Monday, November 22, 2021

Something New


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

“MIDDLE DISTANCE – Long Stories of Aotearoa-New Zealand” Edited by Craig Gamble (VUP, $NZ35) ; “A GAME OF TWO HALVES – The Best of Sport 2005-2019” edited by Fergus Barrowman (VUP, $NZ35)


A bit over six weeks before you are reading this, what seemed to be two square bricks appeared in my letterbox. I unwrapped them with great curiosity and found that they were two fat Victoria University Press anthologies, each many hundred pages long, each with a sturdy spine  Middle Distance an anthology of new long short stories and A Game of Two Halves a selection of the best of Sport, VUP’s occasional literary magazine.

I diligently set to work reading Middle Distance.

The 472 pages of Middle Distance comprise 14 stories by 14 writers, viz. 8 women, 5 men and one (Rem Wigmore) who designates him/herself as “they”. Craig Gamble, the editor, says in his introduction that he planned this anthology to represent “emerging and established writers” and he commissioned unpublished stories “as much as possible to include a diversity of voices and styles”.  But he wanted specifically long short stories and he suggested each contributor write about 10,000 words. He notes “the writer of a long story walks a difficult middle path between the sharp joy of a shorter work, and the more cumulative pleasures of a novella or novel.”

It is a difficult path indeed. Many of these stories fit the longer form perfectly, but in some the circa-10,000-word qualification leads to a little padding in tales that could have been expressed more concisely and would better have fitted the frame of a shorter short story. I would also suggest that, with two or three exceptions, the stories are contributed by “emerging” rather than “established” writers, most of whom will have had a very small readership hitherto.

            I found three general tendencies in this collection – stories of fantasy or surrealism; stories grounded in hard realism; and stories of social commentary or satire.

Take first those that deal in fantasy or surrealism.

Joy Holley’s “School Spirit” at least hints at ghosts and the bizarre, though the story goes in a different direction; and Vincent O’Sullivan’s “Ko tenei, ko tena” is a skilled pastiche of 19th century Gothic. Olivia Cade’s “Scales, Tails and Hagfish” concerns an aggressive and foul-mouthed little girl who wants to become a mermaid. There is much false naivete in the mode of narration. I think this tale is meant to be read as the story of a little girl’s obsessions or delusions as she grows up, but its effect is rather laboured. Rem Wigmore’s “Basil and the Wild” is a fantasy, apparently intended as advocacy for those who are “different”. In almost fairy-tale form it presents two people who become outcasts in a conformist society. The unreal setting, however, creates a kind of evasion, not admitting the realities Wigmore wants to confront. Jack Barrowman’s “The Dead City” has the great merit of producing a detailed and minutely described landscape of a fantasy world where monsters and magic rule. The protagonists’ trek towards the “dead city” is both painful and believable. It strives to be allegorical. Kathryn van Beek’s “Sea Legend” first frames itself as a realistic account of a Maori crew fishing in the perilous Southern Ocean, and it is very credible in those terms; but it turns to a surreal conclusion.

Then there are the authors who go for hard realism.

Among these are Maria Samuela’s “The Promotion” and Emma Sidnam’s “Backwaters,” both of which deal with deracinated cultures coping with New Zealand. Anthony Lapwood’s “Around the Fire” has the narrator’s parents separated from an unhappy marriage. The narrator’s wife has “taken a break” (i.e. trial separation). It is a credible story of marital unhappiness in both cases, especially when the children are lied to, but still intuit what is wrong. Despite this, Lapwood holds out some hope for the father and introduces some pertinent symbolism in the form of a cat and a lemon tree.

Finally there is the social commentary.

It comes in the form of sheer satire in David Geary’s “The Black Betty Tapes”. In Nicole Phillipson’s “Getaway” an academic woman comes to a slum near Chicago to visit her sister, who turns out to be the cowed wife of a gun-toting brute. I suppose there are such people in the USA, but the characters read more like caricatures (or stereotypes). Greasy-handed gun-toting mechanic. House-bound wife suffering from psychosomatic pains. Regrettably, recognising the intended good and bad at first glance, we are unable to find much nuance in the characterisation. J. Wiremu Kane’s “Ringawera” presents credible and vivid scenes of tangi and funeral in a rural setting. The author note at end of books says that Kane’s work seeks “to expose the gaping, unhealed wound that colonialism has wrought on the whenua and its people”. A good agenda but much of this story is painfully didactic in dialogue that neatly explains the author’s views. Samantha Lane Murphy’s “Like and Pray” could also be seen as social commentary in its view of a fundamentalist Pentecostal mega-church’s inept way of dealing with a young couple’s grief when their child has died. The focus is on the very different reactions of husband and wife. But I do query if there really is any fundamentalist church which hold out the promise of the literal resurrection of a dead child. Maybe there is…   

So now that I have walked you around the whole estate, I’m going to do the forbidden thing and nominate the six stories in this collection of 14 that I found most engaging. I present them rawly and in no particular order. They are all very good in their different ways and genres.

* Joy Holley’s “School Spirit” has a title with an obvious double meaning once one reads the story. Four women make a late-night break-in to a derelict school, Erskine College, which one of them attended as a schoolgirl. Flashbacks give us her backstory as a pupil there and the school’s regime. This is what sustains the story – the memories of school discipline and the different ways in which people respond to it. There are hints of half-believed ghost stories, but they really express the fearful, suggestible states of mind of the intruding women.

* Maria Samuela’s “The Promotion” is severely in the tradition of realism, using a  straightforward language far from contrived decorations. It is a generational account of Cook Islanders who come to New Zealand looking for work and the cultural barriers that make it hard to connect work with home and family members far away.

* Emma Sidnam’s “Backwaters” has a style that is lyrical and sheer poetry in places, but still has a bedrock of hard reality. Chinese emigrate to New Zealand in the 19th century. Sidnam dramatizes both the reasons for their leaving China (they are many), and the mixed feelings and tensions within the family. This is about divided hearts as much as about the barriers of prejudice that New Zealand presents.

