Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Some thoughts on The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley

The Hut Builder

One reason I keep this blog is to open the door (however slightly) on my own writing process. So this is not a review of The Hut Builder. A review would take a more rounded, less personal approach to the reading experience. What I hope to do here is capture a few of my thoughts upon reading Fearnley’s novel and how this relates to my own writing.

Spoiler alert: The Hut Builder isn’t exactly a thriller or a mystery, but I do disclose certain elements of the plot in the following discussion which are kind of surprises at the time. You’ve been warned.

A brief summary

The novel is divided into four sections: ‘Fairlie’, ‘The Hut Builder’, ‘The Poet’ and 'Boden'. The first section covers the childhood of Boden Black in the early fifties. Boden’s twin brothers died in the war and his mother is forever diminished; his father, the town’s butcher, is also affected but powers on. The key scene in this section involves Boden’s first trip to the Mackenzie Country with his neighbour; inspired by the landscape, Boden is prompted to compose his first poem.

‘The Hut Builder’ section focuses on the time Boden spent constructing a hut on the slopes of Aoraki/Mt Cook in his early twenties, in particular his relationship with fellow hut builder and former conscientious objector, Walter. By this time, Boden is working with his father at the butcher’s shop and still harbours dreams of being a poet.

In ‘The Poet’, we mostly follow Boden in late-middle age. One of the poems he wrote after his hut building expedition, ‘Three Days At Least’, has become New Zealand’s “the third most widely read poem” after ‘The Magpies’ (Glover) and ‘Rain’ (Tuwhare). Boden’s poetic output (and success) since then is limited and he continues to work as a butcher, taking over the shop after his father’s death. He finds love with Stella, a historian, though they never live together in the same town, and meets his long lost birth sister (spoiler: he was adopted). After finally publishing a new collection of poems, Kindred Spirits, Boden is commissioned to write a new poem to commemorate the opening of a new museum at Mt Cook, bringing the story back in the final brief section, if not quite full-circle, at least to its centre.

A voice never raised

The novel is narrated throughout by Boden, the emotionally reticent butcher-poet. His language is very restrained: formal in its construction and cadence. A couple of illustrative sentences selected almost at random:
"I could see the woman but I was too embarrassed to intervene. On the one hand I wanted to disown my father, but I also didn't want to deny him this small pleasure." p2
"Determined to make one last-ditch effort I went at my tunnel with renewed vigour, and after another twenty minutes or so of back-breaking work I felt a faint breath of air against my face..." p97
"If I stand back a little, however, I can credit the poem with bringing me to the attention of my future partner, Stella." p174
The voice is clearly not the sort you'd hear in spoken conversation. It's much more considered, almost stuffy (he hardly sounds impassioned when talking about the love of his life!), which goes a long way to describing Boden Black.

It was on the level of language that I had my first strong reaction to The Hut Builder. I saw many similarities in the voice to the narrator in the novel I have been working on (off and on) for the last two years. On this blog I have referred to this project as Novel B. In part, it was to be the story of the narrator finding his way in the world of visual/mixed media arts rather than poetry. Boden is writing his story from an older age (sixty something) and a significant chunk of the novel is set in the fifties, while the narrator of Novel B is writing at the age of about thirty and the events are mostly contemporary, though they seem to share that sense of stuffiness when it comes to language.

The net result in reading the first eighty or so pages of Boden’s/Fearnely’s crisp, thoughtful, carefully constructed sentences — that were very much what I was trying to perform with my narrator in Novel B — was a sense of dissatisfaction. The words were not lifeless, exactly, but there was a distinct lack of vigour.

And while Boden Black becomes a believable character by the end of the novel — one of the lingering-in-your-thoughts variety — his emotional reticence kneecaps his ability as a narrator to engage the reader’s (or this reader’s) emotions. The language does not leap off the page, nor does the action, nor does the emotion. What we get is a well told story which flirts with being interesting, flirts with being sad, flirts with being poetic, but never quite follows through on its promises.

Chutzpah, or the lack thereof

Related to the muted voice of the narrator is the amount of work left up to the reader in terms of Boden’s poetry. We do not get to read any poems, or even a single stanza. The total evidence of our hero’s poetry comes to: a rhyming couplet from his first, childish poem, the title and a couple of rhymes from his ‘greatest hit’, the fact he had been writing sonnets at one point then decided to abandon the form but keep the content, and a couple more titles. The reader is left to construct Boden’s poetry from these hints, his discussion of other poets (Charles Brasch, Ursula Bethell, Byron) and the language of his narration.

