Olwyn Stewart, Curriculum Vitæ (2006)

Scott Hamilton, ed.: brief 33 - exile and home (March 2006)

Olwyn Stewart. Curriculum Vitæ. Titus Novellas. Auckland: Titus Books, 2005. ISBN 0-9582586-2-7. RRP $19.95.

Olwyn Stewart: Curriculum Vitæ (2005)

Reviewing this book is one of the toughest assignments I’ve ever had. Not for the usual reason – trying to find as diplomatic a way as possible of expressing one’s reservations about some poor author’s book. My problem is precisely the opposite. I despair of conveying just how much I enjoyed reading Olwyn’s novella (three times now), and also of explaining just why I think it’s so extremely bloody good.

You see? You’re sceptical already. More pump-priming, you think – more writers scratching each other’s backs and forming mutual-admiration societies (actually rather harder to set up than one might think, in my experience: people do have this unfortunate habit of telling the truth sooner or later, even about their dearest friends, no matter how many obligations they’ve incurred in the meantime …)

To business, though. The opening scene. But it’s just so thoroughly amusing, so perfectly paced!
There’s a maroon plastic folder on a table outside a K Road café. A lady alcoholic, her lipstick awry, mutters ‘What’s this shit?’ shoves it out of the way and takes a swig from a bottle of sweet sherry in a brown paper bag. She flashes a grimace at a toddler in a pushchair, who pulls a face as if about to scream, then changes his mind and sucks on his own bottle.

We begin by focussing on the document itself, the absurd c.v. concocted by Mike’s girl-friend Brenda (“The result was a revelation. With the hangovers, the shambolic friends, the long stoned days, the metal fillings, the tinea and the threadbare underpants distilled out of the mixture, what remained was the essence of a proper person”); we then move to rapidfire scene-setting – K. Road, alcoholics, toddlers – combined with an opinion on the central motivating object at the heart of the story: “What’s this shit?” (What indeed? Ticket to a magic-carpet ride of mafia conspiracies, Berlin night-spots, and shallow graves, it would appear …). What it really makes us concentrate on, though, is characterisation. That lady alcoholic (who never reappears) is so perfectly delineated in two sentences that she seems to go spinning off in a halflife of her own, sprung fully-formed from her creator’s brow. The toddler, too. Why does he choose not to scream? Too dangerous, the author implies – too much chance of getting caught up in the crossfire. Better just to lower your head, take a swig and shut up … the moral of the story in a nutshell.

This camera’s eye perception of the scene gradually enlarges. An elderly woman takes temporary charge of the folder (“A decent lad,” she thinks, “trying to make a go of things, unlike her own good-for-nothing son, back underfoot at the age of thirty-seven. I blame the drugs, she sighs to herself …”). She is succeeded by a couple of slacker girls “precariously balanced on platform shoes” (“Oh fuck. I’ve burned a hole in his positive attitude.”)

Olwyn’s story, as should be already apparent, is a concentrated hymn to slackers and bogans everywhere. All those ex-hippies, all those old metallers, all those drug-addled potheads have found, at last, their laureate. She understands them, she can paint them with devastating wit and accuracy – but, above all, they amuse her. It’s as if an entire subculture of New Zealand has suddenly sat up and put out its tongue. One feels almost as Sargeson’s first readers must have felt when his Kiwi characters started Speaking For Themselves.

There was always something a little ponderous about all that carving a literature out of the nation’s rude soul schtick. though (as Sargeson himself acknowledged by veering off in ever stranger arabesques of invention – have you tried rereading “That Summer” lately?) Olwyn’s approach seems light and effortless by contrast, but no less serious in intention. The meeting with Jesus which occurs approximately halfway through the book is clearly pivotal to her conception of what the story is actually about. Her narrative exists, in fact, to motivate the possibility of such a scene – to create a world in which a character could accept matter-of-factly having the Messiah walk round the corner of the house, comment on the vegetables, then walk away again.

I hope I’ve succeeded in whetting your appetite, or at least rousing your curiosity just a little. Olwyn’s book is fated to be a sleeper, I fear. I doubt that anyone who ever reads it will fail to be amused by it. By the same token, I doubt that many of her readers will see just how extraordinary it is to achieve something so perfect.

Just as people failed to see the genius of P. G. Wodehouse, despite the worldwide popularity of his books, until Evelyn Waugh hailed him as “the head of my profession;” just (for that matter) as Waugh himself was seen as a comedian until the Second World War showed what he’d been talking about all along; so (I fear) Olwyn’s novella will share the fate of other denizens of that strange twilight kingdom between the short story and the novel (Big Steve King expressed it best, or at any rate most vividly, in his collection Different Seasons: “You look at your manuscript dismally, twist the cap off a beer, and in your head you seem to hear a heavily accented and rather greasy voice saying: ‘Buenos dias, señor! How was your flight on Revolución Airways? You like eet pretty-good fine I theenk, si? Welcome to Novella, señor! You going to like heet here pretty-good-fine, I theenk! Have a cheap cigar! Have some feelthy peectures! …’”)

I too have benefited from the wisdom and far-sightedness of Titus books in actually daring to publish some novellas in (rather spiffy, I think) individual bindings, so I can scarcely be trusted to report objectively on that. One thing we can all be grateful for, though, is the fact that Curriculum Vitæ has now been released onto an unsuspecting world, to exert its strange magic over readers everywhere.


brief 33 (2006): 106-8.
[Available at: Titus Books Website (29/4/06)]

[1001 wds]

brief 33 (2006)

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