Strait Men and other tales by Murray Edmond (Steele Roberts, 2015), 184 pp., $29.99
Somebody is talking about somebody else. Somebody is investigating somebody else’s life or deconstructing what somebody has written or claimed about himself. Somebody is being questioned about the accuracy of what he is saying. Somebody enters into dialogue with either archives or living human beings. So what is truth? as Pilate asked. Can we ever really know the truth of stories we hear about other people? We already know that nothing is ever reported impartially, because we are all human beings and not God. But even within the bounds of acceptable human communication, is what we hear even passably accurate? While we ponder that one, we can admire how layered human perceptions of reality are, how porous memory is, how unknowable other people and their motives are. ‘Rashomon’, we say. ‘Rosebud’, we say. If we like, we can talk about unreliable narrators, or we can go way beyond that, and say that all human communication is a form of theatrical display anyway. A species of acting out.
Murray Edmond, academic and poet, is also a man of the theatre. Strait Men and other tales consists of four short stories, but they are all longer than most short stories are. At 72 pages the title story ‘Strait Men’ is really a novella. All four stories attempt to reconstruct, at second hand, the truth about somebody, and all four stories are infused with a sense of theatricality.
In ‘The Roamer’ (which may be a pun on ‘roma’), a garrulous monologist discusses the impact upon a small New Zealand town, and especially upon its women, of an outsider who may or may not be a gypsy: ‘A mutant gene of memory. Either that, or he was a fake. That’s a possibility. An elaborate con. Perhaps driven by some need to hide his identity, or perhaps by some compulsive psychological condition.’ (p.10)
‘Room Service’ has a daughter commenting on her actor-director father’s diary, which gives a riotous and sometimes sinister account of a theatrical troupe touring in Eastern Europe and trying to put on a play about an imagined visit to New Zealand by Goethe. ‘The Last Resort’ has a young woman film scholar attempting, against covert opposition, to uncover the inviolate truth about an aged cinematographer and film director. As for the novella ‘Strait Men’, it has an editor and critic commenting on two stories written by a turbulent New Zealand literary figure, who has worked in various genres and in television. The literary figure’s two stories are themselves attempts to come to terms with other people’s lives, including the life of an actress.
So each story is a quest to find the truth about another person. There are boxes within boxes within boxes in these stories. Layers of truth and perhaps layers of mystification.
And there is also a lot of theatre. After all, ‘The Roamer’ is subtitled ‘Two Monologues’ and gives us the voice of the chief first-person narrator and the thoughts (I assume they are unspoken) of the man being addressed. Knowing what we eventually understand about the relationship of these two men, afterthought makes it a little improbable that the speaker would actually have to explain some things to the listener. At one point Murray Edmond resorts to having the listener think ‘Why does he keep telling me things I know?’ (p.20), which is painfully close to the old Hollywood scriptwriter’s face-saver of ‘But why am I telling you all this?’ when too much self-expository dialogue has been indulged in. The main point is that this tale is really only a whisker away from a theatrical performance. Two men talking. Or maybe one man talking and one thinking out loud (hello O’Neill’s Strange Interlude). ‘Room Service’ and ‘Strait Men’ deal directly with theatre. Most theatrical in presentation is ‘The Last Resort’. It begins with what is in effect a stage direction, or advice to a cinematographer, describing the story’s setting:
The Last Resort sits on a hill above the Village. The Village lies in a steep valley. There are mountains above the resort, treeless, bare stone slopes, very precipitous, but the road goes no further than the Resort – its gates mark the end of the way, the treeline of the landscape … (p.73)
The story’s subtitle is ‘A Treatment’ as the tale is written in the form of a film treatment. Action is described in the present tense, dialogue is given without comment and advice is proffered on what mood should be created.
Only a fool would attempt to refer to anything as a ‘conventional’ short story. Short stories come in many shapes and sizes. But I think I can say these are not short stories as we know them, Jim. They are as much notes and directions towards live performance as they are narratives. And Murray Edmond certainly knows what a theatrical – or cinematic – voice sounds like. When I read the following, from late in the congeries called ‘Strait Men’, I hear the voice of a methodical and observant gumshoe in a 1940s noir:
A long driveway lined with macrocarpas, then a car park and the veterinary clinic in the garage-cum-basement of a two-storey brick house. The jacaranda overhanging the tiled roof was losing its splendour and a magic carpet of heliotrope petals spread round the edge of the house. As I was parking the Galant, a black four-wheel drive roared in beside me. A handsome woman in her forties, tall and powerfully built, with long flowing hair, elegantly dressed in mock-army fatigues, stepped down from the driver’s door … (p.171)
Talk about mimickry (or mimesis).
Thus much for manner. What of matter?
Edmond’s purpose sometimes appears to be satirical. There are moments when the place called the Last Resort becomes an image of a complacent New Zealand imagining itself to be insulated against the world:
The Last Resort itself is an imaginary construct invented to be sold to those rich enough and sick enough to surrender all will on entering its portals. Behind it lay the myth of a pure clean green land in which Nature reigned supreme. (p.95)
More often, though, this collection is fictional commentary on pervasive New Zealand myths. In the first story, it’s the myth of the exotic outsider stirring up the small New Zealand town. In the second, it’s the glamour, so often sought, of being accepted by European High Art (also known as the ‘cultural cringe’). In the third and fourth, there is that quest (never yet satisfied) for the universal artistic genius in our midst.
And then there is the whole matter of theatre, replete with in-jokes. Why give the actor-director in ‘Room Service’ the name of the French post-structuralist critic, Maurice Blanchot? Note that this fictional chap is born in the same year as Murray Edmond, so perhaps his pungent and bawdy and annoyed comments and reminiscences of theatre are meant to carry the author’s stamp of authenticity. Speaking of in-jokes, I was congratulating myself smugly on at once getting the reference in ‘Room Service’ to the sub-par Marx Brothers film of the same name (its farce concerns a theatrical producer stranded in a hotel). But Murray Edmond had to wipe away my smugness by explicitly explaining the title late in the story, dammit. There’s further Marxist allusion in ‘Strait Men’ with a character called Harpo. Two stories make reference to Goethe’s theory of colour. I’m not sure why.
In fact, I am puzzled by a good part of this collection. It is easy to admire the style, the theatricality, the originality of vision and some of the satire and implied cultural history. Admire, but perhaps not be emotionally involved. Maybe it’s a literary alienation effect.
NICHOLAS REID, who holds a PhD from the University of Auckland, is is an Auckland poet, historian and teacher. He writes the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.