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in his introduction that he planned this anthology to represent “emerging and established writers” and he commissioned unpublished stories “as much as possible to include a diversity of voices and styles”.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.


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            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.


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