Sunday, October 21, 2012

Two Writers (2): Michael Morrissey

[Michael Morrissey: Tropic of Skorpeo (2012)]

A couple of weeks ago I received a package in the mail at work. Funnily enough, it turned out to be a book: Michael Morrissey's latest, in fact. Tropic of Skorpeo, it's called, with a somewhat garish cover designed - I guess - to pull in the youth vote.

Being no stranger to garish covers myself - witness Nights with Giordano Bruno (2000) - I certainly didn't hold that against it. The contents, though, take a bit more getting used to.

Before I get onto that, though, perhaps I should explain why I'm juxtaposing Michael Morrissey with Salman Rushdie as the "two writers" of these two posts. Is it the extremity of the contrast? One world-famous, the other "famous in New Zealand"?

Well, yes, in a way. Mainly, though, it's because Morrissey too has published a memoir, Taming the Tiger, which must have been every bit as difficult to write as Rushdie's whale of a book.

While Rushdie has had to endure the assault of millions pouring execrations on his name around the globe, at least he had the satisfaction of knowing he was right: the cacophany came from outside him, and he was backed by a legion of friends and admirers. It's not that I mean to underestimate what he's been through, but being such a celebrated, virtually world-historical figure must have helped keep him afloat.

Michael Morrissey is mad. I know that's a blunt and insensitive way to put it. Most people would prefer to talk of his "struggle with bipolar disease" or (as the subtitle of his own book puts it) his "Personal Encounter with Manic Depression." Nor has the problem gone away as a result of writing about it.

Costa Botes' recent documentary about Morrissey recorded further manic outbreaks after the ones chronicled in his book (published in a greatly abridged form, he's told us, from the original immense typescript), and there seems little evidence that he can ever feel any assurance of being completely free of it.

So the appearance of a new book from him is not a neutral matter. Whatever one's opinion of it, or the new book of poems which accompanies it, his courage and perseverence must at the very least be saluted.

I guess, then, the point of the comparison with Rushdie is to emphasise that there are many ways to inhabit the title "writer" - but the value of what you do is certainly not determined solely by the number of your readers or the amount of fuss each new title causes.

[Michael Morrissey: Taming the Tiger (2011)]

Here's a mini-bibliography of Morrissey's works to date:

  1. Morrissey, Michael. Make Love in All the Rooms. Dunedin: Caveman Press, 1978.
  2. Morrissey, Michael. Closer to the Bone: Poems. Christchurch: Sword Press, 1981.
  3. Morrissey, Michael. She's Not the Child of Sylvia Plath. Christchurch: Sword Press, 1981.
  4. Morrissey, Michael. Dreams. Wellington: Sword Press, 1981.
  5. Morrissey, Michael. Taking in the View. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1986.
  6. Morrissey, Michael. New Zealand - What Went Wrong?. Auckland: Van Guard Xpress, 1988.
  7. Morrissey, Michael. Dr Strangelove's Prescription. Auckland: Van Guard Xpress, 1988.
  8. Morrissey, Michael. A Case of Briefs. Auckland: Van Guard Xpress, 1989.
  9. Morrissey, Michael. The American Hero Loosens His Tie. Auckland: Van Guard Xpress, 1989.
  10. Morrissey, Michael. From the Swimming Pool Question. New Plymouth: Zenith, 2005.
  11. Morrissey, Michael. Memory Gene Pool. Governor's Bay, Lyttelton: Cold Hub Press, 2012.

  1. Morrissey, Michael. The Fat Lady & The Astronomer: Some Persons, Persuasions, Paranoias, and Places You Ought to Encounter. Christchurch: Sword Press, 1981. [short stories]
  2. Morrissey, Michael. Octavio’s Last Invention. Auckland: Brick Row, 1991. [short stories]
  3. Morrissey, Michael. Paradise to Come. Auckland: Flamingo, 1997. [2 novellas]
  4. Morrissey, Michael. Heart of the Volcano. Auckland: Bookcaster Press, 2000. [novella]
  5. Morrissey, Michael. Tropic of Skorpeo. Wellington: Steam Press, 2012. [SF novel]
  1. Morrissey, Michael. Taming the Tiger: A Personal Encounter with Manic Depression. Auckland: Polygraphia Ltd., 2011. [memoir]
  1. Morrissey, Michael, Mike Johnson & Rosemary Menzies, ed. The Globe Tapes. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1985. [poetry]
  2. Morrissey, Michael, ed. The New Fiction. Auckland: Lindon Publishing, 1985. [edited, with a long critical introduction]
  3. Morrissey, Michael, ed. New Zealand's Top 10. Auckland: Moa Beckett, 1993. [a book of lists]
  4. Morrissey, Michael, ed. The Flamingo Anthology of New Zealand Short Stories. Auckland: Flamingo, 2000. [extended edition, 2004]

