Monday, April 27, 2015

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.  

“TELL YOU WHAT: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015” Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew (Auckland University Press, $NZ29:99); “SAM ZABEL AND THE MAGIC PEN” by Dylan Horrocks (Victoria University Press, $NZ35)

There is a great temptation in reviewing an anthology of prose pieces. You are tempted to go all bibliographical, name-check every one of the contents, and then start picking favourites.
I find it very hard to resist this temptation with Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction, so I will go all bibliographical. But I will at least refrain from name-checking every single item in the book.
Tell You What was jointly edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew, who are both Auckland-resident writers and reviewers. Susanna Andrew runs the books pages of Metro magazine. Tell You What was published in November of last year, and I have only now had the pleasure of catching up with it. It consists of 29 nonfiction pieces, nearly all originally published in the last two or three years, and most written by the New Zealand-born, although there are one or two written by the merely New Zealand-resident. I totted up the names of the authors (see what I mean about going all bibliographical?) and discover that the selection consists of 15 men and 14 women, so you can rest assured that it is gender equitable.
In their perky introduction, Gracewood and Andrew basically argue that New Zealand nonfiction is not esteemed as highly or taken as seriously (in reviews, journals etc.) as New Zealand fiction is. They say that it should be. The first selection in the book (Anthony Byrt’s very brief “What I’m Reading”) is an apologia for reading on-line nonfiction rather than fiction. Gracewood and Andrew also reflect one major change in publishing by declaring (p.2) “fully half the contents of this collection were originally published in the ‘web’ ”. As I already knew (and as you must know by now, because you are reading a blog), in the last twenty years there has been a seismic shift in the way prose of all sorts reaches the public. With editors of newspapers and publishers of books, there is now much hand-wringing over the way printed paper is being supplanted in many areas by the computer screen. Interestingly, though, when people really want to preserve something in more permanent form, they still turn to paper – as in this anthology, or as in the anthology The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (2011), which celebrated the 10th anniversary of an on-line phenomenon.
Okay, after the bibliographical stuff, I come to the harder part of reviewing, which is actually reviewing.
A simple statement to begin with. I loved this collection and found there were only one or two selections that didn’t engage my attention or arouse my admiration. As the longer pieces are only eight or nine pages long, it would make a very good bedside book.
The editors do not state that they had a scheme in arranging the contents in any particular order, but I can sometimes see the ghost of a scheme. Eleanor Catton’s “Land of the Long White Cloud” is a very visceral reflection on New Zealand landscape. Lara Strongman’s “A Song From Under the Floorboards” has a similarly strong sense of place in reflecting on childhood and memory. David Haywood’s “What Not to Expect” considers the difficulties of getting on with family life when it has been disrupted by a major crisis. Nic Lowe’s “Ear to the Ground” reinserts Ngai Tahu into the history of Christchurch. What I haven’t said is that three of these four pieces, which open the anthology, turn on the trauma of the Christchurch earthquakes, their aftermath, the rebuild and what this has to do with the city’s society and history.
While I wouldn’t call it a scheme on the part of the editors, there are other major themes in this collection.
One is family and personal connections – Megan Clayton’s “The Needle and the Damage Done”, with its profound reflection on her pregnancy and people’s reaction to it; Naomi Arnold’s “Mother’s Day”, concerning the unexpected sojourn of a relative in her home as a family was being reconstituted; David Herkt’s “Paul” (one of the most confrontational and powerful in the collection) about caring for and interacting with a man who is both mentally-challenged and gay. The pieces on forebears (Simon Wilson on his grandparents; Keith Ng on his grandfather) are also part of this family and relationships theme.
And yet some of these selections could be read from another perspective. Megan Clayton’s piece is as much about how people are undervalued in a monetarist society as it is about her pregnancy. This brings us to the impact of neo-liberalism upon New Zealand, most blatant in Greg Bruce’s “The Desperate Quest: How Auckland’s Property Market Drove Me to the Edge of Insanity”. But it is also found in Nic Lowe’s “Ear to the Ground”, where there is the epiphany (p.42) of people actually talking to each other during the Christchurch re-build rather than just continuing with their private economic concerns. New Zealand society doesn’t have to be atomised by self-interest!
Some pieces are good advocacy (Tina Makereti on the impact of the Maori language on writing in English; Leilani Tamu on racialism and sexual abuse). Some have a strong conservation theme (Rachel Buchanan’s “There’s a Buried Forest on my Land”, relating the present to the whole botanical and geological history of Taranaki; Claire Browning on planting tree in Featherston). One mixes a conservation theme with the good, clear, expository prose of science popularisation (David Winter’s “The Origin and Extinction of Species”). Then there are the ones from left field, which do not reflect on New Zealand at all (Gregory Kan’s “Borrowed Lungs”, about training in the Singaporean army; Jemima Diki Sherpa’s “Three Springs”, on Nepal and mountain-climbing).
Oh dear! I seem to have fallen into the trap of flinging a lot of titles at you after all.
Time to make some evaluations and award some prizes.
Most Maddening Selection in the Book: the poet Alice Miller’s “Digesting Ourselves”, a somewhat disjointed reflection on how Facebook, the Internet etc. are affecting human interaction. It does set some good intellectual hares running, though.
Most Intellectually Challenging Selection: Allan Smith’s “What I Learned from Momo”, a complex contemplation of the author’s interaction with the architect Maurice K. Smith and his aesthetic values. It did come alive for me, however, when Smith got into analysing the mural that graces the old Odeon theatre in Auckland. (How often I tried to decode it while waiting to review some goddam film at the Odeon!)
Two Pieces About Which I Have the Most Mixed Feelings: Alice Te Punga Somerville’s “Shine Bright Like a Moko”, which centres on Rihanna’s hand tattoo. (Is it a serious reflection on cultural appropriation; or is it much-ado-about-nothing sparked by a pop star’s foolish fashion statement?). AND Jose Barbosa’s “My Swim with Kim” ( It seems half satire on Kim Dotcom and his entourage, but half social gossip.)
And finally, The Piece That Gave Me the Greatest Inner Satisfaction: Ashleigh Young’s gentle, witty piece “Small Revolutions”, about cycling in the city. She balances her enthusiasm for urban cycling with a frank acknowledgement of the pains and disadvantages of cycling. It’s a very fine balance, which is what cyclists should have, after all.

