New Zealand’s miniaturist answer to Karl Ove Knausgård.
It’s rookie rule No 1 for readers: don’t go mistaking the narrative voice for that of the writer – because writers have imaginations and make things up.
So although I think I know so much about Geoff Cochrane already, when I go to meet him I’m prepared to be surprised. It’s entirely possible he bears no relation to the character that emerges in the 14 volumes of verse, two novels and two short-story collections he has released since first being published in 1975.
Who knows – perhaps I’ll be greeted by an immaculately coiffured, pinstripe-suited senior policy analyst from the Reserve Bank, his sleek black BMW parked outside, the back seat strewn with the detritus of family life back in Khandallah with a trophy wife and 2.4 children.
But no. The hair is impressive, but because of the ponytail; the teeth are faultless, only they’re dentures. I know this from one of Cochrane’s poems, to which, as with his other writing, his life does indeed adhere closely: the family in Island Bay and later Levin; the love of cinema; the immersion in Wellington’s 1970s and 80s demi-monde; the alcoholism (taking his last drink in 1989), asthma and diabetes; the cramped council flat in Miramar where he lives alone while maintaining “a relationship with the local Winz office”.
Over the course of nearly 40 years, Cochrane, 63, has been New Zealand’s equivalent of Karl Ove Knausgård and his My Struggle series of autobiographical novels.
Except – the novels Tin Nimbus (1995) and Blood (1997) aside – Cochrane’s canvas has been a resolutely miniaturist one (especially compared with Knausgård’s). Even for a poet he has been minor-key. But he is a master of that key: a dry, droll, downbeat observer of the world around him, and a brilliant stylist, his language precise and transfigurative, whether describing Wellington’s weather or a penis – for example, “his bobbly cock aglint like basted lamb”.
That last line is from Human Stories in Cochrane’s 2005 story collection White Nights, which, along with its 2003 predecessor Brindle Embers, has been gathered in a new Victoria University Press book, Astonished Dice. (The collections were first published in small-press editions by architect and friend Gerald Melling.)
Cochrane says there was a period of about two years during which the stories “were like gifts from the gods, they just kept coming. And then they stopped. And they’ve stayed stopped!” (Although not entirely: the occasional one has appeared in subsequent poetry collections.)
They feature elements familiar to Cochrane’s fans but also venture into new territory, including an Eastern Europe-set story, inspired in part by his reading Saul Bellow’s novel The Dean’s December, and a piece of historical fiction from a female perspective drawn from his grandmother’s arrival in New Zealand in the 19th century.
There is plenty of Cochrane’s playfulness, be it with the pulp detective genre or the mixing of time and place.
“They are pieces of fiction for people who are slow readers,” says Cochrane. “I think speed readers would probably find many of them too brisk. And evanescent perhaps. Perhaps the book should come with a warning: ‘Not for speed readers.’ But then one hopes a good writer beguiles and slows one down.”
Cochrane definitely does. One of the most frequently used words throughout his writing is “lambent” and it is one that applies to the writing itself.
“I was always good at English at college,” he says. “But I really only took to it seriously at the age of 18. In those days, I used to go to the Botanical Gardens and somehow succeeded in reading the collected letters of DH Lawrence and of James Joyce. Where it got me, I can’t tell you at this distance in time, but there you are, I did it once.”
Writing appealed because “I thought it was something you could do and all you needed was a pen and a pad. And you didn’t need permission from anyone either.”
More than being a writer, Cochrane wanted to work in the movies. “But New Zealand was incredibly barren and arid in those days. If you had a hankering, an interest in film, there was only one port of call and that was the National Film Unit. Well, one can have an interest in film without wanting to spend the next 40 years of one’s life photographing mallard ducks.”
Making movies was “just an impossible dream”, he says. “But you could sit down and direct your own bloody movies by writing your own story or your own novel or whatever.”
As much as he wanted to write or make movies, however, Cochrane wanted to drink. “It was a problem for me already by the time I was 20.” He spent his 21st birthday in rehab in Hanmer Springs. But as with other attempts to quit, until 1989 he was “left with that thirst I describe I think in one of my novels as being unlike a thirst, really, to the extent it more closely resembles a hunger for offal”.
Of his 21st, Cochrane says “you can see how shaming that might have been”. But where other writers might have avoided drawing on such material, he has excavated it again and again. It is, he says, “a gift that just keeps giving”.
But great material is one thing, great writing quite another. When did Cochrane realise he had that gift, too? “I knew I was pretty good pretty early. I can’t pretend otherwise. I knew I was all right.”
There are plenty of others who now know too. And although Cochrane is the archetypal writer’s writer, it’s not just writers who have him on their radar.
“Here’s a surprising thing,” he says. “I got a letter recently from a woman. It was addressed to me thus: ‘Geoff Cochrane, Poet, Miramar.’ That was all that was on the envelope and it reached me the day after she’d posted it.” l
ASTONISHED DICE: COLLECTED SHORT STORIES, by Geoff Cochrane (VUP, $30).
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