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 In the title story, Norman Mailer has been replaced by Allen Curnow, Stead’s colleague and neighbour.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.

Latest

Why Witi Ihimaera wants New Zealand to bring its war dead home
89883 2018-04-24 00:00:00Z Profiles

Why Witi Ihimaera wants New Zealand to bring its w…

by Clare de Lore

Witi Ihimaera's journey to Commonwealth war graves for a new documentary, In Foreign Fields, is both personal and political.

Read more
A Wrinkle in Time – movie review
90000 2018-04-24 00:00:00Z Movies

A Wrinkle in Time – movie review

by James Robins

Reese was in a toga; Oprah 6m tall. No idea what happened.

Read more
The challenges of running a pub in one of NZ's most isolated locations
86834 2018-04-24 00:00:00Z Small business

The challenges of running a pub in one of NZ's mos…

by Rob O'Neill

What drove Catherine Olsson to take over the local pub on Great Barrier Island, and how does she cope with the tyranny of distance?

Read more
Good gut health practices to boost your immunity this winter
89932 2018-04-24 00:00:00Z Health

Good gut health practices to boost your immunity t…

by Noted

It's important in winter to consume foods that enhance the immune system and help reduce the risk of contracting the office lurgy.

Read more
Reversing fast fashion: The slow revolution of ethical clothing
89989 2018-04-23 15:06:33Z Style

Reversing fast fashion: The slow revolution of eth…

by Vomle Springford

It's Fashion Revolution Week and while NZ fashion brands are slowly making the move to more ethically made clothing, there's still work to do.

Read more
The Labour Party's spin doctors are doing a cracking job
89858 2018-04-23 00:00:00Z Politics

The Labour Party's spin doctors are doing a cracki…

by Bill Ralston

Perhaps Labour's PR outfit should next turn their talents to Washington, where Donald Trump is turning the White House into a cesspit.

Read more
Are confidentiality agreements letting sexual harassers off the hook?
89729 2018-04-23 00:00:00Z Social issues

Are confidentiality agreements letting sexual hara…

by Donna Chisholm

Some experts are calling for confidentiality agreements in sexual harassment cases to be scrapped as the #MeToo movement gathers pace.

Read more
How to know if you are being sexually harassed at work
89757 2018-04-23 00:00:00Z Social issues

How to know if you are being sexually harassed at …

by The Listener

The Employment Relations Act is very clear about what constitutes sexual harassment in New Zealand.

Read more