Out of the gate

By Jon Bridges In Inbox

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19th March, 2011

The Ministry of Education’s clearly stated intention of bringing more New Zealand literature to the high school syllabus has resulted in a series of reading guides designed to give students insight garnered from the latest academic criticism. Here is an excerpt from the first of those guides:

Introduction

When Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, by a little-known author from Rotorua, was published in 1983, readers were quick to perceive it as a carefully constructed allegory describing an ­Antipodean political, social and economic milieu, the downfall of which the author not only perfectly anticipated but, many critics say, actually caused. The same subversive semiosis informs and inhabits Lynley Dodd’s whole oeuvre, especially the darkly sexual Hairy Maclary’s Bone (1984), but nowhere are they are as raw and intense as in Donaldson’s Dairy.

Plot Summary

Six dogs go for a walk and are scared back home by a cat.

Characters

Maclary is a taciturn New Zealand antihero in the tradition of Barry Crump’s Good Keen Man and John Mulgan’s Man Alone. What does Maclary say in the book? Nothing. What are his actions? Simply to walk and to walk back. He neither leads, nor asks to be followed.

Critical debate over which broad sections of New Zealand society the other dogs represent has resulted in consensus: Hercules is the overweight. Potts represents Dalmatians (and Eastern European immigrants in general), McLay is ­Lorraine Downes, Bitzer is the 1980s anorexia epidemic, and von Krumm represents Germans who smell of meat.

Themes

The central question of the work is “Why does Hairy go for a walk?” and the answer lies in what he leaves behind – Donaldson’s Dairy. How many dairies, even in 1983 New Zealand, were still owned by someone called Donaldson? While the piquant irony of the name anchors the story in nostalgia, it also depicts Maclary’s walk as a deconstructive process – bridging the gap between the two opposing forces of the story – the dying past and the nascent future.

1983 was a tipping point in New Zealand history. The country was poised between Muldoon and Lange; balanced between Think Big and Rogernomics; centred between the Springbok Tour of 1981 and the anti-nuclear policy and Waitangi Tribunal of 1985.

Dodd’s “sniffing” and “snooping” Maclary senses that things have come to a head. What impulse sends him “out of the gate and off for a walk”? What impulse but that of a restless nation due for tumultuous change?

Dogs are loyal, but they will wander: Dodd harnesses this duality of dogness to perfectly encapsulate the Jungian New Zealand subconscious of the 1983 zeitgeist. The New Zealander was a loyal dog, but at the same time he, and increasingly she, was also “off for a walk”. The Springbok tour of 1981 saw her off the leash for the first time and it is no accident that Dodd gave Hairy no South African friend – no “Koos Flippie Veldt with his snowy white pelt”.

With what great angst contemporary feminist readers observed the book’s only female character, Muffin, literally blindly (she’s also the only character in the book with no visible eyes) following the canine patriarchy off on their walk? Like Lorraine Downes’s victory in Miss Universe that year, hapless Muffin’s hirsute march was, for Dodd, at once a step forward in national identity, and a bittersweet leap backwards for the early 80s’ feminist cause.

When Scarface Claw utters the book’s only line of dialogue – “EEEEEOWWWFFTZ!” – it is at once the unintelligible dying scream of Robert Muldoon, the self-confessed “toughest Tom in town” and the eloquent birthing screams of the new New Zealand.

The scream sends Maclary “back home to bed” but how has his character changed? Many readers have pointed out that the hump in the blanket of his bed is far too large to hide just Hairy himself. Exploring a lascivious subtext (as she did again in 1998’s Slinky Malinki Catflaps) Dodd is surely suggesting Muffin has joined Maclary’s basket. The cat’s reactionary scream ironically drives them to the bed from whence their mongrel puppies of change will walk purposefully toward the millennium.

Questions

1. Discuss the Freudian implications of Bitzer Maloney’s tail.

2. How many whiskers does Scarface Claw have? Can you count them?

19th March, 2011

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