Monday, May 30, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For over four years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE SALTED AIR” by Thom Conroy (Vintage, Penguin / Random House, $NZ38)

What is the cumulative effect of using the present tense in fictional narrative rather than the past tense?
I am sure many people in university literature studies have written theses on this matter, but I have not read them. Instead, I offer my own simple answer. Certainly the present tense adds immediacy and has – I speculate – become so common in narrative fiction because of the great imaginative influence of film and television. When we watch film and TV, we are watching things happening now. I know cinema does have flashbacks and voice-over to simulate the past tense, but in essence film and television make the present the new norm of narrative.
But there is an odd downside to the use of the present tense in prose.
Characters, seen always in the present, often lack shadows and lack substance. Speaking in the past tense allows narrative comment on characters’ actions; and a sense of events having happened and having consequences. Speaking in the present tense denies these possibilities. Of course this may be the author’s deliberate and conscious intention – modernist and postmodernist prose desire implication rather than commentary. From simple actions and words, readers are meant to infer subtext. We see what the character does and says in the present tense, but we ourselves are meant to join the dots. Yet I still find something lacking in characters presented in the present tense only.
Obviously I would not begin in this way a review of Thom Conroy’s second novel The Salted Air if it were not written in the present tense. The Salted Air is in both the first-person and the present tense throughout, except in one late and brief chapter (pp.232-234) which, I infer, is meant to be a fantasy of something that might have happened rather than a record of something that really did happen. And I think that, cumulatively, this shallows out the characters – or at least the narrator.
All “plot summaries” are reductionist distortions, but in a review they can be helpful ways of getting our bearings. So here is my plot summary – which of course is not so crass as to reveal how it all ends.
Djuna Jane Clairmont, aged about 30, is in a state of bereavement. Apparently afflicted by long depression, her “boyfriend” (as she calls him – the cover blurb says “partner”) Harvey committed suicide about eighteen months before the narrative begins. Djuna still misses Harvey deeply, even if she now cohabits on-and-off with a guy called Lyle. In a major sense, then, The Salted Air is a novel about the power and influence of grief. But there are a number of complicating factors in Djuna’s situation.
More long-term is her relationship with her American parents, Lucy and Eugene, whose marriage is on the verge of collapse. Lucy has gone back to America. Eugene has disappeared up the East Coast. Djuna thinks nostalgically of childhood family scenes in Wellington and Palmerston North. Although there is no great traumatic event to record, there is something unresolved from Djuna’s childhood and in her relationship with two parents of very different temperaments. Djuna wants to confront and resolve all this.
Then there’s the more immediate complication. Djuna has begun what amounts to an affair with Bruce, the brother of the late Harvey. This brings on scenes of social awkwardness and Djuna’s false consciousness with Bruce’s parents, Irene and Gary, when the affair has to be concealed. More pressingly, there is Djuna’s sense of guilt because Bruce is married with an unsuspecting wife, Joanna, who is looking after his eight-year-old daughter Ella. Bruce and Joanna’s marriage is apparently on the rocks and (in ways I won’t reveal here) Bruce is involved in dodgy matters that have nothing to do with illicit sex.
So there is Djuna’s grief, there is Djuna’s relationship with her parents, there is Djuna’s guilt about potentially messing up another woman’s life, and there is Djuna’s uncertainty, and lack of decision, about the men Lyle and Bruce. We are told very early that this will be a story of self-discovery as Djuna declares on the second page “maybe this story is about what’s lost, but it’s also about what’s waiting to be found.”
Not much later, this is reinforced when Djuna says:
All my life I had grown up believing that something miraculous was about to occur, some unexpected door was on the verge of opening, and my second life, my real life, would begin. In this life nothing would be ordinary and nothing would be as it had been before. A complete transformation awaited me – I had believed that with all I was worth. But on that night with Harvey, I remember thinking I had been wrong. Or perhaps I had been right, only in reverse. The miracle, the transformation, was simply that I would come to accept myself as I was. It seemed to me then that this revelation was something unheard of and astonishing. To succumb like that, so simply, to what was ordinary. That was my gift. Still is.” (p.13)
            While accurate, this (partial) synopsis of The Salted Air is also a distortion as all synopses are. The novel is narrated in what the back-cover blurb calls “vivid confessional vignettes” – in other words, it’s a non-linear narrative presented in very short chapters which allow Djuna’s mind to switch from past to present (although always in the present tense) as she connects childhood memories and events with her present situation and as she writes a journal – and sometimes reads other people’s journals. (The short chapters with big headings also leave acres of blank page. If I were cynical I would call it “bulking-up”.)
