job' (p. 23) through redundancy and then his redundancy money in the Crash of 1987. Unemployment gives him more time to indulge in a paralysing self-doubt by which he questions his own authenticity, feeling that he is acting a bad part in a B-grade movie with no director. The cause of this state, or at least the image at the centre of it, is his marital breakup, brought on by a gratuitous experience with a prostitute in Gay Morris' Amsterdam when he had told his wife that he was going out to see a film. He obsessively returns to the image of himself as seen in a mirror in the prostitute's room:
... slowly, I met my own eyes. Midge stared at me. His mouth was slack and open. He was reared above a woman's lifted arse and his belly pouched forward. He was a pink, shaven boar, rutting. He made me feel sick and I wanted to spew him up, vomit him out. I couldn't bear him. He had insinuated himself into this moment against my wishes, against my will. That Midge humiliated me with his absolute ordinariness. A middle-aged man in a foreign city fucking a prostitute in dog fashion. I was a dirty postcard. (pp. 162-63)
Midge may possibly break out of his paralysis, when, acting in a filmed commercial, he cuts across the script, and, with a sense of 'a soft meshing of fates', becomes himself, doing what feels 'absolutely right' (p. 181). Although he realises that even that is an act, 'cheap escapism', he begins to attempt to take existential responsibility for his life and to learn to like himself. But he is left at the end in a kind of limbo, trying to decide whether or not to act to resume a relationship that has not worked out particularly well.
Beside Myself is an oddly unengaging book. The reader is imprisoned in Midge's depressing and not very interesting mind as it moves back and forth between memories of Europe and the marriage break-up in the past, and his unsuccessful relationships in the present. Haley presents some scenes vividly, impressionistically: the past, as in the moment when Midge confesses his experience with the prostitute to his wife and she knocks him down; the present, as in his nightmarish break-in to a rural Northland house. Sometimes his past and present become confused, as when he buys an Italian cake at a petrol station in Northland, but the significance of such episodes, if any, is obscure. The reader's problem is in finding a place in the novel to stand outside of Midge's mind, and we are not sure how to take him. He simply exists, in his unedifying paralysis, his male chauvinism, and his relentless self-regard. Perhaps it is a tribute to Haley's success in capturing Midge's suffocating psychological world that having once experienced it, I have no desire to return to it.
Although Midge has memories of 1960s parties, his heart belongs to the existentialist 1950s, and he has fond memories of James Dean and the young Marion Brando. Kath, the protagonist of Sue McCauley's third novel, Bad Music, is more of a 60s survivor, but her memories also go back to the mid-50s, not Rebel Without a Cause, but Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel', which seemed to promise another country to the eleven-year-old girl:
What we were hearing was in our hearts. It was as if the grey hills had been pushed apart and a vast motorway--a freeway--snaked between them. And at the end of that motorway (promised this voice, this Elvis) everything was bigger and younger and faster and freer. Another country. Where no one need ever polish shoes or go to church or use serviette rings, or even clean their teeth. (27)
But the other country where she ended up turns out to be only middle age; she runs an op shop in Ponsonby Road that is about to be gentrified out from under her; she lives out of, or at least out on the edge of, the teeth-cleaning middle class, on the margins instead of in liberated territory. Like Midge, she is looking for meaning in a sexual relationship, but unlike him she is sociable, energetic, engaging, and not particularly self-analytic.
Kath is flanked by Sha, her punkish nineteen-year-old daughter, Sha's male friend the aging rock singer Hal Barber (aka Henry Head), and Willie the young, neglected-rich-boy guitarist. The plot, such as it is, is pretty minimal: Kath, also attracted to Hal, has a last fling with her 'bad music' while Hal feels his past catching up and life closing in. Kath predictably ends up alone, while Hal goes off to his own middle age, and Sha takes care of Willie. This plot is merely a clothesline on which to hang anecdotes about music in Kath's past and in Hal's, music which acts as a metaphor for everything that the 60s revolution promised and failed to deliver. The style is racy, both in Kath's first-person vernacular and in the limited third-person treatments of Hal's life, and rapid, cinematic cuts operate back and forth in space and time. McCauley has described the book as an exercise in scriptwriting techniques, aiming to 'glint over the surface of things in an economical way'. (28) In this aim she succeeds very well; the novel does not try to do as much as Beside Myself, but does so more enjoyably.
