Love & Money: The writer’s cut by Greg McGee (Upstart Press, 2023), 252pp, $37.99
This novel is serious in its social and political insights, but it lays them out with a comic and satiric vision. Now in its third incarnation, the work was born as a screenplay and became a novel in 2012. It is here published as a rewrite, with the author-as-editor acting as ‘the brute wielding the scalpel’ to make a text that, in this case, is shorter than the original. This is ‘The Writer’s Cut’.
McGee’s long experience as a playwright is clearly evident. The novel is dialogue-driven, with swift scene changes and a lot of action. Action here means more than just the things that happen. It is about the ordering of events in such a way that allows their underlying meanings to emerge clearly from the plot. These, plus strongly etched characters, take us through a society that is venal, pragmatic and a long way from the paradise so often linked to the notion of Aotearoa New Zealand. To write about our society in this way, not flinching from the flaws and fissuring of a community fractured by the government-imposed policies of monetarism, is to be the proverbial critic of life. Yet McGee is sharply observant, rather than morally bludgeoning in his criticism. Angry yes, but funny as well.
The setting is central Auckland. In 1987 there was about to be a second-term Labour government, fatally split between the idealistic flair and the rhetorical brilliance of Prime Minister David Lange, and the ideologically driven ambitions of the dour Roger Douglas, arch neoliberal Minister of Finance. Both are presented in the persons of their historical reality, rather than as fictional characters. Lange was to be destroyed politically by the wiles of the neoliberal cabal around Douglas. Those extreme right-wing policies that Douglas initiated, impoverished and alienated large numbers of the less-than-rich, causing him perhaps to be the most hated politician who has ever held serious power in this country.
The Labour Party, then, sacrificed its socialist whakapapa, and has not, to this day, recovered it to any significant degree. We see it now, still struggling to retain the better aspects of its past as it fights this 2023 election. In 1987, Douglas’s massive sale of public assets led to a stock-market frenzy and a spectacular crash. Now, there’s inflationary pressure and again much social suffering. McGee, an activist then and now, knows that in each situation money becomes both more valued and more worthless. He depicts it as the stuff of a golden calf, reified by economists, but trampling over human values. His description of the 1987 stock market shows it vividly as negative theatre in which mainly male money traders buy and sell feverishly, their semi-sexualized greed mingling with the hysteria and hype of financial collapse. He sums it up: ‘Money, the means of exchange, has become the product.’
As an end in itself, this product brings about a dark catharsis—a stark stripping away, rather than a purification of human emotion.
Despite the shambles of political economy, there is still a basic egalitarian decency and a wish to do the right thing that survives in many individuals. One of them is Mike McGuire, the wobbly axis of the story and an anti-type to 1980s capitalism. Mike remembers the flawed but slightly Edenic past of his hippie youth: ‘He’d been comfortable enough owning nothing through the ‘sixties and ‘seventies when contempt for money was a badge of honour in the circles he’d moved in. But those circles gradually diminished, then disappeared like smoke-rings.’ McGuire had grown up, a working-class boy in post-World-War II Ponsonby. He drifted into the theatre world as his peers rocked and rolled, and tripped and free-loved their way through their twenties. Now he’s forty-ish, irresolute, feckless, attractive. He understands the greatness offered by theatre, by drama, its power to project meaning. He performs in Shakespeare’s plays and in some of the moderns: doggedly but not always brilliantly. Nonetheless, he remains loyal to his craft.
Middle age is beginning to be a liability, though, in the cash-strapped playhouses of inner-city Auckland, and dismissal is an ever-present danger. There have been many relationships with women, the fathering of two children, but no money to support them. Life is becoming a series of emergencies, and he doesn’t know how to be better at it. He has moral perception, a strong sense of natural justice; he sees right through the self-indulgence and materialism taking over some of his now well-off peers. McGee shows McGuire at the Centrepoint Community where, by the wish of one of his past lovers, he spends a few disenchanting days. It is there he fully realises the degeneracy of many of his contemporaries and the unravelling of their ideals: ‘It had taken a decade and a half for the ‘sixties to be twisted, perverted and finally killed. But it was done. Free love had become commodified.’
