A Man Melting by Craig Cliff
Random House $29.99
Craig Cliff's first collection of stories heralds the arrival of an electrifying new voice on the New Zealand writing scene. These stories are perfectly formed, standalone gems, but the collection also brings together satisfying harmonies as a whole.
Food metaphors are often used to talk about the pleasurable effect of reading good literature. With these stories I want to borrow from wine as they impart a delectable aftertaste and they don't stick to one grape type.
Some of the stories venture into a science fiction or fantasy realm while others present a grittier form of realism. All of them - fantasy or otherwise - exude an earthy bouquet. There is warmth, tenderness and strong links to human experience.
Cliff's imagination takes flight in the title story as we follow the drips of the melting man. It begins with a puddle and ends with the striking image of an emaciated man drinking from a straw in a paddling pool in his office.
In The Sceptic's Kid, the young boy is embarrassed by the constant television appearances of his mother denouncing alleged sightings of extinct animals. His beliefs are then tested by the arrival of a giant moa.
What makes all of the stories special is the way they rub up against each other in inspired overlaps. As Cliff puts it in Copies, "Life is a series of imperfect repetitions". Each one borrows an element from the previous story but that element becomes strangely, satisfyingly or poignantly different.
The echoes prod at you as you read and expand the way you appreciate each story.
In Manawatu a young man thinks of suicide for the first time in four years and then jumps off a balcony to feel the world come alive inside again. In the next piece, Copies, the father jumps off a tall building and leaves a gap for his grieving son to fill with memories.
The father had made art with a photocopier reproducing a famous painting time and time again until the original was barely discernible. This action is a key to Cliff's collection on a number of levels. The stories are imperfect copies of experience, of everything he has read, of the world.
This has got nothing to do with plagiarism and everything to do with the way life repeats itself at the level of human experience - love, birth, death, loss, uncertainty, fear, grief and so on.
Yet to see the stories solely as a chain of imperfect repetitions is to miss the fundamental core that weds humanity to strangeness and insight.
This finely crafted collection is like a good wine cellar - to be drunk now for zest and freshness and to be saved for later for enduring complexity and character.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.