Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

The Problem of Self and Other in Maurice Gee's Prowlers

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

The Problem of Self and Other in Maurice Gee's Prowlers

Article excerpt

One can safely claim that in Prowlers Maurice Gee is scarcely the 'inveterate moralist' C. K Stead has conjured up who, like the God of Calvinism, is supposed to have pre-destined, and judged between, the elect and the damned among his characters.1 Writing about ElHe and the Shadow Man, Stead notes that Hollis Prime, identified as the shadow man of the title, 'has been saved' despite his shady practices as a lawyer.2 Stead seems to be alluding here not only to a supposed judgemental morality in Gee's work, but also to an arbitrary distribution of moral rewards. However, in view of Gee's recurrent use of the firstperson point of view or, as in the cases of Crime Story and ElUe and the Shadow Man, the limited third-person point of view tethered largely or entirely to particular subjectivities, it is extremely doubtful if the moral judgements in Gee's fiction can be direcdy attributed to its author. Rather, the subjective aspect of the narration exposes the fallible foundations of the judgements made by narrators or characters whose perceptions are fluid and limited. Thus, the ethical dimension in Gee's fiction, especially as it develops in Prowlers, may be less a matter of fixing judgements than of refiguring the means whereby the self may relate to the other in the context of subjective relativism, where all fixities are in question.3

From the outset, in Prowlers, Gee situates the problematic features of the relationship between self and other in relation to the inevitable subjective shifts in the human entities involved and through the instability of the mediating processes between the entities. In the opening chapter, Gee's narrator, the octogenarian Sir Noel Papps, begins by throwing into doubt the putative certainties on which discourse proceeds. He lets us know that there may be no stable, iterative referent for his speaking persona: 'I've flown apart. There are bits of me floating off as I spin and spin'.4 As for language, its unreliability is foregrounded by the duplicities contained in his admission that his recently concluded tape-recorded interview with his grandniece Kate Adams is 'all lies [...] a batch of sterile slides' (p. 3). Hovering over this admission is the implied necessity for us to distinguish between the language of deliberate untruth and the language of creative invention. In the case of lies, the discrepancies between what is said and what is believed to be the case are deliberately hidden from their recipients, whereas, with invention, the recognition of the pretence involved makes the charge of lying superfluous. This distinction may be enough to exonerate the art of fiction, as well as paradoxically Papps, who admits to lying, from the charge of lying, but it does not necessarily deliver fiction, or Papps's memoir, as a transparent medium that will offer us views into truth.

Invention casts its magic spell by letting us believe in the existence of the imagined or created world it signifies. Hence, our predicament before what invention frames may be not unlike that of Sir Noel contemplating a specimen on a slide: 'Nasty things lie under surfaces' (p. 1). The double meaning advanced by the pun on the word 'lie' allows us to comprehend a mode of deception that is uncovered by the implied relationship between surface and depth, word and referent, slipping away as the surface yields to 'empty places' and 'endless recession' (p. 1). Indeed Sir Noel's metaphor may have a self-reflexive import for his own memoir whose accounts may have ultimately no reference to anything beyond itself. Hence, the speaking self circulates within its own linguistic vortex, deluding itself as to its communicable capacity. Language, which is thus cast as opaque, obfuscating and illusory, offers at best a paradoxical mediation in the yawning gulf it is capable of springing between self and other.

In this context, Gee's summoning of the spectre of logical positivism, through Noel Papps suspending before us, with seemingly ponderous significance, the 'is/ought' question, amounts to the invocation of an obsolete moral problem. …

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