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Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 34-35 (1993)
Edited by Vijay Mishra
Dislocations, Distortions and Resolutions in Maurice Gee's Fiction
Som Prakash Collectively, Gee's novels depict the public, social, sexual and family life of a number of generations of European settlers in New Zealand. Almost inevitably, the very conflicts that invigorate the history of, say, orthodox religion, or contemporary politics, or sexual revolution also provide the novelist with plenty of pure incontrovertible facts from which to take his intuitive leap.2 Sometimes the facts may not be so clearcut; for example, in the trilogy Sharon and Gregory, with all their freedom and unorthodox life-styles, somewhat ironically reflecting George Plumb's insistence on allowing children to be original, are "nothing to please rationalist Rose or Catholic Felicity." Yet, just as Ray understands that his children are at a beginning - not at an end - Maurice Gee knows his novels are historical largely "in the sense of lives," and not necessarily in some incontrovertible sort of way. The choice of first person narration in many of his novels provides what Gee calls 'triangulation'. Since the movement is not simply linear, "a territory is filled in" rather than a line followed. "There's vehicle, there's destination, and there's author standing off to one side" and if the "the interplay between his mind and the narrator's" gives the writer real pleasure it does no less for the reader. "In the continual flashing to and fro that goes on, a light is thrown on all sorts of strange new things."3
Light is thrown on older questions as well, questions that writers like Allen Curnow have always been asking: what comprises New Zealand literature and how its "active and integral functioning" is "shaping the nation we are."4 Each writer provides his or her own individual answers to these basic questions of identity. If, as Keith Sinclair says, by "thinking of themselves as a British people" many New Zealanders have provided themselves with a ready-made and comforting answer to the question of their identity, Maurice Gee treats such assumptions of borrowed identity with a measure of irony, at times comic, at other times tragic.5 But rather than being strident or didactic, this treatment is more often than not psychologically authentic. An example will illustrate the point. Vincent O'Sullivan's labels, "jealously derivative" and "rabidly European," neatly sum up the older Oliver Plumb. As a child, however, Oliver used to eat his porridge systematically, screaming hysterically if his beautifully balanced "performance" was interrupted in any way: "A ritual disturbed, a certainty lost, the structure of his infant world came down like a card-house" (P166). For the adult Oliver, sickness, injury, or disorder, like sin and non-conformity, are an affront to his sense of propriety. Like his sacred wig, everything must have its proper place and function. This obsession with propriety is based on a sense of insecurity that belies his calm exterior, a result perhaps of his parents' early puritanism or gentility, if not their religious uncertainties. The prominent judge in his back room may well impress his father in an ambivalent way, but Oliver is entirely in character, with his tweed overcoat, leather gloves, cane, satchel, and homburg hat. The father's view of him is instructive:
He looked ready to issue from 10 Downing Street. But he looked too a plaster man, ready to be broken. And how then could he be fixed? To stay whole in his artificial shape, in this rude Dominion, he must walk on paths unknown to the rest of us. (P166)
This attitude is partly a confirmation of the remark that Sinclair quotes from a 1925 issue of the New Zealand Herald, namely, "to have a history may be an old land's glory and safeguard: to make history is a new land's perilous employment" (330). But more significantly, the image of a plaster man, ready to be broken, also indicates that there is usually, in Gee's work, something pathetic about characters caught between two countries - or for that matter two separate ways of life - neither of which they can fully adjust to. The combined image likening Oliver to a British prime minister and to a plaster man speaks at once of his sense of self-importance, his fragile, insecure self, and the intimate relationship between the two. Fortunately, as Lauris Edmond notes, most Gee characters "locate themselves" confidently; they are "articulately, positively, even aggressively at home."6
Such an attribute obviously fits George Plumb. But other characters like Rob Andrews, Paul Prior or Raymond Sole also locate themselves, albeit with lower degrees of confidence and aggressiveness, however much they might quarrel with their society; for example, Ray's reaction, in Sole Survivor, to the beating up of a wharfie by plain clothes policemen betrays his strong wish to belong to the place. Ray expresses his initial incredulity at the gratuitous violence by saying, "They can't do that. Not here. Not in New Zealand." To have his story cynically rejected on the grounds that he is "supposed to be a reporter not a novelist" is not to dismiss his commitment to his country, however idealistic or misplaced his faith. Even after getting himself together, Ray insists, "A man was giving a speech. In a free country. Policemen came and arrested him" (87). That he should walk out on his job, even if it's for a short period of time, shows how seriously he takes his belonging. Perhaps this is his peculiar way of articulating how he is "positively, even aggressively at home," a way which may not be totally appreciated by an editor who expects Ray to be a reporter, not a novelist. But then, as Vincent O'Sullivan says, "the verbal patterns of fiction are not the gifts of the reporter, but those of the illusionist."7 (As we shall see later, Ray's action at the end of the novel demonstrates his considered view regarding where he belongs.)
The mixture of detail and outline that characterizes Gee's mature writing is reliably explained by the novelist himself. In turning the real life of his grandfather to a fictional one, he had to consider a number of factors:
I wanted to put in, not leave out, suggest fullness not emptiness, present a coloured world not a grey one. I wanted engagement not withdrawal. And in George Plumb I had a perfect vehicle - a man with an inner life and a public life, engaged in political and religious struggle.
But I also had a problem of over-supply. . . In spite of the shading of the fictional world into the real that I wanted, I needed to see an outline - and I wanted to give the sense of a sharp eye seeing and a sharp mind thinking. So I chose to write in the first person, and that forced me into three books not one. . . My ambitions are towards inclusiveness, my instincts pull me to austerity. The narrator knows everything about himself, but does not necessarily know it correctly, so there's tension and irony, and those are things that shape and pare down the whole life that's on offer. ('The Way' 42)
If "the whole life that's on offer" is the context of Gee's work, the shaped and pared version of it is the text. And the difference between the two is perhaps the difference between writing about a culture and writing out of it.