Much of the earlier part of the novel is taken up with social awkwardnesses as Djuna does not know what is the acceptable or right way, in her situation, to react to other people. When she finds another woman with Lyle and wonders how intimate they are, she wails: “What I want to know is this: has anyone here done anything wrong and why can’t it be easier to tell? ” (p.78) This could almost be the epigraph to the novel as Djuna seeks her moral bearings.
The very best of it is the way Thom Conroy examines grief. Many of Djuna’s feelings amount to a sort of “survivor guilt” – Harvey’s death sets her off seeing herself as morally flawed and speculating on what went wrong in her upbringing. There is also a moment of the sort that must be familiar to all the bereaved. The moment when you slip into thinking that the dead loved one is still alive somewhere:
The face of the bearded, white-haired men looks up at me with an expression somewhere between stern and beatific, but all I find myself wondering is where Harvey has gone. Thinking of it this way, as if he’s only missing, as if he’s been lost like a comb or a car key, sends a thrill through me. For a moment it feels like I may have it wrong, and in my mind I go searching for where he might be, my thoughts flicking through the series of ordinary things that made up our lives. It could be he has gone out for milk. Ducked out to visit a friend. Stepped out for a midnight stroll.” (p.149)
Grief also brings nostalgia –the desire for the security of the unchangeable past. When Djuna thinks of her parents, she thinks: “What I want is for Mum and [Dad] and me to live together again. But, no, this is not what I want. What I want is the past back, and the nicked table of our kitchen and the sickly old tui outside who croaked every morning, and I want no death, never.” (p.56)
This is the sort of unchanging childhood security that the adolescent Holden Caulfield wishes to revert to, as he watches his little sister ride the carousel in the last pages of The Catcher in the Rye. It may be natural in an adolescent who has just left childhood and finds the prospect of adulthood scary. But there is a big trap for adults who entertain this nostalgia and this identification with childhood innocence. In adults, it can become self-justification for questionable behaviour. When Djuna sleeps with Bruce one more time, and basically feels guilty about it, she entertains a childhood memory that conveniently tells her “that absolutely nothing has been under your [i.e. her] control all along.” (p.95). Childhood innocence becomes a pretext, as if the adult Djuna is saying: “I’m merely an innocent and vulnerable child, so don’t judge me as you would judge an adult.” I detect this tone in her narrative a little further on, when Djuna wishes to recapture the “joy” of childhood. (p.103)
Thom Conroy reinforces this part of Djuna’s psyche with literary references. There is an allusion to Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies, to show the influence of first-person, and somewhat rambling, soliloquy on this novel. But more often the references are to childhood literature – Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh and Katherine Mansfield’s childhood reminiscence “At the Bay”. All, as I read it, are part of Djuna’s desire for regression to a state without responsibility.
As an observation of grief, then, The Salted Air works very well.
How it resolves itself is more problematic.
Without spiking the denouement, I can say that (most improbably, given who the characters are), Djuna is given permission by Bruce’s wife Joanna to take eight-year-old Ella on a journey out to the East Cape to find Djuna’s father. There are cathartic and poetic images here – sea and salty air and crashing waves and White Island smoking in the distance. For a moment (p.159) the little girl Ella “becomes” young Djuna – or her substitute – in relating to Djuna’s father. A vagrant and erratic butterfly (pp.208-209) seems to symbolise the ability of beauty to unite people. Thom Conroy is not so simplistic as to present the East Cape’s Maori community as an Edenic alternative to the complexities of Djuna’s emotional life and her tangled personal relationships, but there are passages in the novel that tend in that direction. When (pp.252-253) an old kuia gives her little speech on Waitangi Day (an author’s note says it is lifted from a news report) it seems like a de rigueur nod to a Maori viewpoint.
Yes, there is a sort of resolution to the characters’ lives. Without dismissing her continuing feelings for Harvey, Djuna learns to accommodate her grief by relating to people in new ways and accepting how they relate to others. How this happens, though, strikes me as a little pat (especially in Djuna’s relationship with Bruce) – but you’ll have to read the novel yourself to see if you agree with my view. One major problem I am sure of, though, is the thinness as a character of the remembered Harvey. By novel’s end, apart from the most basic data about him, we are not really sure what sort of man he was – or why he aroused such love in Djuna. Perhaps we just have to take this on trust.
