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“THE STORIES OF
BILL MANHIRE” (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)
When I was a
young lad, a kindly Latin teacher taught me a tag which I have never forgotten
and which I haul out whenever, as reviewer or critic, I am in dire straits. The
tag is De gustibus non disputandum est
(part of it is also the name of a pretty good poem by Robert Browning).
“Where taste is concerned there can be no
I can tell you
all the reasons why I admire or appreciate a piece of writing. I can analyse it
for you and explicate the author’s skill. But no matter what I do, I cannot
make you like it any more than you, by rational argument, can make me
like whatever is your fancy. “Liking” is quite different from understanding or
appreciation (in the critical sense). One trouble, though, is that if you do
not like something, it may be assumed, falsely, that you do not understand
it, or perhaps that you are too stupid to understand it.
I say all this
because, having read Bill Manhire’s collected short stories, I can say that I
see the skill of them, get the ironies and the game-playing and the cultural
and literary references, sometimes laugh along with them and even dig some of their
postmodernism. But they are still not my chalice of poison.
them, but I don’t like them.
To explain why
may take some space, so first let me turn to another matter. The Stories of Bill Manhire is a fine
piece of book production. A sturdy hardback volume with a tasteful and calming
dust-jacket drawing (by Peter Campbell) of a sleeping baby. Pure innocence
dreaming dreams of the sort from which fantastical stories are born. Its
endpapers reproduce a photograph taken in Dunedin in the 1880s, which is
referenced in the story “The Days of Sail”. Nearly everything in the book has
been published before, from The New Land
(1990) to Under the Influence (2003),
although some pieces have not been collected in book form. The only
never-before-published pieces are “The Death of Robert Louis Stevenson” and
“The Ghost Who Talks”. The title is a teensy bit daunting. Note it is simply The Stories of Bill Manhire, and not The Collected Stories of… or The Selected Stories of… but just
The Stories, which at once suggests
something canonical, as if we should know who this chap is and respect him as
an important literary figure. And – okay – we genuflect as we know he’s the
feller who got this whole creative writing thing going at Vic, so therefore he has
to be listened to seriously as a practitioner of prose.
Right. Enough of
my cape twirling before I enter the bullring.
The point really
is that, save in the last section of straight autobiography, wherever I look in
the stories of Bill Manhire, I can see the seams and joins. Yes, dear, I know I
am meant to see the seams and joins because this is postmodernism and it
is self-referential and part of its art is to show its art and draw attention
to its art and pun and play. But read them all together, and my brain begins to
protest “Oh yes, here we are with another
of these little games.” So the author doesn’t want us to engage with his
characters as human beings, but wants us to see them as artificial constructs
(“Well they ARE artificial constructs,
aren’t they?”) and enter into the thing as a sort of play. And my brain
says “How clever”. And my brain says
“Don’t wanna play.”
frog-march through the nine stories presented under the heading The New Land.
“Highlights” is on the surface a deadpan third-person narrative of an unhappy
divorced man taking his old mum for a drab holiday in Rotorua. But an image at
the end turns the meaning around. Old mum used to artificially colour drab
black-and-white photographs. This is like the drab reality under artificial
tourist “highlights” and points to the selectivity of memory. And shows how the
author can enclose the mimetic in a meta-narrative. The story’s technique is
the juxtaposition of brief and dissonant episodes. The stories “Ponies” and
“Siena” do similar things in the juxtaposition field – one in the Antarctic reveries
of a guy delivering leaflets for a charlatan; another in the context of a sort
of surreal-hipster holiday with a bizarre ending.
game-playing in these stories. Colouring photographs. Jigsaws. A single
photograph. Representations of reality at one remove. Constant reminders that
even to tell a story is to place the reader at many removes from lived
The story “The
Days of Sail” begins as a reflection on an old photograph of Dunedin, moves
from discrete image to discrete image and episode to episode, some plausible,
some fantastical, concerning Dunedin at various stages of its history. And then
(here comes the self-referentialism, folks) moves into a discussion about it
all in a creative writing class. Fourth wall broken. Reader reminded all
stories are planned, designed, fabricated, artificial. Reader told stories are for conscious
analysis. Reader nods knowing that author conducts creative writing classes. Reader
feels the same about the story “Nonchalance”, part of which gives (cod)
instructions to writers on what to write.
Why at this
point do I think of Fellini’s 8-and-a-half,
the film presenting the reveries of a filmmaker who can’t figure out what film
to make? En route I am amused by
these stories, intrigued with them as puzzles, delighted at some of the jokes.
I’m not saying they're not good company. But…. Oh blah!