As Lawrence Jones puts it in his review for the Otago Daily Times, there is, “a hidden Boden expressed only in his poetry.”  Even in his memoir, which The Hut Builder is on one level, Boden does not delve too deeply into emotion. He never writes much about his love for Stella, for example, though we hear he once wrote her a love poem (which he wasn’t that fond of). Where’s the poem? Where’s the love?

The GiftIt is one thing to read about art, another thing to experience it. Poetry is one of the few art forms that lends itself to presentation in fiction. And yet the reader of The Hut Builder is left empty handed.

Bend SinisterI was forced to draw an unfavourable comparison between this book and Nabokov’s last (and greatest) work in Russian before turning to English, The Gift. Nabokov’s novel focuses on the literary ambitions and artistic development of the poet Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev. Fyodor’s poetry is a central part of both the narrative and the characterisation, and we get to read it! As Nabokov says in another novel, Bend Sinister, when talking about his philosopher protagonist:
"It was much the same as is liable to happen in novels when the author and his yes-characters assert that here is a ‘great artist’ or a ‘great poet’ without, however, bringing any proofs (reproductions of his paintings, samples of his poetry); indeed, taking care not to bring such proofs since any sample would be sure to fall short of the reader’s expectations and fancy."
Pale Fire: A NovelLater, Nabokov would take the poetry-in-novel conceit to its extreme in Pale Fire which centres around a 999 line poem and the excessive, mad footnotes from (ostensibly at least) the poet’s neighbour.

I can understand Fearnley’s reticence to hand the reader a poem such as ‘Three Days at Least’, which is held up as Boden’s biggest achievement, the one studied by two generations of high school students. For a novelist, to write a self-proclaimed ‘great NZ poem’ takes some chutzpah, and chances are it would fail in some way.

It’s like the uncanny valley in robotics, which describes the fact that the closer to human appearance a robot becomes, the more disconcerting it is, because we are almost fooled but then notice those little quirks, the slightly unhuman movement of the eyelids, or the too-regular complexion. So too, a slight misstep in a ‘droid’ poem (one that resides in a work of fiction, but is supposed to read as something taken from the outside world) is likely to irk readers more than a piece of doggerel (which would then throw the novel into a satirical space, prompting the reader to reassess the seriousness with which Boden pursues his poetry and the kind of general public who would hold up a poem as a national treasure).

So basically, the droid poem must be flawless to succeed. But without it, we are left at such a distance from the narrator-poet and even the version of New Zealand it presents. It is easy to write the words "one of the most famous poems in recent New Zealand literature" (p174) — that’s the kind of notebook entry a writer makes all the time. The challenge of the novelist is to convince the reader of this fact and I was not convinced by the evidence provided in the novel.

The Shanghai Knights effect

Shanghai Knights The third issue I had with The Hut Builder was the plot’s relationship with history. I have come to think of this as The Shanghai Knights effect, which is named after the entirely forgettable action movie starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson (the movie was a sequel, which should tell you something about its quality off the bat). In Shanghai Knights, Chan and Wilson’s characters travel to London and by the end of the movie it seems everyone they’ve met turns out to be some kind of historical figure. ‘Artie’, the inspector from Scotland Yard, turns out to be Arthur Conan Doyle (despite the fact Doyle never worked as a coppa). The young street urchin will grow up to be Charlie Chaplin. Rather than adding to the effect of the story, these contrivances are a kind of literary outsourcing and reduce the imaginative power of a work for me.

So it was, to a lesser extent it must be said, in The Hut Builder. When Boden’s mother takes a train trip up to Auckland to visit her ailing mother in December 1953, sure enough the Tangiwai disaster rushes into the story and prompts Boden’s father to tell him he was adopted.

What’s my problem? Many people were affected by the disaster, and it could make for interesting reading. The problem: there is so much evident engineering to get Boden’s mother on a train to Auckland (they barely ever leave Fairlie). It felt like Tangiwai was being used to add oomph to the novel rather than generating that oomph — and the prompt for Boden’s father to open up — from something internal to the story. It is true that events such as Tangiwai and more recently the Christchurch earthquake or Pike River impact on a lot of people (and shake the headspace of people who haven’t suffered any real loss) in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, but there are ways such events can be incorporated into fiction in satisfying, subtle and believable ways. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel this was the case in The Hut Builder.

