Penguin, $37.00, ISBN 9780143202448
A review by Roger Robinson of the latest - and probably the last - novel by New Zealand's most important living writer of fiction.
First published in New Zealand Books, Issue 88, Summer 2009 - www.nzbooks.org.nz
Parliaments and law courts used to "access," though only "recess" survives in current usage. Incoming tides and the rising sun also accessed. These days we fashionably access our emails or information sources. Probably you access a plumber, though I never can when I need one. Teachers and politicians are admired for being accessible. It's a word that always implies contact, connection, admittance, openings, incomings, or new beginnings. It takes a perverse semantic wit like Maurice Gee's to give the title Access Road to a novel that he strongly hints is his last, a work of closure, a recessional. In the dedication he calls it an "end of the road novel," and courteously thanks his publisher, agent and editor for "a long and happy collaboration." All this valediction sits perplexingly with "Access" - just as Gee likes it.
This is not the first time he has challenged us to think about a title's multiplicity of potential meanings, all proving to be relevant. The fiction and the title progressively intertwine. Think of Plumb. Think of the seeming oxymoron of Live Bodies or Blindsight. This time we see from the start the irony that Access Road is a dead end, giving access only to a swamp and a murky ice-cold pool, and then we work through the story of a woman seeking to access her own past, her daughter's trust, her husband's reticent love, and her almost catatonic brother's mind, but it's not until the final chapters that you find yet another meaning, as you recognize that the dark secret driving the narrative beneath its surface was an act of being accessory to a crime.
Crime, creeks, concealment. We are in Gee's Loomis again. The 78-year-old master has returned once more to his beginnings, again recycling the habitual settings, story material and imagery, mostly dark. We step muddily around the familiar landmarks of that scruffy outpost west of Auckland, derived from the Henderson of his youth, sometimes glimpsing its incongruous fantasy future on the edge of "the new metropolis, Waitakare City." We dodge the leaks in the decaying down-market house occupied by a problematic family, much like those we have met in varied forms since In My Father's Den in 1972, whose children and adults alike tend to hide in a hole of some kind or play dangerous games in the lurking creek. Unspeakable violence simmers beneath, demanding to be spoken. If Access Road truly is a farewell, if Gee the artist is, like Prospero, abjuring his melancholy magic, breaking his staff, and drowning his book, he's doing it in Loomis Creek, down in the oozy mud.
It's tempting to call it Gloomis. After seventeen adult Gee novels, I sometimes feel that I know every eel in Loomis Creek by name. But that doesn't matter or detract. Though the setting and material are again limited and negative, the writing again is rich and positive. It has verbal subtlety, sensitive insight, and vivid narrative power. There's no rule that you have to keep inventing different worlds for every novel. Austen didn't, Roth doesn't.
As in his preceding adult novel, Blindsight, Gee gives the narrative to a woman, his own age, 78, as she writes. Of literary impulse, her source of greatest happiness was Stage One English at University. She writes poetry, and quotes Wordsworth and Keats - "the moving waters at their priestlike task." It's a happy coincidence that soon everyone who sees Jane Campion's Bright Star will recognize that line. At the end of Gee's novel, the moving waters (beneath which a murdered corpse is concealed) are indeed performing pure ablution round Earth's nastily human shores. Nothing in Gee is merely in passing. This narrator also habitually shares her awareness of the process of writing the text we are reading, as Alice Ferry does in Blindsight, interrupting to reprimand herself for being too "flowery" or hesitating to describe the malevolent Clyde Buckley because "writing him down confers power on him."
She also gives us a childbirth story and two lines of poetry that she says she wrote earlier, which were in fact written by Gee's mother, also a frustrated writer. (An acknowledgement tells us so, though it gets the page numbers wrong.) It's a nice tribute, and just about credible as youthful work from the writer of the more complex and resourceful prose of the narrative. There the hesitations and self-questionings about how to tell the story, the sense of writing as creation, the metafictional subversion of a disturbingly realist narrative, add to that sense of multiplicity of meaning that the title initiates. Gee's touch is surest when he is pretending to be in doubt.
She is Rowan Beach, with brothers called Lionel and Roly, and is later married to Dickie Pinker. He affectionately calls her Boatie, from "Rowan my boat," a blokey joke about their sex life. Silly, but touching, too, at 78, and it reassures us that the names may indeed be read as ludic, or ludicrous. Gee's names are always a wicked delight, drawn from a near-surrealist phone directory somewhere between Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse; and here, as always, they are also part of the ambiguous texture of imagery (like Prior, Pratt, Plumb, Papps, Skeat, Sole, Seed, Ferry, Clearwater). But I must finish with the story before getting to the things that matter.
It's not that simple, however. Gee the word-artist matters most, but fiction in English (not only New Zealand fiction) is enhanced by some things at the level of realist narrative that he does extraordinarily well. He has a sharp eye and dry wit that can lift the most routine things into vivid fictional life (again, Dickens comes to mind). Here, try Rowan's visit to a computer-age dentist, or Roly's garden. Or let him conduct you through the shifting effects of work, parenthood, illness, infidelity, ageing and retirement on a marriage. That's a lot for a very short novel, but Gee tells that universal yet intensely personal story with pragmatic compassion. By that phrase, I mean passages like the one when Rowan lists her husband's quirks, and says:
These are some of the things that make me put up with Dickie Pinker; and putting-up-with, at my time of life, is only a nudge away from love.