One of the characteristic activities of Gee protagonists is to review their past life, especially when jolted by a personal crisis; for example, the sudden death of Celia brings Paul Prior to "a clearer insight into the salient features of the past that moulded his life into his present shape," as Hannah puts it.8 This review of one's life is often followed by an acceptance of not only what one has been - and therefore what one is - but also of life in general, whatever its ills and limitations. Sometimes, as in the case of Paul Prior, George Plumb, Meg or Raymond, capturing the past may be done by means of writing. Plumb's realization of what he has done to Alfred and Edie and an acceptance of both the good and the evil is matched by Meg's 'up-ending' herself and deciding with calm resignation to carry on living with hope as it is with Raymond's resolve to "get on with it," his inability to understand life's many mysteries notwithstanding. As Caffin says, for Plumb, Meg and Raymond, viewing "how they live and act in the world in the light of what they were and did" is inevitably a search for self and meaning, which is "a moral matter, and an individual one."9 The looking back and acceptance of the past may not always be as explicit, obsessive, or fruitful as in the trilogy: with his previous life wrecked around him, and despite "his moment of sharpened sight" which has put him "in possession of a territory that held as surely as the territories of his childhood," Kingsley does not wish to examine "the means by which he had come to this." That would further involve him in largely pleasurable but fundamentally false games of choices. "There had been enough cleverness. He had traveled that road far enough" (GC 164).
If cleverness leads to further self-delusion, an honest approach to the past is the way to self-knowledge. And if, as Manhire says, a crisis results when there is "a sense of discontinuity between past and present," nothing greater is needed for its resolution than self-knowledge, which "seems to depend importantly on access to the past."10 The juxtaposition of the past and the present, often incorporated in the novels' narrative structures, serves another important function. In conjunction with the shifting perspectives, as employed most effectively and conspicuously in the trilogy, it underlines the "limitations of human vision" even as it persuades us, no less than the protagonists involved, to re-examine previous judgements, assumptions and implications, and adjust our understanding accordingly. Manhire is right in suggesting that Paul Prior's examination of his past to understand both the cruel perversity of Celia's murder and the warped personality he has become - "aloof, passive, bookish, removed from his community, somehow 'hollow'" - is in effect Maurice Gee's way of exploring "the New Zealand psyche" and "the human circumstances which make murder and any sudden eruption of violence possible" (Gee 17-20). In Gee's terms, then, such courageous acts of exploration can lead to increased understanding and wisdom - for the protagonist, the writer, and the reader. That Gee believes in human possibility.and success is evident from his response to criticisms of pessimism levelled at him:
I think I am reasonably optimistic. Games of Choice ends with a man discovering something about his nature, adding something to himself out of a situation where most things seem lost. There's growth there, a small victory. This applies to The Big Season too, and to A Special Flower and to Plumb.11
It applies, in fact, to all of Gee's fiction.
The note of pessimism that worries some critics may be partly explained by the ways Gee signifies the limitations of human vision. Gee would almost certainly agree with Salman Rushdie that facts are hard to establish, and capable of being given many meanings. Indeed, Gee's appreciation of the complexities associated with reading the world, both past and present, becomes one of his principal thematic concerns. This is most clearly seen in the trilogy with its three different narrators, who are closely related to, and therefore influenced by, one another. The multiple, generational perspectives often throw different lights on the same situations, thus questioning or qualifying each point of view, although there is an "implied author" behind these various perspectives.12 The writer confirms that facts are hard to establish and capable of being given many meanings. As Raymond says, "It's all approximations and all choices'' (SS 155).
Although George Plumb wants to cling to the more precious aspects of his past, he musters remarkable courage in the face of old age and his sense of mortality to review his past in order to restructure his present life. He wants to right one wrong, in particular, that has seriously strained his relationship with his son Alfred, tarnishing his love for Edie. Meg tells us that in his last year her father wrote the story of his life, putting aside thoughts and "book-dipping," looking at himself with a fair amount of knowledge, vigorously insisting on the truth. Unlike Wendy Philson's book, which was going to be a spiritual biography excluding mundane things such as politics, orthodox religion, domestic life (and therefore it "sounded like a piece of fiction" to Meg), Plumb's manuscript has nothing spiritual in it, given his attempt to come to grips with the more human aspects of his life.13 This new Plumb both reinforces and qualifies the person whom Raymond, even at fourteen, saw as having a simple view of things, burdened with the weight of moral dogma, his hatred of tyrannies extending everywhere except his own home. The exercise in writing his past is in fact an exercise in discovering his real identity.
Meg's search is similar but via a different route. Her focus is largely a domestic one and she deals with public matters only so far as they directly affect her loved ones, whose mixed fortunes are translated into her personal losses and victories. She tries to grow up if only to cope with the realities around her, slowly and painfully learning that her earlier recognitions were not necessarily absolute. Through her writing, her repossession of the past, she wonders if she is acquainted with herself. At the end of the novel she feels like an hour-glass which is at once empty and full. Robert's burial represents her present; her up-ending herself is her attempt to recapture her past; her resolve to reconcile with her estranged husband is an intimation of the future.
In Sole Survivor the narrative voice is that of Raymond Sole, who is described by one critic as "rawer, more corrupt and colloquial, more direct and damaged, and more vulnerable than either mother or grandfather."14 As the quietest, most thoughtful of Meg's children, Raymond learns about his grandparents' days on the coast, the Plumb family's life in California, George Plumb's trial for heresy and his days in Lyttleton jail. "In this way my history became part of his; and history slid into myth," asserts the grandfather. But at fifty Raymond is disenchanted with his profession as a journalist, both pleased and bewildered by the fracture in his life. As far as his career in literature goes, he has been a ghost writer for several sporting and other celebrities. He knows that his planned book on Michael Savage will never get written. He thinks of himself as an old ex-puritan and ex-family-freak. If the curse of tragic action is a curse of self-discovery and the comic curve is one of self-exposure, he wonders where that leaves him: "Is my life experience or spectacle?" The reader knows it is both - experience for Raymond himself and spectacle for others, including the reader. Through the spectacle of his intricate connection with his cousin Duggie, "the symbiotic relationship between politician and journalist" (Caffin 12), where "it was Duggie who mattered," the reader is given the political career of Duggie, a glimpse of contemporary New Zealand political history, in fact, as well as an analysis of a political animal - not to mention the journalist who regards himself as a mere by-product. In certain ways, just as Raymond attempts to come to terms with his past and his various selves - "Ray, Ray Sole, Raymong, R. Sole. All of these" - the reader has to take into account not only the fractured, derivative nature of the narrator's life but also the several narrative voices in order to unravel "the whole life that's on offer," to repeat Gee's words.
