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Russell Haley Biography

Nationality: New Zealander (originally English: immigrated to Australia, 1961, then to New Zealand, 1966). Born: Dewsbury, England, 1934. Education: University of Auckland, M.A. in English, 1970.



The Settlement. Auckland and London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.

Beside Myself. Auckland and New York, Penguin, 1990.

All Done with Mirrors. Christchurch, New Zealand, Hazard PressPublishers, 1999.

Short Stories

The Sauna Bath Mysteries and Other Stories. Auckland, MandrakeRoot, 1978.

Real Illusions: A Selection of Family Lies and Biographical Fictions in Which the Ancestral Dead Also Play Their Part. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1984; New York, New Directions, 1985.

The Transfer Station. N.p., 1989.


The Walled Garden. Auckland, Mandrake Root, 1972.

On the Fault Line and Other Poems. Paraparaumu, New Zealand, Hawk Press, 1977.


Haley: A New Zealand Artist. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989.

Editor, with Susan Davis, The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories. Auckland and New York, Penguin, 1989.

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The Sauna Bath Mysteries and Other Stories established Russell Haley's reputation as a pioneering writer of postmodernist experimental fiction with affinities with writers such as Nabakov, Beckett, John Barth, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon. This has been confirmed in the achievement of his two novels, The Settlement and Beside Myself, and the series of interlinked stories that are collected in The Transfer Station. These extend the narrative strategies of his short stories, such as the classic "Barbados—A Love Story," into ambitious performances in which he collapses the boundaries between fiction and reality, overlapping dream, memory, and experience and undermining epistemological certainties. Such metafictional constructions do more than challenge the reader's ingenuity. Haley, who came to New Zealand from England in the 1960s, has masterminded the characteristic dilemmas of the hero who is displaced due to "migratio" and whose extreme self-consciousness as subject and paranoid distrust of the world transforms a condition of existential disease into an absurdist vision of life.

The Settlement, partly inspired by public conflict over the Springbok tour of New Zealand in 1981, leaves the reader with minimalized certainties. In The Settlement at Moorfields, identified first as a convalescent home and later as a mental asylum, in which the middle-aged hero, Walter Lemanby, finds himself after falling from his roof, images of menacing control abound—mysterious installations, searchlights, helicopters, curfews, nameless uniformed assailants. They point either to civil unrest or to the existence of a centralized, totalitarian state that represses the individual; they are reinforced in the plot in the sinister, masked figure of Dr. Grimshaw. Yet Haley draws attention to the fictionality of his omniscient hero by creating a narrative break after 50 pages in an italicized passage, implying that he is the "secret collaborator within this text" who "threw the stone" by creating its circumstances, and then he starts over again. This authorial self-consciousness is reminiscent of the challenge issued to the reader in "Barbados—A Love Story" as to who should throw the first stone, call the narrator's bluff, and so undermine the fictionality of his creation.

Haley's foregrounding of the process of writing through metafictional games that stress the artifice of illusion and the fictional nature of subjectivity, however, rarely lapses into linguistic solipsism. His narratorial self-consciousness is both artful and endearing. Walter's struggles to familiarize himself with an alien world, to reorder experience by labeling his landscape, are intensely personal if not moving. In Beside Myself, a sequence of unsettling experiences destabilize the hero's attempts to impose order on his life: A heady sexual encounter with a woman he meets at a party, followed by the revelation of his best friend's death, lead to comical yet painful struggles to understand himself. In these works lyrical moments appear sporadically, creating sudden shifts of tone.

In his more recent writing Haley gestures nostalgically toward values of longing, loss, and love. The nine linked stories in The Transfer Station, an extended meditation on the meaning of death, represent the aging protagonist's bereavement at the death of his wife. The nearby Transfer Station, a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Auckland that chews up detritus and waste, has a unifying function as a symbol of death in its most dehumanized form as a sought-after memorable extinction of life. This is articulated by the two teenage girls whom the narrator befriends briefly and whose memory becomes a preoccupation until he is able to reaffirm the value of his own life. Cumulatively these stories convey the impression of a mind in a state of psychological dislocation recovering its mental balance. The customary zaniness and humor of Haley's heroes, although functioning near the surface of the text, are partly displaced into the girls' vision of life as brief, juvenile, yet imaginatively enduring.

Just as patterns of displacement characterize Haley's fiction, so too does the antilinear, multidirectional narrative and an insistence on the fragmented and uncertainly known nature of reality as conveyed through language. In his novels and in stories such as "Looping the Loop," "Barbados—A Love Story," or "The Balkan Transformer," he uses fantasy, dream transformations, and the uncertainties of memory to present events as occurring in the context of the multiple possibilities of the narrator's mind. Yet he insists equally on the physical presence of the body—its inevitable habits of defecation, erection, eating, and sleeping—as a point of entry into the often comical collusion between his narrators' self-conscious subjectivity and the constraints imposed by physical existence.

Haley's innovative humor is most immediately accessible in his short stories, whereas his two novels explore more fully the tragi-comic conditions of existential angst leading to an absurdist worldview; at his best he has produced some of the liveliest, most engaging postmodern fiction yet to have been written in New Zealand.

—Janet Wilson

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