Let’s begin with ‘Let’s begin with the tea towel.’ Thus Professor Curl Skidmore, narrator of C.K. Stead’s All Visitors Ashore, announcing his presence in a text which proves something of a minor breakthrough in fictional technique. Towels, starting their lives as insignificant domestic signifiers, later waved at ships, soaked in blood, not waved, bleached by the sea, acquire, like other material tokens in this novel, semantic value as motifs and symbols of loss, purity, fidelity and conflict. Student Skidmore, prime object of his later self’s ironising attentions, is living out a year of emotional turmoil in a New Zealand paralysed, not so much by the dock dispute of 1951, as by an Establishment of such stuffy self-righteousness and intellectual vacuity that a beachside poetry-reading occasions a police raid.
Virtually plotless but highly integrated, the main structural device of this mannered, almost dandyish book is the interweaving of narrative strands with political, social, sexual and artistic themes and their associated, interchangeable motifs. The stories themselves are of no great importance except for young Skidmore, whose world is steadily depopulated as the year goes by. The reader’s pleasures are other and various. One of them is the intertextual chase. Here, for instance, Stead simultaneously parodies Robbe-Grillet’s degree-zero text and, by putting back the person, turns it to his own discursive and expository ends: ‘And now the shadow cast by the cabbage tree at the centre of the white courtyard with the green border must be longer at noon but nobody measures it because it is the late summer that always settles into the hottest and driest weather.’ There is pleasure, too, in the erotic hunts and their culminations, handled with an explicit but unobsessed dexterity; and interest in the progress from aestheticism to puzzled commitment of the ‘old master Melior Farbro’, who at least, having once changed his name, sticks to it, unlike the protean majority of Stead’s characters, noteworthy among whom is the electrified nun or psychiatric patient Cecilia Skyways or Dawn Clegg, who drops her work on ‘Memoirs of a Railway Siding’ to take up the haiku at the unspoken instigation of her spider-guru Bhodidharma or Body. Chief among this novel’s satisfactions, however, is textuality itself.
Uncertainty about who is telling the tale is both the major formal strength and the vitiating weakness of Sebastian Faulks’s brave attempt at a taxing subject. The opening pages of A Trick of the Light give us Wyn Douglas, George Grillet, and London. Douglas, marginal urban man, a fixer, a reporter, an intriguer, scurries about the underside of the city with plans for the dispossessed. George Grillet, 25, Anglo-French, vacationing in England after a messy end to an affair, an apolitical innocent, none too bright, absorbed in pulp thrillers, is less surely handled.
But as his boat neared the end of its channel crossing on a windy January afternoon, he looked ahead and wondered how the soldiers must have felt when they returned after years in the slaughterhouse of France. What a refuge this damp, ugly outline must have promised them. This time, he too felt like a refugee: the victim of an emotional war who had been sent away to convalesce.
Here are the seeds of the reader’s problem: Wyn Douglas, disciplined, committed and driven, is kept at a distance by a characteristic sentence structure: main clause plus subordinate clause, with the presentation of his thoughts in full grammatical units fixing him as a man without doubts. Grillet’s emotional complexity and uncertainty are there in the more complex syntax and the modally qualified verbs of mental activity. This internal mode of characterisation invites sympathy with George’s tender conscience and uprootedness, but it makes his later feats of Buchanesque prowess less credible.
George is now inserted, after bemusedly witnessing a racial fight, into his sister’s home, where her husband, not for the last time, talks piggish politics. Then there comes the big formal surprise: the narrative is interrupted, for the first of six times, by an enigmatic and authoritative commentary:
Unlike Wyn Douglas, I was far from certain that this George Grillet was the right person. What sort of man is it that can watch a knife fight and still be dreaming of some lost love. It was argued that his abstraction could be turned to advantage. That in some way he could be made to see his mission as expiating his problem. There was certainly no lack of analysis.
This powerful and, until the end, depersonalised voice speaks as near-omniscient metanarrator, as overall contextualisor, and as a cold-blooded theorist of an extreme brand of UK politics. As a fictional device it has a lot going for it, and so now does the novel, which shifts George from his sister’s house into flat-sharing with the Marxist-feminist Susan, and hence into contact with Wyn Douglas; while giving him a temp job in a TEFL College staffed by the oddities who engage in the export of England’s last commodity.
The first move provides the circumstances for George’s duping (he believes his recruitment into minor thieving will serve an antifascist cause); for a discussion of the nature of commitment conducted with the aid of George’s sentimentalist misreading of Camus (Meursault is shocked by grief); and for some fraught politico-sexual tension. The college furnishes a secondary character whose sexual proclivities function as another decoy in the further working up and out of suspense and enigma. When the main action – the theft of the tape – gets under way it is fast enough to keep absurdity at bay; and in terms of overall structure, plot, ideological conflict and moral dilemma, the book is rather satisfying. Furthermore, it is the only recent serious attempt, from the mainland UK, to get these things together.
