Thursday, August 27, 2015

Talking about crime fiction

Yesterday I went to Freemans Bay in Auckland to record a “Talking Books” podcast for the Book Council. It was about the shortlist for the 2015 Ngaio Marsh award for best NZ crime novel. The panel was Graham Beattie of Beattie’s Book Blog and Stephanie Jones who reviews books for Coast. I was the chair. Also present as an observer: Catriona Ferguson, the Book Council’s energetic CEO. (Spookily, Stephanie and Catriona both attended the editing workshop I gave for the Auckland Writers’ Festival some years ago when Kelly Ana Morey sat in the back row. Read all about it.)   

The engineer for the podcast was Phil Yule who is a legend: it was quietly a thrill to be in a recording studio with him again.

We three talked about the five shortlisted novels: Fallout by Paul Thomas, Five Minutes Alone by Paul Cleave, Swimming In The Dark by Paddy Richardson, The Children’s Pond by Tina Shaw and The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing – or at least Stephanie and Graham did. I edited three of those books so was constrained in what I could say, and also as chair I always feel that one should, as far as possible, shut up and stay out of the way. So I did. The others were great – Graham is an old pro and Stephanie is young, startlingly articulate and had clearly thought about the books a lot. I wish all book reviewers were like her.

Afterwards I went for lunch with the usual suspects: three poets, two novelists and one magazine books/arts editor. Literary gossip and bawdiness ensued. These literary lunches are all I miss about Auckland.

Tomorrow I go to the second meeting this year of the Wintec Press Club, which stars guest speakers Mihingarangi Forbes and Annabelle Lee, both  formerly of Maori TV. Forbes was a presenter at Native Affairs and Lee was producer. Should be a lively session, even by the Wintec Press Club’s elevated standards.

All in all, it has been a very good week, media-wise.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Stephanie Johnson on Peter Jackson

The 82nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the October 1994 issue: Stephanie Johnson’s review of Peter Jackson’s movie Heavenly Creatures.

Michelanne Forster’s play Daughters Of Heaven brought back into the limelight a murder case that thrilled and horrified 1950s Christchurch. In 1954 Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker murdered Honoria Parker, Pauline’s mother, with a brick in a stocking. There are many people including no doubt, Juliet and Pauline, who wish that Forster had let sleeping dogs lie. Now the dogs are well and truly barking with Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures: on tabloid TV we have been treated to scenes of intrepid reporters hanging around Hulme’s English country estate, where she makes a living by writing thrillers.

Peter Jackson is not the only one who wanted the Parker-Hulme story. Two other projects were in the offing when Jackson’s team got the funding to go ahead. Speculation abounded on how Jackson — famous for, among others, the award-winning splatter-and-gore Braindead — would handle this sensitive material. Would there be great gobbets of blood? Would there be wild pubescent lesbian sex? Would John Cranna again consign Jackson and anybody foolish enough to admire his work on a trip to Cultural Albania?

Heavenly Creatures, I am pleased to report, is a stylish, tender and technically magnificent work. Together with co-writer Frances Walsh, Jackson captures the values and idiomatic speech of mid-century New Zealand. Juliet and Pauline are naive, imaginative girls, much younger in many ways than l5-year-olds are now. They are two oddballs, outsiders hungry for fame and adventure, who team up against the world. As their friendship deepens, so does their conviction that they are more intelligent and exciting than everybody around them.

Sarah Peirse as the ill-fated Mum, and Melanie Lynskey as her daughter, are brilliant pieces of casting. Lynskey looks very much like a younger Peirse, though perhaps not as beautiful. Peirse shows us a bewildered and loving parent, a woman who drudges through long days as a boarding-house proprietor, wanting more than what she’s had for her clever daughter. Lynskey’s expressive face scowls and pouts in teenage rebellion at home, but brightens and opens when she’s visiting the Hulmes.

The house the real Hulmes lived in is now the Staff Club at the University of Canterbury. In my student days legend had it that the house was haunted by the ghost of the murder victim. It is large, gracious, and surrounded by beautifully kept grounds. Jackson makes use of its splendour. The house emphasises the enormous difference between the drab lifestyle of Pauline’s family (poor but loving, mackerel is a treat) and that of the Hulmes (tennis parties, a dashing lover for sexy but selfish Mrs Hulme, holidays by the sea).

It is in his rendering of the world within the real world that Jackson achieves a kind of genius. “Boronia” is the setting of the girls’ fantasy life, a medieval walled town, peopled with Princesses, Kings and Knights. As well as writing a novel together about the place, Pauline and Juliet model its inhabitants in clay. Jackson makes these figures life-size, has them sing, dance, mate, slice one another in half. The special effects display his long experience in that area — they are extraordinary. On more than one occasion in the film all we lay-persons can do is wonder, “How did he do that?”

