We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“MARY’S BOY, JEAN-JACQUES and other stories” by Vincent O’Sullivan ( Te Herenga Waka University Press – formerly known as Victoria University Press, $NZ35); “DEVIL’S TRUMPET” by Tracey Slaughter (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ 30); “CITY OF VENGEANCE” by D.V.Bishop (Macmillan Publishers, $NZ37:99)
I’m in the mood for apologising – not for anything I’ve done but for something I wasn’t able to do. As part of a panel judging works of New Zealand non-fiction for the Ockham Book Awards, I had to read my way through 56 books. The time this took meant I suspended this blog for a longer-than-average summer break. In the process, I was unable to review a number of books that were certainly worthy of notice and comment. So I apologise to all those poets, novelists and short-story writers whose works I have appeared to overlook. And I hope I can make further amends in my next posting as well.
This posting I apologise for taking so long to review Vincent O’Sullivan’s Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques and other stories, which comprises six short stories and the novella (100 pages long) “Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques”. If you have read on this blog reviews of O’Sullivan’s short-story collection The Families, the capacious Selected Stories and the novel All This by Chance, you will be aware that O’Sullivan is nothing if not versatile in the types of prose he chooses to write. Psychological studies of character, earnest or tragic domestic scenes, jocular tales that still manage to make social or satirical comment and more recently bizarre stories, occasionally touching on the fantastic. Usually, but not always, the stories are set in New Zealand.
Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques and other stories again shows his versatility.
Three stories suggest the complexities, and perhaps trauma, of family life. “Good Form” (the title is ironical) has a rural setting. A brother and sister, now adults, deal with traumatic events in their childhood which shaped (or warped) them. O’Sullivan does not reduce them to being a “case”, however. In a mere 16 pages he gives enough indicators to depict a family in the round – something that others might take a whole novels to achieve. Though written in the third-person, “Splinters” is very much the thoughts of a grandmother, who regularly plays draughts with her adolescent grandson. Again, in a short story, O’Sullivan is able to indicate the outlines of a whole family with all its contradictions. And though there is no neat “message” to this story, you can feel a subtext telling you that younger people too often assume that very old people are innocents who haven’t led full lives and don’t know what the world is made of. More cryptic, and requiring very close reading, is “The Far Field”, told in the first-person and sometimes verging on stream-of-consciousness. A mother looks back at both her life and the lives of all her offspring, again indicating whole family lives.
Almost, but not quite, a matter of family is “The Walkers”, a painfully moving story of a father doing his best to protect his mentally-impaired son – more a tale of the rejected than of family.
Then there is the satirical and wryly comic story “The Young Girl’s Story”. What a provocative tale this is! A mother, literary critic and biographer, drags her unwilling daughter along to a literary conference. In ways that only a cad of a reviewer would reveal, the adolescent daughter is able to score a big one against her arriviste mother. Not for the first time in O’Sullivan’s oeuvre, people who regard themselves as being cultured and enlightened can spend much of their time undermining others and bitching furiously. I doubt not that in the depiction of the pecking order and the one-up-man-ship of literary conferences, the author must be drawing on personal experiences of such conferences. Interesting note – the mother is apparently an expert on a writer called Manson, who died about a century ago. The daughter says that rather than mingling with the literati, she’d prefer to stay in her room reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I can’t for the life of me think who that person called Manson was supposed to be…
The really bizarre story is “Ko Tenei, Ko Tena” which was first published in VUP’s collection of long-short stories Middle Distance. When I first read it in that collection, I saw it as an artful pastiche of Gothic Victorian tales with deliberate nineteenth-century locutions, and it is that. But on a second reading I notice a stronger implied critique of colonialism and of people who assume their thinking is “advanced” but who live off privilege and exploit others. Buster of an ending, too.
And so to this collection’s piece de resistance, the novella “Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques”. We are again plunged into the nineteenth century, but in the 1820s, earlier than the Victorian era. Captain Francis Sharpe wants to make his name as an explorer by sailing from the Arctic to the Antarctic seas. His Lieutenant, or second-in-command, Richard Jackson, wants to make his name by being the first to verify the existence of a huge flightless bird somewhere in the South Seas. Captain Sharpe is a Catholic, member of a minority in England. A picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary hangs in his ship. Lieutenant Jackson is a freethinker and a radical. While sailing through the ice-floe-laden northern seas, captain and lieutenant see a monstrous human figure trudging through the ice. They save him and bring him aboard. We are in no doubt from the beginning that he is Frankenstein’s creature, who was last seen in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein disappearing in the frozen north. It turns out that Frankenstein isn’t fiction, but a report of real events.