Like Paul Prior in In My Father's Den, the narrators of the trilogy tell their life stories while experiencing important events in the immediate present. The narrative constantly oscillating between the past and the present is important for Gee, as repossession of the past is a means to establishing a character's complete identity, past and present . The reader is treated to, in the author's own words, "two lines of progress, one moving fast and covering years, but giving the illusion of slowness and of the steady pulse of things, and the other going more slowly through days and weeks, but seeming fast because it's happening now." Once the two lines meet, the narrator "gets on with his or her life," now changed as a direct result of the "act of repossession." The past is not important per se but only as far as it brings about an understanding of the present and possibly the future. The search, for the self that can cope with that present and prepare itself for the future, is in earnest as much as it is desperate. As far as the writer is concerned, "the obsessive going back, the recollecting and possessing, would not have much point if it were set down without an accompaniment of present event… The connection with here and now indicates that what is taking place is not a game but a desperate search" ('The Way' 42). Gee ensures that the resolute search of a character like Plumb leads him to accomplish "huge things in terms of self-knowledge." Even though "the victory may appear small to people sitting outside," says Gee, Plumb has managed "a huge revolution in himself - and similarly Meg and to a certain extent Raymond. All three make progress in self-knowledge."15 George Plumb gains significant self-knowledge when he discovers by chance that Alfred used to take the same secret route to meet his mother as he had done previously to see his lover:
I felt a tremor in my universe, and thought for a moment things would fall apart. But then felt a settling, and looked with a sharp eye at the new conformations. I did not like them. Edie had walked in the orchard, deceiving me; I had put her to this torment. So, in concealment, she met the needs of her life. I did not like the part I played in this. (P 247)
Likewise, Meg does not want to "spend my time looking back," yet she is "forced to turn there." To look at things with a cold eye is a duty as well as a need. "If I am to hold myself steady in my shape," which is both sensible and useful, "I must look at the person I came from," especially since she has been "brought surely, unknowing, to my doom - which was to see. See life, understand circumstance, know death - to get an eyeful, as my sons would say" (M 11). As readers, we know that Meg emulates her father's strategy to come to terms with reality. Unlike Merle or Wendy Philson, Meg does not indulge in esoteric and fanciful works of dubious value. Her work is more profoundly ambitious and difficult, since it is directed towards self-knowledge. Through her tale of deaths, "a happy tale" because it has "more of life than of death" (M 221), Meg is clearly attempting to re-order what remains of her life, retrieve what little happiness she can. In the process, her "artist's type of mind" manages to make at least some final connections; her domestic series of poems do get written because she finally discovers "resources in her" beyond her own, or her father's, expectations.
As Manhire points out, Meg's growth to self-knowledge and clarity of vision is plotted in a range of ways: through the commercial 'vision' of Fred Meggett, or the dismemberment of Peacehaven, or the many deaths which sound and resound through the novel. The various deaths do not constitute losses so much as experiences which enrich her life. In this respect she is like Rob Andrews, who does not want "to escape anything"; instead he wants "to see, feel and understand," knowing that facing something squarely can "alter and teach him" (BS 169). If Meg is uncertain about "how she can take Alfred's death into her life, her attitude towards Robert's death is benign, accepting, and informed by a deep sense of satisfaction which admits even the comic" (Manhire, Gee 45-46). Willis, Robert and Emerson might look like monkeys, but she feels her three brothers have done well: better than Sir Oliver, Fergus and Fred, with all their professional or material ambitions. Through such assessments, Meg adjusts her own values, her own measure of success and failure, transforming her sentimental vision into increasing clear-sightedness.
Violence, Good and Evil
If a protagonist's duty in a Gee novel generally tends to be to look back responsibly at his or her past and to deal with the present in accordance with the knowledge thus acquired, the writer's duty is even more demanding. For Gee, a serious writer cannot be anything but subversive. When asked what he means by 'subversive', he says:
I think I was attracted by the 'sub' in the word, that he's working below, cutting away tradition, popular props, simply by the act of examining how things really are. Simply by asking questions he's subversive, because the truth is likely to be different from popularly accepted beliefs, and official ones too, about the way things are. (Reilly, 'Interview' 8)
One set of questions that Maurice Gee constantly asks deals with good and evil. Manhire draws our attention to Gee's children's novel, The Halfmen of O, where in the beginning Humankind tore themselves apart and law is found amidst the chaos by Firstman or Freeman.16 Through magical or divine powers, Firstman made the Motherstone, laid the Halves on it and put Humankind in balance, allowing it to choose between the evil and the good. Despite countless forms of evil, war and oppression, the Balance held; light and dark contended each other in a deep embrace. Within each human being good fights with evil, and in most cases evil wins, as it hunts down and murders "the unresisting Good." Good must be won daily in the battle that never ends. The idea that the universe is the battleground for the opposed and equally matched forces of good and evil fits the essentially relativistic vision of Gee's adult novels. It also helps to explain the essential flaw of a character like George Plumb, whose attempt to be wholly good is an evasion of evil. On the other hand, his strength derives from his recognition that "good must be won daily in the battle that never ends." When what he considers evil erupts into his world, he is in no position to withstand it, either because it is an error of judgement or because he does not expect it to come from where it does.17 Eventually he will come to acknowledge the mixed nature of human experience: "I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me."
