Tuesday, 1 December 2015

My first 'adult' book | an essay on Maurice Gee's MEG by Holly Hunter

We welcome Holly Hunter, fresh from the Whitireia Diploma in Publishing, who will be joining our team in February for a six-month internship. Holly edited The Plays of Bruce Mason this year as part of her course work. 

She has written about her long-standing affection for the novel Meg by Maurice Gee in this essay, which she has kindly allowed us to post here.

Holly Hunter (photo supplied)
I was sixteen when I stole Meg from my parents’ bookshelf. Since then, Maurice Gee’s Plumb trilogy has travelled with me to Wellington, weathering five relocations and four suburbs. It wasn’t as though my discovery that day was particularly fortuitous; aside from Dad’s mid-life love affair with Herman Hesse, my parents’ bookshelf was mostly non-fiction, and not the good sort – medical encyclopaedias, atlases, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

I had resorted to their collection out of boredom, my own books exhausted – as well as my brother’s, and the ones I’d checked out of the library. We lived rurally, so there wasn’t much else to do. Meg was a faded Penguin classic, a 1983 reprint of the 1981 book. It was thin (a quick read), had a woman on the front (I was, at that point, under the impression all adult books were about men) and ‘Maurice Gee’ slapped in large type across the cover, a name I’d only heard of. I didn’t realise until later that Meg was the second in a trilogy, and soon after finishing it I read Plumb and Sole Survivor. Reader, we married.

When I reread Meg now, I can’t single out the root of my original affection, which would eventually see it take a permanent place on the revolving list of ‘favourite books’ I cite when I’m asked that tricky question. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to pin down why one book touches you more than another, and it’s this I want to write about: why a critical awareness of how you feel while reading a text is so crucial an element to the usually technical practice of editing. 

Meg was the first ‘adult’ book I read, which, to me, meant the characters were old, but also that the book dealt with adult themes: family, endurance, fortitude, tolerance, inheritance and growing old. The story centres on Meg, daughter of Reverend Plumb (of Plumb) and mother of Raymond Sole (of Sole Survivor). As with most of what is selectively titled ‘New Zealand literature’, plot and story are secondary to themes. Meg nurses her brother Robert during his last years, the Plumb siblings are torn, and then reunited over their brother’s sexuality, Meg, spoken of as ‘sentimental’, is oddly unsentimental as she encourages her husband to run away with a younger woman. Nothing comes to a head, but tides change and you finish the book feeling as though you’ve walked through a life. There are no happy endings, no morals to take away – only experiences that leave shapeless but definitive impressions. The book leaves you feeling, not thinking.

What strikes me now is that I was able to connect with Meg in ways I couldn’t with Plumb, simply because Meg is a woman. She’s not a strong feminist character, and she is written almost exclusively in relation to male family members who are granted greater agency. Unlike Plumb or Sole Survivor, our eponymous character is confined to domesticity. Her life before marriage, however, is one of adventure in the fertile orchards of Peacehaven, a sharp contrast to the skeletal grounds she later inherits in the book’s narrative present. By intermittently diving into Meg’s childhood recollections and then surfacing to this underwhelming present, the book carries an anticlimactic sense of lost innocence and disappointment. I guess it’s no surprise my punk sixteen-year-old self was morbidly fascinated with the idea that a woman’s prospects were grim. Nonetheless, there is some limited hope at the end of Meg; hope that Meg’s husband will return to her and that they will live out an enduring, though passionless, love. Meg is not the love story I expected it to be. It’s a story about love.

Gee returns to the word ‘sentimental’ again and again to describe Meg, though it’s never noted how strong, rational and steadfast she is. But it’s sentimentality that separates her from her siblings, who grow into caricatures. I love that Gee treats sentimentality in a way other New Zealand writers had maybe not considered before the 80s. Sentimentality seems to be an underrated quality, tossed aside along with other traditionally ‘feminine’ traits, but it’s something I’ve found essential to my work this year and in my studies. Part of editing is intuition, feeling language, riding the wave and ensuring it reaches the shore. That shore, in its academic treatment, is called affect. A text’s affect is an amorphous emotional or political pull on the reader that happens somewhere between the page and the reader’s reaction. I’ve found that being aware of how a text makes you feel, following your instinct towards a more technical response, is so valuable when editing – mediated with self-discipline, self-awareness and perspective, of course. Something can be technically wrong, but still feel right. Being able to unpack affect and take a look at how it is rhetorically constructed is one reason I’m so compelled by editing and the editing process. Conducting all those different instruments simultaneously while assessing or editing is my favourite kind of challenge. Gee has stated in interviews his struggles to achieve a narrative ‘wholeness’,1 and I believe editors can help authors bring that wholeness into being by using a wholeness of skills, technical as well as emotional.

I was interning at Victoria University Press this year when the Maurice Gee biography was published, and when I left, I was allowed to take a copy. At morning tea one day, Kirsten and Ashleigh talked about how Maurice Gee had been their initiation into New Zealand literature. While Meg was, for me, a gateway into any adult literature, it was also my first real encounter with New Zealand literature’s pastoral nostalgia. I think it speaks to the passive influence of this country’s cultural mythology that the idea of a rustic Kiwi lifestyle still carries such strong potential for affect within it. My favourite online writer, Mallory Ortberg of The Toast, joked last year that cosiness is the most underrated literary quality. The Peacehaven of Meg’s youth appeals to me because it seems so quaint and cosy, and though a part of me wishes I were a more globally minded citizen, Meg is representative of my love of New Zealandness in literature. While eventually I want to work in publishing overseas, I also want to help produce quality local literature, and to be there as it continues developing from its rural focus into something more globally relevant and visible.

In her biography of Gee, Rachel Barrowman exposes how much of the Plumb trilogy mirrors Gee’s own life and family. Meg is Gee’s mother Lyndahl, and Gee is Raymond; ‘memory flows into fiction . . . dream and story echo and overlap’.2 It’s only fitting, then, that I stole Meg from my parents’ bookshelf. Maybe I didn’t inherit the book the way Meg inherits Peacehaven, or the way culturally significant books are normally handed down, but I feel that the Plumb trilogy is a part of my literary inheritance as a New Zealander and has shaped how I read and edit with head and heart. I’m not embarrassed to acknowledge my attachment to Meg is largely sentimental and nostalgic. Those qualities, I think, are the strengths of our canon.

1. Vivien Van Rij, ‘The Pursuit of Wholeness in Maurice Gee’s O Trilogy’, International Research in Children’s Literature 3.2 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 148.

2. Rachel Barrowman, Maurice Gee: Life and Work (Wellington: Victoria University Press. 2015), 286.

If you want to know more you can buy this book here!

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