Thoughts on the Ockhams

I’m going to rip into a long delayed round of reviews – or at least responses -to novels I’ve read over the past year. Starting with a response to the novels nominated for Ockham NZ Book Awards for 2016, just in time for the new longlist to be announced in November.

To quote myself:

Mostly though, I think I’ll veer towards reviewing for a bit. Works of note, hidden gems. NZ books, yes, but not only, and especially those with something to say. Starting with an appraisal of the NZ Book Awards longlist for 2016. I was, of course, eligible (and not nominated) so reading the chosen works this year has been interesting… to say the least.

The delay stems mostly from most of my time being taken up with the planning and assessing, and documenting, that is the workload of the modern NZ classroom teacher.

The additional problem I found is that when I actually read most of the novels, I did not really feel inclined to bother reviewing them. Now, they were all “good”, at least to a technical degree, hence being longlisted.  But, whatever the various strengths of the novels, I was more interested in exploring the texts’ flaws, which often held a lot more interest for me than the story being told. But I didn’t want to write x-hundred words and have it all come out like critique: not unless that book is impervious and I still recommend reading it anyway. That’s not a review, nor a fair reflection of the text itself.

So, flag that.

I suppose what I really underwent in reading the longlist was an appraisal of my interests and tastes versus those of the Ockham Award judges.

*

Not a fan

Upon reading, I discovered I was not a fan of most these novels. I did not enjoy them. I did not have my imagination captured by these texts: not enough to complete reading two, or overlook the flaws in the execution from two others.

In counterpoint, I’d assert the judges obviously were fans of their longlisted texts, making the issues with the texts, for them, non-existent or forgiveable.

Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) – Winner
The Chimes by Anna Smaill (Hodder & Stoughton)
Chappy by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House) (shortlisted) DNF
The Back of His Head by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press) (shortlisted) DNF
The Legend of Winstone Blackhat by Tanya Moir (Penguin Random House)
The Invisible Mile by David Coventry (Victoria University Press) (shortlisted)
Reach by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Random House)
The Pale North by Hamish Clayton (Penguin Random House)
The Antipodeans by Greg McGee (Upstart Press)
Astonished Dice: Collected Short Stories by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press)

I did not read all of the longlist: the ones in grey, I chose not to. Some I just couldn’t get my hands on at the right time. I enjoyed Clayton’s Wulf, so will check out The Pale North at some point, and The Antipodeans – I like the premise, and the idea of reading all three of the “rogue” publishers. Not for me, but here’s a review of Reach, too.

As someone who had good skin in the game this one year, the biggest disappointment was seeing a collection of previously published short stories make the list. First, short stories are a fundamentally different text – they honestly did not have enough novels to choose from? And previously published? Now if they were irrefusable, something world-changing like George Saunders, fine – but they didn’t even make the shortlist.

Of the remaining six, there were two reads I found most frustrating. I can see why the judges were fans of them, but to me, they were not wholly successful as texts.
The Legend of Winstone Blackhat had some lovely writing and imagery, particularly in the wind-blown wasteland of the protagonist’s cinema-inspired Western alternate reality. The story tackles a subject of real importance in NZ culture. But. The monotone misery of the boy’s actual life lacked vitality, and its telling simply did not ring true. Poverty and abuse are serious topics and I didn’t feel the author had anything authentic to say.

The other was The Invisible Mile. Coventry creates some lovely sentences and images, tending towards stream-of-consciousness, and the story concept is full of ambition, a drug-fuelled narrator reconstructing his life, that of others, some whole chunks of history while riding the Tour de France. Put those two strengths together and perhaps you can imagine the problem.
Among other things, this book seriously needed editing. At least one more draft. The key issue is that the narrator is insufficiently defined, and his lack of identity – indicative or mingled with a lack of authorial clarity -means we get a load of redundant digressions, internal commentary and orphaned “darlings” in often scatter-shot fashion. I found the writing was best and most readable when the narrative was grounded in a scene, in interaction, and this did not happen often enough. As such, the view of the Tour de France, and the world around him, lacked selection or focus. Some might say this jumble was artistic. For me, the text failed to communicate.

*

The Chimes

The Invisible Mile demands attention principally because it was shortlisted, taking the place of, in my view, a superior novel: Anna Smail’s The Chimes. This text was also ambitious, also unfortunately flawed, but to nowhere near the same degree. Indeed, the first half of the text approaches perfection. Yes, I am a huge fan of this novel. It achieves so much, was so readable, did something so new that despite its flaws, it deserves attention.

A London where memory and words are replaced by song, wiped out by the Chimes. This world is beautifully realised, developed layer-on-layer as our hero, Simon, acclimatises to this new city he has entered, only to be constantly disrupted by the systematic erasure of memory – whereon Smaill uses her musical knowledge and artistry to smooth over this narrative complication and we are awed all over again. This is the aspect most reviews focus on, it is where the literary merits and the fantasy storytelling is strongest. If only Smaill had allowed her narrative – with Simon, Lucien, the pactrunners, hunted by the Order – to just stay there, resolve the tale within the city-world she had so powerfully constructed.