To a certain extent, Plumb's predilection for human perfection blinds him to the possibility of evil, and hence his shocked over-reaction to Alfred's sexuality. Although he has a strong will, Plumb is definitely not one of those characters who totally lack "a moral dimension and have a determination to go their own way," as Gee puts it. Characters like Fred Meggett, Duggie Plumb, or Phil Dockery, on the other hand, "certainly charge ahead and don't mind who they damage on the way," doing nothing to avoid or challenge evil. For Gee, the act of standing against evil is "worth something, even if you're defeated in the end" (Reilly, 'Interview' 7). But such a stance first requires the strength and sense to recognize evil for what it is, which is not easy, given human reluctance to face evil. As Trevor James says, Gee is ruthlessly ironical when he gets Plumb to come upon Alfred and John Willis making love just when Plumb believes he is ready to receive a vision, which he would call Love. In the event what is revealed is Plumb's lack of love in the face of his son's unspeakable love. Also revealed is the problem of evil and human nature, a "problem Plumb ignored and which Calvinism sought to answer." James goes on to argue that Plumb's "actions do not come from faith but from despair."18 Given his "sense was of evil," it is ironical that Plumb should try to avoid evil desperately. This desperate evasion of evil is neatly captured by his precipitate action towards Alfred, an action which is foreshadowed by the father and son's mutual wariness almost as a matter of deliberate policy. At least Plumb realizes that he has not known Alfred well:
I did not get close to him, as I got close to Robert, or even understand him, as I understand Emerson. He kept a part of himself hidden from me, and intuitively I did not try to uncover it. He admired me, came near to worshipping me, but I sensed he did not like me. I turned aside from this, and was pleased with his accomplishments. Yet I was afraid! (P 179)
In Meg, the lawyers' expedient preference to see the violence inflicted on Alfred in terms of a prank, together with their failure to tell the young culprits who they really are, represents society's abdication of its responsibility. To allow such a cruelty to occur in the first place, or to make so much as a token gesture towards preventing such occurrences in the future is to declare the preservers of law more guilty than the law-breakers. It is no wonder that Meg should feel certain that "other forces must have been at work," making a mockery of the wigs and gowns. She sees the reason later, as she recalls how her father was troubled by a knowledge of evil:
It came down on him like a physical thing, like a black fog, cutting out light and warmth, and he was aware that powers hating life sat watching him. They could see in that element. "There's a place in us Meg that belongs to them and all our lives they're trying to get in. A room in our hearts. But we control the door. We are the ones who open and close it." That empty place, he told me, is man's hatred of himself. . . And evil, Dad went on, had got into him, into George Plumb. It got in on the day he drove his son Alfred Plumb away. "I held open the door. They came in. There was a dreadful shrieking. I heard it all through me."
I don't suppose he meant it literally. He was standing evil up to look at it, and standing up responsibility too. (M 212)
For her part, Meg realizes that Alfred's life ended before the blows were struck: "We were part of that. What happened at Moa Park was part of those who killed him. I could face that perfectly well by myself." In other words, the whole society is responsible for not extending sufficient love and understanding towards someone like Alfred. Meg accepts her share of the responsibility. Both the father and the daughter, then, recognize that evil is part of all humanity. She knows that it is too much to expect the four youths to understand what has happened to them, that they are not innocent despite their looks.
In the early pages of Sole Survivor, imagining a humming from deep space and invisible forces in the air, Raymond begins to feel that in the clearing is a dreadful hole in nature - Hank and Jilly sucked up into nothing." Raymond's fears are about young people, including his children Sharon and Gregory, the directionless and precariousness of whose lives seem magnified, especially when removed from their social context. But the society they are part of is not particularly promising or edifying. In My Father's Den demonstrates this as clearly as The Big Season. Bill Manhire cites the anonymous reviewer who did not recommend Games of Choice for the School Library Service on the following grounds: "Man is seldom a noble piece of work in this author's book. Maurice Gee lifts the lid off small town family life exposing grubbiness, deceit and viciousness." The attitudes which inform such a pronouncement, concludes Manhire, constitute a considerable part of the social texture out of which come the 'grubbiness, deceit and viciousness' which so alarm the reviewer (Gee 26).
But if the world is full of grubbiness, deceit and viciousness - evil in one form or another - there is also goodness, not to mention the will to preserve that goodness. Despite his dread of evil, especially the evil he himself is capable of, Plumb is prepared to review his life quite courageously. Meg doesn't know "where he found strength to begin, but strength to carry on came from his visit to Robert on the 'Ark'" (M 173). And Meg is almost intuitively aware of the goodness that Robert represents. In fact, she has known all along that Robert "had no intelligence to speak of, and little imagination, but that he was good." Raymond attempts to subvert his mother's idea of goodness by calling it quietism, passivism, or the line of least resistance: Robert's way of life was "a cop-out" since goodness only exists where people are, not in forests, caves and deserts; Alfred, on the other hand, was a better man because he "tried to help people" and "just didn't take off for the bush like a hermit." While we must to a degree grant Raymond's point about human responsibility, his cynicism - he claims that it wouldn't have taken "much effort for old Robert to know himself," and that we all get acquainted just by staying alive - makes him underestimate both the complexity involved in acquiring self-knowledge and the value of wholesome goodness and acceptance. If she is unable to convince her son, Meg persuades the reader of Robert's goodness by her apt analogy: "Someone said, 'I know what Time is, but I cannot tell.' That is how I am about Robert's goodness" (M 53). While this mother-and-son debate about self-knowledge, goodness, and responsibility neatly encapsulates Gee's complex treatment of these important issues, it is clear that he tends to lean towards Meg's view rather than Raymond's. For one thing, Raymond is forced to recognize Robert's unqualified generosity of spirit. More significantly, Ray's renewed interest in his uncle, resulting from the latter's casual but surprisingly insightful observation that it's difficult for a probing journalist to learn that there aren't always answers to his many questions, is perhaps Gee's way of declaring that Robert's goodness is as valid as Alfred's. Like wisdom, goodness can have many faces, even if perfection is as illusive as a dream.
Human Limitations and Possibilities
Raymond is at once right and wrong in comparing Alfred and Robert, each of whom has strengths as well as weaknesses. Robert is perhaps wrong in opting out of life just as Alfred is wrong in his inability to forgive or accept. In each case there is a contradiction between the inner world and the outer world. In his interview with Reilly, Gee says the following about his novels in general:
There's a world out there and a world in here, and they exert a gravitational pull on each other, so there are constant distortions of the inner world and the outer world. Those distortions are what I'm writing about. There's a good deal of looking in, which is towards the obsessions, and a good deal of looking out to verify what is found inside.
This process more often than not leads the protagonists, justifying Gee's can claim that "the story in my novels is the story of change" (Reilly 1). Of course, circumstances change as much as people. The kaleidoscope image, used in Plumb, might also be applied to Gee's work as a whole in its particular setting. Every shake of the kaleidoscope presents a new set of circumstances, but the overall patterns more or less remain constant. Life is precarious, unpredictable, and at best, fallible. This is particularly so in a country like New Zealand, given its colonial background and the consequent problems of identity. Gee believes that if "there was at any stage a New Zealand dream, and I doubt that, it began to crumble from the moment it was dreamed."19 There is no more perfection to be expected in the world Gee creates than in the world at large.