            The Salted Air is an interesting novel and a sound observation of grief. Despite the perils of the shadowless present tense, Thom Conroy has done well to move into the contemporary scene and engage in an alternative form of narrative. As for the matter of a male novelist presuming to inhabit the psyche of a female narrator – I found it convincing enough, but then I’m male and women readers might judge it differently.

Footnote on another novel: The year before last (23 August 2014, to be precise) the NZ Listener asked me to review Thom Conroy’s debut novel The Naturalist, a fictionalised account of the New Zealand experience of the nineteenth century German scientist Ernst Dieffenbach. Unfortunately, I was allocated a mere 250 words for the review. This meant my review amounted to a brief notice only. I do not resile from the judgment I made therein – that The Naturalist is informative and interesting as fictionalised biography, but rather plodding and literal as novel. But more space might have given me the chance to express this with some nuance, while also noting some of the novel’s strong points. Brevity often makes opinions sound more absolute and inflexible than they really are.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

 “THE MEANING OF TREASON” by Rebecca West (first published 1947; revised edition 1952; further revision 1956; recast as The New Meaning of Treason 1964)
            Here is an interesting question relating to any book that has often been revised and re-edited by the author.
Which version do you regard as the most authentic?
My copy of Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason was printed in 1952, but the book had first been published in 1947 and had been widely reviewed and praised at that time. The 1952 edition added new material and modified somewhat the meaning and impact of the original text – probably to the discomfort of some of the people who originally reviewed and praised the 1947 version.
“Rebecca West” (pen-name of Cicely Isabel Fairfield, 1892-1983) is one of those writers about whom most literate people have heard, but whose work never seems to have become part of the “canon”. Part of the reason for this is certainly political and ideological.
For her day and time, Rebecca West was an ardent feminist. As a young woman, she had a long affair with H.G.Wells, which produced a son, the critic and novelist Anthony West (who ended up hating his mother and wrote a rude novel about her). Rebecca West had a very active sex life, bedding other “names” after she parted from H.G.Wells. In her thirties, she married into wealth, settled down and took her writing  - as both novelist and journalist - more seriously. She remained always essentially socialist and left-wing in her views but (and this was something that angered other lefties of her day) she was never attracted to Communism. Indeed, from the very beginnings of the Soviet regime in 1917, she realised that it was a destructive totalitarian system. This put her at odds with other left-wingers, especially when, in the McCarthy period, she was indelicate (but accurate) enough to point out that McCarthy’s followers had destroyed far fewer Communists than Communists themselves had. Her diatribes against imperialism and reaction never ceased, but she was pilloried by much of the Left for not toeing the Party line, even when many of her critics were not members of the Party themselves.
Rebecca West had a wary and somewhat sceptical attitude to religion. She was a sort of unorthodox Christian, respecting Jesus as a teacher but rejecting any transcendence. Christianity she saw as a good, but flawed, ethical system. Even so, there was a (brief) period in the Cold War when she seriously considered converting to Catholicism, given that the secular religion of Communism was getting out of hand and attracting too many people in the West who should have known better. Perhaps, she briefly calculated, it needed stiffer opposition from a real religion. However, this phase in her life passed and she reverted to her sceptical-but-respectful view of Christianity.
            Now all this background is necessary to understanding why and how the (lightly revised) 1952 version of The Meaning of Treason came to be produced.
Rebecca West was one of only three women journalists to cover the Nuremberg trials. While still pondering the question of Nazi guilt, and of apparently intelligent men who had ordered or committed crimes against humanity, West then went to cover the treason trial of William Joyce in London in 1945. Widely nicknamed “Lord Haw-Haw” (although that nickname had originally been attached to another British broadcaster from Nazi Germany), William Joyce was the man who regularly made taunting or strident English-language propaganda broadcasts from Berlin, on behalf of Hitler’s regime. There was a slight question about the legality of trying Joyce for treason in that, technically, he was not a British subject. Even so, he was tried and hanged.
