Charlotte Grimshaw endures a novel full of ‘knowing and coy references to real people’ in New Zealand literature.
I have a friend who refers to a certain weekly newspaper column as “the Seventh Form essay.” I recalled this description recently while reading Anne Kennedy’s new novel, The Ice Shelf.
“Seventh Form essay” not only implies writing that’s callow, self-absorbed and insular, but also, perhaps, subtly institutionalised. The tone my friend is registering is that of a writer with an anxious eye to external forces, concerned with pleasing others. The school student is a prisoner of the teachers. True creativity is the antithesis of enslavement. If you want to be a good writer, in other words, you’ve got to get out from under.
The Ice Shelf is a comic novel about Janice, a wry, accident-prone writer. Janice leads a literary life in Wellington. She attends awards ceremonies, book launches and creative writing sessions. She joins a Book Club (playfully called Cook Blub.) She mentions arts boards, the CEO of Arts New Zealand, the Authors Fund. She has a falling out with Feather, a Writers’ Association of which she is an Associate Member. She speaks of “arts luminaries” and “the literati.”
Applying for an Arts Grant, she discusses with her creative writing teacher which bureaucrats and well-connected writers she should flatter if she wants to receive the grant. She name-checks actual Wellington writers. She engages in activity on Twitter in an attempt to ingratiate herself with literary figures playfully called Dean Cuntface, Roderick the Dick and Dame Carol. (Are these based on actual “luminaries”? Will they raise a “knowing laugh” in “some quarters”?)
Janice is tough; she’s game for anything. She lives by her wits and strives to be free. So why does she seem like a prisoner of the system?
Like Janice, I write fiction and live in New Zealand. I once asked a psychotherapist, “Why am I not able to schmooze, gossip or tweet?” He replied, kindly and firmly, that one couldn’t run before one could walk; perhaps we should focus first on why I was often harassed beyond belief just trying to work out who was who in the room.
This inability of mine to schmooze, gossip and tweet had made me sad (why wasn’t I normal?) but at some point during my close reading of The Ice Shelf, I began to regard it as an advantage, not a handicap. If you can’t engage in all this manoeuvring, if you’re not tweeting and slyly winking and following and cosying up, if you’re not always paying court to some group, you have only one thing to fall back on: the writing.
The idea that a writing life should be a kind of school story, with powerful figures to steer around and battles of wits on Twitter, and hi-jinks, and knowing and coy references to real people, and ubiquitous asterisks (presumably referring to Twitter and its importance) is disturbingly insular and claustrophobic. Where is art in all this? Where is the outside world?
The Ice Shelf is billed as an “eco-comedy.” While I’m unable to schmooze, gossip or tweet, I do like a good laugh; in fact I’m frequently in hysterics about something or other. Comedy is always welcome. The comedy in The Ice Shelf runs along these lines: Janice has a fridge she’s very attached to, and when she splits up with her boyfriend she decides to steal it from him.
She and her friend break into the flat and drag the fridge up the hill in the middle of the night: “On the way along the balcony, we did make a bit of a racket with Mandy’s blundering footsteps, and I suppose me banging the cart into a couple of clothes racks and peg baskets didn’t help, but then trust Mandy to trip on a flowerpot and go kersplat. I shushed her wail and groaned inwardly. We were goners.”
Many pages later: “The fire escape is rather rickety, and a couple of planks gave out under the fridge’s weight; in fact we almost lost it once or twice. There was much giggling and shooshing and pausing for breath, I can tell you. What a hoot.”
What a hoot, indeed.
Later Janice, evicted again, tows the fridge on a cart to an awards ceremony. People look surprised, but she doesn’t care. Some writers (rivals, so they must be conceited shits) ask her about the fridge: “Beatrice Grant, sporting a tonne of pancake makeup and wearing her signature long and only slightly pretentious eighteenth-century frock coat, looks me up and down and after a beat asks, with dancer-type eye-widening, what my fridge *is.* I laugh because the question is actually quite funny.”
Amid all this hilarity, we go back in time to Janice’s childhood, when she’s forced to live in a fantastically squalid commune. The comedy, involving the chaotic group evading health inspectors and fighting among themselves, is interrupted by a horrendous description of a child being raped. The abrupt change of pitch is disorientating. There’s a sense here of a writer wanting to have it all ways, to use serious material but then to undermine it. It’s an odd lack of commitment to any particular tone.
Janice has a strong line in acid irony: she thanks all the bastards who’ve hurt her along the way. If they hadn’t ill-treated her, she explains, she wouldn’t be a writer. One old luminary, Dame Bev, gets it in the neck (she really has a thing about Dame Bev) for giving Janice a negative review: “Why a person so successful as to have been awarded a dameship for services to literature would still write reviews for almost no money is curious. It may be because a dameship is actually not successful in monetary or global or real terms.”
Her tone has hectically lowered here, from hapless charmer to snarling little loser, unable to understand why the Dame would serve literature for free. She’s all over the place, this Janice. She cares but she doesn’t. She’s serious but she’s not. She wants it all but she’s humble. She’s angry, but her sense of humour is so cute. Don’t take me seriously, she signals. I am no threat. She puts asterisks in a description of child rape.
Janice has written a novel, The Ice Shelf, and as the story unfolds she discards sections of the manuscript, editing it down as she goes. It’s possible to imagine a different editing process, involving a stern examination of what really matters. Writing matters. There’s a lot of material here, there’s energy and the elements of a great story. But it’s useful for a writer to be self-driven, focused, intellectually free. To have the sense that the only thing to be served is right there, on the page. That nothing and no one else is in sight.
The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy (Victoria University Press, $30) is available at Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.