Lisa Greenwood's second novel, Daylight Burning, is something else again, much heavier going. Greenwood's characters are on the edge both socially and psychologically. Gabriel, a young Auckland architect, refugee from a yuppie world of trendy parties and house renovations, sets against all that his hallucinatory image of nuclear devastation and the death of the child he tries to save. His flight to a mill town leads him to Beverly, a large, vigorous, loving part-Maori woman who is increasingly taken over by the voices of her paranoid schizophrenia, and Linda, her fearful, indrawn assistant at the mill cafeteria. The nightmarish setting of of muddy mill town and chaotic cafeteria is vividly realised, but the structure of the book is not clear. As Colleen Reilly has stated, the book 'has the quality of a personal nightmare told to us rather than written, and told the morning after, before the dreamer has had the time or distance to craft the telling'. (29) Gabriel and Beverly seem meant to be visionaries, like those in Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot. They are mad, but in their madness see something symbolically true about the violence and conflict underlying sane society. An obscure allegorical sub-text, with Gabriel as the annunicatory angel, Beverly's voices as the Annunciation, her death a kind of martyrdom, and the baby that Gabriel and Linda care for the Saviour (Gabriel 'saw, in his face and waving arms, expression of all fragile human hope') (30) creates a dualism between the forces of love and darkness (Auckland wealth and the mill town greed and violence), but it all remains intensely obscure.
Middle-Class Country: The Centre will not Hold?
Finally in this long journey we arrive at the centre, if post-modern society has one: four novels dealing with such institutions of middle New Zealand as the railways, schools and parliament, together with their inhabitants. Each novel presents a social cross-section including representatives of some of the other countries we have examined, but in each the central consciousness (or consciousnesses) is that of a middle-class woman. All but one are teachers or ex-teachers.
The slightest of these novels is Joan Rosier-Jones' Canterbury Tales, set on an Arts Festival Special train between Dunedin and Christchurch and in a Christchurch hotel. (31) The characters are all tagged by names such as 'Pritchard the Pious', 'Ned the Enigma,' etc., and all are eminently taggable, cardboard cutout types. A large and socially representative cast contains hapless railway guards, the homosexual lover of a male dancer, a self-important meditationist, a closet homosexual born-again Christian, a stuffy vicar and his unhappy wife, an objectionable Texan tourist and his unhappy wife, a randy schoolgirl doing a bunk and seeking an orgy, a young Samoan and his pregnant papalagi lover, a male chauvinist MP and his thick son, two genteelly alcoholic spinster sisters, an unemployed young woman, a young Maori musician, a true female poet and a phoney male novelist, a rejected older man and a competent and understanding older woman, an ex-MP and a cyncial female journalist, and a young male Lotto winner. At the centre is Maria, a sensitive, middle-aged woman guiltily hoping for a resumption of an adulterous affair with a visiting European cellist. Most of the men are made to exhibit some form of objectionable male ego, while most of the women are treated sympathetically. The plot is not so much slice-of-life as shake-and-mix, a series of engineered crises turning on the desired murder of the Texan by his put-upon wife which show up the silly characters and bring together the sympathetic couples, heterosexual and homosexual. The exception is poor Maria and her cellist, for, like a 1950s women's magazine fiction character, she is allowed to 'come to her senses' and return to her husband.
The book contains little substance, despite its appearance of social breadth. Playing with stereotypes to affirm platitudes, it provides mere moralised entertainment, pacy but lacking the wicked life and irreverence of Above Suspicion or the wit and humanity of Willy Nilly.