Lawrence Jones has astutely demonstrated how the opposition of 'New Zealand as it is' to 'New Zealand as it might worthily have been' is an important expression of a theme that crops up insistently in New Zealand fiction and how it aligns that vision with a recurrent theme of New Zealand literature, that of the 'pilgrim dream'. Like other New Zealand novelists, Gee emphasizes that the dream has not been realized, but the failure is not the fault of a narrow, materialistic society alone, for there are flaws in both the dream and the dreamer, and all are inextricably bound. There is that narrow provincial, puritanical society, the society of Hay and Cheeseman, and there is its modern, shallow suburban successor, represented by Bobby or by Becky's husband. But Gee's Men Alone who battle this society or try to escape it carry within them the seeds of their own failure, whether it is Plumb's blindness or egotism or Raymond's nihilism and anomie. Gee implies the terrible complexity of things, the lack of any easy answers. Plumb attempts to remake his society in the shape of the dream, and from the process comes Oliver, one of society's gaolers; he then attempts to withdraw from society and creates a familial Eden, only to destroy Alfred and hurt Edie. Willis withdraws from his father's garden to make his own freer one, and out of the gates of his Jerusalem comes Duggie with his need for power and manipulation (Jones, 'Trilogy' 340).
The dream is shattered at personal as well as public levels. Robert's withdrawal from society is a symptom of that shattered dream just as the leniency displayed towards Alfred's killers is a mockery of the dream of social justice. Plumb's banishing of his most promising son, like Andrew's killing of a brilliant girl, is a reflection of New Zealand as it is. The dreams of a Pastoral Paradise and a Just City result in what Jones calls a repressive provincial society based on a code of soured secularized puritanism. The failure is only confirmed by the Depression, as Plumb knows only too well:
The dream of a Utopia in the southern seas, of God's Own Country has never been more than that: a dream. Holes had been shot in it before the depression. But in the depression it rusted like an old tin can, it fell to pieces. All we had left was human kindness. Without it we would have become a nation of beasts. (P 231)
But dreams are as necessary to human beings as kindness. And if so, disenchantment and cruelty are equally inevitable.20 Gee accepts life as it is, even as he recognizes its imperfect nature. Plumb's abstractions are no more proof against disenchantment than Meg's absorption in particulars or Raymond's ambitions for literary success. All three of them, however, learn to live with the limitations within and around them; Paul Prior also finds himself a victim of the constricting environment around him, but he realizes that the fault lies as much in the society as within him; Kingsley discovers not only the limitations that his environment places on him, but also the limitations that he has placed upon himself by evading the responsibilities of choice. Like Raymond, Kingsley is caught between the constricting puritanism of his past and the free but precarious world of the future his children inhabit. As Jones says, if Miranda is the explorer of a potentially corrupting brave new world of free sex, drugs, and radical chic as experiences to be consumed, Harry Pratt is a survivor from a previous age, which provides the context of 1930s puritanism and deprivation against which to see the affluent early 1970s.21 Dreams will always be there, but dreams will often be shattered. One way or another, reality must be faced if human beings are to prosper.
Meg's narrative, with its emphasis on domesticity and family, amounts to a search for growth on a personal and human level. Her "special sight" enables her finally to arrive at understanding the ordinary rather than the miraculous. She learns to live with her own limitations as well as others'. From personal experience she gathers the "general evidence" of the "distance between us all"; and if she gains the particular knowledge of her own failure, she also learns how to deal with that sense of failure. After Alfred's death, she realizes that all that can be said is that they were brother and sister, and that she loved him, but not enough. A number of people are responsible for her lessons of acceptance, but perhaps the most surprising of them is Bluey, who views her inability to get used to Alfred's homosexuality as a lack of charity - since it detracts from Alfred's goodness. "Love him and let the rest go" is Bluey's advice to Meg, an advice he himself follows. He points out how, if he only could, he would have obliged Sutton's long-standing desire: "Roger loves me, that's the truth of it. But I just can't get my pecker up with a man." Bluey's emphasis is on love and acceptance. His simple acceptance of life in all its complexity is not lost on Meg. When she is tempted to look down on people in a busy city street "in a godlike way", or "take a sense of their pain," she refuses to do either, for she refuses to be Jove or Jesus any longer. Instead she chooses to see the people as they are, since "on that day I had a better sight and did not take shapes blurred with my feelings for real things" (M 215). While she recognizes that it is either love or man's hatred of himself that motivates human beings, she considers the difference between the two too large, if not too depressing, an issue to contemplate.
In striving to achieve clear sight Meg has to make many compromises in her life, some of which make her wonder whether she has "shrunk or grown" (M 197). Her husband is equally ambivalent about his compromises. If compromises make some people uncomfortable, the inability to compromise makes others virtually inhuman. Oliver, for instance, is materially successful, but his rigid principles make his life seem empty and insignificant to Plumb, Meg and even Raymond. On the other hand, Robert's life, almost surprisingly, turns out to be truly meaningful. Even someone like Bluey, despite the fact that he is a failure in purely worldly terms, redeems himself by his genuine love and concern for others, particularly the crippled Sutton. More surprisingly, Sutton himself has some redeeming moral qualities, beyond spiteful bitterness and contemptuous hatreds; his love for Bluey, transformed into his own peculiar communion, explains "the richness of his life"; it also proves instructive to others, especially Ray, who realizes that love takes "some twisted shapes. The betrayal I was guilty of was not worth noticing alongside Sutton's love" (SS 95). As far as Gee is concerned, then, values are almost always relative; furthermore, serious limitations can often mask implicit possibilities.