* Vincent O’Sullivan’s “Ko tenei, ko tena” is a grotesque story, set in 19th century England and New Zealand, and deliberately written in a stately 19th century prose. A pastiche in its way, both gothic and a shocker, and providing the same sorts of pleasures that Victorian shockers did, even with a pertinent lesson for the present.

*  Sam Keenan’s “Afterimages”. It is strange for me to choose this one, I know, because it is one of the most depressing and dispiriting stories I’ve ever read. In the unexpected setting of the Second World War, it presents, in the first person, a disoriented and permanently unhappy mind. The narrator is filled with a sense of her own inadequacy and not really belonging to this world. She lives within her mind – rationalism in the real sense of the word. But it is a real and credible state of mind we are sharing.

*  David Geary’s “The Black Betty Tapes”. Presented in the form of transcripts from bugged or otherwise recorded meetings, it is a satire on the English cult of royalty and the Queen. Great fun in stretches and dripping with Shakespearean quotations. Maybe Geary goes on a bit, even if he does quote Bill Shakespeare’s “brevity is the soul of wit”. But this is wonderful nose-thumbing stuff and the one sustained exercise in comedy in the whole collection.

There now. 6 out of 14 is a pretty good score for an anthology of this sort, but of course all judgements are subjective and other readers will probably judge differently.


  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *


            I am not going to review in detail the 600 pages of A Game of Two Halves, but there are reasons for this. I am being neither cursory nor dismissive. I took the time to read some of the contents, but in many cases found I was re-reading what I had already encountered in Sport, the literary magazine, or had found later in books by some of the nearly 100 contributors. Besides, even more than in reviewing Middle Distance, I can’t do justice to all the many writers whose poetry, fiction and essays are presented here. Each item would deserve the type of analysis that can’t be given in a short review.

            A Game of Two Halves is an anthology of Sport from 2005 to 2019. Back in 2005 there appeared Great Sporting Moments, an equally bulky anthology of work from Sport edited by Damien Wilkins and covering the years from Sport’s beginning in 1988 up to 2004. So the “game of two halves” refers to the second part of Sport’s existence, because editor and publisher Fergus Barrowman strongly suggests that Sport will no longer be appearing and the VUP will now put its energies into producing anthologies like the one under review here.

In his introduction, Barrowman tells us that A Game of Two Halves presents only 15% of the work that appeared in Sport between 2005 and 2019. He gives an account of the magazine’s origins and how it was first conceived, noting sensibly “it wasn’t going to have a manifesto. It was clear to all of us that experimental writing – or postmodern writing, call it what you like – was just as rulebound as literary realism, and no more likely to be any good; that experienced writers took as many risks as beginning writers; and that older beginning writers… were just as alive in the moment of self-discovery as young writers.” A wide range of writing, and a wide range of styles, would be considered. But there were difficulties in funding such a publication and difficulties in finding editors and guest editors. The publication’s appearance could be intermittent. Sometimes it appeared twice a year, sometimes once a year, and some years it didn’t appear at all. (This reminds me of the 1950s New Zealand magazine Here and Now which appeared so intermittently that its subscribers took to calling it Now and Then.)  As Barrowman says later, in a reprint of a 2008 eulogy for Robin Dudding (pp.62-64), Sport was founded when Islands was the only real literary magazine in New Zealand because Landfall was then in the doldrums (from which, I have to add, it has long since recovered)

Usually the  circulation of Sport lay very modestly somewhere between 400 and 600 subscribers. As well as noting how shaky its finances were, Barrowman takes into account changes in the international marketing of books. Always closely connected to Victoria University’s writing programme, Sport briefly gained, then lost, an international audience. Some of the 100-odd contributors went on to make literary careers for themselves. Others faded from the scene.

So how did I react to the contents? I enjoyed sighting again William Brandt’s story “Broken”, written mainly in terse single-clause sentences and one of the few tales that will make a male reader go “AAARGH!!”. I re-read carefully and with pleasure Eleanor Catton’s longer short story “Descent from Avalanche”, analysing the shaky nature of a woman’s and a man’s relationship as the two of them go mountain-climbing. Tina Makereti’s essay “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman Walk into a Pa” is an engaging exploration of the author’s mixed-race ancestry showing an awareness of the contributions of different cultures. John Summer’s “Real Life” is almost comfort food with its account of living in a foul student flat with an obnoxious flatmate. Then there is… No. Wait a minute. I’m doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t do and beginning to plough through the contents one by one.

Its safe for me to say that this very capacious anthology contains much great reading.


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.   

                                    H.G.WELLS’ SPECULATIVE WORKS


Last posting I considered what I called H.G.Wells’ Contemporary Social Novels, that is, novels which deal with England as it was at the time Wells was writing, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This posting I’m looking at what I loosely call his “speculative” works -  a vague and nebulous term indeed, but I’m trying to shoehorn together those books where Wells was writing about a possible future, or was presenting what he imagined to be philosophical ideas in the form of polemic. As I noted in my last posting, I have read much of Wells’ science-fiction over the years, including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, When the Sleeper Wakes, The Food of the Gods, and more. With the possible exception of Kipps, these are the works for which Wells is still best-known to the general reading public. But in this posting, and choosing only those books that happen to be on my shelves, I deal with two science-fiction books, one polemic, and one predictive view of what Wells obviously thought would be a plausible future. 

First The Island of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896. The previous year Wells had published The Time Machine, his first great science-fiction novel (or “scientific romance” as Wells liked to called them), and the following year Wells was to publish The War of the Worlds, generally judged to be his science-fiction masterpiece. But re-reading The Island of Doctor Moreau, I can’t help thinking that this could be his greatest s.f. work. Certainly it is his most unsettling and comes nearer to sheer horror than anything else he wrote.