While Canterbury Tales is made up of separately-titled interlocking episodes brought to a definite climax, Barbara Anderson's Girls High is made up of separately-titled short stories that interlink without forming a closed structure. (32) Anderson's is much more a slice-of-life book than Rosier-Jones', and her judicious slices reveal a great amount about sexual and educational politics. At the centre are three young teachers and friends: Carmen Doyle, Sooze Powdrell and Margot Murchison, whose interrelationships with each other and their partners provide the main actions. Carmen moves into a passionate relationship with Cliff Marden, the new art teacher (he does not know that his predecessor nearly raped her) and holds at arm's length the bisexual Jenni Murphy. Sooze suffers through the bad temper of her lover Bryce, who has lost his yuppie job in the Crash of 1987, and finds her consolation in the arms of Cam, Margot's loved and solid husband. Others on the staff go through and remember other experiences: Una Benchley's loss of her husband to a male lover, Thea Sinclair's desertion by her husband, Kate Franklin's passionate love and loss of the previous headmistress, and her quarrel with Miss Tamp, the present one, Marcia Hobbs' one passionate fling in Japan, Mrs Toon's care for her brain-damaged daughter. Nothing is resolved except the school year, and even that is left hanging, for the book opens with the first staff meeting of the year and closes with the opening of the Leavers' Play.
Most of the stories work separately as stories, some brilliantly, while Anderson holds it all together by the overlapping characters and the school year. We get a strong sense, as in Maurice Gee's fiction, of characters who are not, like Rosier-Jones', counters pushed on and off the stage, but people whose lives continue even when we are not focussing on them. Contrary to some post-structural theory, this is one of the sources of satisfaction in the book, making it, as Gill Boddy says, 'a cohesive text ... which will entertain, challenge, and satisfy'. (33) A further source of satisfaction is the assured technique. The dialogue is crisp, economical, idiomatic. The shifts in point of view are handled with aplomb, so that some scenes like the opening staff meeting utilise a rapidly shifting omniscience to capture a group of characters; others narrow the focus by means of a first-person present tense method; some focus on a single character as both seer and seen; one chapter is all in direct speech, while much of another, the last staff meeting, is presented with dry irony by indirect speech. Anderson's technique is at the service of a sharp, dry but humane vision which, as David Eggleton points out, charts 'the shifting moralism, the superficially liberal but still deeply conservative morality of the socially ambitious and dynamic New Zealand middle class, as it is now'. (34)
Capturing the 'middle class, as it is now' is certainly Fiona Kidman's aim in True Stars, but she focuses on 'real' politics rather than on the sexual and school sorts. Like Penelope's Island, this book is a political variety of the social problem novel. Kidman is explicitly concerned with 'the affairs of the nation', especially the fate of New Zealand in 1988 as Lange and Douglas battled it out:
... the unfettered and now lawless market, the cheap imports made with sweated labour that were closing down businesses, the thousands dismissed from their jobs every week ... the tension which stalked the streets and the ugly face of greed. (35)
At the centre of the book is Rose Kendall, wife of Kit, a Labour backbencher representing the North Island town of Weyville, and a man tested and found wanting by the fires of political battle. Rose is a useful central character for Kidman, for she naturally comes into contact with a social cross-section. Having come from a working-class background, Rose is in touch, through her sister Katrina, with the unemployed and the working poor of 'Blake Block'; through her ex-boyfriend she contacts the disadvantaged rural contractors; while through Katrina's estranged daughter Larissa, she touches the criminal and druggie fringe in the caravan park. Her social centre is with the liberal business people and professionals of Weyville, the core of the local Labour Party, and, through Kit, she reaches to the ruling elite of Wellington (as far as Rex Gamble, a second-rank Douglasite cabinet minister). The symbol of her position is her newish house in an upper-middle-class suburb, where she is increasingly besieged as she undergoes silent phone calls, threatening invasions, the killing of her dog, and even Larissa's lover growing marijuana in her hothouse when she is away.
Kidman competently evokes Rose's wide-ranging social world. The characters remain primarily types and social representatives, lacking much inner complexity, but their ways of life are are concretely evoked by those social details for which Kidman has such a good eye and ear: what they eat and drink, what is in their houses, what they wear and say. This society is placed morally and historically by the benchmark of 1981, the Anti-Tour movement, which is convincingly caught in flashbacks. Rose and Kit and their friends then decided as they engaged together in the struggle that there had to be political and social change, and that work through the Labour Party would bring it about. As a result, Rose's policeman persecutor Teddy O'Meara comes to see her as the feminist, anti-rugby, anti-racist, antiauthority, middle-class intellectual enemy. The hopes and tensions of 1981 are caught and juxtaposed sadly to 1988: 'All that work, all this loss' (p. 225).