The film ends with the murder, high in the Port Hills on a sparkling Christchurch winter day. The scene is executed with admirable restraint, using what appears to be less than a litre of fake blood.

For a moment, as the credits began to roll, I wished the film had been longer. I would liked to have seen the court scenes and how hoity-toity Juliet coped in a New Zealand prison, but I suppose by then the relationship between the girls had been ripped asunder and their relationship is what Heavenly Creatures is all about. So much these days depends upon the idea of perpetrators of heinous crimes as victims, with endless psycho-drivel: Jackson stops short of any such lapse in taste.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Nigel Cox on Peter Carey

The 81st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the October 1994 issue. The intro read: 
Peter Carey is Australia’s most successful writer since Patrick White – but he hasn’t lived there for five years. “The longer I ’ve been away, the weirder and weirder it looks,” he tells Nigel Cox.
A Sense of Difference
England wouldn’t necessarily be the first topic of conversation you raised with Martin Amis, nor America with Louise Erdrich, but talking to Peter Carey, Australia comes up early and won’t go away. On tour out here to promote his new novel, The Unusual Life Of Tristan Smith, Carey has been living in New York for the last five years. “I’m getting like those Australians in Earl’s Court, who become so defiantly Aussie the moment they hit London,” he says. “Of course, if you live somewhere else, you’re defined by your sense of difference.”
We’re sitting at his hotel window high above Auckland, where the lanky Carey leans back in his chair and pulls at his jaw as if trying to make it even longer. In his youth (he’s 50) you sense he would have been angular, awkward even. The main character in Tristan Smith has a face described as “severely triangular,” like “a gaunt little praying mantis” and it’s possible that Carey wrote this after looking in the mirror. But any awkwardness is now deep-buried behind the smooth exterior of the public face of the great southern land’ s best-selling serious novelist. 
In fact he’s apologised for his three-piece suit and talks as though we should picture him in denim. “The longer I’ve been away, the weirder and weirder my country looks. Take, for instance, what I think is the total denial of the consequences of convictism, which is still there, no matter what anybody says.” His eyes, wobbly behind lenses, float out the window and over the city. “I mean, here we are, with these people, who we say we’re proud of, transported, exiled, full of grief, terror, tortured, party to a genocide, feeling profoundly unloved and second-rate, hating God... and 200 years later, less, in World War I, we emerge on the world stage, eager to die, to prove ourselves, with a persona of being these suntanned, innocent people, happy smiling people.
“What’s going on here? Presumably we’re full of rage, at the people who did it, and yet we’ve taken, nationally, the position of the people who held the whip: none of us have dealt with this yet.”
Listening to him, you get the sense that Carey would usually be one of these happy smiling people. But on the Australian arm of this promotional tour he allowed no press interviews, preferring to give readings.
“Well,” he says, sheltering behind his glass of Evian, “newspaper writers are often very decent people, but they don’t have much time, and what are they going to do? They do the best they can, and then when I read the pieces... Well, I can’t blame them, so I feel sort of cheap and nasty.”
Which is a polite way of saying that some harsh things were written about him when he went to live in America. He left Australia under a cloud. His previous novel, The Tax Inspector, got nutty reviews. “There was malice,” he says, nodding grimly. “I was really mad when I left, and said some terrible things to some of my friends.”
After the publication of Illywhacker Carey seemed to be thrust forward as a kind of suitable spokesman for Australian culture. Suitable in that he wasn’t an academic (he didn’t finish his degree) or an intellectual (he ran McSpedden-Carey, an advertising agency), and yet he seemed to have big things to say about what it was to have been born in the Lucky Country.
Oscar and Lucinda, which won the Booker, confirmed this status, but then The Tax Inspector, a novel describing incest and dysfunction in an Australian family and tax evasion among the highly cultured, seemed to bite at the hands that had lifted him. Perhaps, seen as ungrateful, he was made a whipping boy. He greets this scenario with amused caution. “Yeah, that’s true,” he says, and says no more.
If he left under a cloud he has returned in glory. In Australia, Tristan Smith has received “the best reviews I’ve ever had”: the Sydney Morning Herald called it “his richest and most satisfying work so far”, and the Melbourne Age talked about “its magnificent delineation of character and event”.
