The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Six New Zealand Novels
Six New Zealand Novels
John Mulgan: Man Alone
A. Structure. This book is framed between introduction and epilogue, in which "I" describe how "I" met Johnson casually in Brittany "a year or two ago" (1937, it seems); he had "just come out of Spain" on leave, and was going back. In the epilogue—by this time about 1939 when the novel was published?—, "I" pick up news of his later doings. He is still alive, for "there are some men you can't kill".
Who is "I"? Obviously, not Mulgan. Or do you take it to be Mulgan pretending to tell a true story? Why is this device adopted? How is it related to the manner of the telling of Johnson's story? Who anyway tells the story? Does "I" ever appear in the story proper? Think out what Mulgan's reasons can have been for making the novel a narrative told casually to someone by Johnson (in the third person), and provided with an outsider's comment, however brief, on Johnson himself.
Within this frame, the book has two parts. What is the content of each? Why are they separated? Within part one, does the progression of chapters correspond to movements within the narrative? Is there a plot of any kind?
Note the exposition; Johnson is to go to New Zealand—how does Mulgan get him there, explain to readers what it is like, introduce the people, the geography, the climate, the customs, the scenery, the economy? How do we know the date? How is the passing of time shown? Notice, for instance, chapter three, when Johnson travels down to the farm in the Waikato. Mulgan shows us what Johnson saw (the key words are "saw", "watched", etc.). Note this device persistently in chapter six. Are we ever told what Johnson "thought" or "felt"? To what use are the many conversations put, both with named figures of some importance such as Scotty, Robertson, Crawley, Stenning, and with once-met rouseabouts, drunks, barmen, drivers, etc.?
By chapter five we have got to 1930 and "the temper of the country page 135 was changing" Johnson says. Are the first four chapters giving a picture of the "good times" weighty enough to balance what follows?
In chapter nine Robertson writes to Johnson a long explanatory letter; is this device successful? Why did Mulgan resort to it? Does the style of it pass muster as Robertson's? Notice that Robertson comments on the significance of the riots—would Johnson have done so? Why, at this point in the story (midway), does Mulgan emphasise this material?
' In chapters eleven and twelve, the months and the seasons are particularly noted, quickening to days—Wednesday, Friday, Saturday —in chapter thirteen. Why? The pace alters again in chapters fourteen and fifteen—why?
Part two, chapter eighteen, begins, "When the European fighting started again ..." What is the implication in that word, again?
B. Style. There are several styles in this novel, varied according to Mulgan's intentions. Study a typical conversation, such as that between Stenning and Johnson at the opening of chapter ten; what is it doing for the action, characterisation, or themes? And does it seem a natural New Zealand conversation?
Study the sentence structure of the description of a coastal inlet in chapter four ("A week later he got a job . . . "). Why is it of this particular sort? Compare that passage with one from chapter six, for instance, "Johnson went with them to the sound of glass breaking ..." —what are the differences? Why has Mulgan changed the style? Is it necessary, or effective? Compare that again with passages in chapter fourteen, for instance "As he went on in the early morning . . . ". What is different here, and why? (Has Mulgan still maintained Johnson's point of view?)
Is it correct to speak, as reviewers did, of the "tough, laconic understatement" of this novel?
C. Themes. Track down in as many places as you can any references to: war; settling down; personal ownership (in land, ships, women); freedom to move about unchallenged; easy times and work; sharing or being part of a community or joining in communal activity ("standing together"); men alone; attitudes to "they", and scapegoats in general.
What in your view is the theme of this novel? (See note at the end of this section.) Does the plot, such as it is, offer opportunities for the theme to arise naturally? Consider particularly the relevance to the theme of these persons and episodes: Thompson's obsession with the war; Petersen; Mabel; Scotty's part in the riot; the riot itself; the old drunk in the railway truck; the complications between Stenning, Rua and Johnson; the bush journey. What is the significance of Old Bill Crawley, who has been "alone" since the Great War . . . ("They've all page 136 been Great Wars, son . . . ") and who remembers the bad times of the 1880s?
In chapter eighteen, after experiencing English life again, Johnson is shown as being unusually articulate about his ideas. Is this probable at this point? What does its placing here do for the book?
