Monday, June 3, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“BANGS” by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (Penguin, $NZ30)

            When I was a teenager, a “bang” was one of the kiddie words for sexual intercourse, on about the same level of puerility as “root” or the later usage “bonk”. As Stevan Eldred-Grigg is a sociologically-aware person, I’d be surprised if he didn’t know this. So I do wonder why he’s given the family name Bang to the main characters of his Christchurch working-class saga. Does it point to the fact that the novel contains teenage (and kiddie) sex? Or is it intended to reduce people to being mere random products of random sexual intercourse?

Bangs is the fourth in the series of novels about a proletarian Christchurch family by Stevan Eldred-Grigg, social historian and novelist. The series began with Oracles and Miracles back in 1987. Aunties Ginnie and Fag, main characters of Oracles and Miracles, have walk-on parts in Bangs, but the focus is on young Meridee Bang and her blowsy Mum Gwendolyn. Meridee, born in the late 1950s, is the youngest of a large family (eight kids) living in a state house; and she is clearly her mother’s “mistake”. The novel opens with Gwendolyn going to the doctor because her periods have stopped and she’s wondering if menopause has come early.

Meridee grows from little-girlhood in the early 1960s to young-womanhood in the 1980s and it is the novel’s purpose to follow her every step of the way, showing how she is both formed and constrained by her environment of family, social class, time and place. She goes to primary school. Her Mum cooks and washes and smokes. She watches TV shows of the era like The Patty Duke Show and I Love Lucy and fantasises about being characters in them and hops and bops to C’Mon and sings advertising jungles. The family go on holidays to seaside baches.  There are lots of big brothers and sisters to contend with and the author pours in much time-and-place-specific detail. When the young child Meridee has a meal, we get:

I’m dressed now and ready for grub. Kids are chewing toast while seated or jumping up and down from the table in the middle of the dinette. The table is formica, a speckled yellow. The chairs around the table are tubes of chromed steel padded with vinyl. The vinyl, yellow and grey, is splitting. Cracks are starting to open in the soldering of the chromed chair legs.” (Pg.25)

And a few pages later when she uses the bathroom, we get:
The bathroom is a little cube. The bathtub, boxed inside painted plywood, takes up half the space. The plywood has begun to rot. A tidal mark inside the tub is made up of soap and body fat and sloughed skin. A knot of hair blocks the plughole. The bathroom walls, painted salmon pink, are streaked with toothpaste, Brylcreem, talcum powder and other stuff, nameless. I do my best not to think about the nameless stuff.” (Pg.28)

You can easily visualise the period detail here, and it is such detail that sustains the novel and underwrites its credibility.

There are some interesting things about this family. To all intents and purposes, it is a matriarchy, with Mum Gwendolyn dominating the kids and their emotional development. Although there is a factory-worker father, Wally, he’s all but invisible, mentioned only occasionally, staggering in from the six-o’clock swill in the 1960s, joylessly fumbling with his wife, and otherwise ignored. Late in the novel, we are told in one Christmas scene that:

 We group ourselves around the tat for the opening of the presents, which is a desultory sort of story done every year. Dad presides at the opening. One of the very few occasions in any season of any year when we make believe he’s the head of the family. Mum squats nearby and looks oddly submissive.” (Pg.250)

Part of Eldred-Grigg’s purpose, it would appear, is to tell us something about the condition of working-class women of the era. With all the kids, Mum is prematurely aged. It is a jolt, in Meridee’s teenage years, to find that the decrepit Mum she talks about is only in her forties, and by the time Gwendolyn speaks her last words in the novel, she is a mere fifty and considering her life to be effectively over. But women’s roles changed between the 1950s and 1980s and the sociologist in Eldred-Grigg wants to show us so. Young Meridee’s ambitions and outlook are quite different from those of her mother, although there are continuities, as the novel’s conclusion makes painfully clear.

Meridee narrates about 90% of the novel with Gwendolyn providing most of the rest of the first-person narrative.

So far, so credibly sociological. We easily register the fact that, from the 1950s to the 1980s, the background noise of working class life in New Zealand was almost full employment, with characters readily able to move from one job to another should they wish. We easily register that gender roles were different and that some people’s horizons were more limited. We note that in Christchurch in the years covered, there were beginning to be seen some Polynesian faces and nightclubs were being set up.

But a little before midway point in Bangs, there is the shocker. Pre-pubescent Meridee is first fondled, and then regularly sexually-abused, by her gormless older brother Larry. (We get all the explicit details). And once this happens there is inevitably a change of tone. It is found in the overtly-symbolic nightmares of the girl, as in:

 I’m trapped under red rubber and I’m drowning. Staring fearfully at a riverbed where eels are swimming slowly, I see a rank bed of waterweed. I can’t breathe. The eels whip their tales. I catch sight of something in the weed. Teeth in white rows, small and sharp. No, round and shiny things. Round and silver things. Shillings! I grab, but they’re not shillings, they’re the shards of glass, the shards that flew into the lounge. The glass cuts my skin. My hand begins bleeding. Eels thrash towards my hand. They thrash towards my eyes. A claw reaches down to help, the white claw of a woman, yet it doesn’t help. The claw smack my hand with a frightening whack.” (pg.134)

The white claw appears to belong to Meridee’s Mum, who all but blames Meridee for the abuse she has suffered. (Again, perhaps, a model of an older sort of womanhood, giving her first support to her son.)

The novel gets more depressing. Not only is the narrating Meridee becoming more grown-up and more aware and less childishly chirpy, but she is much more cynical even than the average teenager. She is clearly a bright kid and likes to read more highbrow books than her Mum would ever crack, as the account of her high-school years indicates. But marriage, coupling, having children, are always seen negatively by the teenage Meridee. Her big sister Annette and later her big brother John get married, and in both cases the event is described in completely joyless terms. Big sister Valmae gets pregnant at the age of 14 and adopts the child out. Meridee herself goes on the pill at the age of fourteen, and is soon “banging” promiscuously all over the place. Boyfriends, older men, a guy who takes her to Australia and shacks up with her for a while etc. Much of the detail occupies the last third of the novel, with Meridee visibly becoming weary, more depressed and feeling hollow and worthless.

I’m sure that an historian like the author would be able to access statistics on under-age teen sexual activity and pregnancy, not to mention reported sexual abuse. Presumably Meridee’s experience is far from unique. Even so, once this becomes the focus of Bangs, the novel becomes more a case of individual psychopathology than a social portrait.

To add to the problem, there is a hasty wrap-up, which is very unsatisfactory. The novel jumps suddenly and gracelessly from the 1980s to (if the very last few words are to be trusted) what seems to be the big Christchurch earthquake of 2011. It is as if Eldred-Grigg suddenly reminded himself that this was not intended as a work of determinism, with Meridee destroyed by her experience and background. He allows us to picture two or three possible outcomes in Meridee’s later life. Even so, it is not dramatically convincing.

This is not meant to be a dismissal of the novel. The voices of Meridee and her Mum are convincing (allowing for a little unlikely slang on Mum’s part), the external period detail is interesting and the events varied enough to keep us turning pages.

But Eldred-Grigg has a big problem, which he doesn’t always solve satisfactorily.

He uses first-person narration, hence he has to reflect the limitations in the viewpoints of his characters. But he also wants us to see the big sociological picture. So there are times when you can detect the author’s index finger pushing characters to say things that they would not be likely to say; or when the author makes little Meridee’s tone suddenly change so that, instead of being a child with an artless child’s perspective, she is a knowing adult looking back on her childhood. Consider little kiddie Meridee having a chocolate fish. She says:

A chocolate fish is a hunk of pink marshmallow. Well, to tell the truth, years later I find out that it’s not marshmallow at all, it’s sugar and egg white and maize syrup and gelatin, and you know what gelatin is, right? Yep, powdered skin and bone from the freezing works. You can drive past freezing works in some of the other suburbs. Freezing works smell of burnt hair, which is what Nazi death camps must have stunk like. Anyway, none of these things come from the little scented herb with pink flowers, the marsh mallow….” (pg.34)

Is this what a five- or six-year-old would think? The “years later” there gives the game away and lets us see the joins.

Later there is pubescent Meridee’s annoyance that Mum won’t hand over the family allowance as pocket money:

The money we’re talking about is the family benefit, which is money given by the state every week to every mother for every kid. The money’s not a lot, only two dollars. Once upon a time between the wars, when the first Labour government began handing out the family benefit, you could keep a kid fed and clothed and shod on that money. Now we’ve been throttled too long by the National Party. The rich bastards who boss that bloody fascist gang have wasted away the family benefit till it’s worth nothing more than pocket money. Sharon’s mum, who wears jeans and is quite foxy for a woman her age, gives Sharon the two dollars every week and lets her spend it as she likes, the whole lot. Yesterday, having only just heard about this admirable system, I went and asked for the same deal from Mum.” (pp.156-157)

It is possible that the young teen girl has heard her parents talking about the family benefit in these terms, but again this is more a socio-historical footnote than likely teen perspective.

The problem of wedding first-person narration with the author’s intended commentary comes out in other ways. A number of times, first-person narrators other than Gwendolyn and Meridee butt into the narrative for just one brief sequence. The prim primary-school teacher who sizes up Meridee’s chances at school and makes condescending comments on Meridee’s Mum. Pregnant Valmae filling us in on details of the domestic situation that little-girl Meridee could not possibly understand. Most jarringly, near the novel’s end, the six pages of a middle-class girl Chloe, who is a fellow-student with Meridee and who is apparently necessary to show us how Meridee struggles to fit in with a university environment.

Twice (on p.9 and p.265), Eldred-Grigg repeats the device of having a narrator (Gwendolyn in the first instance and Meridee in the second) catching her own reflection in a shop window, so that he can give an “objective” description of how she would look to others. The fourth wall is broken, the artifice is too obvious and the author descends to telling us how to see the characters, rather than letting the characters credibly reveal themselves.

Post-Christchurch earthquake, though, there is some nostalgic irony. Surely it’s there when, sometime in the 1960s, Mum Gwendolyn reflects:

 The spire of the cathedral sticks up into the sky. It looks beaut, the cathedral. All old stone, and old stained glass and old slates, and way up on the spike of the spire is this big shiny ball and cross. You look at the cathedral and you know where you stand. The cathedral was here when my great-grandma was the age I am now. The cathedral will still be here when my great-grandkids are the age I am now.” (Pg.101)

No it won’t. No it isn’t. And one hopes much of Meridee’s experience won’t be there either.

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