Andrew Paul Wood
The Desolation Angel, by Tim Wilson (Victoria University Press, 2011) 189 pp. $35
A piece of wisdom common to the music industry holds that your best song should never come first. Shoving the strongest track to the front of an album suggests the rest isn’t worth listening to. Dozens of internet threads debate the pros and cons of this notion; scarcely any make the argument for short stories. The arrangement of a collection is no less arcane than the ordering of a record. Some stories demand a position at the front, some at the rear. Some may not make the grade at all, once the logic of the collection becomes apparent (if it ever does). It may – in the final reckoning – prove impossible to astonish a reader picking the book up and not disappoint them a little further down the line. Not only is there no right answer, but the contest may be unwinnable.
There is a fulcrum at the centre of Tim Wilson’s new collection Desolation Angel, a story entitled ‘Suits’. It is the longest work in the book and seems to stabilise it. Yet this could be an accident: a parallel piece of publishing wisdom almost certainly states that it’s foolish to start a collection with the longest piece. Implicit is a vague sense of embarrassment about longer works — a doubt for their respect of short-story doctrine. ‘Suits’, though, is an extraordinary piece of writing following the disintegration of a freshly re-structured gaggle of business people as they pursue a trans-continental commute. Over forty pages, Wilson’s writing has the chance to spread out, gather pace. The disco cadence and projectile prose – which in the shorter pieces feels occasionally forced, or jammed-in-there – shimmers, darting between the crushing here-and-now of serial flight-catching and the more promising, elastic past.
Ruling Passions: Essays on just about Everything, by Nick Perry (Otago University Press, 2011) 230 pp. $45
Rudyard Kipling, the globe-trotting bard of the British Empire, famously described Auckland at the beginning of the twentieth century in his poem ‘The Song of the Cities’ as: ‘Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart.’ This implicit glamourising, this poetic endorsement of ‘New Zealand exceptionalism’, as Nick Perry terms it, is one of the abiding cultural myths examined in Ruling Passions: Essays on just about Everything. In his miscellany of essays, variously written over the past two decades or so, Perry, Professor in Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of Auckland, ranges eclectically and exuberantly across many examples of ‘cultural work’ and ‘media spectacle’, but at heart his book is concerned with constructions of New Zealand identity — and is not so much an exploration of its ruling passions as of its ruling anxieties.
As a nation we have a craving for ‘authentic’ representations, but as a nation we are also ironically knowing about patriotism and propaganda, and aware that the ‘authentic’ experience is a valuable commodity, vulnerable to packaging and marketing. Framing Perry’s essays is the notion of commodity aesthetics, mediated, basically, by TV commercials and infotainment in which, as the sociologist W.F. Haug has pointed out: ‘the beautiful image becomes completely disembodied and drifts unencumbered like a multicoloured spirit of the commodity into every household.’ And so the media turns landscape into brandscape, providing idealised, emotionally affecting moments, moments of self-identification, with folk jogging, fishing, picnicking, using their smart phones, and so on. Leisure, in a word, on an industrial scale.
India in New Zealand: Local Identities, Global Relations, edited by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (Otago University Press, 2010) 226 pp., $49.95
Maintaining that ‘Indians are now a visible minority in New Zealand’s public life’ and commenting upon the comparative scarcity of thorough and comprehensive studies on their presence in the country, Bandhopadhyay and his contributors set out to have a fresh look at the three aspects of ‘migration and settlement’, ‘local identities’ and ‘global relations’: temporal as well as spatial dimensions relevant to our understanding of the present Indian New Zealand community. Subdivided accordingly into three parts, essays written from various perspectives by historians, anthropologists and scholars in religious, cultural, media and health studies draw attention to these issues. We encounter Jacqueline Leckie, Ruth D’Souza, Arvind Zodgekar and Henry Johnson, who have done research on Indian migration and settlement dating back three decades to when Zodgekar published an essay in Indians in New Zealand: Studies in a Sub-Culture (1980) – a collection of essays edited by Kapil N. Tiwari – and to when Leckie presented her Ph.D. thesis at Otago University in 1981. Indeed, the university and Otago University Press have promoted studies of India in New Zealand not only with the present publication but also with Jacqueline Leckie’s magisterial book Indian Settlers: The Story of a New Zealand South Asian Community, released in 2007.
The dozen chapters that together make up the three sections of India in New Zealand focus respectively on historical and demographic characteristics of the diasporan community as a whole, on its heterogeneity — which results in problematic perceptions of a single cultural identity — and on the community’s international political, economic and cultural links. The reader thus is guided along a historical trajectory from the nineteenth century to the immediate present and thence to the possible future of Indian people in New Zealand. Tony Ballantyne, professor of history at Otago University, critically analyses ‘the important role that India played in the development in New Zealand between the 1870s and 1920s’.