Jordan Margetts, stuck and lonely and bored senseless in Dublin, reads a new edition of what Victoria University Press calls the ‘foundation stone’ of New Zealand literature.
Time has not been especially kind to John Mulgan’s Man Alone.
It is a gripping and gritty sort of story about one man’s failure in New Zealand. His name is Johnson, only. He has no first name, not one that he tells. Johnson hears good things about New Zealand during the First World War, so heads over by ship and works. He does good, manly jobs, mostly on farms.
Johnson. Strong and silent, smoking his cigarette, drinking his bloating beer; he is the repressed type that reads a little familiar now but is really definitive of that whole generation of men who got shelled and gassed and shot at, who suffocated and sludged around in trenches in a great power war. A generation of men with undiagnosed PTSD, a familiarity with violence, and a heck of a lot of issues with women.
Landing in New Zealand was a golden day between long nights. The War, about which “there’s a hell of a lot too much talk”, on the one side and, coming over the horizon, the Depression. Johnson’s “good life” – all those manly jobs on farms – came to an end, and he found himself lining up for food in Auckland, working with labour gangs in the Waitākeres.
Our loner, in language that has been consistently likened to Hemingway – an acknowledged influence – is a kind of vision of perpetual masculine victimhood. War, work, women: they get in the way. It isn’t your fault. This is old fashioned New Zealand, still close to its settler past, a past where the men showed up pretending to be alone and stood on people they chose not to see. The few women who exist in this world exist as brief spots on a map, seen and then forgotten. First a nameless false-toothed prostitute. And then Mabel, a woman of real lineage:
Mabel’s father was back in the old days, the pioneer days, when you had to bake bread if you wanted to eat bread, no groceries coming three times a week on the cream-lorry. Mabel’s grandfather had shot Maoris for his bit of land. Mabel had ideas about farms … Johnson listened desultorily, having no ambition.
Mabel’s ideas about farms are too capitalistic for Johnson, they involve savings and deposits and government payment schemes, they sap your freedom. All this modern finance rears up and gets in the way, economics devoid of real work, the good times ending.
All of this smacks of the -isms of the day, particularly the Marxism floating about the university circles in which John Mulgan moved (he went to Cambridge on money borrowed by his dad). But it isn’t just an economic story of course. It’s a story about a man on the move. It’s a story about freedom in a sense that’s more than economic, and survival that’s more than just physical. And of course those university readers – the writers in journals, the men now very old who gave the novel its short time in the literary-nationalist sun – have talked about freedom and fate and self determination, and about national identification, and about the bush and about westerns. The novel, for this brief window towards the latter part of the 20th century, became a kind of foundational New Zealand novel, or at least it was written into being such – the literary nationalists seized on its particularly New Zealand features, all that wilderness, work with your hands, freedom and money and the simple language of blokes. But I wonder if that was myth-making too. Those literary nationalists grew up reading English fiction, not Man Alone, and its time on courses and in schools was short, it didn’t last their lifetimes. It remains venerable, a topic for scholarly papers, and otherwise basically unread.
But what seemed shockingly clear to me, as a young reader, was that the book is about grievances and affront, about a particular kind of almost archetypal Pākehā male self-pity. The book is bitterness and exhaustion all the way down. This doesn’t, to be clear, make it a bad book, or a book unworthy of the maroon “classic” sticker from VUP, or of Peter Whiteford’s editorial attention (and plainspoken, informative, faintly terse introduction) – but it isn’t only a mythological or inter-war yarn, it’s something rather darker, more tiring. It’s about the sense that the world is a ticking clock and you’re on the hand, you just survive. Self-perceived victimhood at the hands of powers outside one’s own. Not a very attractive vision when the protagonist is a white male manslaughterer.
The novel is framed: told by a narrator reporting a conversation with Johnson, years later. And the story as Johnson (who remains oddly blank and featureless, reactive rather than active) tells it is a series of trials. The war was not his fault, nor the Depression. But his male victimhood goes on, and here comes a woman to pin it on: Rua, the bored wife of a brooding farmer, seduces him and idiotically gossips about their affair. When he declares he’s leaving the farm Rua brazenly rushes down to declare she’s coming too (she has, by the way, no such intentions, she’s just making a fuss), attracting her gunslinging husband, and thereby causing the shooting that has Johnson on the run.