But Carey is too modest to dwell on this latest triumph and has shifted back to what is obviously the stream that runs constantly in his head. “People who wanted to excuse my absence from Australia said, ‘I suppose it’ll help you see your country more clearly.’ And finally I think it’s doing that.
“Recently I sat there in upstate New York and some American friends who’d been to Australia said, ‘Waltzing Matilda, what’s that about?’ So I started to go through the words. ‘Once a jolly swagman’ – the whole notion of swagmen, to an American was really weird. ‘Slept by a billabong, Under the shade of a coolibah tree.’ Well... And the whole thing about the role of the trooper – why did he jump in the water? And the relationship between the troopers and the ghost, and the stealing... and that’s our song!”
Now a kind of goggle-eyed dancing takes place behind the round lenses of his glasses, as though in his head he’s trying to solve the master equation of Australia. But if it’s big ideas which fill the stratosphere of his novels, he always begins closer to home. Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, which was one of the take-off points for Illywhacker. He has described its “ennui” in a recent essay: “I remember tearing up the juicy leaves of the mirror bush, throwing stones at cats, falling from the fig tree, hanging from my britches, black ants crawling across a blackboard, World War II bombers and transports, one inch long, flying high up in the cloudless sky.” A long way from Greenwich Village.
His parents ran a car sales yard, a setting he used in The Tax Inspector. After a stint at Geelong Grammar (not while Prince Charles was there) he travelled a haphazard path which led him on to advertising, and a commune, both settings which recur in Bliss. But Carey doesn’t write about himself. Rather, he’s used these personal places as points for his astonishing imagination to depart from.
He had intended to be a scientist. On Morning Report he told Kim Hill, “I used to love looking at the periodic table. When I was 15 I bought books on organic chemistry that I couldn’t possibly understand. I used to just look at them, the sheer magic of them, and imagine a life discovering and inventing things – and of course now, in literature, I do have that life.”
He’d never been a reader, and then “after I’d failed science, I discovered all at once the world of literature. It all came flooding in in about two years – Faulkner, Joyce, Kafka, Beckett. It’s as though reading can never be quite as wonderful as it was back then.”
A name he doesn’t mention is the writer he’s most frequently compared to, Charles Dickens. Carey smiles as though in recognition of a friend. “Back when those comparisons were being made – round Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda – I’d really not read Dickens. But just at the moment I’m reading quite a deal of him, because I’m occupied with my next novel, which is a reimaging of Magwitch’s story. Magwitch, if you remember, is the convict from Great Expectations really the first Australian to go back to London and discover he wasn’t wanted.”
Asked who among contemporary writers he enjoys reading, the first name Peter Carey comes up with is Cormac McCarthy. “I went into just the first few pages thinking, ah, shit, Faulkner. But I thought All The Pretty Horses was just a stunning book. Language wrung, really working. And the stuff that the guy knows, I just feel weak in the knees. His feel for landscape, the relationship of those two boys, it was a great love story, and so cruel, ah, it’s really something.”
Carey has also been rereading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens, and says that in his novel “I’m writing as though there was somebody that Dickens knew, a man called John Mags, and it imagines Dickens meeting this character and the interaction between them.”
Dickens, of course, was a great reader from his work. So how does Carey see the readings he’s doing – is it delivering the book to its audience, or just more promo? He laughs. “Reading was something that I learned to do,” he says. “I was very bad at it. My wife directs theatre, so we worked on how to do it. And there were some very comic scenes there, you know: ‘Would you speak to your actors like that? Don’t tell me that now!’ I was 40 and I’d never read. I did it the first time because I was offered a ticket to go to the Harbourfront Festival in Toronto. I was a bit frightened.”
He stops and considers. “I’ve always believed that literature exists in silence, between the reader and the page. A reading is something else.”
As the interview ends he says that he’s going on now to London, for more readings and interviews, and then “it’s home to Dickens”. And to Australia, perhaps – that Australia he finds more comfortable to live in in his head; that he never leaves. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