The situation: through a series of accidents, the one-time medical student Edward Prendick finds himself on an isolated island run by Dr. Moreau, a vivisectionist who had fled London years before, after a medical scandal. Moreau’s accomplice is a thuggish and alcoholic man called Montgomery. Prendick is shocked and disgusted to find on the island creatures that seem half-human and half-other species – puma or swine or wolf or ape. They can talk in a primitive way, they walk on their hind legs, but they are clearly not fully human. Prendick accuses Moreau of turning human beings into beasts; but it’s the other way around. The “Beast Folk” are brute beasts into which Moreau has infused human qualities, in an attempt to produce a superior (and pacifistic) human race. One of the humanoid creatures teaches the others “the Law” as laid down by Moreau. They are not to walk on four legs, they are not to eat flesh, they are not to drink water by crouching near pools and lapping it up etc. etc. After they chant each of these laws the beasts say “Are we not men?” Of course Dr.Moreau’s experiments eventually go catastrophically wrong, but I won’t spoil it all by saying how.

The Island of Doctor Moreau has the great merit of not outlasting its welcome, unlike some of Wells’ “serious” novels, such as the tiresome The New Machiavelli. The Island of Doctor Moreau runs to a trim 150 pages in the edition I read. The horror comes through the sense of menace that Prendick feels early in the novel when he walks through the island’s forest, and is stalked by a creature which he cannot determine is human. Wells, an excellent story-teller when on form, understands that the greatest horrors are things not quite seen – a concept that by now has often been used to advantage in innumerable horror films. Later in The Island of Doctor Moreau, there are also explicit descriptions of the deformed and vivisected beasts, the horror here being that they are like us inasmuch as they have at least some human characteristics. This leads us to consider that we too have swinish or wolfish or other animalistic characteristics. As I read, I couldn’t help feeling that this was like a reversed version of the Circe sequence of the Odyssey where men are turned into beasts. Or perhaps like Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, suggesting how differently we could be seen from a non-human perspective. Some critics have gone so far as to compare The Island of Doctor Moreau with Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but I think that’s stretching it a bit.

The Island of Doctor Moreau has some Victorian features. Its introduction purports to be a genuine manuscript written by Edward Prendick. It deals with a topic that was very much discussed in the 1890s – how ethical was vivisection? Wells, in effect, projects a phenomenon of his own day, as he did in The Time Machine where the effete Eloi and the brutish Morlocks are projections of current class struggles. The Island of Doctor Moreau mines a vein of horror that had preceded Wells – exactly ten years before it appeared, Robert Louis Stevenson had already published his Dr.Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which also dealt with an obsessive man trying monstrous experiments with the human form. And going back earlier than the Victorian age, way back in 1818 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein had a man creating a human monster. Like Frankenstein, The Island of Doctor Moreau is very imprecise about how the scientist’s experiments work. There is vague talk about vivisection and the use of a serum, but remember, while the science of genetics was already underway by 1896, nobody then knew about DNA. It’s not surprising that Wells couldn’t know what is now known in the field of human biology. Even so, this short novel resonates as a fable for a time like our own, when human beings are less squeamish about altering radically the human metabolism.

And, again as in Frankenstein, there is the big question about how much power human beings should exercise over the natural order. In Frankenstein, the Monster asks “Why did you make me?” as if addressing a god. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, the “Beast Folk” regard Moreau as a god, the Lawgiver, the force that has made them. Should human beings set themselves up as gods?

The War of the Worlds still stands as Wells’ most admired science-fiction, but The Island of Doctor Moreau has a large cult following. For the record The Island of Doctor Moreau, has been filmed three times. I am told that the early 1930s version, called Island of Lost Souls, was appropriately eerie and unsettling with Charles Laughton as Dr Moreau, but as yet, I have never seen this film. I have, however seen the two later versions. The 1977 version of The Island of Doctor Moreau was simply boring and un-nuanced, with a solemn Burt Lancaster as Moreau. The 1996 remake was a complete disaster in every respect, a rambling script, an emphasis on shock and blood-and-guts, and an over-the-top camp performance by Marlon Brando as Moreau. It had a huge budget, but fittingly it was a complete box-office flop.

Idiotic little footnote: I was greatly amused that throughout this novel, Wells spells “dinghy” as “dingey”. Or was this the standard spelling over a century ago?

 *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *. *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

In great contrast, much of The First Men in the Moon (first published 1901) reads as if it were meant tongue-in-cheek. I have said that The History of Mr Polly is, in my opinion, the most amusing and jolly of Wells’ “contemporary” novels. I rate The First Men in the Moon as his most amusing and jolly science fiction, even if The War of the Worlds is a much better novel. I say this in the awareness that The First Men in the Moon does have moments of horror and what I can only interpret as a tragic ending.

The jollity comes from the delightful contrast of the two protagonists. Cavor is a rather dotty scientist so determinedly fixed on the idea of discovering scientific truth that he is highly impractical in more mundane matters. Bedford, who narrates the story, is a sheer opportunist, thinking of nothing other than making a profit out of Cavor’s experiments and discoveries. Cavor has invented a substance called Cavorite, which is able to defy gravity and thus lift heavy bodies into outer space. Cavor and his workmen build a solid sphere, which allows Cavor and Bedford to fly to the moon. Of course and inevitably, this means much fudging by Wells when it comes to explaining how exactly this works.

But no matter. The two of them get to the moon and – surprise – the moon proves to have a breathable atmosphere. In due course, Cavor and Bedford discover that there is a huge subterranean civilization on the moon, consisting of large intelligent insect-like creatures whom Cavor names Selenites. Their civilization is highly compartmentalised. Every Selenite is bred and specialised for a particular function – herders of beasts, scientists, administrators, guards etc. – so that each caste of Selenite has its own particular shape. Wells is obviously thinking of ants or bees with their specialised workers, soldiers, drones etc. but with intelligence equal to human beings. I won’t go into Cavor’s and Bedford’s various fights with, and escapes from, the Selenites. Enough to say that, through a series of misadventures, Cavor is stranded on the moon and only Bedford makes it back to Earth. Through the (in 1901 extremely novel) medium of radio waves, Bedford receives a few messages from Cavor, describing in detail how Selenites live, before the messages fade out. The implication is that the Selenites are blocking Cavor’s broadcasts so that the secret of Cavorite will not get back to Earth and therefore the moon will not be invaded by other earthlings. The horror of the tale lies in the more grotesque habits of the Selenites and the tragedy in Cavor’s being stranded in an alien and hostile world.