Mulgan’s prose is flat and blunt and simply structured, it’s very determined that you realise how deep still waters run. It’s a sort of polished demotic, un-aestheticising, but laced with dread, war-dread. Take his description of leaving Auckland for the Waikato:
Going down to the farm by service car was seeing a new country open out like the raw edges of a wound. It had a green, rich, unfinished look. The road ran out into loose metal and ruts through low hills half-cleared, and farm-houses, wooden, unpainted. Where the land was cleared as it was for miles at a time with fences and no hedges, the grass grew springing with life.
This is great stuff, and is most mesmeric when moving into nature and away from the social worlds of cities or houses. That sense of real trauma too, when you see the very green grass of the Waikato and think of “the raw edges of a wound”. The centre of the book, what makes it really worth it, are rich and exhausting descriptions of Johnson’s flight and survival through the Kaimanawas:
He was going desperately now and as hard and as fast as he could, swinging along and jumping from tree trunk to tree trunk on the steep side of the hills in an energy of excitement. He reckoned himself fit for a good two days or perhaps three. He slept well in a carpet of green and springy moss and was up with the first light of early dawn and a waning moon, but the afternoon of the next day found him tired and dispirited. He was exhausted by the effort of forcing his way through this jungle that seemed to grow more and more thickly as he went on. Supple-jack and bush-lawyer caught and tripped him. To go forward at all was an effort, exhausting time, but now that he was floodless doubly so. To have had some opening as a goal in front of him would have made the struggle possible. The continual sightless darkness of the bush was like a nightmare.
Passages like these, dark and brutal and atmospheric, move far away from boy’s-own survival adventure, and away from westerns and their entertainments – they start gnawing at you, exhausting you.
Man Alone is, funnily enough, most alive when our man Johnson is most alone. Just in the way that it’s other people that cause his problems, it’s also other people that cause the novel’s problems. Rua, that idiot wife, is a cheap portrait in which Mulgan (or, at least, our narrator) manages the triple hitter of being racist, sexist, and deeply boring:
Stenning’s wife came out again and met them on the steps of the house. She was little more than a girl, perhaps twenty-two or three. She had been pretty not long ago; she was still pretty, though sulky and ill-tempered looking. She was not very dark, and her straight black hair, hanging down over one side of her face, showed off the deep olive pinkness of her cheeks that had grown a little too fat and rounded. She looked at Johnson curiously and rudely, without speaking.
The novel churns into another escape, again no fault of Johnson’s, another greater escape. A sense of the world ticking on, and these men who do not speak lost in a large machine not of their own making. And by the end of the novel you feel yourself dragged into the vortex. Nobody exists but you, the game was always rigged, you’re on your own.
I’ve had a small, tiny, taste of such deterministic resentments. I’ve been locked down in foreign countries since the pandemic started – mainly in Ireland, where I knew no one and quarantine is indefinite. My lockdowns were essentially middle-class. I was still housed. But I spent my days peering into the blue void of the internet and refreshing case numbers and watching desultory press conferences by officials I did not elect. And for the first time I experienced something that only luck and the randomness of social history has largely protected me from: the absolute knowledge that every facet of your daily life is in the hands of people who do not know you – scientists in white lab coats, or politicians in tailored suits and friendly ties – who make decisions without ever thinking of you. The further down the power ladder you go, the more true this is more of the time. I got some taste of the night terrors and alcohol abuse and binge eating that this brings on.
And since, when you’re locked-down and all alone you can think of nothing beyond yourself, something in Mulgan’s vision of a deterministic and grim world – clicking from one war to the next – chimed with a bitterness I started to see in myself. But I don’t go to fiction to be reminded of my own self-pity, I go to be liberated from myself, to feel what it’s all like for all those other selves out there. Man Alone is not interested in liberation of any kind, not really. Man Alone is about isolation – the reader isolated from Johnson, Johnson endlessly isolated from the people he encounters, isolated from history, isolated by history. Johnson, who can actually escape, who can leave on a boat and eventually tell his story over red wine and cigarettes, who does not need to marry a gun-toting farmer and have affairs to escape the drudgery of his life. And it’s that failure of imagination that permeates the book: it gets in the way of all connection, it stifles feeling. It made me terribly sad.