In praise of: Lisa Reihana

Lisa Reihana: In Pursuit Of Venus
Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tamaki, $75.00, 120pp
ISBN 9780864633019

It is unusual to find a book devoted to just one work of art. But Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] is no ordinary work of art. Technically it is a “multi-channel HD digital video” lasting 32 minutes. It scrolls slowly from right to left in a continuous loop so there is no start or finish. The moving image is 26 metres wide and four metres high. It shows scenes of first contact between Polynesians and Europeans, Captain Cook’s observation of the Transit of Venus in Tahiti in June 1769, from a Polynesian point of view. For a much better description of it than I could do, see John Hurrell’s review at EyeContact.

A reinterpretation of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, an 1805 panoramic “wallpaper” by Joseph Dufour which was a technological marvel in its day, Reihana’s video was a six-year project. Contributors include “performing arts students, film workers in costume and production, musicians, animators, technicians, and actors and dancers from Pasifika and Maori communities.” It is amazing, and the single best argument for state funding of the arts I have seen.

So, to the book of the movie. It is amazing too. A 29cm by 23 cm hardback in full colour throughout, it is generously illustrated with stills from earlier Reihana works, production shots, the Dufour wallpaper, and even the entire 32-minute video as a long, long frame. There are 20 pages of stills, 12 full-page portraits of major characters, and a two-page list of cast and crew, more than 90 of them. It has been an intensely collaborative project, as the essays explain in absorbing detail.

The book is a beautiful and technically outstanding production, with Philip Kelly’s design serving the project, rather than the other way around. There are many lovely details: the text is set in Vulpine, a typeface “based on the work of Pierre-Simon Fournier, an 18th-century punchcutter and typefounder”; the titles and borders were drawn by Kelly based on Fournier’s work so it is, in a way, another collaboration across the centuries.

The product of “the latest materials and techniques”, Vivienne Webb’s essay tells us, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique was printed on 20 “drops”, sheets of handmade paper glued together to form strips 2.5 metres high. When they were all joined together, the overall length was nearly 11 metres. “The manufacturing process was labour-intensive, involving hand painting, stencilling and woodblock printing, and by 1804, with the wallpaper in production, Dufour et Cie employed more than 90 people.” Hundreds of copies were sold in Europe and North America between 1805 and 1820.

What it depicted was a very Eurocentric and misleading view of Polynesia, and this is what Reihana’s work responds to. Gallery director Rhana Devenport writes: “The scope of Reihana’s imagination is testing technical and conceptual thresholds through this project as it explores how the ‘new’ technology of two centuries ago gave form to renderings of the Pacific from the subjective mind’s-eye of European colonialism.”

In the interview Reihana elaborates: “Both the wallpaper and the video are set in an idyllic Tahitian landscape, yet while Dufour’s work models Enlightenment beliefs of harmony among mankind, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] includes encounters between Europeans and Polynesians which acknowledge the complexities of cultural identities and inter-cultural contact in the age of Empire. I challenge stereotypes that developed in those times and since, and the gaze of imperialism is turned back on itself with a speculative twist that disrupts notions of beauty, authenticity and history and uncovers myth-making.”

The essays that follow provide context for Reihana’s work in general and in Pursuit of Venus [infected] in particular. There is a pleasing minimum of artspeak – words like “trope” and “discourse” have been kept to a minimum. Here are some quotes.

Sean Cubitt: “The careful consultation with the performers populating the scene and the equally careful curation that places them in the finished work is founded in their relationship with the dead in which the ancestral is never abandoned to anonymity and exclusion. This generosity of spirit extends even to the imperial explorers, even to their acts of cruelty towards each other and to the island women. If shame is all that an ancient tale can bring to the present, then shame is to be understood – and undertaken – as a gift from those who acquired it to those who inherit: the gift of knowing what is wrong.”

Deirdre Brown observes that this is “an unusual work for a Maori artist in that it deals directly with non-Maori Pacific cultures” and explains why a “Pacific identity can be a tricky one for a Maori artist to maintain”. As in everything she writes, Brown is illuminating and clear.

On digital: “As the 20th century drew to a close, art historians noticed that the work of emerging Maori artists, including Reihana, was beginning to be informed by, if not made in, digital culture. There was a discernible divide between artists who addressed the digital world through the content of their work and those who used digital tools as a means to express other concerns. This divide was seemingly a result of whether or not they had been exposed to digital media at a formative age at school – whether they were digital natives or immigrants.”

And on Reihana’s collaborators: “As knowledge holders, their indigenous perspectives on the cross-cultural encounter were encouraged by Reihana, and integrated into the installation through their performances. Such a process shifts their contribution from participant to include being an authority within the project.”

Caroline Vercoe’s essay  on the art practices and work of four other artists dealing with “founding colonial narratives” – Michel Tuffery, Greg Semu, Yuki Kihara and Rosanna Raymond – sets Reihana in a context I was aware of but didn’t know much about. I am now a little bit better educated..

Sean Mallon says frankly that “the images are likely to remain beyond the comprehension of most viewers. […] This is a reclamation that presents images so real that they appear to breathe, yet their secrets remain undisclosed, beyond reach.” I am sure this is true for most viewers but readers will be able to join the dots.

A pleasing detail for writers: the title’s acronym POV is a pun on “point of view”, which the work is concerned with in several ways. One does not often encounter wit in contemporary art.

There is much more information on the work itself at its website. The AAG has a useful page of links, including a good NZ Herald interview with Reihana.

Superbly designed and produced, this is the most enlightening and absorbing book on New Zealand art I have read in years. It is a brilliant piece of publishing. Now that we have the NZ Book Awards restored, this has to be a major contender next year. And seriously, if you can, do go and see the installation at Auckland Art Gallery. I went up to Auckland last month just to see it, and am going again before it closes on 30 August. Don’t miss it.