Over half of The Meaning of Treason is taken up with the life and trial of Joyce. This is Part One – over 180 pages of it – and it is provocatively called “The Revolutionary”. In some ways, says West, William Joyce had his admirable qualities – his intelligence and his physical courage and his stoicism during his trial and before his execution. But her main endeavour is to present him as a shabby and awkward character who simply did not fit in anywhere and who was constantly looking for an eminence and recognition that others would not give him. She attributes much of his psychological make-up to the fact that, although from an Irish Catholic background, he identified with the British authorities in his youth and boasted of having been (at the age of 15!) an informer for the British militia, the Black-and-Tans, during the Irish War of Independence. Rebecca West sees him as being permanently disappointed that “his” authoritarian Britain had disappeared when Britain loosened its grip on Ireland and hard-line imperialist views became less fashionable. Therefore ever afterwards, argues Rebecca West, William Joyce was trying to find a substitute and a hard-line authoritarian figure to worship. These he eventually found, first in Oswald Mosley and British Fascism, then (when he had broken with Mosley) in Hitler and Nazism. She tells of his radio broadcasts and his inheriting the name “Lord Haw-Haw”, but she shows how he always had this love-hate thing about Britain. He was fully aware – as Germany was losing the war – that he would face trial and probable execution when and if he was caught by the Allies. But even his anti-Jewish rants took second place to his permanent sense of hurt that Britain was no longer “his” imperialist Britain, which should have been only too happy to ally itself to Hitler and join his campaign against non-Aryans.
In telling Joyce’s story, Rebecca West also glances at other British broadcasters for the Nazis, such as the ridiculous Walter Purdy, who tried to save himself from a treason charge by pretending that his propaganda broadcasts contained coded messages to assist RAF pilots. Staking her own her moral outlook on Christian verities, albeit very broadly interpreted, West is particularly outraged by one British Nazi propagandist who purported to be a Catholic priest, “Father Donovan”, and gave simpering pieties over German radio. But her main focus is on the psycho-pathology of Joyce, whom she sees as a type of the “The Revolutionary” who has both a sense of self-importance and a sense of “injured merit” and who seeks to change society by violence. And, of course, these characteristics are as common on the hard Left as on the hard Right.
Part Two of The Meaning of Treason, “The Insane Root” deals more summarily with the Nazi collaborator and recruiter John Amery (just a wastrel and a shit – he and Joyce were the only ones to be hanged after the war) and with the arrogant Scottish soldier Norman Baillie-Stewart, who was also a broadcaster from Nazi Germany but who received a lighter sentence. Part Three, “The Children”, covers the pathetic – and apparently mentally-impaired – teenager Kenneth Edward, who was induced to leave a p.o.w. camp in Germany and join the Nazi “British Free Corps”; and the p.o.w. camp informer “Stoker” Rose. British justice dealt with both lightly. Rebecca West’s intention is to present all as pathetic creatures, and this the book successfully does. One gains the distinct impression that during the war, the Nazis recruited no really significant or influential Britons – just some scrapings.
And that was where the book ended in 1947.
In the 1952 edition is an additional chapter, Part Four, “The New Phase”, which deals with the first “atom spies”, who handed over to the Soviet Union secret information about the development of nuclear weapons. They were Dr Trevor Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs. West presents Nunn May as operating with a scientist’s deluded faith in his own objectivity and impartiality in judging world affairs; and Klaus Fuchs as suffering from a Quakerism gone wrong. It is, in her view, all very well to preach universal peace and claim to be equalising American and Soviet arms – but it involved putting weapons of mass destructiveness into the hands of a totalitarian state.
It is this section which may have given the book’s original (1947) reviewers pause. It is one thing to point out the psycho-pathology and flawed characters of extreme right-wing traitors but – oh dear! – fancy saying the same things about left-wing traitors! Yet, after all, the book’s very title tells us that Rebecca West was always looking for the “meaning” of treason, and she locates this meaning in the inability of traitors to feel real solidarity with their compatriots.
Much of The Meaning of Treason is thoughtful and intelligent analysis. At the same time, much of it is speculative, over-written and certainly under-documented. You long for footnotes to verify the many conversations which West reconstructs. You itch for fewer of the novelist’s stylistic tricks and more of the journalist’s craft with hard names, dates and facts. Frankly, some parts of The Meaning of Treason are windy rhetoric, including the very last page of the 1952 edition, which literally extols the domestic virtues of hearth and home.
This is certainly a book of its time (the early Cold War), and while one can endorse much that Rebecca West says about the nature of spies and traitors, one also notes some inevitable historical ironies. How often Rebecca West extols the efficiency of Britain’s spy service. How little she (or anybody else at the time) knew Britain’s spook service was enfeebled by the fact that the likes of Kim Philby had their hands on so many of its levers.
A few adjustments were made to the book in a slight revision of 1956 as some more spies came to light. But the next decade, having become aware of the Philby factor, Rebecca West totally re-cast and re-wrote her book as The New Meaning of Treason (published 1964) to include all the new spies.