In chapter nineteen, living in London which is "as lonely and im personal as living in the bush", Johnson feels that he "belongs to the whole world and to no one place"; when he meets O'Reilly (why an Irishman?) this need to belong crystallises into a decision to go to the Spanish War, "doing something together" because "a man spends too much time alone", and anyway, peace is more dangerous than war. Why—what does war offer? And how is peace "dangerous"?
Throughout, Johnson meets passing goodwill, but which persons show real charity to him? Almost all are impressed by his potentiality, urge him to settle, to farm, to marry, to get a steady job, but he does none of these things. Does the novel make us understand why this should be?
Finally, it is obvious that Mulgan has a serious theme; why did he choose our New Zealand setting for its location and its persons? Think over the places to which Johnson went, the people he met, the work he did, the experiences he had, above all the emphasised nightmare journey in the bush; what opportunities did this New Zealand material offer to Mulgan? And has he made the most of them?
Would this novel qualify for Robin Hyde's praise, as being not "aggressively insular" but about human experience?
Note: Writing in Comment 24, August, 1965, Paul Day reveals that Mulgan's first draft of the novel was Part I only, and entitled "Talking of War". He had in mind the battle between men and the land in this country. His publishers suggested the addition of Part II. Day's article provides material for a fresh interpretation of Man Alone, and should be consulted when the matters raised here are discussed.
Guthrie Wilson: Brave Company
A. Structure. There are fifteen chapters; what episode does each cover, at what time, how is each organised (direct chronological order, flashbacks, or what) ? Is there a plot?
The teller is "I", Peter Considine. Consider carefully how Wilson manages this device; note the exposition . . . how, and how soon, do we find out who "I" is, to whom he writes, when he writes, who the others in the story are, what the background is? Some of these facts are given in conversation, some by "I", etc. Does Wilson ever speak in his own author's voice? "I" is an observer; is he ever a "character" as well?
The most common tense, though not the only one, is the present; page 137 study how it is used, for what reasons, and when it is not used, and why.
There are a number of passages of philosophising about the experiences of war, about life, death, home, fate, and particular elements in the psychology of soldiers. Note how these are presented—as "my" comments, as soldiers' talk, or how? Do they appear quite naturally? Do you think Wilson's way of dealing with this material is effective?
"I" must be left surviving to tell the tale, obviously; how is his separation from the "Brave Company" managed? Is it prepared for? Was Wilson right to have Considine at HQ during the crisis, instead of making him stagger back with an eye-witness tale to tell, as did Harris?
Brave Company is about a small group of men in a short period of time in Italy; how then does Wilson contrive to bring in other areas of war, other campaigns? Do you feel that he makes his novel representative of war as a whole?
B. Style. The prose style in this novel varies from colloquial to elaborate. Study the occasions on which Wilson uses the different manners, and consider how effective they are.
Reviewers complained of a tendency to "novelese" in the book; do you agree with them? Note the continual use of short jerky phrases, designed to suggest intense emotion, or excitement. Do they achieve this effect?
C. Themes. Almost every chapter has some general comments about attitudes to life and death, about the comradeship and "happy days" of war, about courage, about "base bludgers" and civilians, about women, about the attitudes of privates and of officers, about human behaviour under stress, and so on. Consider how these comments are handled. Does each arise naturally? Does it convince you as true, either absolutely or at the moment? What is the total effect of such passages? Are they worked fully into the fabric?
Has Wilson been honest about his war, or has he tried to "write it up"? Is the attitude to comradeship sentimental? Considine says, "Two things and two only are vital. Love and war. And the greater is war" (chapter nine). Is this a final judgment, or merely a dramatic part of the situation and the teller's experience?
What is the theme of this novel? (Consider well all the implications of the title.)
Janet Frame: Owls Do Cry
A. Structure. This novel has two parts and an epilogue. Within the two major sections the narrative moves in short chapters, each focusing on a particular episode. In part one the four children and the father and mother are presented as a family group. In part two, page 138 the three surviving children are allotted a group of chapters each, in the order Toby, Chicks, and Daphne, each covering the same range of twenty years, and recalling throughout the experiences of part one, but deepening and widening their implications. Part one is called "Talking of Treasure", part two, "Twenty Years After". The epilogue presents the whole from a quite detached point of view, later than that represented by the end of the "Twenty Years After" from which Toby, Chicks and Daphne write.
