Bully off

Susannah Clapp

  • Dunedin by Shena Mackay
    Heinemann, 341 pp, £14.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 434 44048 5

Shena Mackay has written the first antispeciesist novel. Dunedin does not feature animals in any large anthropomorphic or allegorical capacity, and there is hardly a pet in sight. But what happens at the edges of Mackay’s novels, what is taken for granted, has always been vital in establishing their distinctive flavour and their point. Dunedin is about London, poverty and pinched lives, but the background imagery is consistently, though often quietly animal. This imagery helps to make Dunedin as original as any of Mackay’s earlier books. It was one of the few things not praised in the unexpected eulogy bestowed upon Mackay by the pit-bull of the literary pages Julie Burchill when, in Elle magazine, she dismissed other contemporary women authors as ‘a mannered, marginal bunch of second bananas’, and went on to proclaim Mackay as ‘the best writer in the world today’.

Plot has never been a central attraction in Mackay’s Fiction: she introduces topics, strands of subject-matter and characters, and lets them unravel, sometimes intertwine, often fade away and frequently get dumped. There is as much meander as development – appropriately, for she writes about dreamers and ditherers. She is a writer of moments, of sharp touches, who has found as many fervent advocates for her short stories as for her novels.

Dunedin is more conventional in subject-matter and structure than most of her books. The novel’s opening is strikingly – for Mackay, weirdly – traditional, seeming to promise a historical costume drama, in which a Scots minister and his family, arriving at the New Zealand port of Dunedin in 1909, find a mixing of traditions: there is shortbread and pursed lips and the tawse; there are also preserved human heads. Mackay makes less than she could of the distinctive cultural blend of the place: New Zealand émigrés report that the gold-rush town of Dunedin (founded by Scottish Presbyterians in the 1840s) was almost entirely determined by the idea of re-creating Edinburgh. It sports a George Street, a Hanover Street and an Albany Street, as well as a Castle Street (without the castle) and a Princes Street (with no prince); even in the 1960s, the statue of Robert Burns in the middle of the main street was surrounded by Highland dancers every Friday night. The Scottishness of Mackay’s Dunedin is more a matter of moral style than of civic life, and her New Zealand a place of lush temptations and hazards – of bubbling geysers, sweet-briared verandas and black thighs. It is a place where a family’s lives are narrowed by an oppressive father – while the father’s own fantasy and fancy wander. It is also a place where the family’s maid-servants, though preyed upon by their master, are in the end allowed their free range of fun:

‘I keep seeing his terrible face, staring at us. Like
God and Adam and Eve.’
  Madge came over to Lilian’s bed. ‘Is it wrong?
Does it feel wrong when I take you in my arms?’

Mackay’s books have often been, as here, quite casually bisexual. In 1965 Music Upstairs provided an account of a young woman’s drift through London – half-drunk, mostly miserable, half-tranced – in which the heroine’s love affairs with her landlady and landlord are retailed with a wonderfully offhand assurance. Mackay was 18 when she wrote Music Upstairs – a book whose title suggests the in-the-wings and off-the-wall nature of the heroine’s life, and which gains from its suggestion of the Thirties use of ‘musical’ for homosexual. She was a prodigy who, a year before, had produced another account of two wastrels or escapers. Dust falls on Eugene Schlumburger stars an ancient-seeming 30-year-old man and a schoolgirl only a year or so younger than the author who created her, who run off together (her headmistress informs the girl that her Uncle Eugene has just phoned the school with a request that she go to her mother’s sickbed), crash a stolen car and become severally imprisoned and a secretary.

Some pages early on in Eugene Schlumburger set the tone of the novella and are a gauge of Mackay’s particular mix of talents. It is assembly-time at the heroine’s school: ‘schoolgirls in collars and ties singing of sailors in the hard electric glare of the depth of winter’; the heroine is listening to prayers for the county councils and thinking of an encounter behind the Portsmouth Odeon. And it is snowing:

Abigail thought: snow is filling the hockey nets and glittering on the yellow mud, freezing the drive and filling the hedges. Mounting in desolation on the windowsills, wailing at the pane, drifting under doors. Soon it will cover the desks and the algebra books, fill the crucible and the belljar and thoroughly obliterate the blackboard. Blue glaciers will form in the inkwells. Perhaps Benthall’s car will skid on the drive and hurtle in frozen flames through the hollyhedge. Supposing they all broke their legs on the hockey pitch. ‘Bully off!’ and they charged, and their legs broke like hockeysticks, their faces like netballs sank into the snow.