Gee also does very well some things that few others bother to try. In another part of the forest, I often work alongside people who have fallen short of greatness in sport, through injury or similar misfortune. There's nothing obviously tragic about that situation, and winners are more attractive to write books about. But it can darken a life, to have the talent and resolve for supreme success, yet be deprived of achieving it. In Dickie Pinker, a youthful rugby star who was "nearly an All Black" when injury put him permanently out of the game, Gee perfectly catches the suppressed lifelong frustration of that loss. It is not central or pretentious, but done through small details of behaviour, like the old man's compulsion to kick bits of litter (into touch) as he walks, or through the rugby metaphors his wife uses to describe his business career, or the small ways he dissociates from being simply a footie-and-grog Kiwi joker. Loss has complicated him.
Gee has often touched thoughtfully on sport - in The Big Season, of course, and in early short stories like "The Losers" and "The Champion;" with the girl runners in The Burning Boy, or bucket-man Gordon's past as sprinter and rugby hero in Blindsight. It's worth noticing, since this is the time to assess Gee's full international contribution. To save revealing anything, I need only say of the main crime mystery plot that it is done with consummate skill through a process of suppression, inaction, almost suspended animation (which exactly describes brother Lionel in the physical and emotional immobility of his later years), which then bursts out into two episodes of violence - one confessed from the youthful past, the other enacted as a senescent, stumbling, but still murderous scrap among the characters in old age.
I wish Gee was not so good at scenes of violence. The repulsive directness of the telling is made bearable only by the cunning intervention of Rowan's female narrative consciousness:
Then a thumping of heels on the floor turned me back to the living room. I saw what was happening as though through smeary glass - Buckley was holding Dickie in a vice, forearm squeezing his throat, squeezing out his life. I got to my feet, and fell; crawled back through the bedroom and over the living-room carpet (felt its texture). I nipped Buckley by his trouser leg. He kicked me aside.
The monosyllabic directness is like Hemingway, but there is a sense of the prose moving with the action, a subtlety of cadence, that is Gee's; especially falling cadence, his most characteristic movement: "I got to my feet, and fell." There are, as in all Gee's novels, many images of falling, or collapse, or delving (remember "Plumb" again):
The girl stands up and dives, and stays down longer than I can hold my breath... 'Who says you can't touch the damn bottom,' she calls.
Now I have reached what really matters. Reviewing Blindsight in New Zealand Books in 2006, I wrote, "Gee is, to put the point a little provocatively, one of our best poets." No one seemed to get provoked, so I'll try again. The prose of this novel is intense, subtle, musically cadenced, richly metaphoric, and immaculately textured. Its movement always matters. Not a word could be taken out without losing something, rhythmically or associatively. In a word, it is poetic - the poetry of memory, of those moments "when memory flashes through a door that suddenly, magically, swings open."
What matters is writing like this:
There's a smell in Lionel's room of things that don't have smell: eyes that don't see, skin that doesn't feel. The smell, too, of a mind closed on itself, but turning and twisting with things I can only call things. I timed half an hour on my watch, then made two mugs of tea and carried them into the garden, which bulges and unfurls with summer abundance.
This last short novel allows Gee to do what he always truly wanted, and skip the things he perhaps had to do in the 1960s and 70s to live as a novelist. Though it packs a realist punch, Access Road is not a social critique of puritan small-town New Zealand. It is a carefully modulated poetic texture that plays a mostly melancholy music in the mind. So it is with poetry that he chooses to end. In a confessedly end-of-the-road book, it is not fanciful to read the final paragraph as a farewell from the author as much as the narrator. As she walks "rather slowly" on the beach with old Dickie, who fought for her and feels "chastened" at discovering so much ugliness in life, Rowan is busy rhyming in her head.
It's too cold for bare feet. Thin waves edge up the sand and melt away. I hunt for rhymes. Wave, cave. Sky, belie.
Find, end. That's a half-rhyme. At my age I think I'm allowed.
Gee has always been good at muted closure.
So let's give this quiet man a full-fanfare happy end. After living modestly and unobtrusively as a full-time writer, producing ten or more books that deserved lots of international acclaim but received scarcely any, suddenly he is in fashion. Australia has at last accessed him. It started with the prize-winning 2007 children's book Salt, which led to a commission for a three-book series. And Access Road is published there by Viking Penguin.
"Now other Australian publishers are looking at my adult novels," Gee told the Brisbane Courier Mail.
Even bigger, the movie of Under the Mountain will be released at Christmas, starring Sam Neill, whose very presence (the way the world now works) accesses celebrity. After all these years, Maurice Gee has heard the words all hard-up authors dream about - "film tie-in edition."
Access, success. That's a half-rhyme. At his age, not before time.
Roger Robinson reviewed Plumb, The Burning Boy, and Blindsight.