As with other social problem novelists, Kidman's primary difficulty is with her plot. Even more so than Duff, she turns to melodrama: two killings, another attempted murder, a manhunt. By the end the novel is seriously off the rails, although its narrative impetus carries it on for a long way through the underbrush. The sacking of Roger Douglas makes for a credible historical climax, but the fictional plot turns to wish-fulfilment when Rose saves her niece, leaves the Labour Party, leaves Kit, and goes off into the sunset to become a feminist film-maker. It is as unbelievable as Beth's conversion of Pine Block in Once Were Warriors. Nevertheless, the book is powerful despite its flaws. Kidman strongly communicates anger and concern, and attempts bravely to deal with the radical changes, dislocations, and confusions of post-1984 New Zealand. As the earlier career of Shadbolt shows clearly, fiction seldom succeeds as art when it competes with journalism, but the attempt is nonetheless worth making.
True Stars moves back and forth between Wellington and the provinces whereas Maurice Gee's The Burning Boy stays anchored in 'Saxton', that 'misshapen twin' of Nelson. On the surface the town appears to be prospering, with its overseas tourists, its consumerism, its conspicuous evidences of new wealth. But, the narrator comments that 'You can illustrate a two nations argument here,' (36) and one does not have to look very hard to find the street kids, the glue-sniffers, the unemployed, the petty crime and the violence, as well as the more hidden and less economically selective social ills such as child abuse and incest. The central insitution, touching the full range of society, is a girls' high school, as in Barbara Anderson's novel, and the central consciousness is that of its headmistress, Norma Sangster. In her professional and personal relationships she reaches out to a range of people: her aging parents, her bitter brother, her reclusive friend John Toft, her colleagues and ex-colleagues, and, most important, two representative families, the Rounds and the Birtles. The Rounds are at the upper end of the scale, with Tom a nationally successful architect and Josie a craftsperson with a business written up in North and South. Their older daughters, Mandy and Stella, aim for medicine and law, and their younger daughter Belinda is bright but rather more rebellious. But there is also Duncan, the son hideously disfigured in a petrol-sniffing fire that connects the family with the Birtles, since Wayne Birtles accidentally started the fire and was killed in it. The Birtles are at the other end of the scale from the Rounds, and in difficulties. Ken, working as maintenance man in a fish factory and coaching a women's softball team, holds the family together, while wife Joanie has lived in a nicotine-filled private haze since Wayne's death. Younger daughter Hayley, a star softball pitcher, is at risk because of her precocious sexuality, and older daughter Shelley, once school running champion, is now caught up in a destructive relationship with a criminal. Between them the two families define the social range of Saxton.
Gee's interest in this novel, unlike Kidman's, is less political than ethical, individual more than social, although he probably has an unstated social corollary to his ethical vision. Underlying that vision are his roughly existentialist assumptions that the 'huge emptiness' that Duncan 'saw in the burning moment' (p. 25) provides no answers for us, that we cannot get 'off the hook of individual being' (p. 201) as conscious individuals in an unconscious universe. Gee believes that we are responsible for what we do and define our own moral meanings by the decisions we make. No Providential God operates in Gee's world: the narrow and self-righteous teacher Phyllis Muir tells her students that "You must behave as if you feel His hand upon your back ... urging you along" (p. 82), but what Hayley feels 'like a hand on her back' (p. 281) during the climactic forest fire is only the wind indifferently driving the fire along the hilltops.
A whole group of characters in the book try to evade those existential decisions because having been burned, they want to be safe. The physically burned Duncan responds by trying to 'lock himself away inside his head' (p. 24). Because Joanie Birtles cannot cope with Wayne's burning, she retires into a world of passivity and the controlled burning of chain smoking, turning herself yellow from the nicotine. John Toft, who has seen and experienced more than he could take in World War II in Norway, opts out of responsibility, insisting that 'There is not a step along a human path for me to take' (p. 210). Lex Clearwater tries to deny human consciousness and responsibility by attempting to 'strip away layers of then and there and why and how and live with the goats in their perpetual now and look from that pupil and that eye' (p. 76). Ironically, he is burned to death for it. Stella and Mandy, psychologically burned by Tom's incestuous attentions, try to pull into themselves, to relate only to professional goals and avoid full human contact.