If you don’t like this, or the way a lyrical passage is then slapped up against a piece of satire – ‘In addition to this bestiality,’ complains the headmistress about a recent misdemeanour, ‘not one of these girls was wearing her beret’ – you won’t like any of Mackay’s work. Her preoccupations and style haven’t changed much in the course of a thirty-year writing career. She still makes a lot of jokes. Her protagonists are still semi-detached from society. She still takes off in fantastic flights of visual imagery

Dunedin profits from these characteristics, though it is not her best novel. It is bigger than her previous books – there are more pages, more characters, more countries, more overt themes – and its bigness exposes a tendency to inconsequentiality which can seem a triumph of coolness but can seem merely careless. The New Zealand scenes which begin and end the novel are barely tethered to the central London chapters. One of the characters who could integrate the different parts of the novel – a young vagrant from New Zealand who is related to more people in London than he suspects – is sketchily presented. A series of scenes involving him describes a dystopia in which dissident members of the population are rounded up, imprisoned, patrolled by thugs and beaten up: both the baddies (E-type-owning adulterers who get their opponents bumped off) and the goodies (kind-eyed intuitives with sweet-smelling babies) are spectral.

These unsatisfactory parts stick out: they read as if they have been implanted to make Dunedin an evidently ambitious book. But they don’t damage the fabric of the novel. Mackay’s real ambitiousness has little to do with making overt moral or political statements. It has everything to do with seeing and expressing things in a completely individual way. Apparently effortlessly. Throughout her work painterly touches pop up. She looks at the closed eyes of a baby and sees that they are ‘like the seams along broad beans’.She gives a picture of a marriage that is worthy of Francis Bacon: ‘As the sound of a plane ebbed in the darkness a rumbling came from Nigel’s side of the bed and Jean’s stomach gave a timid answering bleat. She could have felt sorry for those two stomachs had they lain side by side in white bloody trays in a butcher’s window.’ And she has a quick ear:

‘Sometimes I feel I can’t go on, Doctor ...’
‘Go on, Mrs Roe.’

There is nothing precious about her effects. Novelists have recently been excoriated for escapism, for not addressing themselves to bad news. Mackay has always written about recognisably bleak contemporary circumstances. Women novelists, on the other hand, are always being accused of concentrating too narrowly on what’s going on around them: of being too polite, too middle-class (this seems to matter more in the case of women), too domestic. Mackay, who is no chronicler of china or linen or stable families, writes to a large extent about women who are called sluts or slags, centring her fiction on desolates or drifters, on characters who are more often glimpsed as part of a backdrop of urban disintegration. The protagonists of Dunedin are less obviously imperilled than earlier Mackay characters: they own houses and have – or have had – respectable jobs. Nevertheless, one middle-aged woman turns into a baby-snatcher; her brother is an ex-headmaster who has never recovered from a tragedy on a school outing; her ex-lover is a spectacular drunk. Mackay is most pointedly satirical when dealing with this last character, a writer, and his creative-writing-class exploits. His way of dealing with unfavourable reviews of his work is to ring up the reviewer in the middle of the night and do heavy breathing (‘There were ways of handling these things if you were a pro’); when an author kills herself shortly after a sneering review by him: ‘ “Probably done old Enid the biggest favour of her career,” Terry muttered as he cracked open a can of Red Stripe. “She’ll be a Virago Modern Classic before you can say ‘knife’.” Mackay became a Virago Modern Classic several years ago.[*]

Mackay’s books are scattered with topical and period references – to Jimmy Saville’s T and T Club, to Double Biological Ariel, to Home and Away. They are savvy but never studiously realistic: there is always something strange and elusive going on. In Dunedin it is the animals. They are everywhere, and they are an indicator of the author’s temperament: dark, funny and attracted to the bizarre. This is the book of, among other things, a vegetarian: meals and garb have a particular aspect – people munch ‘bits of dead animals in buns’ and wear sandals ‘hacked from the hide of an animal recently dead’; routine icons of dismemberment – a pub sign showing ‘a hare about to be torn apart by a pack of hounds’ – are seen as savagely intrusive. The edges of scenes are busy with the normally undetected movements of small creatures: snails are squelched, toads are threatened, fish bump around in tiny tanks, lobsters claw their way out of boiling cauldrons. Every now and then the scenes shift slightly in composition and the beasts come to the flore in ways characteristic of Mackay’s writing. This can be calmly humorous: ‘Ashley smiled, knowing that her friends laughed at her close relationship with the cats: recently she had been stung into telling Rosemary that her children were substitute cats.’ Or violent and paradoxical: Smithfield porters, ‘the bloodstained conscience of London’, protest in gory aprons against hospital cuts. Or grim and extraordinary: a man beats on the door of his prison, ‘howling his dog’s name’. The focus on everyday life is altered not incredibly but irrevocably: it is as if one looked at the Cabinet and found that all bar two of its members were women. The result is a world which is recognisable, peculiar and amusing. And full of unsuspected animation. Thank Pan.

[*] Virago publish Old Crow, Duxt falls on Eugene Schlumhurger/Toddler on the Run and Music Upstairs. Abacus publish Babies in Rhinestones, A Bowl of Cherries and Dreams of Dead Women’s Handbags.