CK STEAD The Name on the Door is Not Mine: stories new and selected. Reviewed by Carmel Bird
Stead’s short stories contest truth and identity – and feature a winged man, scary women, and a hint of Edna Everidge.
One of the most important elements of a short story is its structure. In these 12 pieces gathered from across the lengthy and illustrious literary career of New Zealander CK Stead, structure is the key. Chekhov’s rule about the gun on the wall is elegantly (and literally) observed in ‘Determined Things to Destiny’. These stories are in the category of what is often described as ‘literary fiction’, where the suspense doesn’t rely on plot alone. I hope I can be forgiven for revealing the history of the gun on the wall in this story, for in any case the structure has already handed the information to the reader. The main female character, brilliant scientist Claudia Strange, is reported as dead early in the narrative. Then a bit later the gun she keeps on her at all times is revealed. In the end the reader learns that in a moment of jealous despair she ‘went to bed with her little handgun under her pillow’ and later ‘she shot herself in the head’. (The gun on the wall in the title story is, however, never discharged.)
Claudia’s surname could have been the surname of several female characters in the collection, for women here are inclined to suffer from a range of delusions, sometimes described in the text as ‘madness’. While most narrators here are men, a woman tells the story of ‘A Fitting Tribute’. She keeps insisting that her personal story of her famous lover Julian Harp, who made wings for himself and flew away never to be seen again, is factual. Oddly enough she says she doesn’t ask the reader to believe her, but adds ‘in every detail the story I am going to tell is gospel true’. The nifty trick in this story is that according to this woman, everybody believes the story of the flight, heralding Julian as a hero, while nobody believes he is the father of her child. So what is the reader to believe? Is she fabricating everything after all? For some unexplained reason, this story is dedicated to Barry Humphries, and there is a character in one of the other stories, ‘It was the Best of Times, it was the Worst of Times’, who brings to mind a Humphries-type character.
This is Clarry Shrimpton, an old man who is dying and who trusts the narrator, a novelist, to put his bets on at a TAB in Sydney. The novelist appoints himself as Clarry’s secret bookie, makes a bit of money out of it, but in the end is overcome by conscience and pays up when Clarry is on his deathbed. The novelist comes from New Zealand and in fact despises Australia, has ‘never known a country so bloated with self-regard’. Clarry, for all his racism regarding ‘Poms, Americans, Chinese, New Zealanders, Tasmanians’, displays a certain amount of refreshing common sense. He tells the rather sad and unadventurous novelist, ‘You root, you’re happy. You don’t root, you’re not’. The novelist seems to be considering this advice when, after Clarry’s funeral, he has coffee with Clarry’s daughter Alice. But his timidity surfaces, and he says of her ‘I’m still a little nervous of those faintly blue-tinted spectacles’. Women are mostly mad or scary. There might be a hint of Edna Everidge in those spectacles. I must add here that the narrator-novelist comments: ‘Everyone is tired, I am told, of the novel about the novelist writing a novel.’ CK Stead is clearly showing here that he intends to go ahead with his writers writing about writing.
Many of the narrators and characters are writers or academics, unlucky in love, yearning sometimes unconsciously for a partner. In ‘Last Season’s Man’ the narrator describes a married couple as ‘that unfashionable but mysteriously powerful unit’. Writers lead ‘nice safe boring literary’ lives, and the accent is on the literary. For their imaginations constantly fly to quotes from world literature, ranging across time from Shakespeare onwards to Les Murray, Saussure, Foucault. ‘It was the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” ’, says the narrator of ‘Determined Things to Destiny’ (the title itself a quotation from Antony and Cleopatra ). And he goes on to explain that everything he sees in England has literary echoes:
… as if the showering orange woods, the discreet streams and hills, the cropped fields and thatched villages had come into existence as illustrations of famous books and poems, rather than the other way about.
Readers might need a Masters in Literature before embarking on this collection – or else a willingness to stop reading often and google.
The locations of the stories range across the world, but New Zealand is always the reference point, the psychological home of the collection’s sensibilities. It is ‘that green dark under-region of rain and cows’. And rain is almost a given in any story. Delightfully, the man who flew used the ribs from stolen umbrellas to make the frame of his wings. And the ‘mad’ woman narrator ends by saying:
But if you ever came out of a building and found your umbrella missing you might like to believe my story because it may mean you contributed a strut to the wings that carried him aloft.
Truth and identity are contested in the title story. In a campus narrative that is almost a novella, a writer and academic from New Zealand, visiting a Canadian university, acquires ‘respectability’ in his field of literature by promoting the works of a local poet who may or may not be dead. The plot is pleasantly convoluted, and in the happy ending the narrator winds up with an upgrade to business class on his flight home to New Zealand.
The matter of identity is highlighted by the cover image on the book. This is from a work by a well-known New Zealand painter of alarming portraits, Henrietta Harris. (It is worth googling her, too.) The carefully painted face of a young man is blotted out with splodges of pink paint. His eyes look out at the viewer; his lips are soft and slightly parted. I found this image so successfully disturbing I covered the book in brown paper in order to read it. There is much about art, statues and museums across the stories, and the man who gets the upgrade to business class likes to talk about movies, too. He says: ‘Anything can look like a movie of itself – ie unreal.’ And this thought articulates a quality of the stories. The writing is essentially ‘realist’ yet the reality that is composed is often located close to what is classified as ‘surreal’.
CK Stead The Name on the Door is Not Mine: Stories new and selected Allen & Unwin 2016 PB 304pp $32.99
Carmel Bird is the author of 30 books, including novels, collections of short fiction, and books on writing, such as Dear Writer Revisited and Writing the Story of Your Life. Her most recent novel is Family Skeleton. In 2016 she received the Patrick White Award.
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