The Mermaid Boy by John Summers (Hue & Cry Press, 2015), 158 pp., $30
The Mermaid Boy is a story collection that purports to be non-fiction but reads like fiction. John, a not very roguish young man, writes of youthful adventures in New Zealand and Asia. While he fitfully travels, he gradually matures. The 13 stories/sections/chapters assembled in roughly chronological order generate a kind of picaresque bildungsroman. The author as putative main character has a voice that is humble, sometimes hesitant, unwilling to go beyond what he knows. This is a book not of ego, but definitely of the first person.
It is not a memoir, yet one could piece from it elements of a conventional memoir; not a random selection of autobiographic essays because chronological and narrative threads are loosely tied up; not a meditation on the idea of stories – but almost.
On the back cover blurb, a defining catch-phrase is ‘true stories’, while a quote refers to the stories’ ‘artful crafting of unlikely events’. Summers’ prose is plain and nimble, a serviceable medium for the flow of action, dialogue and reflection. He does not intersperse his stories with intellectual commentary, unlike some ‘autobiographical fictions’.
Creative writing can be pictured as a spectrum with non-fiction at one end and fiction at the other, with no clear-cut boundary. If the stories in The Mermaid Boy are true, the truths are carefully chosen: many are left out, the ones remaining laid out carefully. In these stories, as in many of Mansfield’s, Frame’s or Sargeson’s, most readers neither know nor care where the boundary lies – the stories convince (or not) with their emotional truth. The author has experienced insights he invests in his work – they animate the work.
The chapter ‘The Taiwanese ambassador’ begins: ‘I once worked with a liar. A man who said incredible things, things that couldn’t possibly be true.’ This character makes up fictions to hide the facts of his miserable life. The episode is an implicit analysis of one aspect of story-telling.
John goes slumming with his friend Gareth while they attend university. Their landlady and her sidekick handyman seem caricatures but gradually reveal a quirky individuality. The two friends go on a North Island road-trip, beginning with a ride up the Kaikoura coast in a car driven by an African man who, though somewhat manic, is friendly:
We had a near collision at a roundabout but that was due to inattention rather than speed, and he held up his palm to the other driver in apology. He was patient as Gareth and I got out of the car and slowly removed our packs.
‘Good luck,’ he said. He smiled, sheepish and friendly now that we had seen him at his lowest.
In Northland, John experiences his only hostile encounter, a pent-up guy who gives them a lift. He begins to harangue them about ‘gays’:
[Gareth] thanked the man as I pulled him out. ‘I think your ideas are awesome,’ he said.
He closed the door and the man looked at us through the window. He looked past Gareth to me and he narrowed his eyes and ground his teeth in an expression of pure hate. He turned back to the wheel and drove away. I had rescued us.
On another occasion Gareth reveals unexpected insight about why an elderly woman driver went out of her way for them: she is suffering from loneliness. John comments: ‘[Gareth] was right. It was a shock to realise this. Her loneliness had passed me by, although I could see it now.’
John has a mother whose name is not given, a father who has the same name as himself, and a partner, Alisa. All the characters are sparely observed from the outside, but as the book progresses the author/protagonist supplies more details.
Alisa and John travel overseas to teach English, first to Japan and years later to China. Though John experiences much about these foreign cultures as opaque, he deals with his ignorance and frustrations in vividly detailed episodes that sometimes veer towards a combination of the surreal, hilarious or excruciating. Trying to negotiate the corridor of a crowded train, he finds himself,
straddling the poor guy, sitting on his shoulders. Worse, I was wearing shorts – he woke to my bare and hairy legs wrapped round his head and began to scream and shout in Chinese. The carriage woke, every single person now staring at the foreigner perpetrating something bizarre on a sleeping man. I had no way of explaining myself, but still the man yelled.
‘Well, I don’t know,’ I wailed back. ‘I don’t know!’
In the long penultimate section ‘The platinum can be resplendent’, Alisa becomes a more central character. We have learnt that she is of Malaysian-Chinese descent. Her dutifulness and equanimity attract friendship from the local colleagues and students that she and John are surrounded by in the Chinese university where they work. Their relationship comes into focus when John falls ill on a holiday trip to Burma:
Alisa was treating the time for what it was: a holiday. She read books and watched films on the internet, and she doted on me … This contentment was something I had never understood: the ability to curl up with a book for a whole Sunday, to watch half a TV series in an entire sitting. These things left me feeling guilty and anxious.
And then, a disclosure:
‘I like it when you’re sick,’ admitted Alisa one morning … ‘You don’t get annoyed about anything.’
I looked at her with surprise, realising that I liked me better this way too … And it was on one of those snug days that I turned thirty. It had taken me that long to admit what made me happy.
In the final story John’s mother, who briefly appears in an earlier episode, comes into focus, as much for the reader as for John. She has reinvented herself through education and a demanding job. Full of her own stories, she is resistant to her son’s stories of overseas’ experience:
I finished my own mundane story and, sure enough, she launched into another. Something about going to court and something funny the judge had said. I tried to pay attention but her stories were always hard to follow … When she finished it was my turn. I spoke about China … Mum’s eyes began to dull.
The final scene of the book is set at Christchurch airport as John farewells his mother and prepares to return to Wellington and Alisa. The final sentence of the book, ‘I headed for home’, seems a conventional resolution, but ‘home’ is tinged with irony given the prevalent exploratory tone of The Mermaid Boy.
Though The Mermaid Boy reads as good fiction, suggestive of some Modernist fiction with its sharp observations and occasional epiphanies, it is marketed as ‘true’. Perhaps in the present-day literary marketplace, in which the craft of writing is increasingly commodified, especially by academic institutions, Summers’ characterising of his texts as NOT fiction is a smart way to differentiate his book from a number of much-hyped recent local fictional superstructures, hybrid theses, that implode because they are emotionally hollow. Summers has not built a super-structure, but houses his insights within the ramshackle episodes in which they came to life. His diffident examination of the possible meaning of his own and other peoples’ actions and emotions rings true.
This book is an achievement of much clarity and grace, but more importantly it is a work of promise.
DENIS HAROLD is a researcher, editor and reviewer who lives near Dunedin.