In terms of real science – and what we now know of the moon – Wells gets some things right. There is weightlessness for the two explorers as they travel through outer space. They are able to bounce about on the surface of the moon, as real astronauts eventually did, because of the moon’s weaker gravitational pull. But, quite apart from the whole Selenite civilization, there are the purely fantastical details. The moon has a breathable atmosphere and blue skies. Snow falls on the moon. In Chapters 7 and 8 the initial descriptions of the moon’s surface are vivid to the point of being hallucinatory – wonderful descriptions of a non-existent landscape and Wells at his best.

Then there is the sheer tongue-in-cheek. Cavor and Bedford consume lunar plants which make them happily inebriated.  There is deliberate satire when Cavor, in one of his broadcasts, gives an elaborate description of a Selenite parade before the Grand Lunar, the ruler of the moon. This clearly mocks the pomp and pageantry of official parades before royalty on Earth. And for the sake of his story, Wells displays sheer impertinent cheek when he allows Bedford, with no understanding of how to steer the sphere, to land back on Earth almost exactly where he set out from, in dear old England where he blithely explains to the unbelieving that he’s just been to the moon. Surely we are meant to laugh, just as we do when we realise what a swine the narrating Bedford is. He reacts callously to the fate of somebody who has inadvertently been carried off into outer space by the Cavorite-fuelled sphere.

Interesting Footnote: Jules Verne, who lived to read Wells’ novel and who died in 1905, took exception to The First Men in the Moon. He pointed out that when, way back in the 1860s, he wrote his own moon-travel books From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, he had used a real and existing form of locomotion to get his heroes into space. He had them travel in a bullet-shaped missile shot into space from a huge gun. As has often been pointed out, the pressure involved in such a technique would immediately crush the travellers to death. Even so, Verne rightly said that Wells had to invent a non-existent substance to get his heroes on their way, and Verne regarded this as a form of cheating. The irony is that 35 years after The First Men in the Moon was published, the British film Things to Come (1936), based on H.G.Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, had its astronauts shot into space from a huge gun. Before real space-travel began, it would appear that Jules Verne’s technique was still seen as feasible.

 *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *


Totally different from the above is First and Last Things, subtitled “A Confession of Faith and Rule of Life”. Not a novel, it is one of Wells’ many polemics. It was published in 1908 but apparently revised in 1917. I judge it from the first edition. To state the obvious, I admire a man who is willing to set out the principles of life by which he abides. We are always in danger of many self-contradictions when we try to sum up our beliefs and moral standards in any detail, so score one to Wells for giving it a go. In a way, Wells’ titles tantalise the potential reader. The very phrases “first and last things” and “a confession of faith and rule of life” immediately suggest Christian piety. Is the agnostic Wells going to preach Christianity? Of course not, but it is interesting to see him in this polemic saying a number of positive things about the church, faith and worship.

He divides his polemic into four long sections.

The first he calls “Metaphysics”, by which he means general principles of epistemology. His general argument is that there is such a thing as objective truth, but such truth cannot be spoken of in terms of absolute certainty. Wells sees standard systems of logic as being misleading. They assume certainty and finality in reasoning. Therefore he argues that real objective truth is more like the science of biology than like mathematics or physics. (At which point I have to note that there is a wide streak of bias here as Wells was trained as a biologist.) Wells says that, working in abstractions, mathematics and physics allow people to assume there are final and definitive answers. But biology works by observation and history (as in the study of evolution) and therefore has a greater understanding of the individuality of things and is able to break down the notion of neat and generalised categories. What Wells concludes from this argument is that while we might allude to categories in our everyday thinking, we should always be aware that our thoughts and beliefs are hedged by uncertainty. Hence his agnosticism. To summarise this argument in one sentence – Wells was an empiricist, not a rationalist.

We then move on to “Of Beliefs”. Says Wells, we have to simply accept the reality and importance of the universe. He believes there is some purpose and order in the universe which we might occasionally and legitimately call God. Religions, however, are simply born out of the desire to simplify. He personally believes in both determinism (in the general forces of nature) and free will (in our personal actions). When he discusses the nature of beauty, he falls back on the idea of its inexplicableness. Human beings he sees as building blocks climbing towards a greater, unified human consciousness. (Which rather contradicts his earlier argument about biological individuality and uniqueness.) He specifically dismisses the idea of life after death and says that Christianity is very attractive to many people and still succours many people, but declares that for him, Christ is too perfect, not human enough, and therefore no guide for him.

