‘The furniture of a writer’s mind isn’t necessarily interesting, it’s the way he arranges it that has the interest’ Gee told an interviewer in 1990*.
The comment highlights a bit of a problem with this, the first full-length biography of the bloke generally regarded – rightly, I believe – as New Zealand’s best novelist.
A lot of writers don’t do much other than write. Yes, you get the odd self dramatising type who, say, get involved in public political protests, or set up communes in largely inaccessible parts of provincial New Zealand rivers, or, to move further afield, go shooting big game or get involved in wars.
Or, of course, they get involved in wars with other writers, engaging in the kind of enervating and bitter feuds which are – or should be – more characteristic of catty and claustrophobic boarding schools than of groups of people whose lives are, supposedly, dedicated to the mind and to literature.
Such life stories – usually with a truckload of sexual infidelity and self-medication of various kinds – often make for lively stories, even if, after a while, a certain sameness of the narrative can creep in.
Other writers write.
Err…that’s kind of about it.
They circle what is going on, watching and noticing, and then go away and let the yeast of their imagination work on what they have observed.
Gee is an exemplary case. There are plenty of references quoted by Barrowman of people wondering where the darkness and violence of his novels comes from, as Gee himself is so self effacing, relaxed, and, in a reserved sort of way, friendly.
Gee himself not-so-obliquely refers to this in one of my personal favourites of his books, Ellie and the Shadowman: Ellie is living with a writer who, she muses, ‘was clever with twisted motives – surprising, really considering how much he needed to have explained in real life’.
But that, though, is also how writers’ minds often work. Writing is a process by which they work things out. A corollary of this is things can remain less clear to them if they have not written about them.
You might find – I certainly did – the earlier part of this book drags more than a bit. I am not sure, but I suspect because this is the first full length study of Gee’s work worthy of the phrase – it is a ‘life and work’ as it says in the title – Barrowman really shoves in every detail of Gee’s life she can find.If he goes to visit someone Barrowman almost feels obliged to include the bus route.
Gee’s novels are such a chronicle of mid 20th Century New Zealand life, it only seems right that a book about him includes as much detail about that life and culture as possible.
It is also, I suppose, to help future readers and researchers: so much has changed since the short-back and-sides, mono-cultural world the era will need a lot of explaining to the next generation or two of New Zealanders. It is just at, at times, it seems a bit of overkill.
That said, if you are a Gee fan, persist. Things pick up as the book goes on. Barrowman appears to have read everything ever written about Gee and weighed it up. It is an important task: so many small literary publications of the 1950s-1970s only lasted for a few editions before being lost and she has unearthed many gems.
There is poet Russell Harley reviewing Gee in the mid-1970s, after Games of Choice and In My Fathers Den: Harley criticised the naturalism and unnatural restraint in New Zealand fiction (with the exception of Janet Frame) but stressed Gee – and Sargeson – transcend this.
There is, wrote Harley ‘a sort of bulging of the surface of Gee’s tailored prose’. Sargeson has this but for different reasons – ‘a hidden sexual charge’ whereas Gee has an ‘obsessive interesting private place from which one can view, voyeuristically, the world’ as well as a ‘sense that he can reach something numinous and atavistic when he deals imaginatively with place’.
While both ‘numinous’ and ‘atavistic’ are two words which normally set my bullshit detector off, I think Harley nails something important about Gee’s work in those comments.
The sense of place is often commented on in Gee’s books – his descriptions of Auckland, especially west Auckland, Wellington and Nelson have captured those cities better than anyone else I can think of.
Then there is that ‘private place from which one can view, voyeuristically, the world’ Harley refers to.
Gee’s breakthrough novel, Plumb, certainly did this – ‘whatever you “think” of Plumb himself, the bugger steps right out of the book and takes root somewhere in your imagination,’ Bill Manhire comments in a letter quoted by Barrowman.
‘There aren’t many novels where that happens – the portrait living beyond the frame.’
Personally, ‘Plumb’ isn’t my favourite Gee, by a long chalk, but when first read it, I sat up until 1am, reading it in one sitting**. That character draws you in.
Which is what Gee’s characters tend to do.
With most authors who write from the perspective of a character, there is still a sense of the author looking at that character from a distance.
Gee, somehow, gets closer. I’m not expert enough to detect how he does this, but you get a sense of how that character sees the world. This is how you learn about that character.
Towards the end of this work, Barrowman quotes CK Stead calling Gee a ‘moralist’ who judges his characters. Gee didn’t object to the comment – in fact he made a reference to it at the start of his next novel.
Gee, Stead wrote, judges his characters and ‘when his ‘writing falls a notch or two below its best it is usually because moralism has triumphed at the expense of representation’
There is certainly a pervasive moral sense to Gee’s novels: an over-arching, unbudgeable and sometimes stern division between right and wrong – or perhaps it is more accurate to say a sense of moral failure and moral non-failure. Doing things right might be a bit much to expect.
But the thing about Gee’s best work is his characters judge themselves, without losing their sense of being characters distinct from their creator.
A good biography of an author should do two things. The most obvious is to send you back to the author’s works. Personally I’ve read the Plumb trilogy many times, and ‘Going West’ – my personal favourite – even more. But it is time for a re-read of ‘Live Bodies’ , ‘The Scornful Moon’ and ‘Blindsight’, I think. Gee’s works always repay a visit.
The other thing a book like this has to do is give a better understanding of the writer’s works, and here Barrowman has plenty, not only commentary and reviews from the past but also from the man himself.
Gee often uses carpentry as a metaphor for what he does – his father worked in the trade – and at one point he is quoted as stressing the need to be sure of each word, partly how they fit together – but also so, in telling the story, making sure they
‘quiver and shimmer, reverberate a little…I like to think of myself as saying exactly what I mean, but having some ability to make it seem a little more.’
They do. They certainly do.
* quoted by Rachel Barrowman at p350-351.
** I had the same experience with ‘Going West’. I can’t think of any other New Zealand book I’ve done this with – well, no fiction works anyway.