But this is not a one-character story. Mike’s extended family is given fair coverage—in particular his son, Hendrix. Now in his early teens, Hendrix has taken on a socially protective role towards his mother, Sarina, and his six half-siblings. He steals constructively to support the family and is not fooled by the con artists, bullies and rabbit-hole dwellers, among whom he must strategise in order to survive. More grown up than his father, he rescues him, unsentimentally, from at least one of his several follies—but he does not forgive him for his abandonment of his mother and himself in early life.
Sarina is also an important presence. She is partly of Pasifika descent, but is uncertain of her origins, having been an adopted child. In the course of the ‘crash’ year, she and Mike reconnect passionately, a move rejected completely by their son, who intervenes dramatically to end this brief reunion. Both seem to have accepted by the end of the year that they are best to be again on a friend-only basis. Also, Sarina has just managed to get free of a brutal lover, Jimmie, who is, in a violent kind of way, a post-modernist painter and father to her youngest child. She holds together her copious family in a run-down Ponsonby rental and gardens the back yard so that they at least have vegetables.
She combines courageous practicality with the ability to inhabit a dreamtime. Inherently spiritual, she needs, invents and interprets God; but this is a God she changes when she has to. McGee reads her interdenominational shifts with a satirical eye, focused on the rivalry between the mainstream Anglican and the less formal Samoan Congregationalists and their clergies, both active in Ponsonby. There is in her an echo of William Blake’s anima, the spiritual/erotic feminine Jerusalem—not a city, but a daughter, a mother, a lover, universalised in the huge poem that carries the name.
McGee’s prose is terse, sharply focused, and laced with the slang of a Polynesian and Pākehā proletariat, now largely gone from the Ponsonby of 2023, but still quite numerous in that suburb in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The descriptive element of the language is held back. Words speak directly, for and through the characters. This is writing done with a social focus rather than with an eye for nature or for landscape. Despite the visual beauty of the tidal, low-lying Tāmaki isthmus, McGee’s priority is to keep the social order on stage, revealing its conflicts firstly in human terms. New Zealand has had only a short urban history and this book is one of a cluster that deal explicitly with politics and the person: the ways in which the personal and the political are intertwined. John A. Lee’s Children of the Poor (1934) came out of 1930’s Great Depression Dunedin; Ian Middleton’s Mr Ponsonby (1989) records inner-city Auckland as the 1987 crash was happening, along with its reverberating aftermath. In a different medium, poet David Mitchell’s Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby, published in 1972, offered poems where the hippie drop-out ambience of the area before gentrification is presented, implying a politics of bohemian disengagement at the time when Mike McGuire was in his early twenties.
The problem of ending the novel is solved by not ending it. It’s clear that we are witnesses to an ongoing process. No one in this story is going to live happily ever after, but they will live, according to the necessities of their own natures. As the pages run out, we have a gathering of dramatis personae. The occasion is an unlikely baptism of a child born to an earlier lover of Mike, Liz, and her present partner, Sean. Sean is Mike’s earliest friend; he is now a speechwriter for David Lange. We see the whānau, the extended family, briefly in one place. It’s a random yet meaningful interaction, during which, again, interdenominational contacts add richness, confusion and satire to the moment. At the post-baptism gathering, personal attractions, rejections and wariness continue to be in play.
The last glimpse we have is of a possible change in Mike’s life making its tentative, contradictory beginnings. He has recently been donated a huge sum of money. His humane, literary lawyer friend, Clive, has just died, leaving a small fortune to the actor he frequently lunched with, admired and loved. Money is not Mike’s ‘thing’. The possession of it causes him intense mental and physical anxiety. He gets rid of it by enabling Sarina to buy the house from which she was about to be evicted. Still indigent, unemployed and not keen to be organised by son, Hendrix, into being a house renovator, he is heard finally on the phone, being offered a crummy acting part in a filmed advertising series. But we are witness to no decision by him.
DENYS TRUSSELL is a poet, biographer, musician and environmentalist who lives in Auckland. His books include Fairburn, a life of poet A.R.D. Fairburn, and the poetry collection, Walking into the Millennium. His most recent book is Albatross Neck: Landings by the Ancient Mariner and Romanticism in Aotearoa New Zealand 1770–2022, a book of poetry and prose, with paintings by Nigel Brown, published in 2022.