The third section “Of General Conduct” is both the longest and the most varied in the topics it raises. It is also the one that falls into much special pleading as Wells justifies his own modus vivendi. Conduct, he says, comes from “faith”, by which he means a set of beliefs. It is, he says, impossible to define distinctly what is good, but we have to consider what benefits society most. (Shades of utilitarianism here, but Wells never uses the word.) So he says that for the common good, Socialism is the most promising doctrine and “We look towards the day… of the organised, civilised world state.” (p.100 of the 1908 edition). Indeed he looks forward to a “conscious synthesis of human thought” and a “World City of Mankind”. But as soon as he mentions Socialism, he runs into trouble because he has to exclude so many forms of Socialism. He rejects the type of Socialism that is controlled by well-to-do middle-class people who think they are raising up their “inferiors”. He rejects Marxism, arguing that the notion of class warfare merely results in one self-interested group fighting another. And he rejects “that furtive Socialism of the specialist which one meets most typically in the Fabian Society” (p.106). (By this stage, Wells had broken with his Fabian pals Shaw, the Webbs and the Reeves-es.). In the end, his Socialism seems to consist of a vague Utopianism built on people being nice and cooperating with one another. Yet, forsooth, he says Socialism must be militant, even if it has to work under current economic systems. So bring on education and propagandising for Socialism. He turns to the plight of women who are (in 1908) economic slaves to their husbands and he considers how their position can be improved. However, his brilliant idea is that, with childbirth being a necessity, an association of eugenically-acceptable people should set up their own system of marriage, whereby women can partner with any number of lovers and receive a state benefit for bringing such healthy children into the world. (Hmm – I think a German regime tried this one in the 1930s.) Wells refutes some of his earlier writings and the idea of having a “new religion”, but then goes into a weird passage saying that all Protestant and dissenting churches should go back into the Catholic church and then reform it from the inside, introducing new doctrines congenial to Wells. On the matter of war, he insists that competition is an inevitable part of human nature and has the benefit of weeding out the eugenically unacceptable. Also, armies are good at teaching men to work for a common purpose and therefore ready them for the coming World State… Young people need guidance. Democracy per se doesn’t work so there is a need for natural aristocrats to take control of things… And then we are into the matter of sex. It’s a necessary force, says Wells, and cannot be controlled by celibacy, but then maybe we should question the current institution of marriage and rapidly he moves into the mode of talking about Free Love and the benefits of polygamy.

He ends this tome with a “Confession” which basically repeats what he has already said – especially on the matter of his own sexual habits, though written in a euphemistic way suiting a 1908 readership.

When I got to the end of First and Last Things, what I most understood was that Wells was an empiricist, a utilitarian, an advocate of eugenics, an atheism-inclined agnostic who sometimes used religious terms, a man who wanted the world to be organised logically, and a man who did not trust democracy. And (despite some protestations to the contrary) he still thought in terms of social management by a small enlightened elite. His attempt at formal logic in the opening section of First and Last Things was largely unrelated to the grab-bag of issues he dealt with in the other two sections. First and Last Things tells us much about his mind and inclinations, but it is not much of a “rule of life”.

  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *   *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

Dear reader, I hope you understand the painful things I sometimes do for you to bring you accurate comments on books. The painful thing I did recently was to read my way through all the nearly 500 pages of H.G.Wells’ fatuous, pompous The Shape of Things to Come (first published in late 1933), one of those ponderous and verbose creations that Wells produced when he was well past his literary prime. Crawling to the end of it was, for me, an extended exercise in literary masochism. Wikipedia informs me that this concoction was a great inspiration to some later science-fiction writers. It was also, very-loosely, the source of the quaintly interesting British film Things to Come, scripted by Wells himself, made in 1936 and which I have seen a number of times – thanks to having a DVD of the film. Would that the book were as short and sprightly as the film.

I think Wells made one big blunder when he wrote The Shape of Things to Come. He sets much of it in the very near future, just a few years after he was writing, which means that the book had in-built obsolescence as many of its “predictions” would very quickly prove to be wrong. Note that I am knowingly using the word “book” rather than “novel”. It has the fictitious premise that it is the “dream book” of a diplomat called Philip Raven, and that it could therefore be seen as a mere speculative dream. But that is as novelistic as The Shape of Things to Come gets. It reads mainly like a dull, generalised history textbook of the future – or at least the future as Wells himself hoped it would go.

I make one thing very clear. I am not belittling Wells for getting many things wrong. Nobody who writes about a supposed future will get it all right. It would be foolish to criticise a writer in 1933 for not foreseeing the rise of computers, the internet, nuclear weapons, global warming and current ecological concerns, the impact of second- and third-wave feminism, and many other current realities. But he can be faulted for his many prejudices – often amounting to bigotry – and for his ignoring things that were already manifesting themselves in 1933.

To give a quick synopsis of this ponderous, dull text (boy, I’m laying it on, aren’t I?), Book One gives an account of (real) recent history up to 1933. The “Great War” of 1914-18 has almost broken Europe. A great economic depression has overwhelmed the world. Poverty and unemployment are rife. The feeble League of Nations has failed to curb wars. And in Europe  dictatorships are flourishing. (Score one for Wells, by the way, for fingering both Stalin and Hitler as totalitarian tyrants.) “Progress comes to a halt.” So in Book Two a massive war breaks out (not too difficult to foresee in 1933,  given all that rampant nationalism). The war lasts from 1940 to 1950, and is played out in a very different way from the real Second World War. Wells sees gas as the most lethal and destructive weapon. And after this gargantuan war, there is a horrible plague. The war and ensuing plague are so destructive that the whole world regresses – there are no longer major nations or nation states. The world’s population reverts to living in isolated villages or city states with only local leadership. Modern technology is a rarity. Mass communication has broken down… But in Book Three there is the great hope for the world. Technicians, engineers and especially aviators (still a relatively new and glamorous thing in 1933 when Wells was writing) get together and work out a system of international communication based on flight paths and the building of aerodromes. Gradually the Air Police and then the Air Dictatorship bind the world together again as they begin to construct a World State. Annoying things like religion and unhelpful literature are outlawed. Basic English becomes the lingua franca for the whole world. And of course, there is no such thing as democracy – a silly system which only gets in the way of scientists who know what is good for humanity. Opposition parties? Perish the thought!! They only hinder scientific truth, which is absolute. So, finally, Books Four and Five tell us what the wonderful, desirable world state will look like. There is a period known jocularly as the “Puritan Dictatorship” when the council ruling the World State has to discipline and rein in their cosmopolitan subjects. Wells approves of this severe discipline as a means of making the general populace less self-centred, less frivolous and more ready to serve the state. [NB While criticising Nazis, Fascists and Communists in Book One, Wells approves of their “discipline” as a forerunner of what the World State will need…] When we get past the “Puritan Dictatorship” there is the world made new and perfect. No more wars and national rivalries. No more squabbling democracies. Much “sexual hygiene” and typically Wellsian euphemisms for “free love”. A completely new form of education based principally on science. No more religions and superstitions. Parents forbidden to teach their children anything not approved by the state. Improved medicine so that people are healthier and live longer; but birth control so that the population doesn’t get out of hand. Some concessions to arty people, poets and artists, but just so long as they understand they are working for the World State. And suddenly everyone is more mature and creative. And all under the rule of an elite that knows everything. Wells’ heaven.

