Steve Braunias reviews an exciting anthology available for precisely zero dollars.

Something new, for God’s sake give us something new in the lockdown. A new song, a new TV show – a bit pointless asking for a new film. (What goes on in the dark and empty cinemas of the nation? Rats, ants, ghosts of Hollywood?) No point, either, in wanting a new book from a bookstore. But Victoria University Press has taken an active response to the Great Plague and its various assorted prohibitions of our freedom to go for a walk and open the door of a bookstore and buy a book, and has exercised skill and initiative to bring out that precious thing everyone craves: something new to read. In quick time, and with editorial standards of excellence duly maintained (one typo: page 370), it’s published an anthology of new New Zealand writing easily available as PDF or an e-book, for free, no cost, takes two seconds to download or not even.

The VUP Home Reader 2020 (Victoria University Press, $0.00) has got a lot of reading in it. It’s got economics by Brian Easton, it’s got a novel in progress by the best-selling Catherine Chidgey, it’s got a beautiful memoir of a hippie commune, it’s got two knock-out short stories, it’s got an incredible essay by that singularly incredible essayist, Danyl McLauchlan. It’s got over 40 authors, one dead (James K Baxter). It’s probably got too much. There’s a kind of greediness to the book. It lacks shape and cohesiveness. “Let’s put this one in! And this one, and this one!” The problem that online publishing always faces is the very fact of its infinity: because it can go on and on on without end, it blithely publishes things that do go on and on on without end. Reading Home Reader on PDF is to have one finger on the downward-arrow key at all times.

Absurd to claim that it has something for everyone. Most of the poetry is unintelligible and publishing excerpts from novels in progress is a drag. It’s like walking into a room full of blowhards who you don’t know and trying to follow their conversation. Home Reader has an extract from Ian Wedde’s next novel. I guess it’s set in Germany. “Schlossgarten…Brahms…Fjords”, is as far as I got.

But there are fresh ideas, fresh approaches, including an excellent taster from Brian Easton’s forthcoming history of New Zealand from an economics perspective. He writes, “Many historians have told the New Zealand story before; but an economist uses a particular lens to help us see our nation’s history in a new way.” I can think of one person who would steadfastly agree: National’s finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith. When I interviewed Goldsmith a few years ago, he told me that he had a pretty low opinion of Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand: “I found the insularity of his views frustrating. Business and economics were totally irrelevant in his history…Most histories gloss over the economic reforms of the past two decades, which I think were generally beneficial, and certainly very important. Instead, they write about the development of the almighty welfare state, and about our poets and our novelists and so forth. There’s more to New Zealand than all that.” Goldsmith is a bit of a laughable politician – Epsom, all that – but he made a sound point. Easton’s book will act as a corrective.

The two knock-out short stories are by Airini Beautrais and Breton Dukes. Download Home Reader just for these two stories if you wish because they are going to be among the best works of fiction you will read all year. Beautrais sets her story at a wife-swapping orgy in Wanganui (as it was then) in the 1980s. “I pictured Margot and Gregor. Her over the basin, loose tits swinging.” And: “Roger and Arthur were spit-roasting Ron’s wife Sandra. I thought I could make out the dark shape of Ron masturbating in the corner, but perhaps it was a the curtain moving in the breeze.” God almighty. What a story, and it gets darker, murkier, when the narrator, Adam, hives off to a pub in the city for a Lion Brown: “This town was like sticking your head under a guillotine blade, every second…It was like an old black-and-white TV in an old folks home, screened filled with static, with all the old folks passed out in chairs, dreaming of their regrets.”

But even better than that is The Swimmers by Breton Dukes. This is New Yorker quality; this is the quality you would expect and demand in an anthology of the world’s best stories of 2020. It’s set in a swimming pool. Eric and Russell, two widowers in their 80s, meet there every Tuesday to race each other. Their lives pass before us as Dukes, with remarkable skill, switches from one character’s point of view to the other character’s point of view, sometimes within the same paragraph, back and forth, churning up the past, heading for some kind of disaster, underwater. This is genius at work.

As for Danyl McLauchlan’s essay – good grief. It’s got the lessons from the Buddha. It’s got the thoughts of Heidegger. It’s set in a Buddhist retreat in the Stokes Valley, where McLauchlan goes to meditate, to search, to blister his hands at the end of a shovel. McLauchlan is likely the most intelligent essayist in New Zealand. I took great pleasure in publishing him at The Spinoff a couple of years ago when he won a  Voyager media awards nomination for his lengthy attempt to come to terms with Jordan B Peterson. He really makes a genuine effort to grapple with ideas, and turn them over to very many angles of light; his essay in Home Reader is an intellectual tour de force. It’s from his forthcoming book Tranquility And Ruin. It’s likely going to be the most thought-provoking book of non-fiction published in New Zealand in 2020. Get in now for a sample of it. Won’t cost a cent and McLauchlan’s essay will take you to a place far, far away from the lockdown of the body.

He writes of the Buddhist retreat and its codes, “You’re allowed a light breakfast at 6:30am and a main meal at 10:30am, and nothing after that until breakfast the next day. This is very different from my diet at home which involves breakfast, a mid-morning snack, and then lunch followed by a series of rolling snacks during the mid- and late afternoon, culminating in a large dinner supplemented by some post-dinner snacks or dessert. This is a terrible diet and I’m very overweight, and I’ve spent years attempting to change what I eat and when I eat it, and all of those attempts have failed. So staying at a place in which I only eat one meal in the mid-morning was likely to be a miserable ordeal in which I constantly felt hungry and thought about nothing but food. But what I found during my first visit was that I was never really hungry there at all.” Listen to your stomach, and your mind will follow. There is no lockdown.

The VUP Home Reader (Victoria University Press) is available as a PDF from the publisher or as an e-book from Wellington books company MeBooks. That cost again: $0.00.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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