Duncan McLean is a writer and publisher living on the Orkney Islands in Scotland. He travelled to New Zealand, drawn by the books of Frank Sargeson – and discovered the forgotten man of New Zealand writing, Craig Marriner.
I first encountered Frank Sargeson in Jane Campion’s film An Angel at my Table. It was quite a hit on the art-cinema circuit in Scotland (which for a long time consisted of two cinemas.) We recognised the windy, sheep-infested landscapes of the southern South Island. And the Scottish name and wildfire hair of its central character, Janet Frame, were familiar too. The accents were strange, of course, and when the action went up to Takapuna it all got a bit warm, a bit sub-tropical. And that was when the Sargeson made his appearance.
He was just a bit player in the movie, swanning about with what looked like an old curtain wrapped around his privates while Janet’s redneck father backed away from him in terror. Naked male flesh! And drinking a bottle of Claret! At 10 in the morning!
Preparing to come to New Zealand this January, I drew up a list of ‘Books to Keep Eyes Peeled For.’ While I was here, I scoured bookshops both new and second-hand and managed to cross quite a few classics off my list: The Scarecrow, Sydney Bridge Upside Down, Potiki, and a couple of Sargeson titles I’d never found in the UK.
But I’d also given myself the vaguer task of picking up some current fiction that seemed to be carrying on the spirit of Sargeson, as I understood it. This proved more difficult. Sure, there were loads of novels and short story collections piled up in gleaming rows, but time after time I found the prose dull and lifeless. Highly polished, immaculately punctuated, but lacking the scratchy, lived-in texture of Sargeson’s best work.
Was it something to do with every author being either a creative writing graduate, or else a creative writing teacher? That seemed to be a common thread on the book jacket bios for writers who were otherwise very varied. Had academia polished all the scratchiness out of them?
After a look around the Sargeson bach, courtesy of Graeme Lay and the Takapuna Library, I spent a sunny afternoon in Devonport, picking up a few good dead writers in Bookmark, but no good living ones. I had time to fill before the ferry, so was chuffed to find a second-hand bookshop out on the wharf – even if it seemed to be going through some kind of slow-motion seismic event, with books of all categories heaping up and tumbling down in no apparent order.
Graeme had described his old friend Frank’s room as a bohemian clutter of books, papers and food that grew chaotic, filthy, and finally composted, as Frank became unable to look after himself. The wharf shop was at the chaotic stage. As I inched through the tottering maze of New Zealand books – which must be a metaphor for my daring to write about the subject – one caught my eye, sliding down a slope of literary debris between crime and general fiction. It was a chunky paperback with a wannabe street-smart cover: Stonedogs by Craig Marriner.
A quick glance inside convinced me it was vaguely my kind of thing, and what’s more the right length to fill at least half the return flight to Scotland in a week’s time. And my pal Irvine Welsh got a mention on the back. Okay. Say no more.
Fast forward to me in seat 37E, flying towards LA, then London. First of all, I watched the whole of a lovely documentary series put together by the Central Otago Tourist Board. What was it called? Oh aye, Top of the Lake. Then I read Stonedogs.
I suppose it was New Zealand’s answer to Trainspotting, at least in the eyes of its publisher, Vintage. It had a similar interest in serious drugs and sudden violence, and a similar cast of young lads bound together by desperation and loyalty. But my summing up seemed immediately inadequate, for in truth I was reminded not just of Welsh, but of Frank Sargeson too. Stories like “A Great Day” where the two mates go out fishing and one murders the other. Or “I’ve Lost My Pal” – a bizarre tale of dog strangling, child abuse, murder. For that matter, how about the novella That Summer: a sordid carnival of crime, degeneracy, and sexual deviance. (I love it.)
Stonedogs came out in 2001, and was a big hit by all accounts still visible online: it sold loads, a film deal was rumoured, and it won a big NZ prize. That amazes me. Not because it wasn’t good, and deserving of praise, just because it was so flailing and brash and wild and rude. Trainspotting never won anything – except the hearts and minds of a generation, ha ha. (And the enduring affection of the accountants at Jonathan Cape and Miramax.)
What’s the story with New Zealand and literary prizes, by the way? They seem to be flying around like primary school sports day certificates. Damien Wilkins “won the Whiting Writers Award and the 2008 New Zealand Post Mansfield Award.” Laurence Fearnley was a “Category Winner in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.” “In both 2013 and 2015 [Frankie McMillan] won the New Zealand Flash Fiction Award.” Hera Lindsay Bird “won the 2011 Adam Prize.” And “Steve Braunias has won nearly 30 journalism awards, as well as the New Zealand Post Book Award for Non-fiction, the New Zealand Society of Authors’ EH McCormick Best First Book Award” etc etc etc. (All that from the random small stack of NZ books in front of me right now.)
In a letter Sargeson wrote to a friend, he lambasts the literary prize culture, arguing that giving placatory gongs was no substitute for allowing writers to make a proper professional living from their work. But still it goes on… I see a new one just announced, the Michael Gifkins Award for an Unpublished Novel. Well, good luck to all who enter, and good karma to all those putting up the dosh. But somewhere under a loquat tree in Takapuna, the ashes of Frank Sargeson are doing a little dance of despair.