[Ian Wishart / Investigate: Michael Morrissey]

But what about Tropic of Skorpeo in particular, you ask? Is it any good? It's going to be launched - together with:


a chapbook of 28 pages

from Cold Hub Press
"who some say

[Morrissey remarks modestly]
is now NZ's leading poetry publisher"

this Thursday (25th October), from 5.30 on,
at the New Zealand Society of Authors offices,
4th Floor, Duthie Whyte Building, 120 Mayoral Drive
(cnr Mayoral Drive & Wakefield Street)

"Punkoids! Slutoids! Octopus!" proclaims the front cover of Morrissey's novel. His publisher, Steam Press of Wellington, quotes its author's description of it as a “sci-fi fantasy in satiric-thriller mode”, then adds that:
This book will blow your socks off – sexy, shocking, and hilarious, this is the story that Lewis Carroll would have written if he’d been into science fiction and consumed more than his fair share of LSD.

All this puts me in mind of a certain far-off occasion when I sent a copy of my own second novel, The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis (2006) to Michael to be "noticed" in the literary column he was then writing for Ian Wishart's Investigate magazine. This is what he came up with [Investigate 6 (69) (October 2006): 84]:
Tired of airport books? Bored by Tom Clancy and Dan Brown? Wearied by puerile web sites? Seeking a challenge? Try a “novel” by Dr Jack Ross. I use quotes here because rather than a novel with identifiable characters, a plot, realistic detail etc this is an assemblage, a collage of texts of the most extraordinary variation. Ross’s method variously reminded me of Borges, Eco and Nabokov though he pushes the boundaries of the avant garde further than any of the above — further also than the reviewer who enjoyed something of a reputation as an avant gardist back in the 80s.

... if you have the kind of mind that enjoys cryptic cross words, codes, and esoterica, this book can keep you busy for hours. Better make that days, weeks, years. Ross’s book won’t be for everyone but it’s more than challenging. You might think of it as The Atlantis Code — with footnotes.

I was a little horrified to find that this column appeared in the same issue of the magazine that "outed" Helen Clark's husband as a closet gay (complete with blurry pictures of him allegedly "kissing" men at various public events), but I've never had a problem with Morrissey's characterisation of my book. It seems pretty fair to me - especially the company he puts me in.

Tropic of Skorpeo is certainly every bit as bold in attempting to bend the laws of genre and probability to its author's own will. Morrissey dedicates the book to Lewis Carroll and Alfred Bester (author of Tiger, Tiger and other classic works of '50s sci-fi), so it's apparent that it's intended to inhabit the region of Fantasy and SF - though with a stronger-than-usual admixture of black humour.

Certain aspects of his plot put me in mind of Mike Johnson's recent "graphic novel" Travesty, reviewed by me here. There's the same interest in unstable virtual realities overlapping and contradicting one another. Where Mike's tone is dire and apocalyptic, though, Morrissey's is more buoyant, almost - at times - (dare one say it?) shrill.

The revelation that his heroine, Princess Juraletta, has no fewer than four breasts, on both sides of her body, in the very first chapter is succeeded by a number of prurient scenes where she is ogled at and seduced by a variety of real and not-so-real gallants.

What, then, is this book's intended audience? The original publicity material described it as ideal summer reading, light fiction for the beach. That can hardly be true, though. I'd say, myself, that the book was completely insane: that you would have to be mad to enjoy it, or to have conceived it in the first place. Which I guess is the point.

Its author, after all, is mad: has said as much himself. Where his earlier fictions ranged from the Barthelme-like fables of The Fat Lady & The Astronomer (1981) to the gentle postmodernism of Doctorow's Ragtime in his classic story "Jack Kerouac Sat Down beside the Wanganui River & Wept," it's hard to see this latest sally as an artistic advance, exactly. Paradise to Come (1997), his book of two novellas describing New Zealand's most distant and most recent waves of immigration, remains Morrissey's most accomplished and moving fiction to date, I feel.

