Monday, 23 June 2014

News Pigs by Tim Wilson (VUP) 2014

This is the first book that I haven’t finished for this blog.  I got half way.  I was looking forward to reading Wilson’s second book because I enjoyed his first novel but alas…I just don’t ‘get’ News Pigs.  The novel is about Tom Milde, a down and out poet and print media hack living in New York who has been wooed into TV news by poverty and a lack of options.   The invitation to TV news media sends Tom on a helter-skelter scramble to get to the location of a mass shooting for a live cross to the PLC news channel.

While hoofing it to location, Tom quips about his home-country PLC (which is meant to be NZ but isn’t), the media, America, his non-existent love life, and his journalist heroes and competitors.  The novel (well, the first half anyway) reads like a mix between a British farce and a satire, which sounds like fun - but the novelty of using symbols and bold type lets it down and makes it hard to read.

There are frequent swear words in the novel that are indicated by symbols rather than letters e.g. $#@&bird and Mother £%#$er which I just found annoying – if you want to say fuck and it’s appropriate to the character and situation, then just say fuck.  And then there’s the words in bold, and CAPS and black space and love hearts which all seems a bit juvenile, like when I was in form two and I had one of those pens that had 6 colours and I wrote each sentence for a homework assignment in a different colour.  And then there’s the footnotes which I ended up ignoring.

Perhaps using all these whiz-bang affects could  be a commentary on the short attention span and frantic pace of media, and the juvenile cuss words and fonts perhaps reflect the lack of maturity of Tom and the media he works in, but I just found it exhausting.  John Gardner talks about reading novels as entering a vivid dream, but Wilson’s writing continually shook me out of the narrative dream.  This could have been Wilson’s aim, but I’m not sure why.

The last novel I reviewed (Carnival Sky) dealt with journalism, and I read a review where Marshall was panned for not using the right language in regards to a tweet.  While I felt completely assured that Wilson knows the media he was writing about because he was the TVNZ correspondent in New York, I finished Marshall’s book because of the characterisation and his proficiency with emotional language as the novel went on.  However, with Wilson’s novel the character seems superficial, as perhaps it should be for a farce/satire, but the language and the use of every bell and whistle was distracting all the way through.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Carnival Sky by Owen Marshall (Vintage 2014)

My friend Maggie calls Owen Marshall the Chekhov of Timaru, justifiably so given his incredibly successful career, while I refer to him as the Big OM, and my father calls him “your mate the writer” mainly because he can’t remember anyone’s name (he can usually remember where they live and who they are related to, and what they were up to twenty years ago, but a name - no), but he’s also ‘my mate’ because I did Owen’s fiction writing course at Aoraki Polytechnic in 2001.  Doing the course was for me, a moment of personal transformation, and Owen’s latest novel deals with the same theme.
Sheff is a jaded journalist in Auckland who is trying to deal with the flux of print journalism.  He is also increasingly frustrated that tabloid fodder is valued over the informed investigative journalism that he writes.  Amongst the concerns about his profession, Sheff is also dealing with (and reeling from) personal tragedies, and his father is dying.  Sheff decides to chuck in his job, and after a bit of dithering, goes to his home town Alexandra with his sister, to be with his parents.  It’s while Sheff is in Alexandra that he starts his emotional transformation.
In some respects, the novel reminded me of the film adaptation of  Maurice Gee’s In My Father’s Den, mainly because of the film’s Central Otago location (and also because it’s a son returning to his home town)Central Otago is a place of weather extremes – stinking hot in summer and hoar frosts in winter.  Being so far inland gives it a sense of isolation, containment, and acridness.  Lloyd Jones notes in his writing that he is interested in coastal dwellers because they are continually looking out to the coast, to possibilities and otherness, whereas a Central Otago location, absent of a coast line, suggests that characters are hemmed in by the hills which means they only have themselves to look at, and into.  This is done extremely well in Owen’s novel.  The contained physical landscape parallels with the family’s sense of stasis as they nurse their father/husband, and essentially, wait for him to die.  The containment of the physical landscape and family circumstances allows Sheff to get to know his home town, his family, and re-evaluate his life.
Gee’s novel, and the film of the same name, is about puritanical repression and the fatal consequences of it.  Owen’s novel does deal with puritanical repression, in terms of the male characters inability to be emotionally present and available, but it’s not as intense; it is more hopeful.  At the end of each chapter there are little vignettes where Sheff recollects incidents from his past, and reveals his dreams for the future.  The vignettes are at times humorous, and show Sheff’s depth of feeling.  I really enjoyed the succinct incidents, and how they show the randomness of memory at such an emotionally fraught time. 
While Sheff is undergoing an emotional transformation, the physical is also represented.  Sheff is very clumsy and seems to attract random physical accidents to his person, from nosebleeds to getting smacked with a cricket ball.  The other sense of physicality comes from Sheff’s father, Warwick, who is dying from cancer, whose physical presence is diminishing daily.  The other physical presences in the novel are the stones that Warwick polishes.  Bowls of rose quartz, jasper and obsidian, to name a few, littered the house until Warwick’s wife insisted that he keep a bowl of his favourite stones in his sickroom.  Warwick likes the stones because they start out as something ordinary but can be polished up to gradually reveal the colour, the inner beauty of the stone.  When the light hits the bowl, Warwick says it looks like a carnival sky.  The saying, and title of the novel, seems to combine the beauty of the landscape with the revelation of an inner emotional life.