In addition to this firm formal outline, the novel is bound together by the intricate pattern of recurring imagery.
B. Narrative Techniques. In Owls Do Cry a number of narrative techniques are employed, according to the content. First there is the material in plain type, which is of several different kinds; second, there is the material in italics, also of different kinds. This variation results in a constantly changing angle of vision from author's mind to character's mind, and from the inner and unspoken to the outer and spoken.
(1) The material in plain type is the bulk of the novel. Most of it comes to us filtered through the awareness of one of the characters, or of several of them by turns as the kaleidoscope is revolved. Janet Frame, however, does not abandon her authorial control of narrative, description and comment. To see the procedure clearly, you need to analyse a passage closely, asking yourself at every point, "Whose is the mind which presents this to me?"
For this purpose, take chapter eleven; here are some suggestions for discussion of its key points. Whose mind presents these? . . .
The opening paragraph. (The author?)
"It was Saturday afternoon ..." (The author? or the children?)
"So there was Francie ..." (The author? or the children?)
"But it doesn't matter what they wore . . . it's just so you can see them ..." (Clearly, the author?)
The description of the sofa, with "stuffing bursting from its middle, like the inside of a dead hedgehog". (Clearly, the children?)
The last line. (Who?)
Note in this way throughout the novel the angle of vision through which you are being asked to enter the experience.
What are the advantages, and the disadvantages, of these varying viewpoints?
(2) The material in italics is equally varied. Janet Frame has had to use italics to indicate different levels of consciousness, as well as different types of content.
(a) First, there are the semi-lyrical passages by "I", a figure who is soon revealed as Daphne, "singing from the dead room". The book opens with such a passage; others occur throughout, e.g. in chapters page 139 five, fourteen, fifteen, twenty-seven, etc. Often such a passage marks a change of direction in the story, e.g. its use in chapter fourteen to mark the end of part one, where the effect is to distance the childhood experiences, to present them as something remembered, half understood, half forgotten, blurred and blended by time.
(b) Unfortunately, however, Janet Frame has had to use italics for other purposes as well as to mark Daphne's stream of consciousness. She has used them for passages of daydream, for inarticulate ideas or emotions, and for unspoken consciousness generally in other characters besides Daphne. Perhaps for Toby such italics mark the "confusion of dream" which indicates the onset of an epileptic fit? What is indicated by the use of italics at the end of chapter twenty-eight?
(c) Also in italics are some—but not all—of the bits of rhyme and poetry quoted. Can you discover any rule governing the distinction between those in plain type (the end of chapter eight, or the hymn in chapter six) and those in italics (chapters twenty, twenty-four, forty)?
(d) To add to the reader's difficulties, some italicised passages are located within a mind, but it is not clear whose. Who is the speaker, or thinker, of the passage in chapter eighteen beginning, "Toby, it is Saturday morning . . . you are busy with nothing, . . . "?
(e) Finally, do italics sometimes represent the author's comment? Who thinks the thought of the last line of chapter twenty-four?
The printer has obviously done his best. Should Janet Frame have found other ways of indicating which consciousness was at work at any given point? Has she attempted an impossible task in trying to give us at once so many angles of vision? What other techniques have you found in your reading of modern literature for suggesting to readers the experience of being within different minds?
C. Imagery. An intricate pattern of imagery binds the novel into a whole. Janet Frame has used various devices more corrmron in poetry—repetition, the emotional 'association of words, "echo, rhythm, etc.—to evoke states of mind and emotions not easy to convey in plain_statement. The images, the scraps of verse, the repeated phrases, are used symbolically; what "any bit conveys can only be appreciated on a second or third rea"ding of the book, when its place in the whole pattern can be seen. Once your mind is alerted to the method, Owls Do Cry will make a much deeper impact. Its meaning is not on the surface.
Here are some of the elements in the pattern. Notice the way in which Janet Frame introduces much of this material in part one in an apparently quite natural childish context, and then later turns it this way and that, altering the implications, using childish meaning as an ironical comment on adult usage, and so on. Consider the part page 140 each item plays in the whole, and how effective it may be. (Trace one or two of these items right through the book.)