But that’s a story I’m not telling here.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  


Last week I had the great pleasure of reading and reviewing the stimulating collection of essays by Roger Horrocks, Re-Inventing New Zealand. In it, Horrocks discusses (among many other things) the status of intellectuals in New Zealand and the strong kiwi strain of anti-intellectualism. I think his arguments are piquant and well worth reading, but there is something that troubles me.
What do we mean by an“intellectual”?
I am playing a little dumb here, because I have a general apprehension of what is meant by the word, but let me consider it for a moment.            Strictly speaking, any human being who uses his or her intellect is an intellectual, But even if we limit the word to people who are involved in specialised studies or the professions or who have an advanced education, there is confusion. Doctors, scientists, engineers and lawyers are all specialists who have an advanced education, but even though they all use their intellects, would they all qualify for the term “intellectual” as it is currently used?
Somehow, I think not, if only because doctors, scientists, lawyers and engineers perform practical functions of which even utilitarian non-intellectuals approve.
Okay, then, let us say an intellectual is somebody of some intellectual eminence who is involved publicly in abstract ideas or the higher reaches of thought or matters of moment. Would all such be called “intellectuals”?
Again, somehow, I think not.
My problem is that when people refer to “intellectuals” they are in fact referring to a small sub-set of those who live the life of the mind. They are referring to intellectuals engaged in the arts or social sciences or (perhaps) philosophy. This is very much the connotation of the word as used by Horrocks when he speaks of “anti-intellectualism”. He does not mean people who hate scientists, doctors, lawyers or engineers. He means people who hate challenging ideas in the arts and social sciences.
But this is a very limiting concept. What of those people who, intellectually and armed with a great deal of learning, more or less approve of things the way they are? I mean conservative intellectuals. Yes, there are such people.  And at what point does one qualify as a bona fide intellectual? Would a theologian who had spent years translating obscure texts from the Aramaic, and who publicly lectured on them, be considered an intellectual? Or would she be excluded from the magic circle for not espousing challenging ideas?
I do not think I am a philistine or an anti-intellectual. I can wave around a number of university degrees. I have written a number of books. I think I am reasonably well read and I do engage in public debate (okay, take a little saunter through the index of this blog). Furthermore, I am on the arts / humanities side of things. And yet I am still waiting for my official badge as a recognised intellectual. Perhaps my ideas are not avant-garde enough. Perhaps I am too middle-of-the-road. Perhaps my religion excludes me and proves me to be a dunce and a blockhead. But I do not think that any time soon anyone is going to call me an intellectual.
In the end, the concept of “anti-intellectualism”means “anti a certain sort of intellectualism”(or in a debased form “anti the ideas of which I approve”).

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
Now let me change topics in this little sermon.
Many people (not only Horrocks) have lamented the “anti-intellectualism” of New Zealand society. I contend that (in the fuzzy and unsatisfactory way I have defined this term) this is not a problem uniquely, or even conspicuously, peculiar to New Zealand.
But (oh! the heresy of it!) as an aspiring intellectual, I think that sometimes suspicion of intellectuals is justified. And it does not always mean a lynch-mob of anti-intellectual oafs waiting to string up thinkers who challenge them. Something always makes me recall that cheerful quatrain by W.H.Auden, who, as far as I know, was an intellectual who had nothing to do with New Zealand:
To the man in the street who, I’m sorry to say,
 Is a keen observer of life,
The word intellectual suggests right away
A man who’s untrue to his wife.”
            Make a few time-specific adjustments to the wording, and you get the point of this. To put it another way, while the general baiting and suspicion of intellectuals (as narrowly defined) may be wrong, being an intellectual is not a free pass to be an arsehole.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For over four years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“RE-INVENTING NEW ZEALAND – Essays on the Arts and the Media” by Roger Horrocks (Atuanui Press, $NZ45)

Roger Horrocks, Professor Emeritus of University of Auckland, has had both a distinguished academic career and a long engagement with arts and media administration, with a special interest in film and television. On the Auckland campus he is best known for his campaign to get film and media accepted as respectable tertiary studies. Perhaps to the wider reading public he is best known for his biography of Len Lye and other books on that multi-media artist. He’s also earned some distinction as a poet, with his latest book The Song of the Ghost in the Machine [reviewed on this blog] being a finalist in this year’s national book awards.
In more than thirty years, Horrocks has also been a prolific, and often provocative, reviewer and essayist.