Nor does it seem unapposite to my original comparison of Morrissey with Rushdie to recall the furore caused at the former's booklaunch when the dinghy full of Spanish conquistadors who'd been hired to reenact their original, mythic landing in New Zealand were set upon by a group of Maori protestors indignant at this European pre-emption of the landings of the great tribal canoes ... Literature certainly made the news that day, even in little ol' New Zealand.

Funnily enough, a few days before that event I'd been walking along the shore at Devonport with my father when we suddenly saw a boat-full of men in renaissance armour rowing towards the beach at - I think - Cheltenham. While it's obvious enough now that they were simply rehearsing their "official" landing a few days later at the launch, I have to say that that explanation did not occur to me at the time. It was a very surrealist moment - not least because nobody paid the least attention to them: all of us too embarrassed to admit the evidence of our own eyes, I suppose.

I do, then, have to admit that I prefer those earlier works of Morrissey's where a basic sense of Sargesonian realism underlies his taste for the extravagant and postmodern: most of the contents of his two books of short stories, in fact, as well as the three novellas. It remains to be seen if his latest, Tropic of Skorpeo, will succeed in attracting the virtual-reality-game-playing youth market it appears to be designed to allure. I certainly hope so.

What I do admire about it, though, is that determined, indefatigable spirit which keeps Morrissey writing, forever trying new things, long after literary fashion and his fifteen minutes of fame have moved on. This may not be the book that repairs his literary fortunes, but it certainly has its place as a companion volume to Taming the Tiger. One thing's for certain. He won't give up. He'll keep on writing, keep on experimenting, perpetually waiting for what Robert Lowell called "the blessèd break."

In that sense, then, Michael Morrissey embodies the "writer as hero" every bit as much as Salman Rushdie. Knowing that your worst opponents live in your own mind is, for me, an even more horrible fate than being burnt in effigy around the globe - "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams," as Hamlet put it.

If Morrissey's dreams are anything like the shifting, self-undermining sub-realities of Tropic of Skorpeo then they must be pretty terrifying. His triumph is that he's dared to write them down.

[Michael Morrissey, ed.: The New Fiction (1985)]


Richard said...

Yes Michael told me one day (book launch 2010) he was mad. [But I wouldn't call him mad. I have been on medication for nervous complaints and depression for 44 years but I am not mad. He was always difficult. He has difficulties, compounded I have to say by ... well certain personal issues in his life. He might classified as bipolar to whatever. (But I'm wary of psychologist or psychiatrist's classifications as no one really understands the brain). (And // to that also there were certain issues in my own life that intersected with MM's)

I actually made a big point of getting 'The New Fiction' around the time I started writing again about 1988 or so. A book dealer in Howci tld e it was coming out. (Morrisey was a quite major figure in NZ lit then, he had a story filmed on TV etc). That book provided me a big insight into writing at the time in NZ but also a list of writers such as Borges, Barthelme, and Brautigan - writers I came to enjoy and read a lot. Ted Jenner was in it, as was Keri Hulme, and Chris Else (and others) [I recently read some of the stuff in that book and thence I read 'The Bone People' [for me possibly NZ's greatest novel ever] fully, and also I more recently read 'Gith' by Chris Else which is excellent]: Ted has put out a book via Titus of course. But after I read that book I went to a writing course MM was running at the time at Edgewater College (Pakuranga). It was very good. Morrissey has had quiet lot of success and went overseas on a Fullbright Scholarship.

I have some of his works. His dedication to writing as an art and profession is admirable. His recent thing in Brief about his own house was quite brilliant. In that kind of humorous-satirical (and slightly "postmodern") thing he is great.

I hope he does well. Stead was known at Auckland University Morrissey I think upset too many people, Stead* who also became a writer only (one of the few such as also Sargeson) is not necessarily a better writer than Morrissey. Morrissey has great talent as a writer. So does Alan Loney (who was in The New Fiction) but Loney just goes ape and wipes those who don't agree with him. Morrissey is more open minded, and it is courageous he has admitted his problems.

MM mellowed when he married!

I have "clashed swords" with M (his phrase) as have others, but I really admire his (somewhat) bitter grit and sardonic (Swiftean?) gifts.

God comp. with the Satanic Man.

*Much of Stead I do like but he is quite uneven as is Morrissey and upset people as did Morrissey! One cant go through life without doing so! But both have produced gems...