Items: The rubbish dump in its hollow, with its "circle of toitoi", and the associated ideas of treasure, of gold, silver, money, etc. (note especially in chapter six, "they can't tell what's rubbish from what isn't rubbish", and in chapter ten, "if only grown-ups could tell what is treasure and not treasure"); clocks, watches; blue writing in ledgers; glass cases ("everything in a glass case is valuable"); the brand of the leather strap; time, and time payment; the mill, wool, knitting, unpicking; snow, seas; primary colours especially green; pine trees and their needles; pipes and music; fairy tales; diamonds; the laundry, mangle, and washing; fire, burning; the use of cosmetics; dancing, and the names of dances.
D. Plot. Is there a plot?
E. Themes. What are the themes of Owls Do Cry? They cannot be stated in plain words, for they emerge from the pattern of the book, from its reiterated symbols, from its poetic suggestions. Here are some particular aspects to consider:
(1) The material in italics in chapter fourteen ("Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth").
(2) Chapter thirty-five: in this, consider Daphne's madness. By our own usual standards of normality, Daphne is not sane, but who is to say what is normal reality? Men have always felt that the fool in his madness and simplicity has access to instinctive wisdom. What is "the genuine treasure"?
(3) Chicks marries and lives a "normal" life—but does she find any better "treasure" than Toby or Daphne?
(4) The shock treatment of chapter thirteen "opens the eyes of patients in a triumph of instilled blindness". What is meant? Is the theme, perhaps, an exploration of values in life, an examination of our "civilised" and "normal" assumptions?
F. Debatable Points. Several of the structural devices of Owls Do Cry have been the subject of critical debate.
(1) What is your view of the device by which we enter the mind of Chicks? We do not slip in and out of her consciousness as we do with Toby, and Daphne; she is not in the "confusion" of dream, as they are. She is to be the "normal" child whose shallow satisfactions are to be the "rubbish" which grown-ups mistake for "treasure". To appreciate the futility of her petty goals, however, we must see inside her mind. Janet Frame therefore contrives that Toby finds and reads her diary.
Is this an effective device? Is the satire too heavily underlined? Is the exhibition of the motives of a social climber too realistic to fit page 141 into the symbolic tone of the whole? What do you think of the incident of the Bessick murder, afterwards to be repeated in the murder of Chicks herself as recounted in the epilogue? What does Janet Frame intend to suggest by this doubling?
(2) Another incident intended to have symbolic and satiric overtones and to underline the theme, is that of the filling in of the hollow where the rubbish dump lay, and the building on it of houses to one of which Chicks returns as a married woman. Clearly this symbolises the materialism of the values upon which our civilisation rests. Is this too contrived?
(3) Yet another debatable element in the pattern is the ironic symmetry of the fate of the Withers children—of whom only Daphne, after "curing", is successful in acquiring the material things which adults call "treasure".
G. Epilogue. Finally, consider the epilogue. What does it add to the significance of the symbolic fable which Janet Frame has composed? We are invited to realise that Owls Do Cry is not just the story of one family who lived in a town remarkably like Oamaru. It is a story of us all, of life, death, dream and sanity, of values understood and forgotten as childhood passes, of the search for treasures upon earth, of the "empty strong box of the heart". "What," asks the manager's wife in the epilogue, "What is the world coming to?"
Presenting this theme through the eyes first of children, and then of children grown to maturity in differing degrees, Janet Frame makes the approach used by many poets. The best known instance is Wordsworth, in the Immortality ode. The child is "An Eye among the blind". "Heaven lies about us in our infancy", but "Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy", and truths glimpsed in youth "fade into the light of common day". Daphne, whose abnormal state enables her to hold on to her childish vision, thinks in chapter thirty-five, that "the real how and where and who and why are in the circle of the toitoi . . . ", a truth which grownups deny. We obliterate the sense of wonder in creation, deny values that are not material; it is we who are the truly dead, the truly mad.
The epilogue is subtitled, "Anyone we know?" This is the question asked by the manager, as his wife reads out the titbits of news. What is implied here about our attitude to suffering around us?
What, on a final reconsideration, is Owls Do Cry about? Its technique is obviously highly original, and not easy to follow; is this justified by the theme? Why did Janet Frame give her book this title?
