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March 8, 2004 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

A Second Bunch of Books

Cities of the Plain
Cormac McCarthy
Picador, $27.95

May Week Was in June
Clive James
Picador, $27.95

We Will Not Cease
Archibald Baxter
Cape Catley Ltd., $24.99

New Zealand Painting: a Concise History
Michael Dunn
Auckland University Press, $99.99

Chuck Paluhniuk
Jonathan Cape, $34.95

It was a nice feeling to find out that I was the first person to check out Cities of the Plain from the university library, but a bit of a shame at the same time, as that Cormac McCarthy is really something when it comes to the writing business. McCarthy’s themes are as vast as the prairie they’re set on, and the final instalment of his excellent Border Trilogy tells every American tale all at once. Part revenge story, part unfulfilled dream of a self-made man, true cowboy John Grady Cole finds love, friendship, and the satisfaction of solitude not ten miles either side of the Mexican border. The speech takes some getting used to, with extended passages in Spanish scattered among the unpunctuated, uneducated cowboy drawl (think Huckleberry Finn, with even worse grammar), but McCarthy’s lyrical prose instantly warms the heart and numbs negativity. Why don’t they give us stuff like this to read in English courses? I saw Calexico play at Indigo in the hot week of December that I finished this excellent novel, and it struck me that these southern boys would make a mighty fine soundtrack for this book.

Speaking of trilogies, for Christmas I got the third, and thankfully final, part of Clive James’s autobiography, May Week Was in June. James is in Wellington for the Writers and Readers Week at the Festival, and at the very least this book helped me solve the problem of whether or not to go and see him. With huge paragraphs that sprawl lazily over too many pages, and more dodgy opinions than a first-year Philosophy tutorial, I can see why the obnoxious Ocker didn’t last long at Cambridge, and his posturing came across even worse through his blinkered hindsight.

Not to worry though, because I got the recent edition of the Kiwi classic We Will Not Cease not long after, complete with a new intro from Michael King. Where James is frivolous and full of himself, Baxter, who was subjected to outrageous tortures in France for being a conscientious objector during WWI, is a principled, considerate gentleman – so much so that he almost comes across as naïve or insincere in his unlimited capacity for the forgiveness of other humans. The enemy of any institution yet the friend of anyone in it, Baxter might lack the rhetorical polish of his son, but his detailed and honest account of his own passive resistance of psychological and physical domination at the hands of the military machine is worth anyone’s time, and argues well against the half-century of war that followed its original publication.

January saw the obligatory pilgrimage to Auckland for the Big Day Out, and I spent most of the day before it in the Auckland Art Gallery, Toi O Tamaki, which was the perfect complement to Michael Dunn’s revised and expanded edition of New Zealand Painting. Professor Dunn’s book is heavy on paintings from Auckland collections, and has no reproductions of works from overseas painters, thus giving no frame of reference to enthusiasts who might not be familiar with the classics from Duccio to Duchamp. And this book seems aimed at amateurs: there are no footnotes, nor is there any real space to develop in-depth analyses of the artists and institutions that have made up the history of New Zealand paintings. Moreover, Dunn’s prose is, bland, formal, and, well, dun. He writes as if it’s an effort to muster up some passion about some of the country’s finest cultural artifacts. As an introduction to New Zealand painting it’s concise and broad in its coverage, but New Zealand Painting would be best enjoyed in small doses as an hors-d’oeuvre.

Another American novel finished my recreational reading for the summer on something of a sour note. Like his earlier cult hit Fight Club, the more I probed Paluhniuk’s Diary, the more I realised that he’s got about as much substance as a pint of Speight’s: he might have struck a chord with angry young men, but there’s no way that he passes for sophisticated literature. That in itself is no crime, but the laboured plot – about a conspiracy on the former white-collar paradise, but now economically crippled community that is the fictional Waytansea Island – threw my suspension of disbelief out of the window. (It didn’t survive the fall.) Trite aphorisms repeated ad nauseum, about artists needing to suffer to create anything beautiful etc., ruined it even more. The potentially interesting form – a second-person diary narrative addressed to the protagonist’s husband, who is in a coma – was completely undone by a final page so lame I though it was a joke. It wasn’t: the whole book was.


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