Perhaps it was because of the Tangiwai affair, but when Sir Edmund Hillary popped up in the novel for the second time (we already know Boden climbed Mt Cook with Hillary from the photo in his father’s shop in the prologue) he felt a bit perfunctory. I didn’t actually have any issue with Sir Ed as a character, what he said or did. It’s the fact that he just happened to come along the one time Boden helped construct a hut. And lo, our timid narrator gets the chance to climb our greatest peak with our greatest mountaineer. It could have been any mountaineer who took Boden up Mt Cook, and the fact it was Hillary can either be viewed as serendipitous or cynicism on the part of the writer (I don’t trust myself to make a ficitional mountaineer  interesting enough…).

As the Earth Turns Silver(I’m conscious that I am coming down quite harshly on this book and I am about to heap more doubts upon it, so it is worth re-iterating that I thought it was a decent book and would not be surprised or disappointed to see it nominated for the NZ Post Book Awards next year. For what it’s worth, I found The Hut Builder to be a more accomplished and far more pleasurable read than this year’s NZPBA fiction winner, As the Earth Turns Silver. Other readers will have no problem with The Hut Builder’s celebrity cameos or the articulate-yet-reserved voice of the narrator — indeed, many would point to these as a strength (or selling point) of the book…)

There are also a number of other historical connections, such Walter’s chums from prison including Hillary’s brother and Charles Brasch, the poet and editor of Landfall. I didn’t mind these so much, but then when it was revealed that Boden’s birth parents were close friends of Brasch’s, the network of historical connections felt just too tight, too perfect.

It’s an interesting question: when a story is set in the past, how much historical reference is too much? Clearly, the small stuff is important: the type of climbing equipment they would have used, the fashions of the time. That’s all crucial. And there needs to be historical touchstones for the reader. But when the number of characters and events in the book that are taken from the real world starts to dwarf those dreamed up by the author, it starts to bring the ‘reality’ of the fictional world into question. Do we really know that many people in our real lives who will be remembered in fifty year’s time? How likely is it that a poet-butcher will have multiple connections with the founder of one of our most important literary journals? Etc.

Bringing it all back home

The three factors I’ve discussed – my unfavourable reaction to the stuffy voice, the lack of chutzpah (not taking the risk of showing us poems), and the Shanghai Knights effect – prompted me to reassess what I’m doing with Novel B. The first two complaints, voice and chutzpah, I can also level at my completed chapters (while I make much more of an effort to show reader’s the narrator’s artistic output, good and bad, there’s a lingering lack of ambition, eg contemporary first person male narrator in lower North Island…). The third, the use of historical figures and research, and my views on what works and what doesn’t, is something I’m eager to demonstrate, but Novel B is not the place to do it.

Everything, it seems, is pointing me to the project I have kept on the back burner while struggling with Novel B. It is set around the turn of the last century (it opens on New Years Day 1903 and goes forward and back in time from there), so there’s scope to include historical personages. This project, by its nature, would also satisfy my issues with voice (third person semi-intrusive narrator in the mould of Dumas or Dostoyevsky, who is looking back on historical events from the reader’s present) and chutzpah (which I’ll need up the yingyang to pull it off). For the last week and a half I’ve been devoting my time to research and plot development (which includes coming up with character names). I love this part of writing — playing Maquet to my future Dumas — which isn’t technically writing at all.

What will happen to Novel B? This isn’t the first time I’ve abandoned it. I’ll come back to it in some form, some day. It did start out as a sequel to a short story and the chapters I’ve completed may be better served as a short story or two themselves. We shall see.


Sarah Jane Barnett said...

I am reading 'The Hut Builder' at the moment (70 pages to go) and have a similar reaction, or lack of reaction, to you (e.g. "What we get is a well told story which flirts with being interesting, flirts with being sad, flirts with being poetic, but never quite follows through on its promises"). Any emotional reactions I have come from my own attachment to the South Island, and the memories I have from childhood and Mt Cook.

I think that the book would have been much improved with the addition of Boden's poems. That sort of layering would have let the reader see another side to his character through the lens of his poems. At times I felt that the descriptions of the mountains and scenery were meant to do this, but didn't quite go far enough.

Carrie said...

when I was part way through The Hut Builder this was my feeling too but by the time I finished I felt the story was a small polished gem; I hope you felt the same way after you finished it.

Carol booth