We have very few really tragic novels in our literature—would this be one of them? (See Winston Rhodes's comment in Landfall, December 1957.)
Sylvia Ashton-Warner: Spinster A. Structure. The novel is bound together in theme and in construction by continual reference to five major sonnets by Gerard Manley Hopkins, numbers 44, 47, 50, 51, 55. Much other poetry is quoted in this novel (Hopkins's Peace, Hurrahing in Harvest; Housman; and others)—trace what you can.
Spinster has five movements of different lengths. Note each, and check its title, the quotation used at its opening, the sequence of the seasons, and the events of each section, the persons met, etc.
B. Narrative Technique.
(1) From what point of view is the story told? And in what tense predominantly? Why is this so, and is the procedure consistent, and effective for its purpose?
(2) Take one section of the novel and analyse the balance of dialogue, monologue, description, analysis, narrative.
(3) Consider how the story is managed. What is the time order? (Normal? Flashbacks?) How are persons first introduced? or explanations made? There is obviously a very careful pattern of linking in the repeated verbal echoes, descriptive details and incidents. Trace out some of these.
(4) A major part of this closely woven texture is the Maori children's "chorus". This provides background, setting, local colour, and comic relief. But it does much more. Check through the novel to note all the ways you can find in which what these children say, write, or do, is relevant to the themes of the book. In particular check on the use made of these words, incidents, ideas:
(a) words such as—old, young, age; ghost; kiss; baby.
(b) phrases and details such as—the building of castles or towers; "somebodies they tread my sore leg for notheen"; the writings of Patu, Riti, and Mohi; "those kids bust it"; the children's paintings; the stories of violence and death; the kooties (is this episode only realistic detail?).
(5) As an example of what such details contribute to the whole, study the handling of the story of Red Riding Hood. Why did the author choose this fairy tale? How is it related to her themes? What does the Maori children's reception of it convey to us?
C. Plot. What is the plot? Is it convincing as a series of events in the life of this person, at the time and place described? Do any of its incidents seem forced?
In particular consider the part of the plot connected with Paul.
D. Paul. What is his function in the construction of the novel? Do you find him, or his behaviour, credible? In what ways—verbal echoes, pattern of incidents, details of the story, similarities of per- page 143 sonality and behaviour, etc.—is Paul linked with other elements in the novel?
E. Style. Study the prose style. What is its most consistent quality? Does it vary? Does it convey anything of Anna's personality? Is it well adapted to the author's purpose? How effective are the continual quotations?
F. Themes. Spinster has not only a plot, and a subject background, but a theme; this is the importance of the "something that goes between one and another", of communication by words in speech, or writing, or by touch; it is the value of personal relationships, the need to remove emotional impediments which twist our living. This theme is implicit throughout the novel, and rises to the surface explicitly in the section in 'Summer' beginning " 'Just only God,' writes Mohi" (pp. 170-6 in first English edition) in particular. How is this led up to? Why is this material placed just here? What follows it?
Consider all the ways in which this theme is sounded in the novel (the quotations, the infant room, the teaching of reading, the story of Paul, the Maori children's stories, Anna's own music and painting, her own creation of the little Ihaka books, etc.).
Do you think there are other themes also in the novel? creative energy? the conceiving and creating of new life, new art? spinster-hood, motherhood, love?
Does the matter of the key vocabulary fit into the whole pattern of the novel? Or do you feel that it is an excrescence?
What do you feel about the ending—does it follow naturally and logically from the whole course of the book? Does it gather up the threads, and satisfy you as a finale? Does it deepen (or spoil?) the impressions made?
Finally, do you think that Spinster is a good novel? Comparison of Spinster with Sylvia Ashton-Warner's factual book Teacher, 1963, reveals how much autobiography the novel contains. Readers will find much of interest in both text and photographs.
Bill Pearson: Coal Flat
A. Structure. There are twenty-four chapters, most with subdivisions. The story covers ten months from February to November, and is limited with minor exceptions to the town of Coal Flat.
Pearson tells his story straightforwardly in the third person, concentrating our attention upon Paul Rogers, but using to the full his authorial privilege of discussing him and many other matters openly with the reader. Characters are organised in two groups, an inner circle centred upon Rogers and including the Palmers, the Herlihys, and Miss Dane, and an outer circle of townsfolk, miners, school staff, page 144 police, etc. The title suggests that Pearson intends the town, rather than the hero-and-heroine, to be the core of the novel.