With a lively cover design by his son, the graphic artist Dylan Horrocks, Re-Inventing New Zealand: Essays on the Arts and the Media is Roger Horrocks’ selection of what he regards as his best essays, from the early 1980s to now (the earliest piece dates from 1983; the most recent from 2014). As a career summing-up, it is something like Murray Edmond’s very different Then It Was Now Again (which was also published by Atuanui Press).
Re-Inventing New Zealand is a capacious book of more than 400 pages, comprising 21 essays and a long and partly autobiographical introduction. The first seven essays are under the subheading “Re-Inventing New Zealand” and are overviews of New Zealand culture, fittingly ending with Horrocks’ 2007 essay “A Short History of ‘The New Zealand Intellectual’ ”. The next six essays come under the heading “Film and Television” and the last eight essays are about specific “Artists, Writers, Composers”. The essays are arranged thematically and not in chronological order of publication, but the first in the book, “The Invention of New Zealand” (1983), delves into themes of national cultural and artistic identity which are revisited from a different point of view in the very last essay in the book, “Douglas Lilburn: Nationalism Now” (2011). It is possible to see a subtle shift in Horrocks’ perspective by comparing these two essays.
The reviewer’s temptation with a big collection of essays like this is to name-check all the contents and treat each as a discrete statement. It’s probably more fruitful to comment on Re-Inventing New Zealand by considering Horrocks’ most consistent themes. As I read it, he has five preoccupation; (1.) a struggle with New Zealand’s cultural identity, which he believes still labours under a “realist” tradition; (2.) an advocacy of avant-garde experimentalism, which has not really entered the cultural mainstream; (3.) an acute awareness of the damage done by neo-liberalism; (4.) continuing in the neo-liberal environment, a critique of the anti-intellectualism of much public discourse, as seen in various media demagogues; and (5.) the direction and management of the mass media [film and television] in this environment.
How do these concerns manifest themselves in Horrocks’ essays?
I’ll take them one by one.

The struggle with New Zealand’s cultural identity – In his essay “The Invention of New Zealand” (1983), Horrocks posits that the 1930s generation of New Zealand writers and artists (Curnow-Fairburn-Glover-Sargeson et al) wanted to shuck off their colonial status by asserting the “realism” of New Zealand and a “nationalism”, not in a bellicose flag-waving sense, but as an assertion of separateness from Mother England and “Empire”. But, he argues, their realism in poetry, prose and fiction was the invention of a “myth” in the real sense of the word. This was perceived by the 1950s, when a degree of conscious mythologisation began to overlay the established “realism” (the era of Baxter and later Curnow). Horrocks wants New Zealand art and culture to move on from this “realist” foundation. He argues that there is still a strong hangover of this “realism” in his essay “Off the Map” (1983), where he takes C.K.Stead to task for being too prescriptive and still rooted in a “realist” tradition which excludes surrealism and other tendencies.
Horrocks also sees the hangover of this “realism” as having become the new gentility. In his 1985 essay “ ‘Natural as Only You Can Be’: Some Readings of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry”, he attacks a sort of confessional poetry which he sees as too concerned to document the individual’s literal experience:
… there is a mass-production of the short (one page or less) lyric in unrhymed or loosely rhymed ‘free’ verse. It’s remarkable how many people write poems, despite the small audience. (Even a university press publishing a well-known poet does well to sell 500 copies.) Much of the writing seems to have a personal therapeutic value since it develops the poem as an assertion of individuality – ‘I can sing’ – or to translate it more fully: ‘It’s difficult being me, but here I am fighting back against all those forces that are trying to keep me silent and anonymous.’ The poem is a rush of adrenalin to the “I”. Interest focuses on its bursts of imagery, its ‘expressive’ language, its charm – the poem is not strong in structure, sustained thought or experiments with language, but writing proves that one is not prosaic.” (p.86)
[For reasons of tact, because he says “some of my criticisms were somewhat brutal”, he reproduces only part of this essay and leaves out the specific criticisms he originally had of Cilla McQueen, Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire.]
This very same complaint is picked up in Horrocks’ four-page rant against the timidity of Landfall, his 1992 polemic “ When Fringe Writers are ‘Warmly Invited’ ”, which is in the nature of what earlier avant-gardists would have called a “provocation.”
