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Stephanie Johnson Biography

novel bea zealand life

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Auckland, New Zealand, 1961. Career: Actress, temporary secretary, 1980s; writer and homemaker, 1990s—. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand. Awards: Bruce Mason Memorial Play-wright's Award.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Crimes of Neglect. Auckland, New Zealand, New Women's Press, 1992.

The Heart's Wild Surf. London, Vintage, 1996.

The Whistler. Auckland, New Zealand, Vintage, 1998.

Short Stories

The Glass Whittler: And Other Stories. New York, Penguin, 1989.

All the Tenderness Left in the World: Short Stories. Dunedin, New Zealand, University of Otago Press, 1993.

Other

Editor, with Graham Beattie, Penguin 25 New Fiction. Auckland, New Zealand, Penguin, 1998.

* * *

For a young writer, Stephanie Johnson is surprisingly well published in the genres of the novel, short fiction, and poetry, and her dramatic works have been extensively produced on stage, over radio, in film, and on television. She is a reviewer and commentator on the arts, as well as being a drawing card at literary festivals, where she performs with flair and vigor. Johnson spent much of the 1980s living in Australia, a setting for her first and third novels. The second novel, The Heart's Wild Surf, explores the Pacific and Fijian antecedents of Johnson's New Zealand family.

Johnson, university-educated in history and drama, has a sharp satiric eye and a mordant wit, yet she shows sympathy for the human condition, in particular for derelicts, misfits, and for the innocence of youth, soon to meet the corruption of adult life. Basing her two historical novels on thorough research, she uses realism with post-modern touches, and a leavening of magic realism to create present and—in The Whistler—imaginative evocations of future dystopias.

In Crimes of Neglect, Johnson creates an anti-heroine, Bea, aged forty-two, failed wife, mother, and erstwhile failed cellist, "huge and ugly with open pores and dull red hair," often drunk and dirty, whose crimes have been to avoid all responsibility and to neglect traditional female duties. She is a "complete hedonist and selfish to the last," someone who has avoided responsibility by adhering blindly to her "Driftwood Theory," that she merely drifts at the mercy of the currents of life. When her daughter, who cares and is anxious for her, tells her that she must now stand on her own two feet, Bea is probably beyond redemption: "What an impossible idea, to look after myself…. How could I? I don't know how." Johnson plays with conventional notions of female beauty and novel heroines, of the efficacy of the nuclear family in a disintegrating society, and she reverses the normal child-parent roles. Bea is somehow made worthy by having a daughter who loves her. Some enlightenment comes to Bea in the last chapter as she prepares to latch onto a new man to take responsibility for her: "I would like to believe that my involvement [in the death and destruction that has followed her] was coincidental …. But I can't, of course." Terrible as Bea is, she is treated with sympathy by Johnson. Bea's conventional sisters are treated more harshly, as their more conforming female paths lead also to disaster. They lack the redeeming feature of Bea: her subversive and anarchic spirit. A cellist herself, Johnson cannot reject totally another cellist, Bea, however badly she plays.

The Heart's Wild Surf is a colonial novel, set in Fiji in 1918 during the British administration and the influenza epidemic, written from hindsight with all the post-modern tricks of a satiric post-colonial writer. Based on Johnson's own family history, the novel features the McNabs, chandlers and sailmakers working out of Suva. Being in trade, and connected only too recently with the stage and its elastic morals, the family is considered not respectable by fellow Englishmen, striving to keep up appearances before the natives. The McNabs are not coping with the epidemic, nor with the farce of colonial overlordship and increasingly restless natives; the First World War has left its toll on a son. Life is unpredictable and threatening, symbolized by a rampant tropical vine that destroys the Church and entwines almost unto death the innocent Olive, perhaps the only innocent person in the narrative. Johnson awards colonialism the full Technicolor satiric treatment: the stiff Brits, unable to forsake rubber corsets, flannel petticoats, fur stoles, trying to live out a raj of their own with support from Indian servants and a boost from ginlaced teapots. Romantic notions of a Pacific paradise, personified by an earlier visit from Rupert Brooke, who conducted an affair with the mad Elvira McNab (Gothic elements abound), are stubbed out by the present realities of British failure to adapt to that paradisiacal life. Being there, they have learned nothing from it, and have corrupted Paradise as well.

The story is narrated through the eyes of young Olive, who has second sight (elements of magic realism), and of her mother, dying of influenza. It is through the new generation of Olive that some accommodation with Fiji might be achieved: she does things her own instinctive way, not bound by the idiocies of British colonial heritage.

Johnson's novel The Whistler is her most difficult to fathom, and has been liked least by critics who point to its disjointed and episodic nature. Johnson admits to working in short infrequent bursts to accommodate bringing up her young family, and offers that this might lead to the work lacking clear narrative drive and cohesion. The book is set in dystopic Sydney in 2318, after collapse of the environment through exploitation and nuclear accident, when democracy is sacrificed to the corporate principle (rule by autocratic Tower Kings), when genetic modification has led to weird mutations of people and animals, and life itself seems in its terminal stage. Johnson calls this novel her protest, an angry book prompted by what she sees as the dumbing down of knowledge, the deletion of historical memory (which gives cohesion to society), the shrinkage of communality, and the elevation of economic agendas above human needs. She believes, and works out through the novel, the idea that only a sense of history may rescue the world from such an ignominious fate. Clinging still to a knowledge of the past in the novel is an underground group (inhabiting a sewer) who, as Record Keepers, keep hope alive. Hope exists also with the severely mutated boy, Vernon, and his mother, who maintain an old library of outlawed books. The story is narrated mostly through the "voice" of a mutant legless dog, the Whistler, who as well as narrating the story via his brain linkage to a computer, acts as the link between past and present, in that he has experienced many incarnations and deaths, from his presence at the birth of Christ, until now, possibly his last incarnation. The episodic nature of his narrative comes from his retelling of each incarnation as a complete episode. He puts his story on record, but the question is whether anyone will read it and learn from it.

The novel abounds in black humor, filth reminiscent of Gulliver among the Yahoos—in all Johnson's novel she dwells on human filth and detritus as symptom of inner lack of health and right thinking. There are gothic elements, mystery, and adventure (will dog and boy find out who Vernon's father is? Will they reach Grandfather and the Record Keepers before all remaining memory is erased?), science fiction and the nightmare of laboratory experiment, as well the traditional simple joys of telling a good story: the dog has plenty of them from former lives. In her novels Johnson reveals a diverse and genuinely creative mind, drawing on widely disparate material and methods of telling.

—Heather Murray

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