A novel arising from detailed social fact requires thorough documentation, and presents the author with very difficult terrain, since readers have to assimilate large doses of information. In chapter one Pearson makes a good job of his entry into this material. In subdivision (1) we note the date and the place, for which we are given a few (only) details that are to be economically recalled throughout—the Yorkshire fog, the blackberries, the scream of the dredge, the water races, the surrounding hills. These we meet as they are noticed by a minor but key character, Heath, who moves at once into a key setting, the school. It is Paul Rogers's first day, and we are given a glimpse inside his mind. Subdivision (2) brings us to 3.20 p.m., key details are repeated, and we have an external view of Paul through Mrs Hansen's eyes. In (3) we meet the Palmers, whose relationships are established in dialogue. In (4) the mother-dominance of Mrs Palmer is indicated ("They always come back to Mum"), and Paul's history begins to be explained. In (5), Pearson takes us into the bar and establishes some of the personalities and the tensions of the township; we meet Cairns, Henderson, Nicholson, Herlihy. Catholicism, politics, and suppressed sexual stresses are indicated. In (6) Pearson describes directly Rogers's possessions, past, and psychology.
Block construction of this kind is the method throughout Coal Flat. Consider chapters seven, or eleven, or sixteen. There are no subdivisions in chapters twelve, fourteen and twenty. Why?
B. Narrative Techniques. Within this structural frame, Pearson gives variety in several ways. He turns his attention now to this group, now to that, and he changes his methods of presentation. Consider chapter one again. Subdivision (1) opens with two paragraphs of author's exposition of the setting, followed by an entry in paragraph three into Heath's attitude: "This year, he thought, ... he hoped ... he expected." In paragraph four we have Heath's impression of Rogers, in paragraph five we begin to see through Rogers's eyes, and guided by his perception move into the classroom. The penultimate paragraph gives us, in the third person, some clues about Rogers's ideas, through the medium of his examination of the children. This passage ("He studied them . . . ") is full of concealed ironies ("Hard puritan society . . . innocence and simplicity ... he would educate them . . . tolerance, service of the common good"). Subdivision (2) is mainly authorial. By comparison subdivision (3) is predominantly dialogue, stiffish and unreal because Pearson is using it too blatantly to get information across to us. (4) and (5) are partly authorial, partly dialogue, that in (5) being successful in indicating themes through dramatically realised conversation. Subdivision (6) however is wholly authorial, a solid chunk of factual exposition.page 145
Consider the paragraph beginning "For, once that first fight was over ..." Do we, at this point, need all this detail unloaded upon us? How much of it contributes to our understanding of Rogers? Isn't some of it too obvious (e.g. that book on The Problem Child) ?
Variation between dialogue and factual exposition continues in this way throughout the book. In a novel exploring society in depth, the author must be free to describe, explain and discuss, but the liberty should not be abused. The author's voice must not bore us. Dickens once told a young writer: "My notion always is, that when I have made the people to play out the play, it is, as it were, their own business and not mine." The scenes in which Pearson's people "play out the play" in family quarrel, union meeting, school committee discussion, or pub talk, are excellent. But what is your view of his lectures to the reader? Would you agree that he seems not to trust his people and his action to carry his message for him, and so attempts to support them by speaking out himself?
As a basis for discussion of this complaint, consider the handling of the whitebait material in chapter twenty-two, "The whitebait is a delicacy . . . "; or chapter five (1) with its plodding account of Don Palmer (eight uses of "had" and eighteen of "would" in the opening paragraph); or the accounts of McKenzie in chapter four (2) and Cassidy in chapter eighteen (2); or the opening of chapter eleven (1).
Sometimes Pearson's dialogue is not the dramatically convincing talk of people "playing out the play", but only two author's voices supplementing each other in spoken exposition. Consider chapter eleven (2) in this light.
On the other hand, his group dialogues are among the highlights of the book; consider chapter nine (1) and chapter fifteen (1) and (2).
