|Bill Manhire signs at the Unity Books launch (photo courtesy of Matt Bialostocki)|
Last year I was in Palmerston North for a reading and before it began I was approached by an older woman who said, ‘Hello Damien, you won’t remember me but I’m Noeline Arnott.’ And I said, ‘Well of course I do remember you, you won the Mobil Short Story Contest in 1989 when I was one of three finalists along with Barbara Anderson.’ And she said, ‘Yes that’s right.’ And she smiled shyly and then she said, ‘And in the 1986 American Express Short Story Award I beat Bill Manhire too!’
That anecdote doesn’t really have much to do with this wonderful book we’re celebrating except I re-read these stories in a kind of nostalgic delirium. 25 years ago the short story was obviously corporate clickbait – though we didn’t have that word then. Petroleum companies and credit card businesses believed – bless them – that acts of fiction were somehow sufficiently aligned with commerce to throw some fairly lavish parties and sizeable wads of cash at people who could write 3000 words about invented worlds. And Bill, like all of us, like our dear friend Barbara Anderson, was in like a robber’s dog. Sadly for Barbara and me and Bill, Noeline Arnott cleaned up. Still, heady days! I find it strangely powerful that Noeline’s winning entry when Bill came second was called ‘Relics from an ancient tomb.’
The problem, or better, the joy, was that Bill’s short stories never quite behaved like magazine fiction. They sailed close and sometimes pretended to be in the world where characters had epiphanies and life’s little ironies were revealed in slices as if falling from a sharp and sympathetic butcher’s knife. But really, no.
I remember asking Bill about a line in one of his poems, why he’d done a certain thing or what he intended by it – this was in an MA class a few years ago, he was a guest writer – and he sort of looked surprised at the suggestion—almost as if he hadn’t written the poem and I had the wrong man—and then he just shrugged and said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ And later he said that if it were a toss-up between meaning and sound, he’d go with sound every time. He’d go with the music of a line.
There’s an amazing moment in ‘Days of Sail’, one of the elusive and enchanting stories in this book when the narrator, who lives with his aunt—a woman who may or may not be involved in an assassination attempt on the Queen during her 1981 visit to Dunedin—reflects on their relationship, or his life, or his mode of being in the world, the line sort of erupts and then sinks again . . . here’s the sentence: ‘She says that I am her beautiful boy but I am one of those songs in which the melody gives advice to the words. I sing the song of circumstance, I do as the tune tells me.’
I do as the tune tells me . . .
It’s not a bad way to approach this book – to listen for the tune as much anything. Because while it’s true that these beguiling, discomforting stories take many strange and sudden turns, I was struck all over again by how hummable they are, how they stick to the ear and the mind. You walk across these pages with the sense that a great swallowing crevasse can take you down at any moment but the trick is that you end up, like come daft mountaineer, wanting the sensation of falling. You look forward to being that cartoon character who continues running even though he’s in mid-air, about to plummet. You want to hear the mad mournful music of that descent.
These stories, the bulk of which come from that period I was talking about, the late 80s, early 90s, can look like a weird interruption to the glorious march of Bill’s poetry. A holiday, a detour—as if the writer was mugged or drugged and woke up to find himself living with a different tribe of cannibals—would he ever get home again? But the continuities are everywhere—for one thing there are lots of poets in these stories—none of whom come out of it very well—Bill relishes the opportunity fiction gives him to castigate, satirise, and generally beat the living daylights out of anyone who has the temerity to announce the poetic calling. I think fiction allows him to be off-duty about a thing that he values the most. And there are lots of poems, or snatches of verse in these stories. The repeating bell of song seques very nicely into Bill’s current musical adventures. More than this, any reader of Bill’s poems will notice in his fiction the pull of his generative material: Antarctica, the moon, country music, masturbation, Southland—maybe those are actually all the same thing! You’ll also be struck again by Bill’s peerless ability at phrase-making, so much a part of his poems; great-sounding lines leap up all the time: ‘. . . we live in the broad Pacific, meeting and parting shake us, meeting and parting shake us, it is always touch and go.’ I think that sounds like a much better slogan than Absolutely Positively whatever. Because these are also highly civic stories somehow, intensely concerned with how we name things, how power is distributed, how the world is divided up and what gets lost in that process. They take aim at the fatuous, the bland, the banal and the bully.
These stories were my education when they first appeared. They taught me about timing and verve and recklessness. They were like hand grenades lobbed into NZ Lit which when they went off covered you in confetti. Re-reading them, it turns out nostalgia doesn’t really do it. Because these stories, no matter if characters in them play magnetic Scrabble on long-distance flights—remember that!—remain fresh acts of rebellion.
Finally there's a bit of a masterstroke in this book and I think we can thank Fergus for this. The last ‘story’ here is in fact Bill’s great essay about his childhood. And coming to that after the short stories delivers a body blow. It’s like going behind the curtain and catching the magician changing into his civvies.
Let me say just one thing about how this works. We’re so used to these scraps of song in the fiction, many in a comic register, for example:
It was down by the old Clutha River
That river so famous in song
That Colin fell in love with Maria
But he didn’t make love to her long.
We’re so used to that mode that that to meet a song again but this time one which belongs to Maisie – Bill’s Scottish mother – is extraordinary. The essay begins with these four lines:
I left my baby lying here,
Lying here, lying here;
I left my baby lying here
To go and gather blaeberries.
We’re so used to voices – one of the stories here is ‘Ventriloquial’ – about throwing voices – it’s another level of delight and affect to learn that when Bill went to school he had his mother’s Scottish accent. I just find that so cool. For me these little connections made the whole book tremble a little – or I trembled a little.
There's a dizzying, cosmic joke playing out here – to be born in this strange place New Zealand to a couple, one of whom was, well, under the influence most of the time and the other who spoke funny and had come 12,000 miles – and then to discover that somehow, among all the powerful forces of Southland, you’re attached to poetry, it’s not hard to imagine a fairly weighty inheritance of alienation.
I think of these stories as ludic on the outside but ferocious in their hidden centres. They are full of jokes and japes about being a New Zealander, being in the South Pacific, being Hank Mushroom. But their engine is a furious melancholy. Or sometimes just fury. Here’s the narrator of ‘The Moon at the End of the Century’: ‘The thing is saving money. How to get enough. How to amass. And how to do this poetry job without yawning . . .’ and the narrator thinks of places to escape to . . . ‘Sydney would be a great place . . . But even Wellington would do. I’ve got to get off the South Island somehow. It’s full of missionaries. It slopes downwards. It’s so fucking cold at the bottom.’
We're all so pleased Bill got off the South Island and settled among us. Here he is!
The Stories of Bill Manhire is available in good bookshops and through our online bookstore now. h/b, $40.