To put this whole future “history” in one sentence – a big war wipes the slate clean so that Wells’ idea of a perfect world can emerge.

On at least some things, I would say Wells was more-or-less right. The decay of organised religion in the West has happened and society in the West is far more secular. But Wells, with his dictatorial inclinations, has religion disappearing by forcible suppression or extermination ordered by the almighty state. (Writing at the time when most Muslim countries were still controlled by European imperial powers, Wells could not predict the resurgence of militant Islam.) The tendency for globalism to be at odds with nationalism is also a reality of our times as Wells vaguely predicts, but again, his globalism is enforced from above.

Wells takes scant notice of the rights of women that had advanced considerably even before 1933. Women hardly appear in The Shape of Things to Come, apart from vague references to changed sexual mores and a couple of anecdotes about boudoir politics controlled by women and the solitary tale of a woman aspiring to be an artist. He has no sense of how finite natural resources on Earth are, and hopes for a future where engineers dig deeper and deeper into the Earth to extract fuel. While there is the occasional nod to Asia and the Americas, his plan for the World State assumes that Europe and European ideas will be the arbiter of the new civilisation. Africa is mentioned only in passing once or twice. Wells does not consider, and certainly does not foresee, the break-up of European hegemony and the de-colonisation of much of the world. Indeed, his vision is so blind to different ethnicities and cultures, and requires such complete uniformity to one state, that (in a two-page tirade that come very close to being anti-Semitic) he berates Jews for clinging to their one god and seeking a homeland.

Most repellent, though, is his doctrinaire hatred of democracy. The world is to be controlled by a small body of scientific “experts” who know what is best for the unscientific crowd. This oligarchy may not be questioned. Far more than his admirers might like to admit, Wells was influenced by the totalitarian powers that were taking hold in 1933. His is a naïve latter day Positivism, wherein science solves all problems and there is no room for culture other than the sterile culture he has devised in his head.

Final comment on H. G. Wells: As well as having a number of books by Wells on my shelves, I also have a number of those old “Writers and Their Work” pamphlets, which used to be produced by the British Council. One of them, published in the early 1950s, is about H.G.Wells and was written by the now-forgotten journalist Montgomery Belgion. Most of what Belgion says in his 30-page essay is commonplace stuff – how he [Belgion] had greatly admired Wells’ early novels when he himself was a young man, but how Wells’ best novels were written early in his career, in the 1890s and early 1900s, and his later work was of little literary value; how Wells’ early science-fiction remains the most popular part of Wells’ output; and how most of Wells’ serious “predictions” about society were fallacious. But he does make one interesting comment. He says that he thought of part of Wells as being “Baby Wells”, that is, like an overgrown baby who thinks, as infants do, that only he himself really exists and that other people are mere adjuncts to his being. Correctly, Belgion points out that not only are all the main characters in Wells’ novels really projections of himself (often little more than thinly-disguised autobiography), but that the other characters in his novels are there only as supports to the main character and do not exist when the main character is not thinking about them. This trait, says Belgion, carries on into what Wells regarded as his rational plans for a better world. Wells’ prophecies always rely on a small elite, being of the same mind as Wells, neatly organizing and ordering the world. They are, in short, mere enlargements of Baby Wells. Quite so.

H.G.Wells had much imagination and great power as a storyteller. When he is in comic vein and when he is writing science fiction he is a master. In adolescence and now approaching old age I have greatly enjoyed reading much of his work. But when he sets himself up as a sage he fails miserably. His idees fixes become obsessions and his direct social commentary is facile. A child throwing blocks around to reorganise the world.

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.

                                                             NERDY GENIUS



This is one of those moments when we suddenly realise our age.

My wife and I are both scanning through Youtube for something interesting to watch when we come across archival transcripts of jazz performances. We discover two long sessions of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, filmed in 1964 and 1966 before live audiences.

Like the Benny Goodman Quartet (Benny Goodman; Teddy Wilson; Gene Krupa; Lionel Hampton) Dave Brubeck’s Quartet is a racially-integrated combo i.e. Eugene Wright is black and on bass. Joe Morello is rather portly and on drums. Both Dave Brubeck on piano and Paul Desmond on saxophone are lean, Brubeck with his prominent hawk-like nose.

Brubeck got going with his Quartet in the early 1950s, but the 1960s were the combo’s glory days. The first six notes of Paul Desmond’s composition Take Five immediately take me back to my childhood in the early 1960s. Take Five was on the radio all the time. When Brubeck died (aged 92) in 2012, I took the occasion to note that the Quartet was the last jazz group to reach the great mainstream audience, beyond dedicated jazz aficionados. Everybody recognised Take Five. Most people recognised the Quartet’s version of Rondo a la Turk. I remember a TV advertisement for a sound system back then, which said you could listen to all types of music, described as “Bach, Brubeck and the Beatles”. Yep, for a while then, Brubeck’s combo was as popular as the Beatles.

But looking at them nearly sixty years later, we both note how strange their appearance now seems. Eugene Wright is clear of sight, but the three white guys are all wearing thick glasses with heavy black frames… and all four of them are in respectable dark suits with neatly done-up collar and tie.

Would any jazz combo dress so formally now? It’s as if they are participating in a symposium at some university’s music department.

This is intellectual jazz, cool jazz, thoughtful and composed jazz. This is not down-and-dirty blues, inspirational gospel or Dionysian wildness.