Reading Stonedogs was like reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: so viscerally exciting that it was painful. I could hardly bear to turn the pages, but I had to, I was hooked. There are lumps in the prose, as there are in Trainspotting: it doesn’t all slip down smoothly. But that doesn’t matter: every page, every sentence, almost, is bursting with energy. Look, I’ll prove it; I’ll open a page at random. Okay, page 43, mostly dialogue:
“[The tabs] we had that night in The Freezer were Snowflakes, but I know for a fact there’s none of them in town at the moment. There might be a few Cobras around, though. Mick? Trudy got any Cobs right now?”
“How ‘bout Pete, Gator?”
“Na, man, he’s got fuck all of anything.”
Barry, to Amanda: “Are ya’s after anything in particular?”
“Not really. We’re just sick of booze and blow.”
Smiling: “Amen to that.”
Let me see if there’s any narrative stuff, randomly. Okay, top of page 228. Oh aye: this is where the team of young guys are driving into the forestry plantation to launch their audacious drug heist under the very noses of the ruthless gang bosses. The omens haven’t been good. There’s a sense of impending doom, for the reader at least – though for the characters the dread is still largely repressed. What does the narration say?
We pass blocks recently logged, reduced to stumps and torn earth, piles of dead waste.
Rows of infant trees.
Blocks in mid-liquidation, the Juggernaut’s pall-bearers hulking in condemned shadows, genocide stayed while the death squads recharge.
Swiss fairytale to mangled abattoir in one fell metre.
“One fell metre’”– clever! And “mangled abattoir” – poetry. The novel is uneven, but for long passages through the whole epic story, the narrative and the dialogue are so masterfully crafted I want to shake Marriner by the hand, and then have a close look at that hand to study his callouses and work out how he holds his pen to write this well. The language is so dense it’s almost sculptural. The alliteration, the internal rhymes, the rhythmic variation, the clutter of consonants when he wants to slow our reading and make us feel the struggle (mental or physical) of the characters – it’s all beautifully done beneath the bloodstains and patches.
The weird thing is, this reminds me far more of Frank Sargeson than any other contemporary NZ writer I’ve come across. Here’s Sargeson in that favourite story I mentioned, “A Great Day Out”:
…the sea was absolutely flat without even a ripple breaking on the sand. Except for some seagulls that walked on the sand and made broad arrow-marks where they walked there wasn’t a single thing moving. It was so still it wasn’t natural. Except for the seagulls you’d have thought the world had died in the night.
There’s a similar intense awareness of language as a physical presence, something you carve, and weigh up, and arrange on the page for its impact on the eye and ear. Sargeson had a genius for that, and I’d say Marriner does too.
Here’s some Sargeson dialogue from his crazy masterpiece “That Summer”:
Our Maggie’s come to see us, Terry said.
Good, I said. How are you Maggie?
I’m feeling fit, she said, and the way she sort of blinked her eyes made me think of a kid’s doll.
We know what you’re fit for, Terry said.
That’s right, Maggie said. And she asked how was her back hair.
Bitch, Terry said, and went on reading the paper.
That’s no way to talk to a lady, Maggie said.
Sargeson seems to have suffered a long slow fade as a presence, apart from on New Zealand Lit courses. During my three weeks being nosey about him, north and south, I didn’t meet anyone under 50 who’d read him, unless they’d been forced to at school. Marriner, on the other hand, seems to have disappeared abruptly: he’s published nothing since his second novel in 2006, and has no obvious online existence.
I hope he hasn’t given up entirely, but is just (like me) having a bit of an extended break between Major Publications. I can’t think of any other New Zealand writer I’m keener to hear from.
Especially as I think he’s getting better with time: his second novel, Southern Style was even stronger than his first. But has anyone read it? No one seems to have written much about it, and I don’t understand that. Maybe it was a mistake for a writer who’d created such a strong sense of New Zealand place in his first novel to set his second one in London. And to use a whole range of voices: Kiwi English, yes, but also Saffa English, Aussie English, and of course English English – even Scots. ‘A mistake’, though? Maybe in terms of disappointing readers who wanted his second book to be a rerun of his first, rather than a new departure. Alan Duff’s One Night Out Stealing was pretty similar to Once Were Warriors, for instance: a good move commercially – my paperback is the seventh reprinting – but not something Marriner was content to settle for.
Whatever the reason for its lack of impact it’s not down to readability, nor literary quality. For me Southern Style has all the energy of Stonedogs, but with a much surer grasp of the dynamics of narrative. Language is a physical thing: carved air. Sometimes in Stonedogs there’s just too much intensity piled up, piled on, for too long. But in Southern Style Marriner handles the dynamics brilliantly: the pace varies, the mood changes, the rhythm of the prose sticks closely to the movement of the story, the intensity builds when it has to, then slackens when a bit of air is needed.
But what about the story? I hear you cry. What’s it about? Well, it’s about 450 pages, and that’s a big difference between Sargeson and Marriner. Frank started out with those amazingly concise, pin-sharp fictional assaults on depression-era repression. And Marriner appeared out of nowhere with his big full-frontal assaults on global capitalism. His books may not smash the system, but they’re big enough bricks to smash the window of your nearest corrupt banker.
Forget the hype about Craig Marriner’s first novel; read nothing into the neglect of his second. Just pick up either and dive in anywhere. You’ll know within half a page that you’re in the hands of that rare thing, a real writer, a grandson of Frank.
Duncan McLean’s essay on Frank Sargeson is due to appear in the London Review of Books.
Read more on Craig Marriner in The curious case of the strangest ever winner of a book award in New Zealand
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.