CK Stead's latest short-story collection: A light touch and sheer brio

by Stephen Stratford / 16 January, 2017

CK Stead’s third short-story ­collection includes nine old and five new: early stories have been variously revised, expanded and (bafflingly) retitled.

He may ­consider himself a poet foremost, and the first two novels have lasted, but for me these stories are the best of Stead, with their light touch, precise observation and sheer brio. They usually involve sex, but spare the reader any squishy details. The heart rather than the body is the focus: Stead is a more romantic writer than he is given credit for. He is also very funny.

One, previously published in Metro, has some wonderfully coarse dialogue:

 

Today he asked how old I was. I told him thirty-nine.

“Thirty-nine eh. And who’re you rooting?”

I told him I wasn’t rooting anyone. “I’m separated. Getting divorced, Clarry.” And I added, imitating his digger lingo, “I’m on me lonesome.”

He nodded. “So who’re you ­rooting then?”

 

Stead’s characters are usually more urbane than this: there is often a well-travelled, libidinous professor. Invariably, he is not irresistible: an art dealer sleeps with him to clinch a sale; an academic offers herself as revenge on her faithless husband (what is it with these academics?); another asks “if we could talk sometime about sexual politics in Commonwealth poets”, surely the ­least-alluring invitation ever.

Then there is the elephant in the ­collection, “Last Season’s Man”, which in 2010 won the 25,000 Sunday Times Short Story Award but was less well received here, where it was seen as a thinly disguised attack on a recently dead local author.

CK Stead. Photo/Francesco Guidicini

Of the new ones, “Marriage Americano” and “Anxiety” are little more than sketches. “True Love” has a murderer-turned-painter Ron Jorgensen figure and a lovely evocation of the long-gone houses of Grafton Gully, but is oddly insubstantial.

The strongest is “A small apartment in the rue Parrot”. Mansfield’s ghost hovers as an Englishwoman in Paris muses on English poetry and Derrida (what a waste of Paris!) while ­pursuing an expat professor called Max Jackson, a private University of Auckland joke. Playfulness abounds with other characters from Stead’s life. In the title story, Norman Mailer has been replaced by Allen Curnow, Stead’s colleague and neighbour.

In the revised “The Town”, Clifton Scarf is on a fellowship in France with his wife and children – two girls and a boy. It is the year “the Don McLean song about ‘Miss American Pie’ was top of the charts”. That was 1972, the year Stead had the Menton fellowship and took his wife Kay and children – two girls and a boy.

In the superb title story, temperatures have been changed (again, bafflingly) and a course on the Literature of Sexual Harassment is now on the Syntax of Self in Early America, nicely updating the joke. The narrator observes a parent oystercatcher labouring to work free a mussel, break it open, drag out the fish, fly back to the nest: “chick, well fed by this hour, accepted the mussel with bad grace”. (Every parent will recognise this.)

All the while he muses on the ­relationship between poet and critic: “Are the two, theft and research, ever entirely distinct?” As in the classic “A Fitting Tribute”, included here, absence is a theme. These characters are all concerned about their reputations: the story ends with the declaration “Reputation is an invention” – and the poet vanishes. A happy ending.

THE NAME ON THE DOOR IS NOT MINE, by CK Stead (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

This article was first published in the January 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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