There’s that great off-syncopated rhythm that is Brubeck’s trademark; there’s that intense experimentation with time signatures. We listen with joy to their virtuosity. At one point Brubeck’s fingering of the key-board becomes so minimalist that I turn to my wife and say “He’s gone all Thelonious Monk”. At another point Brubeck is making spare and sparse notes from the keys on the right. I say “Now he’s Bela Bartok!” My wife says “More like Erik Satie”. But then there’s that reassuring repetition and repetition of Wright and Morello, holding it all together, giving it clear structure.

And the audience when the camera scans the auditorium?

The audience are in what looks like evening dress. The women are chic and professionally coiffed. The men are in suits as formal as the musicians on stage. They are at a classical concert.

The music is beautiful. It takes me back to being a kid. It’s a time of optimism.

But the look of it?

All I can call it is nerdy genius.


[And just to make me a liar of me, the photo of the Dave Brubeck Quartet above shows all four men wearing glasses... on a different occasion from the two transcripted concerts.]

Monday, November 8, 2021

Something New

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

“CROSSROADS”  by Jonathan Franzen (Harper-Collins, $NZ35)

I have just finished reading a novel that is 580 large pages long. I am not at all afraid of novels that long. Some such novels are among my best friends. But the sheer length of this novel is symptomatic of a tendency among American writers to make everything big: do not say anything in 200 pages if you can extend it to blockbuster length.

Crossroads is the sixth novel by Jonathan Franzen. I have to admit that, while I had heard much about him, I had never previously read any of his novels. In fact the only work by Franzen that I had read hitherto was his very brief polemical essay What if we stopped pretending? in which he presented the very unpopular argument that catastrophic climate change is inevitable now, so we’ll have to get used to living on a hotter planet. (On this blog, you will find comments on it tucked under a review of Simon Winchester’s Land.) I had to do some quick research (i.e. a squizz at Wikipedia) to discover that all Franzen’s novels are long; that he tends to focus on family situations; that he became famous with a novel called The Corrections, which was apparently a take-down of American capitalism; that he had been on the cover of Time magazine; and that he was often regarded as “controversial”. Also, to the dear man’s credit, that he wrote an influential essay arguing that postmodernist novels were sheer obfuscation and he was deliberately reasserting the value of more traditional narrative forms.

While Crossroads can be read as a stand-alone work, it is apparently intended as the first part of a trilogy which will have the modest title A Key to All Mythologies. Franzen has said that he is going to take most of this decade writing this masterwork. It is important that Crossroads is set in the early 1970s, with the Vietnam War winding down. The following novels will presumably take its protagonists through the next few decades. In effect, Franzen is aiming to write a “state of America” chronicle, showing how mores and values have changed over the last fifty-odd years.


In my usual laborious but necessary way, allow me to set up the novel’s situation.

Russ is the father of the Hildebrandt family. He is a not-very-successful pastor at the First Reformed Protestant church in America’s Midwest. Its theology is vaguely liberal. Russ is subordinate to an older pastor and is chafing at his lower status in the church’s hierarchy. His marriage to Marion is going bung. He lusts after a divorcee in his congregation, Frances Cottrell. In typical pastor-ish fashion, he tries to justify his feelings for her. Half the time he feels guilty and damned, and half the time he rationalises his interaction with Frances by telling himself that he is counselling her and being compassionate and helpful. But his  insecurity about his social status is still affecting him when he listens to Frances: “Russ should have been glad that she was opening up to him, but all he could hear was that she commanded the attention of test pilots and heart surgeons. He was an associate minister with a wife, four kids, and no money. What had he been thinking?” (p.194) In a sense, he is seduced by her apparent affluence. Eventually his lust is so extreme that he merely has to see the type of expensive things she gives her son and “he was flooded with voluptuous presentiment. It swept away his equanimity, exposed its falseness, stopped his breath. He was going to have her.” (pp.400-401)

If this is one major strand of his emotional life, the other is envy and sheer jealousy of Rick Ambrose, a charismatic younger man who runs the church’s youth programme called Crossroads, where teenagers sing, have counselling and therapy sessions, “open themselves” to others etc. Russ feel that the charisma of Rick has side-lined him and pushed him into dealing only with a handful of older parishioners.


The eldest of Russ and Marion’s four children is Clem. He is at university and has clearly lost all religious feeling, partly disillusioned by seeing how badly his father handled the youth group before he was usurped by Rick Ambrose. Clem is the family’s atheist and morally struggling over the draft and the Vietnam war.

The one girl of the family, Becky, seems the model church-going, virginal  good girl, and in the main she really is. But she is aware of her overweening pride as the desirable high-school queen for whom boys long. Intelligent enough to be understand her own shortcomings she “felt guilty enough for caring little about the church and even less about oppressed people.” (p.52) She is looking for some certainty which she cannot really find in either Crossroads or First Reformed, but sometimes in church “she caught a strange flashing glimpse of a desire, buried somewhere inside her, to belong and to believe in something…” (p.83). Liberal theology doesn’t do the trick.

The real problem child of the family is the younger son Perry. Though still at junior high-school, this younger teenager obviously has great intelligence. Perry is clearly his mother’s favourite. She thinks of him as a genius.… but he is also a manipulative sneak and has become a drug-dealer peddling marijuana to high-school kids, getting into other criminal activities and (as the novel progresses) moving into harder drugs and personal destruction.

There is also a youngest son, Judson, who is nine years old and plays little part in the novel. He is merely noted as the youngster, although  doubtless he will play a bigger part in the following fat tomes that Jonathan Franzen intends to write.

To put it all into one sentence, then, Crossroads – all 580 pages of it – is about a pastor’s marriage under stress while his children face various crises and the Earth turns.

The blurb says each member of the family is looking for “freedom”. It would be closer to the mark to say that each is looking for meaning, an existential quest.