Gee flanks his burned characters with others who choose, but only in terms of a one-eyed vision, and with no concern for the effects of their actions on others. Phyllis Muir and her allies on the Board of Governors are traditional puritan versions of such types. Tom Round is more dangerous, a hedonist who does not need to justify his choices by any principle but his own pleasure. His incest with his daughters is simply an extension of the way he treats his wife, his mistresses, and all those whom he wants to beat. The boys who try to gang-rape Hayley are cruder, less intelligent versions of the same ethic, while at the far end of the scale is a recurring type in Gee's fiction, Shelley's 'lover' Neill Chote (the word is singularly inappropriate for him), 'a piece of anti-matter, burning what it touched by a natural law', as indifferent as the forest fire, and as Norma sees, paradoxically 'incorruptible' in his evil (p. 185).
In the centre, potential prey to the predators, are the innocents Belinda, Hayley and Shelley, already victimised, but capable of redemption or total destruction. These characters provide an ethical challenge: who will take responsibility? It is left to people like Norma to choose to 'stand' and 'defy the larger harmful things' (p. 9). Norma puts her job on the line to protect Shelley from further persecution, and she does her best by Belinda and Hayley. Ken Birtles, rough as he is, takes responsibility for Shelley and Hayley as much as he can, and he and Norma find their own strengthening and consolation together. But it is the burned ones who do most to stop the spread of burning. Stella and Mandy choose to oppose Tom and protect Belinda, and by doing so they humanise themselves and awaken their mother. Hayley saves herself from the would-be rapists, but it is Duncan who refuses the call to go 'over the wall' away from humanity, and who in the book's final ethical act, saves Hayley from the fire.
Gee structures his book to make his ethical judgements clear. A social judgement not unlike Kidman's may be implicit behind the foregrounded ethic: the New Zealand economic order of 1986-87 (the narrative present of the novel), the new capitalism so criticised by Kidman, rewards Tom Round and threatens to make Ken Birtles redundant, while the old puritan social order would quite righteously, as Ken says, treat Shelley like 'some bit of shit in the corner' to be hosed out of the yard (p. 254). But the characters are individuals, not socio-political representatives. They combine to make up a full and compelling picture of a society, which the book does not however judge: it is a social novel but not a social problem novel.
Gee creates an almost Victorian social sweep by using a variant of a Victorian narrative method, the omniscient point of view. This is a considerable departure from his first-person retrospective method in the Plumb trilogy and Prowlers, and in his next book, Going West. It differs from the usual version of the method in that the narrator, instead of clarifying and analysing the meaning of the fictional microcosm and its relation to the macrocosm, draws attention both to his own invention of the fictional world and to the reader's complicity in the process. He tells us that he is 'inclined to get rid of' a character he has introduced, for he 'may not need him at all' (p. 57); he describes some characters and then tells us 'they don't come into our story' (p. 223); he points out when 'It's time to go back and take a narrow focus' (p. 280); he admits to the reader that 'We've lost Stella somewhere', and suggests a joint invention with his 'Let's say she's in her room studying' (p. 123). These interjections resemble Noel Papp's doubts about the selection and ordering of his narrative, but are more radical in their implications. The convention of the first-person narration of Prowlers is that the 'reality' of Noel's experience existed, even if he cannot or will not remember and order it all, whereas here that 'reality' is seen as an invention of the author-as-narrator. Despite their similarity to passages in Prowlers, then, these passages differ in implying a basically post-modern contract with the reader rather than George Eliot's realist one. But the method is reminiscent of George Eliot in the use of metaphor for psychological purposes. Many precise and yet evocative characterizing images occur, often internalised in that they are the characters' images for themselves or for other characters: Norma sees Neill Chote as 'a piece of antimatter', or sees Ken's psychological impression on her as being a print on her mind as his hand leaves a print on her hand; Duncan sees in a pointillist painting an image for the working of his own mind, and views Stella as 'like one of those dolls with a joint in their necks' in that 'when you want to make her look at something else you've got to twist her head, you hear the click' (p. 237). From being the maker of workmanlike prose in his early fiction, Gee has developed over thirty years into an exact and exacting stylist. That is one of the reasons why his ninth novel is the best in a year of many good novels.
