Navigational Aids

Liam McIlvanney

  • Waxwings by Jonathan Raban
    Picador, 311 pp, £15.99, August 2003, ISBN 0 330 41320 1

When the hero of Jonathan Raban’s new novel is scolded for living in a world of his ‘own construction’, the implied rebuke falls flat: this, for Raban, is the whole point of America. Raban’s travel books present America as a ‘glittering fiction’, a country shaped by the ardent imaginings of its immigrant millions and by the universal reach of its popular fables – ‘the mythology of the western and the romance of the frontier’. His America is full of towns with improbable, allegorical names (Promise City, Hopeville); fabricated places like the one-street towns of Bad Land (1996), ‘doodled’ into existence by the pens of railroad magnates. To inhabit such a country requires a fictional cast of mind, a willingness to make yourself up as you go along, to score out the old self and start again on a new page: in Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990), Raban adopts a different identity (John Rayburn, Rainbird) for each place he visits.

In Waxwings, set in the ‘virtual city’ of Seattle at the height of the dot.com boom, American reality bites back. A professor’s bookish enthusiasm for the ‘Jeffersonian ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ begins to fade when he is wrongly suspected of abducting a child, and traduced in the local media. An illegal Chinese immigrant, whose idea of the States is derived entirely from videos, is perplexed to discover poverty and destitution. A woman who conducts virtual city tours for an online realtor (GetaShack.com) finds that her site can’t keep up, the city is changing so quickly. At every turn, the novel arranges messy collisions between virtual reality and what the GetaShack techies call ‘the physical venue’.

Occupying an ambiguous place in ‘physical Seattle’ is Tom Janeway, a Hungarian-born British novelist and resident alien who holds a chair in creative writing at the University of Washington. Like his creator, Tom emigrated to Seattle in the early 1990s, got married and became an oldish first-time father. Tom’s marriage is failing (Raban’s own marital break-up was a sub-plot in his last travel book, Passage to Juneau), and the novel becomes for a while the tale of a man who loses everything. His wife leaves him – ‘I wanted a fresh start,’ Beth says, like a true American – and his relationship with his young son, Finn, is suddenly fraught with complications. As he seeks to absorb these changes, Tom has an abhorrent new identity – child-abuser, bogeyman foreigner – thrust on him, when he is seen at the spot where a young girl has gone missing. He is immediately suspended from his job.

The story of Tom’s ordeal – Kafka meets P.G. Wodehouse, he calls it – is intercut with that of Chick Lee. Where Tom’s new American life is collapsing in dramatic heaves, Chick is piecing his together from scratch. Having survived a gruesome sea passage in which two fellow stowaways died, Chick is effectively born again on Pier 28. His Chinese name, like the other facts of his Chinese life, is now redundant: ‘He was Jin Peng, from Lianjiang. He was 24. Under interrogation, he could still have found these facts, but now they were dead husks, like discarded peanut shells that one might crunch underfoot in the street.’ In due course, he acquires a new name – taking the identity of a car-crash victim – and begins, in that telling phrase, to make something of himself, rising from dishwasher to casual labourer to boss of a construction crew.

Halfway through the novel, Raban brings these stories together: Tom hires Chick to repair his crumbling wooden house. Soon the contractor is living in his employer’s basement and an ad hoc domestic life begins to flourish in the space left by the Janeways’ withered marriage:

The cap was off the jar of mustard. The half-eaten remains of supper littered the table. Looking from his own empty glass to Chick’s full one, Tom saw a tableau of family life. He surprised himself with the thought: We’re a family! Masked faces and crossed purposes were part of that. So was the temporariness of the arrangement. Families didn’t last long nowadays, and this one was going to break apart at any minute, but its ephemeral character made it no less authentic.

This seems a little posed, a little too artfully improvised, but there is nothing trite or cloying in the relationships described. Right to the end of the novel, Chick thinks of Tom as ‘the American’, and their connection – one can hardly call it a friendship – is rooted in dollars. The two men share little more than a relish for Some Like It Hot: ‘He make joke on America,’ is Chick’s verdict on the film. When Chick gives Finn a puppy, his aim is to secure more work from Tom.

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