 Franzen structures this long work in what amount to discrete slabs of narrative as he moves from one member of the Hildebrandt brood to another. About a quarter of the way through the novel we get the long backstory of Marion’s turbulent younger years, which she has concealed from her husband – her father’s suicide, her mother’s lack of love, her affair with a married man, the abortion she had and the atonement she sought by becoming, for a short time, a Catholic… though this experience has given her a unique perspective when she considers First Reformed and her husband’s theology.

As a sidelight, I can’t help wondering whether Russ is not only weak of will but also incredibly stupid  - he falls so easily for the lusted-after Frances Cottrell’s flirting and dead-obvious come-ons; he seems to know nothing about his wife’s background. Sure, Marion had deliberately concealed it from him, but in their twenty-plus years of marriage, hasn’t he once questioned her or looked into her past or wanted to know about her family? Instead of being a man-of-religion struggling with his conscience, he too often comes across as somebody who chooses not to look closely into things and prefers to have grudges against others rather than examining his own failings.

Other discrete slabs of narrative deal with of each of the family’s members [apart from little Judson]. There is Clem having an intense affair with a girl called Sharon. There is Becky veering off the path of “righteousness” but then reaffirming her essential beliefs. There is Perry sinking further and further into criminality and delinquency, despite his declared intentions to smarten up his act. There is a long re-cap on Russ’s first meeting with Marion and how he remembers her as the woman he once loved. And of course there is a long section on Russ’s strict Mennonite childhood and upbringing, and how he had fallen away from such strictness and into the more watery approach of a liberal church.

There is no doubt that Franzen takes seriously the various theological concepts that the novel often raises. They are not merely a means of characterising the pastor’s family. The very title Crossroads points to them. Not only is Crossroads the name of the novel’s youth programme, but it suggests both crisis points in its characters’ lives as they search for which direction they should go and the traditional Christian concept of bearing a cross through life. Franzen connects the lives of his characters with religious seasons. Note that the first 370 pages of Crossroads are called “Advent”, leading up to Christmas, and the remaining 218 pages are called “Easter”, leading up to [apparent?] redemption.

The novel also explores the way a liberal church can sink into offering little more than  modish psychotherapy. When Rick Ambrose takes over the church’s youth wing, his approach is that “the idea was that God was to be found in relationships, not in liturgy and ritual, and that the way to worship Him and approach Him was to emulate Christ in his relationships with his disciples, by exercising honesty, confrontation, and unconditional love.” (p.32) This approach rapidly turns into teenagers feeling intense about each other, forming pairs, vying for the convenor’s attention and approval and basically adopting an approach that is more secular than religious. Whether it was Franzen’s intention or not, the sum effect is to show us that the more secular a church becomes, the more it sinks into irrelevance.

Related to this phenomenon, clapping, singing and “relating”, religion becomes a mental buzz, a “high” like taking a drug or having sex. There is nothing objective in this religion. Basically it is a form of self-gratification where intense feeling is confused with revelation. The non-believer Clem feels fulfilled and uplifted when he swyves his girlfriend Sharon… and then deserts her. Russ feels that God is working in him when he finally swyves Frances… except that it doesn’t end well.

Even if she is unhappy, confused and seeking quick remedies, Marion, the spurned wife, is capable of much complexity of thought. “She wondered if good Protestant churches like First Reformed, in placing so much emphasis on Jesus’s ethical teachings, and thereby straying so far from the concept of mortal sin, were making a mistake. Guilt at First Reformed wasn’t all that different from guilt at the Ethical Culture Society.” (p.129) Much later, when she is arguing with her husband over his lust for Frances, she says to him “You’ve got your liberal religion… you’ve got your second floor office, you’ve got your ladies on Tuesdays, but you have no idea  what it means to know God. No idea what true belief is like…” (p.365)

A real philosophical question is thrown in the works when precocious drug-dealing Perry has a conversation with a minister and a rabbi on whether goodness can ever not have an element of self-gratification. Do we do good things so that we can feel better about ourselves? Of course it’s an adolescent question, but still a real one in the context of this book. It connects with the emotional highs that its characters seek when they believe they are looking for God. A particularly gross example comes when Frances Cottrell attempts ineptly to be Lady Bountiful in wanting to look after a black kid in a black church to which she and Russ make pastoral visits. The black minister and the kid’s drug-addled mother object to Frances’ approach, seeing it as patronising, while Frances herself is clearly seeking gratifying applause for her apparent concern.

Thus for the novel’s substance and style, but in the end what of its worth?

Jonathan Franzen is an acute observer of many things. He tracks the mores of a particular time and place with precision, making many shrewd comments on 1970s American habits and on religious scruples. But parts of Crossroads are overblown and sometimes melodramatic. Especially in the conjunction of God and sex, characters’ reactions are extreme to the point of unconscious parody. The characters often emerge as both neurotic and hysterical and we plunge into soap-opera territory.

Worse, in the novel’s length there is a loss of real focus. Franzen sets too many hares running as he adds issue after issue. For example, only very late in novel do we come to a totally new topic of Russ’s interactions with the deprived and exploited Navajo people, as if Franzen is now beginning to address matters of social justice. The net is cast too wide - God and sex; the flaws of liberal theology; the Vietnam war; indigenous rights; even pop culture and pop music, developed in a plot concerning Becky’s boyfriend and his musical ambitions.

So I am left torn between seeing this as the titanic book it aspires to be, and seeing it as a windy narrative which bites off more than it can chew. I keep thinking of that awful word “sprawling” that is often found in the cliché-filled blurbs for blockbuster American novels. “A sprawling saga of a family’s struggles” etc. etc. You know the sort of thing.  Crossroads truly sprawls. It misses every possibility to be more tightly composed – to make its points with concision rather than adding detail upon detail – to stick with the point. In a word, it’s too damned long.

Crossroads ends unresolved, despite all that has happened to this family and despite apparent reconciliations. There is a sense that more disruptions lie ahead. But then this could be called being true to history, which has the nasty habit of never ending. And we have to remember that this is the first part of a proposed trilogy.