So begins the struggle, the real core of this novella, between different ways of defining what humanity is and what our place in the universe is. The captain trusts to Providence, Creation and Certainty. The sceptical lieutenant trusts to Enlightenment, Experimentation and Uncertainty. Frankenstein’s creature listens to, and learns from, the polite arguments they both express. O’Sullivan does not weight the scales one way or the other. Both men have their say. The lieutenant decides to call this monstrous figure Jean-Jacques, after his Enlightenment hero Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But, as a creature who has never had a mother, the man-made Jean-Jacques often looks with interest at the image of the Virgin Mary. We are aware that the Virgin Mary gave life to a unique sort of man, but Mary Shelley also gave life to a unique sort of man. The title “Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques” could refer to either.
Fear not. My synopsis covers only the first third of this novella. It is divided neatly into three chapters of equal length. Things do not happen as either captain or lieutenant expect. Only in the second chapter do we begin to understand Jean-Jacques’ thoughts and only in the third chapter does O’Sullivan throw a big curve-ball by landing us in wildest Fiordland and giving us a sort of alternative version of Adam and Eve, two wild creatures making their own rules. The captain’s and the lieutenant’s two radically different ways of thinking may both be inadequate to explaining what human beings essentially are.
In his most recent collection of poetry Things Okay With You?, O’Sullivan raises real questions about perception and epistemology. The same questions are implied in this novella – on top of which “Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques” could also be read as a good yarn, certainly a bizarre one.
This is an engaging collection to say the least.
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Tracey Slaughter’s short-story collection Devil’s Trumpet was published in April of last year (2021), so you can see I am well behind the pack in making any comments upon it. But I did want to read it, because I had read and reviewed in the NZ Listener (on 28 May 2016, to be precise) her earlier story collection deleted scenes for lovers, and I wanted to see how she had developed as a writer over five years. So I got in touch with her publishers who very kindly sent me a copy of Devil’s Trumpet. For the record, when I reviewed deleted scenes for lovers, I said its stories were “self-assured, forceful and filled with close observation”. But I also said, in both the intro and outro to my review, that reading the specific details of down-and-dirty sex was often like getting a punch in the face. Nothing held back, nothing sanitised.
The same is true of the stories in Devil’s Trumpet, only more so. Tracey Slaughter is even more specific about violent and generally unloving sexual intercourse in various – usually very depressing – settings. I won’t comb through the titles of the stories, but I will give you some typical contents. A bride is puked on by her drunken groom as they set out on their honeymoon. There is much middle-class adultery in motels and hotels, but ever more in grotty settings. A frustrated father oversees a teenage party and notes kids’ sexual, and drug-taking, behaviour while doing some perving of his own. A narrator recalls a childhood memory of her family taking a beach holiday with another family, which implies sexual tension and wife-swapping leading to a breakup. There is more than one story of a wife who is with her husband but thinking constantly of, and having erotic fantasies about, an affair she had. Young teenage girls treat a younger girl cattily but it’s possible that one of them has been sexually abused. And there are teenage memories of being felt-up or raped or willingly shagging in cars and other venues. Small-town New Zealand is much on display. I am putting all this very politely.
There are a minority of stories that are not primarily about sex. “25-13” centres on a rugby-following mum who tells the story of typical rugby club manners (including teen shagging) centring on massive on-field injury done to her son, which has left him severely disabled and hospitalised. Draw a moral if you like, but Tracey Slaughter deliberately avoids articulating a simple moral and leaves her story open-ended, even if the crude habits of rugby culture are being exposed. A couple of Slaughter’s short-short stories (I prefer to call then vignettes), “Compact” and “the deal,” concern older people. “if found please return to” is about the memories, and lack of memories, of an old woman in hospital. The longest story in the collection, at 50 pages almost a novella, “if there is no shelter”, is set in post-earthquake Christchurch. A woman’s husband has been severely injured in the ‘quake. The woman feels guilt about this as she was on the point of leaving him and seeking another lover. Trauma of a whole city pairs with her own emotional trauma, but in this case a discursive survey of the city’s devastation dominates.
The power of Slaughter’s prose depends on the specificity of her descriptions. Consider this paragraph, the opening words of one of her more sordid stories, “warpaint” : “It’s your standard pub accommodation – walls pockmarked a candy-mint. Chunk bashed out the blue Formica bedside table, forked on four metal legs. A sagging old sash window that won’t lever up, a clapped-out single under it. Bunk-beds door-side, low slung aluminium hammocks I test out both but they whine like a bitch. Teen bedspreads read Angel Bait! Don’t Cross: Queen of Hearts! Two towels, green-grey, gone stiff with sun, a stub of plastic-wrapped fern-print soap propped on them. The blonded goddess on the bedspread pattern has thick green satisfied eyelashes and a smirk that looks cuntstruck at herself…” From all this, we are primed for the first-person account of a woman, a band singer working in pubs, who stays with a man even though he routinely sleeps with other, younger and more gullible, partners. The environment embodies the hopeless characters.
Tracey Slaughter has some stylistic tricks. She likes making lists. There are numbered paragraphs [“stations of the end”]; lists of schoolkid sex-laden rumours [“Devil’s Trumpet”]; and “list of addictions in no special order” [which involves lots of greasy sex and drugs]. There are curt statements made in a single page, those vignettes I mentioned, such as “fisheye” , “three rides with my sister” “why she married your father” “jolt back” and “ministry”. There are as many first-person as third-person narrative voices, with the occasional bursts of second-person narration, as in “eleven love stories you paint blue”.
