From Under the Overcoat by Sue Orr review

by Nicholas Reid / 05 July, 2012
For her second book, Sue Orr plays around with some of the world's greatest short stories.
I once had a brilliant idea for a book of short stories. I would rewrite well-known tales to give them what I regarded as more acceptable endings. Edgar Linton would get the servants to throw Heathcliff out with maximum force. He would then tell Catherine to put up and shut up. Friar Lawrence's plan would work. Romeo and Juliet would have a family, live to a ripe old age and learn what real love is, as opposed to the whining teenage version. Maggie Tulliver would tell her dimwit brother Tom she wasn't going to cover for him any more, before marching off and getting a life of her own.

Only two small things prevented me from proceeding with my plan: a) my lack of talent and b) the realisation that a book of such stories would rapidly become an overblown game. Okay for a couple of funny columns. Tedious for a whole book.

Sue Orr's second story collection, From Under the Overcoat, isn't exactly designed along the same lines, but it's somewhere in the same ballpark. And it never quite escapes overblown game syndrome.

Here are 10 stories, all but one with New Zealand settings. Each echoes, alludes to, takes its inspiration from or has undertones of one of the best-known of the world's canon of short stories.

An introduction and contents page tell us which great canonical tale is related to which of Orr's stories. At the back of the book are notes on the great originals.

There is also a reprinting of the full text of Constance Garnett's (presumably public domain) translation of Gogol's The Overcoat, from which this collection gets its title.

Orr records Frank O'Connor's suggestion that Nikolai Gogol's story is the pioneer of modern short stories' concern with ordinary people.

But there are some major problems. Without the notes, headings, introduction and so forth, would even alert and informed readers make the connection between some of these Kiwi tales and their inspiration? They might with Orr's The Open Home, because it has a Wellington setting like Katherine Mansfield's The Doll's House, overtly uses doll's house imagery and even repeats Mansfield's colour scheme of "spinach green picked out with bright yellow". Likewise Orr's Recreation clearly alludes to Maori creation myths because it tells, in part, a story of characters who have the names of Maori gods. But in the stories that reference The Overcoat and James Joyce's The Dead, Orr has to tell us in so many words this is what is being referenced.

Without such obvious signposting, the connections are murkier. Journeyman, for example, purports to channel Boule de Suif and does indeed concern a vulnerable person, susceptible to flattery, who is exploited by more powerful people. But many lesser stories have had the same idea, and in terms of setting, style and general approach, Journeyman has little in common with Guy de Maupassant's masterpiece. Connections of other stories to Anton Chekhov, Henry James, Sherwood Anderson, Arthur Schnitzler and the Brothers Grimm are similarly tenuous. I also record my annoyance that the Joyce-derived story comes close to being a facetious trashing of the more subtle original.

I'm not being a literary puritan in all this. Taken on their own merits, most of Orr's stories are entertaining plot-driven yarns, sometimes with coarse good humour (the bored schoolkids' invasion of a television studio is a particular treat). I never belittle the merits of clear prose and Orr writes clearly, even if she does sometimes overdo the colloquial shock. Much of From Under the Overcoat adds up to a good read.

But isn't it more than a little pretentious to attempt to mount such workwomanlike tales on the back of the Great Tradition? Like saying, "Gogol, Chekhov, Joyce, Mansfield ... and ME!" Orr's introduction urges us to "seek out the classics ... read them and marvel at their perennial beauty". This is very good advice.

FROM UNDER THE OVERCOAT, by Sue Orr (Vintage, $29.99), released February 18.
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