On the other hand, human strengths might conceal unexpected weaknesses. Plumb's relatively few flaws are highlighted by his prodigious strengths. His admiration of Whitman and Carpenter probably blinds him to the fact that they were as ready to go to bed with men as women, but his own son's homosexuality is too much for him to accept. Raymond shows how both his mother and grandfather "made a myth of Mirth and Willis," almost blindly believing in their natural wisdom, or their benign acceptance of things. Unlike Duggie and Ray, Meg and her father seem oblivious to the quarreling and stupidity the couple are capable of. Emerson is another example of a truly talented person with great potential weaknesses; his daring, triumphant spirit, at first unaffected by fame or the prospect of death, slowly gives way to the power of money, until he is as reluctant to face the tragic decline of that spirit as he is of his father's courageous desire to reconcile with Alfred: "Let it lie is what I say" (P 248), which seems to become the guiding principle of Emerson's later life. On the other hand, Willis approves of his father's belated desire to face reality. If Willis is, as his father claims, "a being of extreme simplicity, infinitely kind, but entirely without a moral sense" (P 201), what saves him from cynicism is his almost unlimited capacity for love. Felicity does not really suffer from cynicism either, her criticisms of the Plumbs merely betraying the fact that she dearly loves them. Hardened by experience but softened by love, she is able to advise a young, confused Ray to free himself from the limiting influences of both Duggie and Meg, and not to give up trying in life despite loss of will or enthusiasm.
That Raymond heeds this advice is reflected obliquely in his overall attitude to his children. If he unconsciously passes on to them the lessons he learns as part of his growth, the children teach him to accept life's limitations. Raymond is surprised at young Sharon's calm understanding of her mother's fixation and consequent suicide. She has her own special way of showing her contempt for both Glenda's inability to accept human imperfections and the falseness of her grandfather's character and way of life. Whereas her mother "had to die" because she suffered from a kind of vision - "Peace, perfection, light. Purity. And nothing was any good after that. Not you or me, or Gregory" - Sharon is not going to give up life so easily, being prepared to accept the reality of people as well as the reality of their limitations. Accepting her brother for what he is, she reassures the father that Gregory's unorthodox life-style is temporary but meaningful. Gregory's transformation after hearing the Word leads Raymond to the inevitable and wistful comparison: "Gregory Sole, great-grandson of a man who heard something in his youth." This is Gee's way of suggesting at once the possibilities and the limitations of human search. "Many are the pathways" might be an acceptable philosophy for young people like Sharon, but it's a luxury ill-afforded by older people like Felicity and Rose, who are predictably disappointed at the freedom Raymond allows his children. But Raymond's response to their reaction is a measure of his growth:
I did not blame them for their anger. Sharon and Gregory were nothing to please rationalist and Catholic. Yet I understood what Rose and Felicity could not: That they were at a beginning not an end. It struck me as an interesting start. The danger to their bodies troubled me more: hepatitis and dysentery and motorbike accidents. (SS 187)
Equally instructive is the resignation with which Raymond defines his past relationship with his wife: "I loved Glenda and she loved me. Love is said to be enough. It isn't. Perfect love? Another adjective. In fact, we're fallen. Let's keep that 'f' lower-case." As Trevor James says, Ray, Sharon, Gregory and Felicity - all experience something like dissolution before finding a centre for their being. Felicity becomes a Catholic only after "waste and pain"; Sharon's Eastern mysticism leads her to a guru who wants to "break me up in pieces until I really didn't exist any more"; Ray is made to confess "the past . . . broke me into pieces." James sums up by saying, "the experience of suffering that forms part of Gee's definition of humanity is given a context and shown to have the capacity to instruct, even 'redeem'… In this sense the world is cosmos and not chaos " (Trilogy' 52).
Reality and Acceptance
But to accept the world as cosmos, not chaos, is not always easy. It takes Meg, for example, a long time to learn that pain, danger, ugliness, and stupidity are as much part of life as their positive counterparts. It is through her mother's unstinting example that Meg finally manages to love, and struggle, and in the end accept - the last being the hardest, as predicted by Edie. Likewise, Robert's natural acceptance of life in all its precariousness has always been a matter of both envy and education for the sister. Meg tells us that during Alfred's funeral, "in the space of a second I re-made myself and accepted life," thanks to Robert's hand on her shoulder, Meg is thoroughly convinced that it is Robert's timely and salutary intervention that prevents her from going mad, transforming her entire outlook on life: "I have lived fairly easily since. I have toughened myself and let a good deal go" (M 207). Later, when Meg comes upon Robert sitting on his jetty in the north, amidst the warm salt water, the mud-crabs, and the mangrove trees, she thinks the scenery beautiful and appropriate. "And Sutton's death seemed right, as Robert's death would be, and mine" (M 50). Robert's close proximity to nature is as exemplary as his benign acceptance of life and death.
With his sickness pressing on him, Robert is finally prepared to return to Peacehaven to face death or anything else, which is a further lesson to Meg: "His innocence, his acceptance, made me want to cry"(M 51). She seems to have learnt to accept death, but Robert's acceptance of things at once amazes and instructs her: he "shrugged at [leaving his beloved place] and took it as his next step - so it became acceptable to me" (M 52). Even more so than their mother, in his quiet, practical way Robert teaches Meg acceptance. By contrast, her husband, Raymond tells us, dies without tranquillity or acceptance, with an inner jerkiness and disgust with death, sour recollections casting shadows on his life and making it seem of small account. (While the fear that he himself should do no better certainly complicates Ray's grief, his maturity, demonstrated in his determination to get on with life at the conclusion of Sole Survivor, augurs well for his end.) Her reaction to her father's own funeral service - which talks of light and dark, thoughts and feelings, old age and death, human task and accomplishment, divinity and immortality - is both realistic and accepting. Again, when the same service is used for Robert, the fact that some of it hardly fits Robert does not particularly disturb Meg: "It did not seem to matter. And God? And immortality? That did not matter either. Who can tell?"
Whether or not it's "all approximations and all choices," Maurice Gee, like Thoreau or George Plumb, chooses to deal with one world at a time, knowing full well that human knowledge is transferable even as it is limited. Gee's fiction as a whole is more than a series of mere chronicles or historical records. It demonstrates the complex nature of human experience by tracing the movement from innocence to experience. If there is loss, there is also gain - at least in terms of self-knowledge. If unrealistic dreams end inevitably in disappointment or cynicism, and misguided actions lead equally inevitably to their appropriate consequences, we are persuaded there are ways out of disappointment and disillusionment, however difficult those ways might be.
