Everything I knew about New Zealand up until reading -A Man Melting- I knew by way of N. and L. (and The Lord of the Rings). Things I gleaned from these dear friends: flip-flops are jandles and sweaters are jerseys, voting for your favourite bird is Very Important, singing the anthem in Maori for the Zealandish is more important than singing the anthem in French for Canadians, Wellington is windy, the method of electing ministers to parliament is much more civil and rational than in Canada, there are mountains and ocean, exports include sheep and fish, there were some gold rushes, the New Zealand rugby team is a Big Deal, N. wore a uniform to school and might have been the Prefect (I hope he was), cookbooks are better in NZ than here, eggplants are aubergines, walls accrue mould because it is Damp, it is preferable to say “dodgy” and (my favourite) “heaps” than the Canadian “sketchy” and “lots.”
After reading Craig Cliff’s -A Man Melting- I can now report on similarities between Canada and NZ: a certain colonial defensiveness re: America that is manifested in a quiet insistence that Things Are Different Here, an admission that many people are from elsewhere (but dammit we’re still unique) and the all out angst of the 20 something hipster/suburban youth.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed -A Man Melting- and its take on the challenges of figuring out who you are, what you want, what makes you special, what you’re meant to do with your life: these are the questions that preoccupy me (that is, *cough* when I actually stop to think about them) and I expect preoccupy many of my fellows in my cohort. And for the most part Cliff gives fresh, imaginative and inspiring explorations of these questions. Hilarious plot events, unsuspecting character voices, interweaving thematic questions about heredity, aspiration and failure.
I suppose my complaint is one I hold for most (if not all) short story collections and that is that I wish it was a novel. This is entirely my prejudice (and very likely the outcome of a terrible memory that cannot hold disparate plot lines long enough in my head to connect them) and so shouldn’t be read as discouragement for picking up -A Man Melting-. On the contrary the collection offers some zinger sentences of exceptional originality and beauty and some thoughtful character studies. But I was, on the whole, rather disappointed (as I always am) that these characters were so swiftly introduced and then denied me. So hear this, Mr. Cliff, write me a novel, okay? Because you’re one bang up writer with heaps of talent.