The only niggles I had were that Sheff seemed a bit older than 44 at the beginning of the novel, but as the story continued he seemed to act his age, and I warmed up to him, and felt for him.  Also, I thought it was a bit odd that he didn’t seem to have a cellphone to use to get help when his car broke down.  These are very minor niggles and were soon forgotten once Sheff revealed himself more.   Carnival Sky is a book that examines middle-age, and the potential for transformation.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and its gentle unravelling of Sheff’s emotional life, his attempts to reconnect with his family, and to make new meaningful connections in middle age.  

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Families by Vincent O’Sullivan (VUP 2014)

Vincent O’Sullivan is one of New Zealand’s most esteemed writers that I haven’t read enough of.  I do vividly remember reading O’Sullivan’s Shuriken for School Cert English.  It’s a play about a prisoner of war camp in Featherston which held 50 Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.  Whenever Featherston is mentioned I think of the play and its portrayal of the culture clash between the New Zealand and Japanese soldiers.  O’Sullivan is also the current Poet Laureate, a novelist and academic.  The Families is a collection of short stories.

As the title of the collection suggests, The Families examines the relationships between husbands and wives, siblings, parents and their children, and couples who have no children, and examinations of long term friendships.  While the majority of family relationships examined in the collection are upper middle-class families, there are a few stories with working class people.  What most of the stories have in common is an emotional restraint, the characters inability to discuss feelings frankly, or to have feelings of intimacy in their relationships.  The past is also a preoccupation for the characters.

Another commonality between the stories is the examination of language, finding the rights words, and how some words don’t sound right, or sound worse, than their literal intent.  Memories from war also litter the collection through the characters interest and/or participation in international conflicts.  There are also, and it may be crass for me to mention it, a lot of men clutching women’s breasts and/or making reference to breasts.  Every mention is in keeping with the stories, and I don’t mean to insinuate that the references are vulgar, just that there were frequent mentions of men clutching breasts, and in some instances the manner of clutching are similar i.e. a man standing behind a woman and reaching over her shoulder.

Wellington is also the scene for the majority of the stories.  One of the aspects I enjoy about reading stories from my place in the world is that I can see the characters travelling along the roads that I travel on too.  While the physical location of the stories was familiar, the preoccupations with aging, death and long term relationships wasn’t really something I could intimately relate to, however “On Another Note”, the title story of the collection, and “Luce”, have characters that are at a similar stage of life that I am.

I’ve been reading a lot of Alice Munro’s short stories at the moment – trying to see how she extends the form – and admiring how her stories feel like novels in their complexity of human interactions.  O’Sullivan’s collection is in a similar vein.  Like Munro, the effects of the war litter O’Sullivan’s stories, as does the importance of place, and both writers have confident and distinctive voices, and use language seamlessly.  The gentle pace of both writers narratives belie the emotional impact of the stories, some of which are longer than 5000 words.

I do wonder whether “The Families” was the best story to represent the collection.  To me, the lasting impression I get, is of older couples coming to terms with their lives and relationships, rather than the parent-child dynamic.  However, on flicking through the collection, I can’t see another story that would encapsulate the collection…perhaps “Holding On” because of the connotations of the title.  I also don’t really like the cover – it’s too stark for the subtlety of emotion displayed within the covers.  However, this is a short story collection I can see myself returning to, and re-reading.