I have looked at the novels of 1990 in terms of 'worlds' rather than fictional modes. But if we look back over them with mode in mind, we see that as in 1989, various forms of realism dominate. Elements of modernism and occasionally post-modernism enter only to internalize and make more credible the basically realistic fictional world. Novels such as Penelope's Island or Once Were Warriors or True Stars use that realism for the didactic purpose of the social problem novel, and even the less didactic novels such as Girls High or The Burning Boy use realism to depict and comment on a fictional microcosm which is clearly meant to relate to the socio-historical macrocosm. Despite the premature burial of the mode, the most impressive novels of the year--my short list would include those by Gee, Shadbolt, Anderson, Duff, McAlpine, McNeish, and Mann--are all primarily realist. In depicting the many countries that make up and relate to the New Zealand of the sesquicentennial year of European settlement, the novels of 1990 continue to use methods that have dominated fiction since here the 1930s.
(1.) (1990; rpt. London: VGSF, 1991), p. 33.
(2.) (Auckland: Sceptre, 1990), pp. 31, 35.
(3.) (Auckland: RSVP, 1990).
(4.) (Tauranga: Moana Press, 1990), p. 48.
(5.) (Auckland: New Women's Press, 1990).
(6.) 'Dreams and destruction', Listener & TV Times, 10 December 1990, p. 111.
(7.) (Auckland: Heineman Reed Pacific Writers Series, 1990), p. 110.
(8.) 'Falling for love', Listener & TV Times, 17 December 1990, p. 81.
(9.) (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990).
(10.) Wattle, review, Landfall 179 (September 1991), 368; Lay, 'Colonial Story', Listener & TV Times, 29 October 1990, p. 111.
(11.) (Auckland: Penguin, 1990), p. 78.
(12.) (Auckland: New Women's Press, 1990), pp. 253,264.
(13.) (Auckland: Penguin, 1990), p.53.
(14.) Review, Landfall 177 (March 1991), 107.
(15.) (Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), p. 304.
(16.) (Wellington: Mallinson Rendel, 1990), p. 205.
(17.) 'Story of a People', 5 November 1990, p. 109.
(18.) (Auckland: Tandem Press, 1990), p. 43.
(19.) 'Inferno', Listener & TV Times, 17 December 1990, p. 109.
(20.) Review, Landfall 179 (September 1990), 360.
(21.) (Auckland: Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, 1990), p. 179.
(22.) Review, Landfall 177 (March 1991), 121-22.
(23.) (Wellington: GP Books, 1990). While Donnelly is well-known for his writings on church and society, 'Glynn Parker' is the pseudonym of 'An Auckland educationalist who has been writing for many years but to date has only published non-fiction in his specialised field' (textual note). A second book, Sweet and Sour Cocktails, a collection of short stories published in 1993, reveals 'Glynn Parker' to be Robert Leek.
(24.) (Auckland: Random Century, 1990), p. 18.
(25.) (Auckland: Penguin, 1990).
(26.) (Auckland: Penguin, 1990), p. 32.
(27.) (Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), p. 9.
(28.) Marion McLeod, "Writing to Live', Listener & TV Times, 10 September 1990, p. 5.
(29.) Review, Landfall 175 (September 1990), 385.
(30.) (Auckland: Random Century, 1990), p. 266.
(31.) (Auckland: Sceptre, 1990).
(32.) Wellington: Victoria UP, 1990).
(33.) Review, Landfall 177 (March 1991), 106.
(34.) 'Sharp Watch on Puppets', Otago Daily Times, 5 December 1990, p. 25.
(35.) (Auckland: Random Century, 1990), p. 92.
(36.) (Auckland: Viking, 1990), p. 111.
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|Publication:||JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1994|
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