Talking of the limitations that persist in New Zealand society, Vincent O'Sullivan identifies "the note sounded most in New Zealand fiction: the idea that for most of us self-definition is likely to emerge from a litany of negatives, or dreams that failed, or sourness in unexpected places." Such a negative self-definition springs partly from the virtual absence of a sense of community. And yet one reason why "a sense of social fabric . . . is a rare thing in our fiction" is "[our] caginess with both definitions and allegiances."22 It is indeed a vicious circle. Twenty years earlier Allen Curnow also discussed the problems of self-definition, urging writers to "achieve a correct vision of their own time and place"; for then only is it possible to have "work of some value, or promise of permanence, written by one of ourselves and in which we recognize (however obliquely) something of ourselves" (140-49). Ever since colonization, the twin question of self-definition and belonging has constantly cropped up in New Zealand fiction, and writers have had to deal with the sense of cultural and geographical alienation, characterizing what initially was an isolated outpost of English Christian society. Trevor James suggests that Gee's fiction represents "the most sophisticated analysis and exorcism of that apprehension of alienation," and that each protagonist utilizes whatever means available to him or her to come to terms with the sense of isolation, if not "the metaphysical void."23 Puritanism, gentility and other forms of flight from reality prove to be not only the symptoms of that sense of the void but also the (unconscious) means of escape from it.
As a rule, Gee's novels end with the protagonists arriving at some sense of peace, resignation or reconciliation after undergoing pain, suffering or disillusionment. Rob Andrews and his mother look forward both to their independence from the constrictions of town and/or family and to better relationship with others; Donald Pinnock's initial assertion of independence, followed by his opting out of life, neither ends the novel nor prevents the final reconciliation between Coralie on the one hand, and Mrs Pinnock and Jean on the other; Kingsley's present, represented by his marriage, might appear to be in tatters, but he has come to terms with his neglected father - and thus his past - even as he looks forward to his future, represented by his children; Paul Prior manages to exorcise the demon of godliness from his life but not without becoming at least a partial victim of the very instrument of his freedom. Just as Paul tries to find sanctuary in his books, Plumb seeks solace in ideas, both religious and secular, only to neglect the more human aspects of his life; Meg's early romanticism is neatly balanced by Raymond's premature cynicism; but as we have seen, each of them reaches some form of reconciliation finally.
Even allowing for the ambivalence which seems to characterize the endings of some Gee novels, most of the protagonists manage to make remarkably positive adjustments to the reality around them. We can take Raymond's case as an example. Suffering from disillusion, bereft of the resources available to his mother and grandfather, he must make peace with the world around him. Trevor James is right in suggesting that at the end of Sole Survivor, the issue of belonging is given new substance; Raymond comes to terms with belonging in the world and in New Zealand. (The end of Meg makes a similar point about belonging, though in a subtler way. After Robert's funeral, Meg wonders why Felicity "could not accept whatever happened on that day" when she herself "felt the extra-ordinary happiness I had felt in the garden in San Francisco when Felicity had come out and told me we were going home to New Zealand" (M 249)). In a sense, Plumb's journey does end here in his descendants. But then, Ray earnestly plans to go to Thorpe, "the town where my grandfather fought his religious battles long ago." To state, as James does, that now there is no longer fear because the Puritan Ghost has been exorcised, is perhaps to over-state the case, if not to over-simplify it. The last dozen pages of Sole Survivor, which have been very carefully written (whatever one might say about the immediately preceding sections), neatly summarize many of Gee's central themes. "Out in the bush, in the huge silence," Ray hears "no voice, no whisper, no R. Sole," unlike in the recent past of his fractured life.
In a way, the big eel in the creek and the goats seem to belong there more than he does. And the bush "seemed to watch me with an uncaring eye and want all my memories and obsessions out of it. But I said no. I said no. I did not see why I should not stay. I belonged there as much as anything else" (SS 225). It is Ray's way of insisting that being a human being is nothing unnatural, despite his short-comings, despite the sexual images that come to him unbidden. While he regrets "the darkness that surrounds sex in my mind," he envies Hank and Jilly in the river and, significantly,"in the light" (at the beginning of the novel). But his wish to be like the young couple, without guilt or care, is perhaps as unreal as the rainbow he sees, at the end, in the curve of cliff down-river, which is "a place human will does not contaminate." His memories and obsessions, however, are important to him, otherwise there is the danger of becoming a Duggie who ignores his past as he ignores people. On the other hand, Raymond cannot afford to remain in the bush indefinitely, for that would be an abdication of responsibility. After all, goodness for him is an active thing, existing only where people are. As far as the bush is concerned, the forks are the limit of his travels. He is not sure which is the tributary and which the main river, but he has seen one "black with silt while the other runs clear as lemonade." More importantly, he realizes the forks are in fact a confluence, that is, a union rather than a division. As he knows, it is probably his imagination that enables him to smell the billy goat - "a smell of age and nature"; but then he smells "the river: eels and scouring and decomposition. It smells clean" (SS 231).
No doubt Raymond identifies himself with the nature that surrounds him and is able to make comforting connections. Nevertheless, there are mysteries: "There are connections I cannot make. For half of Duggie's life Alaric Gibbs was ticking like a bomb. And Gibbs' life? Each was a centre of a universe." If there are obvious connections between nature and human beings, human connections are not as easy to establish. If the rainbow is immune to contamination by human will, the lives of Duggie and Gibbs are not. But then, as beautiful as the rainbow might be, it is as unreal as it is uninhabitable. Moreover, human will in itself is neither good nor bad. It is, after all, Raymond's will that is responsible for his recuperation, both physically and mentally: "I don't feel like a boy, but I don't feel like a man with a high blood pressure either. I feel like a survivor. I feel like Ray, Ray Sole, Raymong, R. Sole. All of those" (SS 231). Ray is as aware of the painful complexity of life as he is of 'all of those' selves that make him what he is. It is this acceptance of his total self, no less than his will, that enables him to say, "I've got some life in me. That's what I think. So I'll get to sleep, and in the morning put my things in the car and head for Thorpe." Like leaving his feet in the creek with the large eel, he makes his crucial decision "as much out of trust as bravado." And in moving "against the population drift," to a small town where "my grandfather fought his religious battles long ago," Raymond shows as much individuality and courage as George Plumb did. It is the case of the wheel coming full circle; but it is also a case of breaking the vicious circle, to risk a mixed metaphor. For Ray is defining himself in a positive way, in an effort to gain a sense of community.