The narrow perspectives of the present are epitomised by the form that has dominated local poetry over the last decade – the ‘personal poem’, short, anecdotal, usually in the first person, mostly prosaic in a free-verse way but climaxing in a little burst of lyricism. Such poetry invites the reader to share a humane space in which some likeable, liberal person (usually the poet) becomes a little more sensitive or learns some wry lesson about life. This genre has become a cliché not only in Landfall but also in Metro, the Listener, and other magazines. The ambitious sense of ‘we’ in Landfall in the 1940s has given way to a sprinkling of sensitive first persons.” (pp.128-129).
In poetry, as in the other New Zealand arts, what was once vital and communal in “realism” has run to seed.
Horrocks is of course aware of many changes in New Zealand society since the “realist” heyday – the Maori renaissance, Pasifika consciousness, gay and lesbian openness and feminism. His essay “ ‘Reader’ and ‘Gender’: Watching Them Change” (1986) comes close to chronicling New Zealand feminist responses in the arts until it turns into a close reading of a particular filmic text.
As he struggles with what has become the mainstream of New Zealand literature and culture, Horrocks frequently champions poetic and artistic avant-garde experimentalism, meaning largely artists and poets whom he sees as being undervalued because they do not fit the “nationalist/realist” paradigm and are part of what Horrocks calls “alternative traditions”. Such experimentalism is often associated with cultural theory. As Horrocks notes twice in the essay “Off the Map”, theory goes against the pragmatic New Zealand grain:
The New Zealand literary scene has traditionally been hostile to anything that smells of theory, suspicious of manifestos and nervous that criticism is getting to big for its boots.” (p.71)
To accuse any New Zealand writer of being a theorist is asking for trouble. Our writers value their innocence, their sense of travelling light, uncluttered by theories or ‘prescriptions’.” (p.75)
Most of Horrocks’ advocacy of the avant-garde is in the third section of Re-Inventing New Zealand where he critiques specific artists and writers. I confess I found it hardest to engage with this section of the book as Horrocks is discussing at length the work of people which I hardly know – the painters John Reynolds, Julian Dashper, and Tom Kreisler and the poet Leigh Davis, about whom Horrocks writes one of the longest essays in the book. It is here, however, that he comes to give a more positive view of the original “nationalist” movement in his review of a book about the music critic and theorist Frederick Page (who was at least willing to speak to the avant-garde) and in his essay on Douglas Lilburn.
But there is no foreseeable easy leap from the older cultural orthodoxy of realist nationalism to something more visionary and avant-garde, partly because of our current historical situation.  Neo-liberalism has intervened and has managed to do powerful damage. Art has become the market. Academe has become business.
Horrocks’ 1988 essay “Re-locating New Zealand” is a discursive reaction to the early phase of neo-liberalism in New Zealand, the “Rogernomics” phase, which encompasses the paradox that the virus was introduced via the Labour Party rather than its traditionally more business-oriented rival the National Party. In this environment, as it has developed since the first “Rogernomics”:
Many university courses and staff publication are routine in character, forms of intellectual busywork. Bureaucracy has mushroomed, and money-minded managerialism plays an increasing part in the running of tertiary institutions. There are considerable tensions between the ‘critic and conscience’ role of the universities and their need today to keep governments happy and to fill the large holes in their budgets by extracting money from corporations and wealthy patrons, some of whom are quick to take offence. Expensive advertising campaigns by competing universities stress academic ‘excellence’ but also promise prospective students that the campus will have first-class sporting and recreational facilities and a friendly, fun atmosphere. In short, while New Zealand universities continue to play a very valuable role in our culture, it is important not to overlook their prosaic, conformist, commercial aspects.” (from the 2007 essay “ A Short History of ‘The New Zealand Intellectual’ ” pp.160-161)
Incidental to this cultural situation, Horrocks stands against the demagogues of neo-liberalism who are the latest edition of the old New Zealand brand of anti-intellectualism.  Says Horrocks:
New Zealand has outgrown much of the puritanism that dominated its way of life at least until the 1960s. But another old repression – anti-intellectualism – still rules. Its style has changed over the years, but the basic belief persists that thinking leads to trouble once it departs from the quiet, normal suburbs of common sense. Less down-to-earth ideas stir up scorn and suspicion….” (p.133)
Fittingly, Horrocks makes some strikes against the smug, intellectual-baiting media populism of (the late) Frank Haden and Paul Holmes. His comments are as relevant to the age of Mike Hosking and Cameron Slater.
So to Horrocks’ concerns about mass culture and the mass media, especially television and film.
