PATRICIA McLEAN is a freelance writer and editor based in Dunedin. Her PhD from Victoria University was on constructions of masculinity in the novels of Maurice Gee.
Bangs, by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (Penguin, 2013), 300 pp., $30.
Bangs is the fourth in a series of novels about the family at the centre of Oracles and Miracles, published in 1988. The publishers of this latest book have opted to describe author Stevan Eldred-Grigg on the cover as ‘the writer of Oracles and Miracles’, a strange decision given that ‘writing’ can be a banal profession (ask any report writer) but an ‘author’ is, well, authoritative. It’s also odd because for my money Oracles and Miracles, along with Sue Reidy’s The Visitation, is New Zealand’s best feminist novel to date. I read it in London many years ago when feminist fiction was de rigueur but, unlike many other novels of the genre, Oracles and Miracles is funny and non-didactic, and reminiscent of earlier feminist romp-quests such as Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973) and Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks (1976). Oracles and Miracles evoked a less sophisticated but recognisable New Zealand; Bangs performs a similar role as it depicts the social and physical landscape of a Christchurch now gone. What all these novels still achieve is a reminder to laugh at the pleasures and pains of being a female baby-boomer.
Bangs is divided into a series of first-person narratives mostly those of Meridee Bang, an imaginative and charming child who grows into an unpleasant teenager and troubled adult. Meridee’s mother, Gwendolyn Bang, is sister to Ginnie and Fag, the twin girls at the centre of Oracles and Miracles. In this latest novel, they make brief appearances in Gwendolyn’s narratives to smoke, gossip and drink tea, and the way they breeze in and out provides continuity with the rest of Eldred-Griggs’s human comedy.
At times the book is laugh-out-loud funny. Meridee and her mother are blessed with a dry wit, although Gwendolyn’s is thoroughly mixed in with ignorance. Her self-diagnosis of menopause is one such instance. Gwendolyn’s lack of knowledge about contraception and her own body is both comic, and a poignant reminder of the dilemmas our mothers and grandmothers experienced in the days before The Pill. It is this kind of non-preachy feminist humour that Eldred-Griggs excels at. His novels protest not so much about sexism — which is already assumed as laughable — but about the way a prescribed life prevents people from using their talents and achieving their potential, a condition his male characters experience implicitly.
Each narrative reinforces this condition: Valmae, the downtrodden middle sister; Meridee’s lover Bruce; and her brother, Larry. These and the other narratives throw Meridee’s circumstances into sharp relief. Ida Iremonger and Mad Mon are recognisable characters from the New Zealand education system: the terrifying Iremonger, deputy principal at Meridee’s primary school, is that strange but common New Zealand hybrid – a meritocrat with fascist tendencies; Meridee’s kindly history teacher, Mad Mon, sees the girl’s potential but alone is unable to help her escape her apparent destiny. The novel skilfully negotiates the argument of nature versus nurture (or rather lack of). Meridee is a product of her environment, but like every true heroine she eventually understands – after many trials and errors – that she alone is responsible for finding and following another path.
The Bang household, working-class and short of cash, is the very opposite of the sterile middle-class homes depicted in the novels of Maurice Gee, for instance. If parents fuck you up, as Philip Larkin contends, it seems it might be better to be fucked up by the deprivation and chaos of a Bang-like clan than the puritanical one-child families of Gee’s milieu. But Meridee’s narrative takes a dark turn as she describes her relationships with her older brothers and her emotionally abusive mother. As with most large, poor families humour can be found within the squalor and unlike the relentless misery of Once Were Warriors, Eldred-Griggs remembers to include this important dimension. Meridee’s descriptions of the Bangs’ pecking order while watching television and hogging the heater in winter provide amusing images of life in an overcrowded, insouciant household.
My only complaint about Bangs is the sometimes unconvincing use of the vernacular in the individual narratives, Gwendolyn’s especially. It is essential in this kind of fly-on-the-wall fiction that the characters’ speech is utterly convincing at every turn, as Alan Duff succeeds to do in Once Were Warriors. In most cases Gwendolyn says ‘yer’ for ‘you’, and in other sentences she uses ‘ya’. She also exclaims ‘yikes’ a lot. If I were Gwendolyn I’d use stronger language that that. The Christchurch working-class vernacular needs to be spot on to retain the narrators’ authenticity, including the habit of rolling together words and plopping an ‘r’ into the middle of a word or phrase e.g. ‘harever’ for ‘however’, and ‘har-roldahya?’ for ‘how old are you?’. The occasional Americanism is also annoying. Meridee refers to high school ‘grades’ when in 1970s New Zealand the term ‘marks’ was in use. Characters also say ‘sure’ instead of ‘of course’, and Meridee refers to the hallway in their tiny house as a ‘lobby’. These words jar and could have been fixed by simply reading the text aloud to test for authenticity. It would be a pity for New Zealand literature if these expressions, along with the unnecessary explanation of the Springbok Tour protests, were included to make the novel easier for American readers to understand.
While Meridee inherits her mother’s wit she also develops a poetic turn of phrase, providing an early hint that her redemption might lie in this ability. At high school she is inspired by Shakespeare and referring to her knowledge of Macbeth advises her mother that she is the sow ‘that hath eaten her nine farrow’. The insult indicates Meridee’s unconscious fantasy of her mother as a cannibal who will devour her children’s hopes and dreams, just as hers were. It also predicts the outcomes for most of her eight brothers and sisters, whom she observes in adulthood to be zombie-like: white and obese consumers who are intellectually, spiritually and emotionally dead.
As Meridee grows older and unhappier her poetic language deserts her and her teenage narrative projects the sordidness of her environment. Her language becomes as limited as her life is becoming. Meridee’s early narratives show her to be a happy, secure child until a series of events leads her to conclude she is unwanted and unloved. She then has little choice but to internalise and then project the flaws of those around her. Unfortunately, Meridee is cursed with a refined mind and as she fails to absorb her mother’s ignorance and vulgarity, the absence of an alternative identity has potentially tragic consequences.
Like Oracles and Miracles, Bangs relates the effects of a lack of nurturing on the spirit of a child. In both stories the main culprit is the mother, which could lead readers to conclude that Eldred-Griggs’s Christchurch novels have it in for mums. Both parents though are culpable: in Oracles and Miracles, the father is a drunk; in Bangs Meridee’s pencil-sketched father is negligent through absence. As Meridee herself says, ‘Dad can be very good at nothing’ and Bruce, her lover, describes him as a ‘shadow’.
Meridee’s regular references to polyester, nylon and other man-made fibres point to the falseness and unsustainability of the Bangs’ way of life in an implicit critique of cheap and nasty working-class consumerism. When she returns to the family home many years later the house becomes a metaphor for redemption as she overwrites its ugliness with her own special style. But just as Meridee arrives at an uneasy truce with the past, her childhood fantasies of disaster come to fruition. I am looking forward to Eldred-Griggs’s next Christchurch family drama.