Unfortunately, instead of just having her characters survive the imposing world she’d created, she sent them off to destroy The Order and save the world. Smaill’s writing holds up, and the finale will not dismay, but to get to her end, the story becomes ever more convenient and contrived. In the Chimes, the thrall in which the Order held the world was terrifyingly convincing; so the relative ease of Simon’s adventures away from the city makes the oppression of London suddenly seem a Potemkin Village. Those of us who have read and written speculative fiction and SFF know that the bigger you build up the evil, the more you have to do to earn the right to pull it down, and it is damned hard to justify pulling off in the second half of a single book. These stories don’t typically run to trilogies just for royalties and movie rights.

My other mild disappointment was that I had, at a couple of points, thought Smaill was having a shot at the role of the media in our public discourse (the fuckers). The Chimes wipe history, meaning and context, and leave only select repeated truths, creating “an eternal present”; and this chimes with the literary criticism of those such as Frederic Jameson who argue that the establishment media perform the same as a function of late capitalism.  However these thoughts were always dispelled only a few pages later, and the story makes it very plain that the Order are misguided Utopians. This is disappointing because, despite the trope, human existence is certainly not, nor has ever been, in danger of misguided Utopians. Resource-swallowing combines and selfish, greedy, imperialist elites remain the Monster of the Day.

The Chimes is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a reader. I wish it had been that bit more perfect, because, yes, let the “London” setting disarm the collective prejudices (and hook a UK publisher, a great strategy), but this is straight, great fantasy. There is no intrinsic connection to the contemporary world, just character, and humanity and adventure in the best SFF tradition, and it’d be nice to see NZ publishers and readers start backing those qualities straight off the bat.

*

Coming Rain; daylight second

In my view, what Smail attempted, and achieved, eclipsed all but one other that I’ve read from the longlist. Two books I did not finish: Chappy because while the concept was interesting, I found the writing lacked texture, with not enough detail to let me into the world; whereas I enjoyed the busy style of Back of his Head, but simply wasn’t hooked in by the story. They seemed strong texts, just not my cup of tea.

Coming Rain, though, I read before it was declared the winner, and the sheer pleasure of it was like the sun bursting through the eponymous veil.

Pitch perfect prose. A simple period story told with intimate knowledge and detail. I wouldn’t change a thing. My only query over this text is that it’s more of a 1-act play padded out with a parallel narrative; there is no arc of transformation that I’d typically expect of a novel.  But that is only relevant as a judging criteria, had it been necessary to compare more thoroughly with the other nominated texts: it wasn’t. We recognise the characters; we anticipate what will happen; this was far and away the most riveting read on the list, and while others showed more ambition, no one else came as close to perfection in executing their vision. I’m reminded of John Banville when he won the Booker for “The Sea”: he was pleased to see “an art book” rewarded, and this is the same.

*

A judge’s duty

My verdict then, is less on these novels than on the merits of the first Ockham NZ Book Awards themselves. They got the winner right, from my reckoning. It’s interesting to me there was such a convergence of publishers this year, yet my best two texts came from overseas. With the publishing industry in such straits, the longlist is important to NZ authors. It is valuable marketing space. If it is a benchmark of quality, it has to have integrity. Or why have it?

This all ties in to the swirling murk that is the “Is NZ fiction boring?” debate that surfaced again this past week as a result of the Book Council report into reader attitudes to our fiction. My answer: well, yes, it’s going to look “boring” if the stories that get published and promoted and celebrated consistently represent a narrow wedge of interests and tastes. Of fans.

And so I come to my conclusion. If we accept that most novels are flawed – that’s not controversial, certainly if you are looking at as small a pool as NZ fiction – then that’s where the judges really begin to earn their bacon, as close, critical readers.Not just as fans.

I was not a fan of Chappy or Back of his Head. However, I could see their clear literary qualities, and had I been an Ockham judge it would have been my duty to not put down those books, not act like a fan. Weigh their merits clearly against my fan-love of The Chimes. Put aside prejudice and respect not the author, or publisher, or genre, but the text. 

Yes, it’s a small a pool in NZ. We will not get 10 works of literary fiction of the standard of Coming Rain every year, not like the Booker. So quality “genre” novels – (what the fuck is genre? a matter for another time) – should inevitably make that list some years. By considering that there might be quality writing beyond the bailiwick of the “lit fic” genre conventions the judges would raise the diversity of the longlist at the same time as populating it with more wholly successful works.

Now it’s 2017. The judges have been named. Their longlist is announced on 22nd of November. I am sure they’ll do their best. It’s always going to be apples v oranges v tomatoes, but that is what they are paid for.

I just hope to hear one of them say, “I’m not a fan of all the books on this list, but I’m damn proud to have put them there.”

 

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