Two tremendously eloquent pieces of social commentary of New Zealand are Bill Pearson's classic, piercing essay, Fretful Sleepers, initially published in Landfall in 1952, and Gordon McLauchlan's 1976 book Passionless People.
The latter references the former. Some years ago, when I discovered the first edition of Passionless People, I couldn't believe such a book existed. It seemed like such a fearless and necessary (though perhaps dated by the time I got to it) social critique that dissected feeble and passive-aggressive New Zealand culture with a fierce diagnostic eye and icepick. Both works are rare and singularly significant explorations of New Zealand culture from a reflective and insightful angle.
The first edition went out of print in less than a year. Now, some 35 years later, McLauchlan, who has had a long career as a journalist, author and broadcaster, has jolted his book into the 21st century, revising it for New Zealand's cultural landscape today. Everything from our "Smiling Zombies" (who are the living dead, "but happy enough about it"), hard-drinking culture (Passionless Piss-Ups), our inability to relate to each other, the overabundance of committees and our puritan heritage are explored.
When the first edition was launched, Robert Muldoon was Prime Minister under a National Government. Now, with the same party we have John Key, who McLauchlan says is the perfectly pitched passionless person, the ultimate "smiling zombie" poster boy "with the perfectly passionless palliative face" who is ruining our country.
However, McLauchlan reckons the "Smiling Zombies" have now graduated to "Frowning Zombies" and that New Zealanders are superficially cheerful.
McLauchlan's cheeky, informal and often hilarious style is very readable, with an easy and down-to-earth conversational flow. For better or worse Passionless People Revisited feels as though it was pummelled out swiftly. While it is often full of bile and caustic, barbed observations, it is also punctuated with light satire and flash literary quotes from writers such as Evelyn Waugh George Eliot, Aldous Huxley and Voltaire.
McLauchlan wonders if anything has changed in our society since the first edition of Passionless People. He notes that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening and that polls reflect that New Zealanders are somewhat smug and without a deeply felt concern for their poorer compatriots. While Revisited is sometimes a little silly and frivolous, it really does have a lot of pertinent cultural, social and political commentary and should inspire some lively, spirited debate.
Kiran Dass is an Auckland reviewer.