He recognizes that the ancient sound that Sharon plays on her flute is a sound contrived, and as such it cannot compete with the beautifully exact song of the rainbird. But that is no cause for disappointment. He accepts the reality of Sharon and Bella, Ch and Carlo, just as he accepts the reality of the town he is heading for. He probably realizes, if not quite explicitly as his grandfather, that since he is a man, nothing human is alien to him. Meg tells us of her father's last days, when he still manages to talk some sense:
Good and evil pressed on him. He told me that all his life his knowledge of the evil in man made him tremble with fear and loathing, just as his knowledge of good uplifted him. Orthodox theologies, he said, have a place for evil - that is one of the greatest of their attractions. We must resist that easy way. But that leaves us facing evil alone. He had never discovered how to fight it except to fight, in himself and in the world. He believed good was stronger. Faith in the end was his strongest weapon. (M 176)
And as we have seen, it is indeed faith - in humanity, that is - that motivates the grandson finally. While there are enormous differences of personality between Ray and his grandfather, there are features that bind them together, just as there are undeniable links between Alfred and his father. After Alfred's death, as Meg hurries back to Peacehaven, stars sparkle like glass in the dark night:
The soft noises of the creek made me think of Dad: streams symbolized the spiritual quest, and stars that Perfection we should one day attain. Alfred though, for all his verse-making, had seen streams as streams and stars as stars. I could not bring them together. Between them was only grieving and hatred and pain. Yet their lives had depended on each other. (M 205)
Gee's novels deal with grieving and hatred and pain, just as they speak of streams and stars and perfection; but they also deal with reality and responsibility and humanity. Recognizing that fiction cannot help but become a moral act, Maurice Gee succeeds in suggesting, if at times haltingly and not always obviously, that perhaps human lives on the whole are inter-dependent in more ways than most of us care to admit.
Abbreviations and editions used are as follows: BS = The Big Season (London: Hutchinson, 1962); Den = In My Father's Den (London: Faber, 1972); GC = Games of Choice (London: Faber, 1976); M = Meg (London: Faber, 1981); P = Plumb (London: Faber, 1978); SS = Sole Survivor (London: Faber, 1983).
2 In Games of Choice Bart Somers regards history as more of a science than an art: "It's the search for the pure incontrovertible fact. Rather like dissection. One lays each part out to see - one makes a list or an inventory. But no interpretation. No 'intuitive leap'. That's novel-writing, not history. You have heard of Toynbee, of course?" (87).
3 "The Way of the Writer." (Adapted by Gee from a Book Council lecture entitled "Where I Am, How I got Here", 1986). NZ Listener 17 Jan. 1987: 40-42.
4 "New Zealand Literature: The Case for a Working Definition." 1963. Rpt. in Essays on New Zealand Literature, ed. by Wystan Curnow (London: Heinemann, 1973): 139-54.
5 The Pelican History of New Zealand. (Rev. ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), by Keith Sinclair, who argues in his chapter entitled 'The Uncertain Seventies' that in the "turbulent decade" of the nineteen-seventies there were "few certainties to cling to" and many of the things the pioneers fought for were threatened, yet "New Zealanders seemed more sure of themselves, of their identity, of their national identity, than ever before" (322-26).
6 Lauris Edmund, "Definitions of New Zealanders: The Stories of Maurice Shadbolt and Maurice Gee," in Critical Essays on the New Zealand Short Story, ed. by Cherry Hankin (Auckland: Heinemann, 1982): 132-49.
7 Introduction. The Oxford Book of New Zealand Writing since 1945, ed. by MacDonald P. Jackson and O'Sullivan (Auckland: Oxford UP, 1983): xxxi-xxxvi.
8 Donald Hannah, "Family Chronicles: The Novels of Maurice Gee," Kunapipi III 2 (1981): 85.
9 Elizabeth Caffin, "Ways of Saying in Recent New Zealand Writing." Journal of New Zealand Literature 2 (1984): 12.
10 Manhire, Maurice Gee (Auckland: Oxford UP, 1986): 47.
11 Cited by David Hill, Introducing Maurice Gee (Auckand: Longman Paul, 1981): 54.
12 Lawrence Jones argues that there is no sense of repetition, despite the considerable overlap, "but rather a deepened understanding, for the narrators see different things or see the same things in different ways" ("The Maurice Gee Trilogy" in Landfall 38 3 (1984): 331).
13 Oliver Plumb is writing his memoirs, where his father will have no place except for the convenient fact that he trained for the law without actually practising it. Bordering on delusion, Merle Butters in her book writes blank verse dictated by her thirteenth-century beloved, Mr Fujikawa.
14 David Hill, Rev. of Sole Survivor, Landfall 37, 3 (1983): 373.
15 Colleen Reilly, "An Interview with Maurice Gee," Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 3 (Spring 1990): 1-8.
16 See The Halfmen of O (Auckland: Oxford UP, 1982): 75-77, and Manhire, Gee 10-11.
17 In the context, it can have two possible sources, one external, the other internal. If it is external to Plumb, Alfred happens to be his favourite son. But what is perhaps more shattering for Plumb is the possibility of evil having come more directly from within himself. It is rather like the fall-of-Singapore analogy used in Sole Survivor: "They had the guns pointing out to sea but the Japs came out of the jungle" (SS 223).
18 Trevor James, "Maurice Gee's Trilogy: 'An Attempt to Understand.'" WLWE 23 1 (1984): 43.
19 National Programme, Radio New Zealand, 15 June 1983 (Cited by Manhire, Gee 46).
20 If the dream is false, even harmful, it is best discarded, except that it dies hard. In this respect it is a bit like the sentimentalist in Meg: "Once it had the shape of my whole life, but now it's a dried up thing, light as a bat, hanging upside down with its feet clawed on my ribs" (M 226). Meg admits having "these attacks of sentimentality," and is glad to have them, for they are "a sign of my health." It would be unnatural to "entirely put off the habit of mind that dominated my life for thirty years" (M 57).
21 Jones, Barbed Wire and Mirrors: Essays on New Zealand Prose (Dunedin: U. of Otago P, 1987): 32-33.
22 Referring to Gee in passing, O'Sullivan finds "so many New Zealanders never wearying of returning to talk of the Depression, to the city riots, to the 1951 wharf strikes, to those few times in officially peaceful years when at least some men and women knew a sense of community through upheaval" ('Introduction' xxxii-xxxv).
23 James, "Aspects of the Bush: The Novels of Maurice Gee." London Magazine Feb.1985: 47-54.
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