- I resolved to read lots of New Zealand novels this year and figured: why not start with one of the foundational texts of New Zealand literature?
- Which turned out to be a good move because Man Alone is a very good book. Why didn’t I read it a long time ago? A variety of stupid reasons. When I was about twenty a friend told me it was boring, and even though I soon learned that this friend had awful taste his criticism stuck. Also, I had the notion that it was a New Zealand imitation of a Hemingway novel. Who needs that? And I thought – based on the title – that it was a celebration of kiwi masculinity and self-reliance. Also, it is ground zero for the endless academic preoccupation with the emergence of a ‘New Zealand literary identity’, which is not a topic I’m interested in.
- With all of my mostly false expectations, I did not expect Man Alone to be a Marxist road-trip around the North Island during the great depression which is mostly what it is. A bit like The Grapes of Wrath but with occasional Maori.
- The main character is an English WWI veteran called Johnson. The first part of the book describes his life drifting from place to place and job to job, then the impact of the depression, then life in a work camp and the Queen Street riots. Mulgan’s thesis here is that New Zealand was a good country with a communal spirit in which men could lead rich, rewarding lives but the predations of capitalism ruined it and transformed it into an individualistic unhappy country. As I’m sure every teacher or lecturer who sets this as a text super-quickly points out, Mulgan’s conception of a ‘good country’ does not include opportunities for women or Maori.
- As with most political literature the characters tend to function more as symbols than people. One represents the lumpenproletariat, another the petit-bourgeois, etc. The banks and other forms of organised capital exist only as powerful, malevolent impersonal forces.
- In the second part of the book there’s a shift as the narrative becomes less theoretical and political, and more personal. Johnson settles as a worker on a remote farm (safe from the ongoing crisis inherent to the structure of capitalism – or is he?). The future looks good. Then there’s a love triangle! Suspicion. Murder! A flight into the Kaimanawas, in which Johnson crosses the lower slopes of Ruapehu and then the Rangipo desert on the volcanic plateau.
- Presumably Mulgan made part of this trip himself, and If I’d read this book when I were young fella I’d probably have tried to replicate it. I wonder if anyone else has? This should totally be a ritual for young New Zealand writers. We might lose a few budding talents to sudden blizzards but that would just deepen the romance.
- The final section of the book takes place in England and Spain. It feels a little odd: it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the narrative. Mulgan wrote Man Alone in the UK. Maybe, like a lot of first-time novelists he felt he had to throw all of his experiences into his book?
- Mulgan isn’t a Great Writer like Frame or Mansfield but I think Man Alone is a great New Zealand novel and a more accessible one than most classics of New Zealand literature. It’s a shame its mostly known among literary/cultural elites. (Whenever I hear anyone wonder why more New Zealanders don’t read or appreciate our local writers I flash back to 5th Form English where they made us read Bliss as our NZ Literature component.)
Update: Also, from the second chapter of Man Alone:
Everybody wanted to buy a farm sooner or later in New Zealand. You didn’t buy a farm and build a house and grow pine trees round it to stay there, but to sell it to somebody else and live off the profit.
Seventy-six years later I guess you just substitute ‘property in Auckland’ for ‘farm.’