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Once before on this blog I reviewed a work by the artist Dylan Horrocks, his Incomplete Works [look it up on the index at right] and I was really chuffed when he sent an appreciative response to my brief and inadequate review.
The burden of my argument then was that I had not paid much attention to comics as an art form, and had great difficulty in accepting the concept of the “graphic novel”. I think I’ve got over that difficulty now, because I had no difficulty in accepting both the intention and the form of Horrocks’ thoroughly grown-up graphic novel Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen.
Let me do the boring thing I so often do in reviews and give you a little synopsis.
Sam Zabel is a cartoonist, with more than a passing resemblance to Dylan Horrocks.
Married, with two kids, Sam Zabel should have domestic bliss with his family, but he’s slowly going nuts with boredom. He’s lost the creative buzz that cartooning once gave him, he looks glum even when he reads Tintin books to his kids, and he absolutely hates having to drudge away drawing, on commission, frames for a “superhero” comic featuring Lady Night. As another character says, Lady Night looks more like a porn star than the way superheroes used to look in comic books. Worse, when Sam dreams, his dreams resemble a randy adolescent’s masturbation fantasies. They feature exotic women with perky boobs, few clothes and a willingness to engage the male dreamer in creative copulation (e.g six pages of out-of-control orgy with green-skinned Mars women at pp.78-83).
So are comics doomed to be puerile kidstuff, promoting fantasies?
That’s one line of enquiry this graphic novel takes, but there are plenty of others. To get all academic about it, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen becomes an interrogation of the whole comic-book form.
Meeting first an amateur cartoonist called Alice Brown, then a woman hero, escaped from manga, called Miki, Sam is dragged in his dreams through various genres of comics, engaging with them as living things. At one point he is worshipped as a god by the natives of Mars (cartoonists are gods over their own creations, are they not?). His dreams are sparked in part by finding a New Zealand comic from the 1950s drawn by (the fictitious) Evan Rice – so there is an element of nostalgia in Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen for an earlier, simpler, and not-so-sexualised type of comic. Sam Zabel is, after all, interested in finding once again the simple joy he got out of comics as a child.
It is important that Sam’s two companions in his dreams are both women, because another line of enquiry is the question of how much comics – and especially fantasy comics – promote specifically male fantasies. In other words, how sexist are they? “Do you ever feel ashamed of your fantasies? Do you worry they might be bad or dangerous or wrong?” Sam asks Alice Brown in a dream sequence, which shows him still sexualising her. “Are you kidding?” replies Alice, “Didn’t you read that paper I wrote last year for the ‘Feminism and Pornography’ conference on sexual fantasy and the erotic politics of shame?” (p.137) Obviously your modern male cartoonist, going through a mid-life crisis, can’t any longer ignore the arguments of feminism.
I haven’t mentioned the Magic Pen that finds its way into the title – symbol, I surmise, of the creative power of drawing and cartooning, from the dawn of humanity (cave drawings are awarded a sequence) to the present. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen does question the common genres of comic book, but in the end it affirms the form. Sam Zabel emerges from his wild and fantastic travels determined to engage in a new way with the world about him, perhaps with a greater sense of responsibility about the impact cartoons have. Fittingly the epigraph to this graphic novel is W.B.Yeats’ line “In dreams begins responsibility”.
Now you see what I’ve done in this excuse for a review, don’t you? Being basically a literary word-man, I’ve engaged with Dylan Horrocks’ ideas without saying anything about the visual impact of Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. And a huge part of the impact of any graphic novel is visual. (70%? 80%? More?). I’ll confine myself to these statements – it is colourful, it is action-packed (many pages with minimal text), and it is very, very recognizably the work of Dylan Horrocks. The firm outlines of characters. The eyes most often rendered simply as large black dots. The lack of chiaroscuro in presenting characters (usually one uniform colour, without shading, per human face).
I should also add that it is great fun. Comic books are meant to be that, aren’t they? 

Footnotes. By the way, there are some nice incidental in-jokes here. When Sam Zabel gives a paper at a literary conference (the same conference Dylan Horrocks once attended, oddly enough), there’s a friendly caricature of a real New Zealand literary academic at the podium        
At the back of the book there is a glossary, explaining terms used at various points in the speech bubbles. Many of these are common New Zealand references that presumably would be incomprehensible to non-New Zealand readers. And a high proportion of them come from the colourful oaths used by a Kiwi cartoon character who has clearly learned to swear at the Captain Haddock school of swearing (“Thundering typhoons!”, “Billions of blue blistering barnacles!” etc.). They include such choice cusses as  Hinemoa’s calabash!”, Hillary’s ropes! ”, “Marauding moas!” “Trespassing tapus!” and my favourite (when he begins to get lectured on sexism) “Kate Sheppard’s ribbon!

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