The story “point of view” is told self-referentially, in the first person, as if it were consciously being created by a tutor in creative writing; but in this case, the superstructure of narrator “making it up” is redundant to what basically becomes confessional. Is there any order to the way this collection of stories is presented? Maybe. The last two stories, the vignette “the best reasons” and the longer story “postcards are a thing of the past”, both deal with an affair that has come to an end – in the vignette the polite kiss-off, in the longer story the wife taking a depressing journey with her husband and constantly thinking of the man she’s no longer with. This could be seen as a conscious farewell to illicit sex.
I said at the beginning of this inadequate notice that I was behind the pack in considering this collection. I appreciated Rachel O’Connor’s astute review in the ANZL posting when Devil’s Trumpet first appeared. She called this collection “a fearless, shameless exposition of want” and noted, correctly, how many of the stories are about the destruction – not joy – brought about by obsessive lust in most cases and additional booze and drugs in some cases. However, I disagree with one of her sign-off lines where she wrote “when it was all over, I found I was unprepared to leave; I wanted more.”
Not me. I’d had enough.
I’m not so stupid as to confuse the narrator of any story with the author, or the author with the narrator, but with all the come splattered over pillows, finger-fucking, serial fucking, oiled thighs, mouldy motel and old hotel grot, teen grubbiness and woeful destructive lust, the author seems stuck in a rut. Of course these things are realities and Tracey Slaughter has chronicled them now in two collections. But if they are reality, they are not the whole of reality, even in small-town or suburban NZ. Time to move on.
I hope Slaughter will widen her perspectives in her next collection.
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School-teaching has its consolations – especially when you’re no longer a schoolteacher. Some months ago, I received a message from one David Bishop who had discovered my blog and who asked whether I was the Nicholas Reid who taught him History at XYZ high-school in Auckland in the early 1980s. I admitted my guilt. I had tortured him and his classmates with lessons on the English Civil Wars and the French Revolution. He said he should have listened more carefully and had spent too much time looking out the window. But his interest in History has blossomed. He offered me for review a copy of his historical novel City of Vengeance. I strove to understand that the polite schoolboy I knew forty years ago was now, obviously, middle-aged. More importantly, though, I was delighted that somebody I’d once taught had actually been able to put a knowledge of History to good use.
No beating about the bush here. City of Vengeance is a thriller and a detective story, set in Florence in 1536. This is the Florence of the Renaissance, but we are not concerned with wonderful paintings, frescoes and sculptures from various artistic geniuses, nor yet with philosophers and religious controversialists. This is the Renaissance Florence of pure power, intrigue and criminality. You may measure what you’re in for when the opening chapter has the main character ambushed by bandits and a nasty stiletto-slashing, blood-spraying affray ensues.
There’s plenty more where that came from.
Cesare Aldo, formerly a mercenary soldier, is now an astute officer of Florence’s highest criminal court – or what we would now call a police detective. Samuele Levi, a Jewish moneylender, has been murdered, and his ledger book has been stolen. Obviously someone wants to hide dodgy financial dealings that the ledger might reveal. This is the murder that Cesare Aldo is ordered to solve, and in double-quick time. But there’s another murder in Florence that week. Luca Corsini, a handsome young transvestite who sells himself to men, has been brutally beaten to death. He, too, left a book behind – a book that makes clear who some of his clients were, powerful and influential men among them. Cesare Aldo is not assigned to this case, but he has an interest in it. He doesn’t seek the services of male prostitutes, but, secretly, he is homosexual by inclination in an age and culture where sodomy is a criminal offence earning either imprisonment or execution.
I have, of course, given you the general set-up, taking you only a short way into the novel. My “don’t-be-a-swine” rule kicks in as I avoid explaining the many twists and turns the author devises as he ingeniously follows these two cases and introduces a large cast of characters - pimps, madams, blackmailers, hired thugs, judges and cardinals among them. I can tell you that the story involves the most powerful people in the city, the Medici, and a plot to overthrow the reigning Duke, because this is what the blurb tells you.
David Bishop (who signs himself D.V.Bishop) has researched the era and city well, taking us with confidence through bordellos, slimy prisons, law courts and ducal palaces, as well as across the Ponte Vecchio, which apparently is smothered in blood every day as the city’s butchers sluice our their stalls. The images are powerful, the setting credible.
Of course there is much violence, many muggings, stabbings and sometimes killings. Cesare Aldo is not exactly a superman, but he survives more attacks, beatings and attempts on his life than the average human being could survive. The cover tells me it is “introducing” Cesare Aldo, and obviously a series will follow. Indeed David Bishop informs me that the next Cesare Aldo book, called The Darkest Sin, will be published early this year. Others will follow.
City of Vengeance is a very effective page-turner, seasoned with knowledge of historical time and place.