So on to more
“stories” that show their arteries and viscera. “Some Questions I Am Frequently
Asked” is a parody (oops – sorry! – subversion) of a standard and fairly dumb
author interview, with unexpected and sometimes Dada-ish answers being given to
spectacularly inane questions such as “Would you like to be a Maori?”, “Do you
think of yourself as a New Zealand writer?” or “Did you always want to be a
writer?” I don’t know from experience, but I have to assume that many authors
find interviews tiresome, and this is the author’s revenge. “South Pacific”
once again goes for the mosaic effect, juxtaposing this and this and this. And
again (like the earlier stories’ references to jigsaws and colouring
photographs) is preoccupied with game-playing, cutting between London and
images of New Zealand transit as a man tries to market the idea for a board
game about travelling in the Pacific. The man is a bit of a wanker (in the
literal sense). There are references to Janet Frame. This is highbrow. You see,
it is ironical comment on the solitariness of creative endeavour, oh long-legged
fly. It is commentary on the colonial or postcolonial condition in its plethora
of cliché ideas about the Pacific, which it dismisses ironically, just as the
later story “Cannibals” does. It’s a literary box in a box in a box, like the
cover of the Oor Wullie comic album,
which Bill Manhire recalls from his childhood in his memoir “Under the
But for boxes in
boxes, you can’t beat the next story “Ventriloquial”. It is partly about literal
ventriloquism. But it’s also about a medium at a séance, claiming to channel
the voices of the deceased. And it’s about a New Zealand magazine editor trying
to mimic the styles of overseas magazines – so at some level it’s about New
Zealand’s cultural cringe and attempts to adopt voices that are not really
our’s. And – well of course! – it’s also about the author adopting and
channelling all these voices.
I pause for
breath after all this and (methodically reading this book from cover to cover)
take some time before I come back to the long choose-your-own-adventure game The Brain of Katherine Mansfield (with
decorations by Gregory O’Brien). Yes, there are sly literary allusions therein,
but to me it reads like an ordinary choose-your-own-adventure game. Which it is. Which is
So we cross over
into the stories that come under the heading Songs of My Life. This being the literary life. A deadpan, ironical
story about a poet breaking up with one wife and shacking up with another (“The
Poet’s Wife”). Another ironical story, seen from a secretary’s point of view,
of a rather futile summer school for poets (“The Moon at the End of the
Century”). A fantastication about a man whose life is accompanied by a singer,
celebrating in various styles how he lives (“Songs of My Life”). A collation of
documentary snaps of Robert Louis Stevenson mixed with intimations of the
fantastic (“The Death of Robert Louis Stevenson”). Writers being conjurors and
performers, there’s a parody list of advice to magicians (“Performance Tips”).
I feel a creaking as of George Meredith’s Hippogriff when we encounter a doodle
about the spirit who inhabits all the bit parts and excisions from canonical
fiction – and yes, best beloved, I am ageing hipster enough to understand that
the title “The Ghost Who Talks” is a riff on the old comic strip The Phantom,
alias “the ghost who walks", wherewith Senor Manhire amused himself as a kid.
In the midst of these inventions, there is one story with a relatively
traditional style, “Flights of Angels”, in which a mother (narrator) watches
her ten-year-old son play Hamlet, though even this has a stylistic
sting-in-the-tail and turnaround tango. The final story is “Kuki the Krazy
Kea”, being the notes and advice of a cynical writer of children’s books. It
ends with the immortal words “I mean, why don’t you all fuck off.”
Which is an
interesting way for a real-life dispenser of writing advice to end his final
story. Which we are MEANT TO SEE is an interesting way for a real-life
dispenser of writing advice to end his final story. Which makes us wonder if
this is what the real-life dispenser of writing advice really thinks. Which is
MEANT TO MAKE US wonder if this is what the real-life dispenser of writing
advice really thinks. Which…. Oh phooey! There are too many mirrors in this
room, in this book – the author having constructed a microcosm that looks back
and inward upon its hesitant self while the wind is blowing outside its
enclosed boxes in boxes in boxes.
are the footnotes, bons mots and literary experiments of a well-read man who
has been around the traps. Should this book really be called The Notebook of Bill Manhire or (let’s
get arty) The Carnet…? He’s jolly
good company for a superior giggle and a sniff at genres that are too
threadbare. He’s allusion adept, punning fun, reference replete. But STORIES? I
mean…. REALLY? They are poetry-prose, let’s say prosetry, from a man who has
been more prolific in verse. Or is the problem at my end? Should I have read
them one at a time, rather than devouring the whole book over a couple of days?
Each might have read better as a one-off found in a magazine.
And after this,
like being splashed awake with a bucket of cold, clean water, I read the
closing piece – the thirty-page childhood and young-manhood memoir Under the Influence. Affectionate,
nostalgic, admonitory, funny, rather sad too – actually engaging the reader’s
heart, in other words. Manhire recalls his parents and especially his dad, a
Southland publican, and the whole booze culture of the Deep South.
Is the writer’s
heart on his sleeve here? Of course not. All writers are conscious of their
skills. All writers organise, deceive, dramatise and construct. But then I would
rather be shown this affectingly in Under
the Influence than archly and clinically in most of the rest of the volume. My kind of
See what I mean
about the difference between “like” and “appreciate”? Oh yes, and De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est.