The 2004 essay “How to Create a Film Industry” argues that New Zealand cinema was born in the 1970s of “alternative” experimentation. But it does encompass the irony that, in film-making, the 1970s “rebels” who rejected bureaucracy, and who unwittingly helped to endorse neo-liberalism, ended up marginalised:
Communal, non-commercial values made the initial takeoff possible; but what began as a free-wheeling film movement evolved in the ‘80s into the hierarchical ‘industry’ that we know today. This seems largely inevitable as feature film-making demands a highly organised infrastructure; but today some tensions still exist between the old communal-style ethos and the codes of professionalism and specialization.” (p.193)
The 2004 essay “Turbulent Television: The New Zealand Experiment” reads as an attempt to infuse a commercially-driven system with at least some of the values of a responsible public broadcaster, but with an awareness that this is an uphill struggle:
In academic circles the impulse to give up on mainstream television and to focus energies on a small access channel or the Internet is understandable but is to give away too much in a country where the creation of an independent broadcaster serving as a cultural forum is still unfinished business in post-colonial terms. Because of the volatility of our politics, both popular culture and mainstream culture remain important arenas for activism.” (p.244)
Some of the essays on mass media are topical, and have not aged well. The 1999 essay “Cultures, Policies, Films” is essentially a dated survey of New Zealand film production up to that time, raising the obvious point that New Zealand cinema was more than just the “cinema of unease” which it had been labelled in a popular documentary of the time. Some of the essays have a twinge of melancholy or nostalgia in them, as in the 2003 essay “Documentaries on New Zealand Television”, where Horrocks laments the squeeze that was increasingly put on serious and/or innovative documentaries on New Zealand television, in contrast with the livelier documentary scene in the 1990s. The essay holds out the hope that better things might come – but, alas, this was before the age of clickbait news and even more dumbed-down “documentaries”. In the 1999 essay “The Late Show: The Production of Film and Television Studies” Horrocks specifically says he will not write “another sentimental history of heroic new subjects struggling against a reactionary regime.” (p.274) but does nevertheless give an account of the hardships he had trying to set up film and other media studies at the University of Auckland. It is a valuable and self-effacing account.
Thus far, I think I have charted accurately both Horrocks’ preoccupations and the contents of this book. Now comes the critical part.
As I am sure Roger Horrocks would himself concede, a volume of essays written over many years and written to appear on many different platforms will not always be consistent in either the arguments it makes or the tone in which those arguments are made. I have already suggested that the younger Horrocks was a little more aggressive in his rejection of older New Zealand cultural “nationalism” than the older Horrocks is. However, one of my major oppositional arguments would be that Horrocks is consistently at odds with himself. On the one hand is a desire for new forms of national cultural expression. But on the other hand there is the frequent admission that the forms he seeks are the avant-garde from elsewhere. I am not reproducing here the crude philistine kiwi cry (which Horrocks rejects at various points) that anything avant-garde should be spurned because it is merely aping foreign “fashions”. But I am saying that much of the New Zealand being “re-invented”, as the book’s title says, is more in the nature of a shift from British to American cultural dominance, for all the social changes (feminism, Maori renaissance, Pasifika consciousness, gay and lesbian openness) which Horrocks lauds.
Further, at the risk of appearing petty, while I do appreciate Horrocks’ reaction against the self-obsessed (and ultimately self-congratulatory) varieties of poetry, I do have to note that confessional, autobiographical poetry and prose per se is often robust and certainly a persistent part of our identity (see Cilla McQueen’s In a Slant Light; see the autobiographies of Martin Edmond).
Finally, I note that populist (and sometimes demagogic) railing against intellectuals isn’t exclusive to New Zealand. It is not peculiar to the New Zealand psyche even if we do (as does every country settled relatively recently by Europeans) look to a history of pioneers who worshipped practicality and physical labour, and did not value thinkers. It is more a matter of a lack of “critical mass” – the factor to which Horrocks appeals when he is discussing the difficulties in developing an independent movie and TV culture. Small population means not enough of those people whom Horrocks would call intellectuals – even if intellectuals are as large a proportion of our population as of populations elsewhere. But in a larger country, one can immerse oneself in a larger intellectual culture, even if the mass of the population is as unconcerned with intellectual matters as the mass of the population is in New Zealand.
            But I am loath to close this notice with such carping arguments. Here is an old but truthful statement – if a book is worth arguing with, then it is a book worth reading. Roger Horrocks has one major virtue in common with C.K.Stead (from some of whose views he occasionally dissents). He writes clear and accessible prose even when he is discussing specialist matters. Re-Inventing New Zealand is a bracing report from the cultural battlefield and worth the week or so of evenings which it takes to read.