21 April 2013

Ronald Hugh Morrieson: The Scarecrow (1963)

Famously – insofar as you can use the word 'famously' about Ronald Hugh Morrieson – The Scarecrow begins with the sentence 'The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat slit,'* and the blurb on the back cover of the New Zealand Penguin edition calls it '[t]he greatest first sentence in New Zealand literature'. This is praise indeed, although the narrator modestly explains that the model for this beginning is in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island: 'The same broadside I lost my leg, old Pew lost his deadlights', which is in fact the second sentence of the eleventh chapter.

The blurb speaks of Morrieson's novel as a 'hilarious Gothic melodrama', and more than once I've come across the expression 'Taranaki Gothic' in relation to it. Certainly there's a strange juxtaposition of the relatively inconsequential (fowls being stolen) to the horrific (a bloody murder), and placing such a sentence right at the beginning of the story almost guarantees that the reader will continue reading this very strange novel.

But the first sentence is so arresting that the reader will probably look at it again: it's in two halves, and the first half seems to be in a conversational, matter-of-fact tone, but then we're pulled up sharp when the weird stuff starts. And the way Morrieson performs this trick is fascinating, all the more so by the way that he improves on Stevenson's sentence: not only does the musically educated Morrieson give the two halves an identical set of syllables (eight), but he changes the active voice into the passive voice – twice – and in so doing creates an immediate distancing effect.

Distance is important in The Scarecrow, whose background protagonist Hubert Salter is an alcoholic serial killer whose main interest in life is having sex with dead women's bodies. You can't get much more distanced from society than that, and yet it's interesting to think about that forename: 'Hubert' sounds so cosy and yet it belongs to a horrific monster. Morrieson's character, like Morrieson's language in general, is distinctly contradicting itself.

Salter's bowtie is surely a major image that emphasises the bizarre effect Morrieson is creating: we have a man who looks like a scarecrow, a hideous filthy tramp, and yet he wears a highly conspicuous symbol of respectability – a tie, and not just any tie, but a bowtie: of all the items of clothing that simultaneously (and self-consciously) convey elegance and coldness of distance, the tie is surely at the top of the table, and the bowtie is surely at the top of the tie table for elegance and ridiculousness. Morrieson is playing games with the reader, glibly (but astutely) introducing images of lightness and heaviness, horror and amusement, mixing an intangible, contradictory literary brew. He's a kind of gaudy, verbal cartoonist.

This is an amazing novel.

*The cinema is a more immediate medium of course, and the movie poster of The Scarecrow changes 'week' to 'day'.

My other blog posts on Morrieson's work:

Ronald Hugh Morrieson in Hawera, Taranaki, New Zealand
Ronald Hugh Morrieson: Came a Hot Friday (1964)
Ronald Hugh Morrieson: Predicament (1974)
Julia Millen: Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography (1996)

No comments: