The Dim-Post

January 30, 2015

Notes on John Mulgan’s Man Alone

Filed under: economics — danylmc @ 9:24 pm
  • 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.’


  1. “…like a lot of first-time novelists he felt he had to throw all of his experiences into his book?”

    All those unspeakable secrets…?

    Comment by Michael — January 30, 2015 @ 9:52 pm

  2. What’s ‘Bliss’?

    Comment by Sacha — January 30, 2015 @ 9:56 pm

  3. As I recall, and do not quote me, ‘Bliss’ is K Mansfield story about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog Bliss. From the dog’s viewpoint. As a 12 year old I liked it a great deal and won 20 questions in school with it.

    Comment by Stephanie — January 30, 2015 @ 10:09 pm

  4. Yes it is very accessible and more could read and gain from it, I agree. For those who haven’t read it you might also mention it is short and effortless. From memory I might have read it in an afternoon.

    However considering Mulgan took his own life at 34 years old, maybe a better way of putting it than “isn’t a great writer” is something like “didn’t live long enough for us to see whether he would have become a great writer”.

    Agree re. Frame, will have to agree to disagree re Mansfield: great with a little G if we mean could write exquisitely observed but ultimately inconsequential stories. Personally I preserve the accolade of great writer for novelists who hit a larger mark for humanity in some dimension.

    Comment by Joe-90 — January 30, 2015 @ 10:17 pm

  5. Accessibility etc refers to Man Alone not Bliss that Stephanie spoke of and who hit post comment a nano second before me 🙂

    Comment by Joe-90 — January 30, 2015 @ 10:18 pm

  6. What’s ‘Bliss’?

    A canonical Mansfield short story. High modernist. Set in London. About marriage. A masterpiece, and pretty much the last thing you’d ever get a class of fourteen year kiwi kids to read when you’re trying to interest them in their national literary identity.

    Comment by danylmc — January 30, 2015 @ 10:19 pm

  7. Thanks.

    Comment by Sacha — January 30, 2015 @ 10:35 pm

  8. You’ve made me want to read it again. I read it in 2010 and it hardened my resolve towards the left….

    Comment by Saarbo — January 30, 2015 @ 10:52 pm

  9. I found it noteworthy that in 1938 Mulgan was writing whare and pa, untranslated but italicised, for an English audience, but “bush hen” and “native owl” instead of weka and morepork. Also, smart young Māori men in 1935 apparently wore “wide purple flannel trousers and broad-brimmed hats with coloured feathers in the band.” I definitely don’t remember learning that in high school.

    Comment by Mike — January 30, 2015 @ 11:56 pm

  10. I did read it school and it has always had a strong effect on me. It resurfaced studying New Zealand history at university for me, along with Bill Pearson’s essay Fretful Sleepers.

    Comment by jordanm — January 31, 2015 @ 6:03 am

  11. We read it at my (Catholic) high school back in the 70’s

    Comment by rodaigh — January 31, 2015 @ 9:10 am

  12. “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?”

    See Rod Orange’s article “Johnson Goes Bush: Geography and Fiction in Man Alone”:

    Re Mulgan’s portrayal of Maori – he was at least aware of the history of colonisation (not surprising, as his father Alan Mulgan wrote some popular history books) – see the comment in Man Alone that “Mabel’s father had shot Maoris for his bit of land”.

    Comment by Ewan — January 31, 2015 @ 11:07 am

  13. If only Catton had a tiny little bit of your irony and humour, Danyl, she would have staunched the so-called ‘jingoistic tantrum” New Zealanders are apparently indulging in right now.

    Comment by Maureen — January 31, 2015 @ 11:51 am

  14. My experience of Man Alone was much the same as Danyl’s. I read it 10 years ago and wondered why I’d never been directed to this book in my teens. I surmise that it’s a book much more likely to strike a chord with men than women, since there is pretty much no interesting female character. I had heard of it from a girlfriend, who said it was one dimensional rubbish. That’s probably got some truth to it, but doesn’t stop it having some good aspects – it struck me as dealing with a particularly recognizable kind of kiwi bloke, the directionless and sexually apathetic jocular loner. Life basically just passes them by. I know quite a few of these, albeit without the rural setting. It’s maybe a curious thing about NZ that these kinds of people are iconic rather than objects of ridicule. I suspect it’s our English heritage.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — January 31, 2015 @ 1:11 pm

  15. We had it at school (a boys school, which is maybe why we didn’t have to worry about strong female characters). A good read. Also KM’s NZ short stories

    Comment by Leopold — January 31, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

  16. Have a look at Jane Mander, I especially liked Allen Adair.

    Comment by northshoreguynz — January 31, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

  17. I certainly read it at school, but oddly I don’t recall it being a ‘set text’. It may have been left lying around, by a subversive English teacher, in the hope someone would pick it up and it would go off in a suitablly Chekhovian manner in some pupil’s brain.

    The other possiblity is it *was* a set text and I just read it and never got around to writing an essay on it. Quite possible.

    What I recall is the overall mood of the book – somehow quite monochrome (in a good way) despite the

    Comment by Rob — February 1, 2015 @ 8:36 pm

  18. (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.)

    They made us do The God Boy (Ian Cross) in the sixth form, and you can probably count the number of NZ books I’ve read since on the fingers of both hands. One hand if you exclude The Lord of the Rings. Fuck that was a boring novel, I barely got half way before giving up.

    Comment by Paul Rowe — February 1, 2015 @ 9:35 pm

  19. I guess I was lucky, our set texts in seventh form were Maurice Gee’s Plumb and Maurice Shadbolt’s Season of the Jew both of which I found very good.

    I read Man Alone about the same time and thought it excellent. The title does accurately describe the lack of strong female characters though.

    Comment by Conrad — February 2, 2015 @ 9:40 am

  20. While Auckland property is the in thing, I gather a lot a farmers’ behaviour can be explained by the way they are still working for capital gains – eg if you’re selling based on current production, you intensify.

    Comment by Lyndon — February 2, 2015 @ 10:03 am

  21. >The title does accurately describe the lack of strong female characters though.

    It does, and I think a big part of the point of the story was not to glorify this, but just to put it out there as a strange national character flaw, that he basically has no idea about women, doesn’t really put any thought into their motivations, with disastrous consequences.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — February 2, 2015 @ 10:13 am

  22. That farming for capital gain, retired to town by forty comment in the book is what stuck in my mind. Property speculation is obviously part of our heritage.

    Comment by Andrew R — February 2, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

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