C. Thoughts. Pearson handles skilfully his transitions from the external view to the interior one. To get in and out of a character's mind he usually slides from thoughts rendered in direct speech to thoughts given as normal reported speech. From there he moves into a reported speech-current, shaped or modified to suggest the thinker's spoken idiom and to keep us aware of his personality. Examine Mr Tribe's speech in chapter twenty, "Well chaps . . ."
In chapter four (1), the passage in which Rogers theorises about Peter should be studied closely, beginning at "He was a test case ..." First we have directly what "he thought". Then we slide into a report of what Rogers "had heard", the phrases "from all accounts" and "they said" reminding us that this is town gossip. At "The case history" we return to Rogers's thought, and then move into his speculations about the future, phrased as questions. Pearson brings us back to the actual situation from which these meditations sprang with a remark in direct speech from Mrs Seldom.
Another device is the use of "you" within a character's thoughts, page 146 which tends to make the reader accept identification with the character's point of view. Consider the opening paragraphs of chapter eleven (1).
D. Plot. All the plot lines converge on Paul, but some of Pearson's material is, surely, very tenuously related to his narrative line and themes?
Take, for instance, O'Malley in chapter sixteen (3), Cassidy in chapter eighteen (2), and Tribe in chapter twenty; Pearson gives an elaborate documentation for each. Do you think he was wise to bring in a quite new character at these points? Do you think the expository detail is burdensome?
Something, I believe, is wrong with the last third of the novel; it sags and interest slackens. Is this your view? How relevant do you think the episode in the Maori home is in chapter twenty-two? What is intended by the long preamble to the trial in chapter nineteen (1)? Why does Pearson spend so long on the view from the hospital window in chapter twenty-three (3)?
Other plot matters to consider are: to what extent is the account of Don Palmer's first marriage necessary? Is Miss Dane's story adequately tied into the whole novel? In particular, what would you say to the suggestion that her portrait, especially at the beginning, is nearer to satiric caricature than to realism, and is badly out of key with the rest of the book? Does Pearson sometimes take sides too blatantly, e.g. his description of Miss Cole the welfare officer, and Mr Hankinson?
Do you think Pearson's plot material is well organised? Consider the elements—a problem child with sexual obsessions; two strikes, Seldom's and Herlihy's; a beer boycott; a schoolmistress seduced; Catholicism, and Presbyterian puritanism; socialism and communism; several disastrous marriages and a suggestion of sexual deviation; and a possessive, dominating "Mum".
E. Theme. What is the theme of Coal Flat?
Attitudes to sex: "Have you known a community that, deep down, is more obsessed with sex than puritan New Zealand?" (chapter eleven (2)).
Attitudes to ideas and ideals: "a hard puritan society, materialistic to the point that it was afraid of ideas because ideas were not material." (chapter one (1)). See also chapter four (3), and the final page.
Betrayal: "scabbing", letting someone down, disloyalty. Consider: chapter twenty-three (5) "He's never had a chance and none of us have ever done anything for him."; Peter's constant accusations about being "let down"; Rogers's war record; Rogers's page 147 attitude to the boycott; Don Palmer's scabbing; Rogers's accusation in chapter twenty-four that society has let him down; the Seldom strike and discussions of "ratting on your own class".
The complexity of human motives and the need for tolerance (consider chapter eleven (2), where Rogers thinks out his attitude to the boycott).
Mother-dominance in our society.
Perhaps the true centre of the novel is not Paul Rogers, but eight-year-old Peter Herlihy—"A boy who's the odd one out like that has a nose for all the weaknesses and rotten parts of his society." (chapter eleven (2)). "Which comes first, the unstable personality or the unstable society?" (chapter four (3)).
There are many other sub-themes in this rich full novel; colour prejudice; the healing qualities of the bush and the hills, if we would submit to them; educational methods; Irish Catholicism—and what else?
Finally, what is your verdict? Does the plight of anyone in the novel really grip you? Does Pearson get below his elaborately documented surface? Do you think that "the dominant personality is the Coast"?
Footnote. Miss Dane is writing a novel which is outlined in chapter seven (4). Pearson was probably unwise to let himself go on this irrelevant little parody, but it is enjoyable enough. Can you identify the New Zealand novelist(s) whom Miss Dane is taking as her model?
Graham Billing: Forbush and the Penguins
A. Structure. What period of time does the novel cover? There are twelve chapters: what time and what incidents does each cover?
