Chris Else is a writer of fiction. His novels are known for the contemporary insight they give into the life of the mind: through his writing, he suggests that perception and experience force the individual to confront a world that can prove both abundant and disappointing in scope. Wit, style and dramatic spontaneity are key features of Else’s writing. He has worked in teaching, bookselling and data-processing. Currently he is a literary agent, a technical writing consultant and - alongside his wife, Barbara Else - he runs an editorial agency.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Else, Chris (1942– ), has usually been discussed in the context of postmodernism, though his fiction has developed idiosyncratically beyond his beginnings as a writer for Mate and contributor to Michael Morrissey’s The New Fiction (1985).
The ten stories in Dreams of Pythagoras (1981) are wittily unpredictable rather than abstruse or surreal, often funny though sometimes ghoulishly so, setting up tensions between the world of the mind, especially numerological and lexical play, and dingy domesticity, and with some arresting opening sentences: ‘Fourteen storeys above the street, Poultice sits in his kitchen sink scratching himself with a safety pin.’
The book is tinged with an apocalyptic darkness that may derive from Else’s British boyhood under the shadow of the bomb but also lifts the fiction beyond the merely local. The novel Why Things Fall (1991, Australia 1992) is located in New Zealand, the story of an Aucklander journeying to his father’s last home in remote Northland and thus into his own past and identity; but is embedded in a polychronic narrative that includes encounters with Isaac Newton (his ancestor) in seventeenth-century Lincolnshire and Cambridge, and with Lord Rutherford in 1919.
The search for scientific knowledge provides an image and context for the search for self-knowledge; hence the Newtonian title for a novel that also includes one death by falling and at least one major moral lapse. Another volume of short fiction, Endangered Species, was published in 1996.
Born in Hull, England, Else arrived in 1956, living in Auckland until 1977. He has worked in teaching, bookselling and data-processing. Currently he is a literary agent, technical writing consultant and is partners with his wife, Barbara Else, in a Wellington editorial agency, which among other contributions is credited by Alan Duff for ‘visionary advice’ in the acknowledgments to Once Were Warriors. RR
Comments on Companion Entry
The correct publication date of Endangered Species is 1997, not 1996.
Endangered Species is a novella and four stories about the exigencies of life in the last 30 years.
'[S]harp insights, thematic and stylistic variety that is bound to leave you wanting more,' writes Ross Lay in the Sunday Star Times, while in Napier's Daily Telegraph Graeme Cass describes the book as 'full of posturing, foul-mouthed, alcoholic pseudo intellectuals discussing nothing of importance.'
Else's novel Brainjoy (1998) is described by Mary Paul in the New Zealand Herald as '[a] just right mix of suspense, spice and gloom. Brainjoy is reader friendly, with an engaging spot of tragedy (and hope) at the end.'
In Else’s third novel, In The Beetle in the Box (2000), a disaffected young man gets a job as chauffeur with a rich family and becomes entangled in a web of complex and ultimately dangerous emotions. Part fairy-tale and part philosophical exploration, the love story was reviewed by the Penelope Bieder of the New Zealand Herald: 'Else’s wit is drier than Tio Pepe’s finest'. Denis McEldowney said of the book: ‘ '[A] Chris Else novel provides an experience and a pleasure of quite a different kind from most novels written in New Zealand today' (New Zealand Books).
Chris Else was the recipient of the Foxton Fellowship 2003.
On River Road (Vintage, 2004) is set in the trendy satellite town of Durry. Four couples live in the support and trust of their joint friendship. But now the teenage daughter of one of them has been killed in a hit and run and relationships are under strain. Can the centre hold?
Black Earth White Bones (Vintage, 2007) is set in the fictional Pacific nation of Ventiak, where a man struggles to stay aloof from the lives of people around him. When an international agency asks him to help defraud the islanders of millions of dollars, he realises the strength of his loyalty to those whose lives he shares in.
‘Richly textured with its own vegetation, wildlife, creation myths and colonial architecture, Else’s wryly satirical novel is slow-burning but extraordinary.’ Mark Peters, New Zealand Listener. Cushla McKinney writes ‘…lovely' (Otago Daily Times).
Gith (Vintage 2008), set in a small New Zealand town, is both a murder mystery and an unorthodox love story. Gith explores the difficulties of human communication. 'Novelist Chris Else shows again why he should be better known' reviewed Tina Shaw in the Sunday Star Times.
In 2012, Else was awarded the Autumn Residency at the Michael King Writers’ Centre.
Updated April 2016.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- Chris Else’s bibliography in the Auckland University Librarys New Zealand Literature File
- Chris Else’s work Endangered Species on the Hazard Press site
- Chris Else’s website
- Chris Else’s work on the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre site
- Bruitin: Home of the Teapot
Updated January 2017.