Katherine Dolan said...

Wait, does that mean Juraletta has eight breasts total?
Does the author address the bra problem?

Dr Jack Ross said...

As I understand it, there are only four breasts involved. The passage in question reads as follows: "... the princess was in the final years of teendom. Her breasts (both at the front and the back) had grown to quite unprincesslike dimensions" [p.4]

I gather that she employs some kind of corset to keep them within bounds.

Katherine Dolan said...

Ah, OK. Well four, of course, would be comparatively manageable. At least the front-back distribution of weight would reduce the likelihood of back injury.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Michael Morrissey writes in to say:

"First of all, a hearty thanks to Jack Ross for giving myself and my new book Tropic of Skorpeo such an extended write-up. Jack's column reveals a man who has high, middle and low (genre?) brow reading tastes as well as being a keen follower of off the wall/postmodern trends so it's timely he should catch up with recent works of mine.

Some items in Jack's piece ruffled my feathers a bit (is Tropic of Skorpeo any good? The question is asked but not answered) but I'd like to put more emphasis on the positives - the flattering parallel with Salmon Rushdie, the full (minus one) bibliography, the salutation of my courage and perseverance (I could wallpaper a house with rejection slips!!).

I'll take up the Rushdie issue first then move from that to the question of influences; the distinction between science fiction and fantasy; Am I mad?; and the sly influence of the modernist habit of inserting unacknowledged quotes.

Interestingly enough, I met Rushdie in New York in 1986 at a world PEN conference. These were pre-Fatwah days and he was riding the wave of success generated by Midnight's Children which won him a Booker Prize and then later a Booker of Booker prize. Well deserved.


... [see part 2]

Dr Jack Ross said...

Michael Morrissey (2):


Critics have so far detected Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams. Dr Who, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen, Time Bandits, Star Wars, and Babylon 5 and Paradise Lost. Well anything is possible but I have never read Fairie Queen and am unfamiliar with Babylon 5. Lewis Carroll is by far the dominant influence - numerous examples occur where I try to emulate Carroll's characteristic wit. The amiably satiric intention is to have allegedly wise figures talk illogically without realising it. All other influences are minor by comparison. So a PhD would be welcome.

It's a moot point which is more difficult - writing under a death threat or under the panics, paranoias, depressions and extravaganzas of manic depression. Certainly, the experience of mania is more creative than being threatened with death. In New Zealand, one is largely threatened with indifference, critical ignorance both from "critics" and publishers.

Skorpeo is among other things intended to satirise or alternatively jazz up the sword
and sorcery wing of fantasy largely though neo-Carrollian wit and some narrative adrenalin hopefully inspired by Alfred Bester whose The Stars My Destination some credit as the greatest science fiction novel. Sword & sorcery has become so dominant that one (almost) forgets fantasy is possible without it. Skorpeo has spaceships, teleportation, blasters etc so the traditional hardware of science fiction is present. So Skorpeo aims to interfuse the genres of fantasy and science fiction as did Star Wars.

Mania comes and goes and so much of the time I am normal. Madness is part time not on going as with severe schizophrenia. What psychiatrists call "flight of ideas" is what poets used to call inspiration. Byron thought that all poets were "melancholy-mad" ie manic depressives. The percentage is recent times has been estimated at 30 per cent. Mania bestows a rocket booster to creativity but alas can flaw judgement and send one off on crazy though benign schemes to save the world which after all does need saving.

However, when I wrote the first draft of Slorpeo, I wasn't mad and it was a waking creation whereas my collection of poems Dreams was entirely oneiric in source. I simply let my mind wander. A wandering mind is, I guess, likely to be mistaken for madness.

Also - and I haven't counted - there are a goodly number off stolen/borrowed phrases eg Death has no dominion. I take this to be either high modernism or if you prefer postmodern appropriation. They are only phrases - nothing longer. But they may serve to give the well-read occasional frissons of recognition. There is quite a lot of sex in Skorpeo but it, along with the entire world of Skorpeo, is meant to be related to as a kind of high camp romp. Skorpeo is intended to be enjoyed by all those who can potentially enjoy it - sci-fi enthusiasts, Lord of the Ringers (plus Lords of the Rungout) young men who don't normally read books, anyone who likes having their consciousness warped a little. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy - and tell your friends about it. A sequel is in progress."