Although Forbush is almost the only person involved in this experience, his story is told in the third person by the author. Why did Billing choose this method? What is gained? Is anything lost by it?
How is what Forbush feels and thinks conveyed to us? Consider chapters three and eight, chapter six, and chapter eleven.
Both time and place in this novel are severely restricted; what is the reason for this? Would you have preferred, for instance, some scenes with Forbush before he went to Antarctica? or some scenes among the men at Scott Base as a change from our concentration on Forbush?
Commenting in Landfall, June 1965, Lawrence Jones complains about the two episodes of the visiting Americans in chapters four and six, that they are "only peripherally relevant to the novel's true centre of interest and . . . not sufficiently interesting ... to merit page 148 inclusion." Do you think that these episodes are irrelevant? Do you find them interesting?
What is Billing's purpose in interpolating into the Forbush narrative passages giving his memories of Barbara? How are they relevant to the speculations and emotions roused by the Antarctic experience? Do you find these scenes "trite" in their presentation? or are they successful enough for their purpose? Why does Billing give Forbush a girl he has just met, not a fiancee or wife?
Observe carefully the way the author has managed his opening exposition: obviously, he has an unusually heavy load of facts to deal with. How does he convey to us in chapter one the information essential to the reader? Is he skilful over it? Consider: what is seen, heard, felt and by whom; details about the hut (why Shackleton's?); Forbush's actions and thoughts, and what we infer from them; the Visitors' Book (is it referred to again?); the books; fixing the radio; the toy rabbit. Have we, by the end of chapter one, learnt anything of the man, as well as of the time and place?
The structure of this book rests on a very few elemental phenomena: ice, sea, rock; men, penguins, skuas; light, dark, wind, snow, sun. Would you add to this list? What is the effect of this deliberate economy?
B. Style. Prose style in this novel varies according to subject and purpose. Consider these representative passages: is the style suitable and effective?—chapter nine (pp. 160-1) "For Christmas dinner"; chapter six (p. 97) "After that they went"; chapter eight (pp. 132-3) "The foot pedal". (Page references are to Reed's 1965 edition.)
C. Theme. The theme is man's search for the meaning of life, set in an experience where only the essentials of survival count. In the sterile Antarctic world, a human being comes to study the miraculous passing on of another form of life. His study reveals also "life's demand for death in order to maintain itself" (chapter ten). Forbush is both a scientist and a human "creature", and in both capacities seeks to understand the final meaning of existence (opening of chapter six).
What aspects of this theme are explored in these passages: the arrival of the penguin in chapter three; the opening and closing pages of chapter four ("nothing has changed"); Forbush's longing to help the penguins, his hatred of the skuas; the description of the seal pup at the end of chapter five; Starshot's "bad dreams" (pp. 28, 159, 162); Forbush's "ever-present sense of being a victim" (pp. 119, 166, 188, etc.).
Two sections of the novel stand out for the brilliance of the writing, the account of the building of the Music Machine, and the account of the blizzard. Apart from their intrinsic interest, what do these contri- page 149 bute to the theme? What do they suggest about the human variety of "creature"? Consider in this regard: chapter three (p. 44), "Draw for me, the ice said, the line between life and not-life"; chapter seven (p. 113), "O hell we're all creatures. I'm a creature . . . "; (p. 121) "I'm human . . . I'm alive . . . I'll beat it."; chapter 8 (pp. 128-9); chapter nine (p. 154), "They're just creatures, Dick."
What part in the development of the theme is played by: the arrival of Starshot, and the Christmas dinner; the departure of the ice and Forbush's sunbathing; the episode of the seal and the sea-leopard; the catapult affair; the juxtaposition in chapter eleven of the skua's killing of the penguin chick and Forbush's capture of a skua chick? .
Penguins look like "little men": does Billing suggest any analogy between their fate and ours? Penguins, skuas, men, are all "victims"; in what episodes do we see them fighting, or enduring?
The climax of the novel comes at the end of chapter eleven, in Forbush's affirmation of freedom. What is your view of this?
Consider carefully the last paragraph: it is prose of remarkable quality. What suggestions and images from the whole novel does it pick up and echo? Notice the repeated words. What is the implication of the image in the last sentence?