Tag Archives: New Zealand

The Rehearsal: Unravelling (form and content) (real from artifice) (my memory)

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The whole point of this blog is to not forget what I’ve read. Listening to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour on the way to Thanksgiving, one of the commentators described his memory of books – impressions, phrases, characters – and that he didn’t ever remember plots because plots didn’t matter to him. I’d like to believe that my own absent recollection of plot is due to a similar disinterest (or perhaps lack of active interest), but I do enjoy a good plot when I’m reading it, so it seems more likely the case the I just don’t have a memory that supports linear recollection (ask my friends and they’ll tell you the frequency with which I have to be reminded that we’ve done X or Y together – thank god (not really) for FB and its timeline to tell me where and what I’ve been doing). Do plots matter? Do our recollections (or lack of) impact our ability to retrospectively appreciate a book? If all I can tell you about *The Corrections* (pre-blog era read) is that I loved it and that there’s a scene with a frozen fish down someone’s pants, I’m not much of a reader, or am I? Maybe it’s my saturation with novels – that at some point I hit critical mass and my memory couldn’t be bothered accommodating another. Let’s go with that.

All this to say I neglected to write this review right away. I waited ten days and in so doing started another novel (and did the usual daily things of work and play) and in the in between have lost the thread of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal. Let’s ascribe some of the blame to the book itself. Seems fair. From what I remember there are two interwoven plots both preoccupied with sex, moral maturation and above all what we act for others and what is true to ourselves. Or more, that it’s impossible to separate “who we really are” from the face we put on for others. That much as we’d like – now and in our formative years – to believe we have an inner self and the self we project to the world around us, we are all entirely artifice and surface. Peel away the layers of acting and acted-upon and you’ll just get to further obfuscation. So the one thread is a young boy, enrolled in an avant garde acting school where the teachers deliberately break down the accepted walls between theatre and life (staging all sorts of instructional interventions wherein the students themselves can’t be sure what is acted and what is real). The other thread has a young girl sorting out her personal and sexual identity amid a sex scandal (her sister has had an affair with the high school teacher) – her story becomes the plot for a play developed by the young boy’s acting class.

Catton achieves this well executed thematic punch (you’re only ever artifice!) through brilliant interplay of content and form. As the two disparate narratives pull together this reader found it increasingly impossible to determine what was “on stage” and acted from what was “real” (that is, the main thread of the plot). In fact, this novel – as I recall – has one of the best demonstrations of the power of the novel’s form to exaggerate or illuminate the novel’s thematic content. I harp on about form and content in historical fiction all the time, but in this instance it was the ability of narrative point of view, short sentences, absent chapter divisions, quirky tense shifts and misplaced modifiers to make this reader uncertain about the nature of the chapter: was this real? was it part of the play? did it matter?

So read this one if you like formal play and a single note theme (I admit to being sufficiently saturated with the all-is-artifice theme by the end). Or if you’re into avant garde theatre. Or if you want to help me remember what it was about – feel free to send me a plot summary. I promise to read it and then promptly forget.

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Filed under Bestseller, Book Club, Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction

A Man Melting: I Really Liked This One, But I Still Don’t Like Short Stories

      

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.

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner, Short Stories