The textual dilemma remains, however. There are three ‘discourses’ in this work, each originating in a voice: the hard, analytic, historicist commentary; Wyn Douglas’s machiavellian duplicity; and George’s consciousness. Douglas’s mediates to good structural effect between the other two; and in terms of textual effect, the reader alternates between the cold authority of the theorist and the moral and psychological essentialism of the hero. The novel turns upon their incommensurability and George’s temporary deracination: but the narration’s lack of distance from its object, its reluctance to ironise George, and its determination to stick with every unbalancing shift of his mind, seem to drain these passages of the artifice and strength which inform both the action and the ideological sequences. It would have been a more substantial work if Faulks had found the nerve to drop what are surely now the played-out conventions of mainstream realism.
Victor Sage has, sometimes. And it is on those occasions that his pieces, never less than dexterous, come alive. The first five stories in Dividing Lines concern reduction, diminution and extinction – of identity, of feeling, of writing itself. His marginal people and his fictions vanish into texts: a footnote to Freud, a clinical textbook, a minimal pair, a botanical manual. They blossom briefly, then disappear into crevices. But in ‘Crusoe’, the last, longest, best and a minor tour de force, the protagonist-narrator traverses his phantasmagoric island, retreading and rewriting his material and mental domain of panic, memory, obsession and dissolution until he discovers in fiction the wherewithal for the necessary and long-adumbrated regression to the nullity before the womb.
Sage’s strengths are local; his linear narratives achieve symbolic, not structural closure; his unit is the paragraph and the short exchange. ‘Obscurity’ offers pleasures of description: ‘That nose fascinated me. Olive-green in colour, it sprang directly out of the forehead – but, mysteriously, at a point that seemed to guarantee asymmetry to all the rest of the features – and performed a ruthless are until it split apart into two coal-black ovals. It was through this dominating organ, that his heavy middle-European accent seemed to issue, and hardly at all from the little mouth, perched below its overhang, that only appeared to serve as a hub, for a cartwheel of wrinkles.’ The librarian owner of this nose lives doubly in texts: among his shelves and, fleetingly, in Ernest Jones’s biography, where he appears as the ‘cretinous dwarf’ who may have saved Freud’s life after an operation.
Little Goethe, intellectual giant and homunculus, world-beater and world-renouncer, author of ‘my famous paper Against Behaviourism’, will live for ever: but unlike the Sybil he’s condemned to permanent infancy and a succession of surrogate parents funded by the trust his flighty prima donna mother has established. Recurrently ejected from the womb, he cannot, for lack of a sibling, his own quietus make. The considerable narrative authority of this tale, and its serpentine way through the intellectual milieu of the turn of the century, seem to demand a reading which the text withholds: unless the reader, imprisoned with Little Goethe in the sphere of his mind alone, shifts his level of reception to an allegory of Modernism’s genius in a stunted body politic.
Unambiguously personalist, ‘Bagley’s Progress’ deals in ambivalence. After an episodic treatment of ritual humiliations – beaten up by circus clowns, drying up as Hamlet, mocked by a German girl, abused by his pupils – Bagley achieves a short-lived apotheosis with Auberon:
He was standing behind the door, heavily-perfumed, wearing a shirtwaister in orange cotton with patch pockets and a half-full skirt. His feet were raked up almost vertically into a pair of tall green sandals and a matching handbag in green leather hung from the crook of his elbow. He shimmied. Under his long chestnut wig, he pouted, kissing me in the ear. ‘Mm ... shoogarr,’ he said, ‘ay yav sumsinn’ forr you.’
But dogging Bagley from his prep school has been the threat of a dropped phoneme. ‘Baggy’ they can and always yell. In Rome, where he and Auberon vacation in full drag, it becomes ‘Signora Zabaggy’. This is fun, but too fine a distinction on which to hang a tale.
It’s a lack of genital distinction which characterises Maria/Ramon as ‘Nada’: a finely imagined and sensitively rendered exploration of the ways in which ignorance in a hierarchical ideology can turn and overturn the interactions of biological sex and social gender. The problematics of classification are in the end reduced to the bleak and unfeeling authority of medicine and the arbitrary turn of a surgeon’s knife.‘ “It’s nothing,” she said. “The operation’s quite a simple one ... in either case.” ’
In the last story these diminutions, slipping personae and tentative attachments to the ‘real’ are left behind. Sage regroups his thematic concerns, marshals his obsessions and finds a bolder tone to commandeer his reader into understanding that this black epiphany is his book’s true culmination. ‘Crusoe’ is a slippery text to grasp. The seven subtitled sections are, I think, loose allegories of a late 20th-century mind in regression. The first, ‘Bleibtreu Café’, opens on the island where Crusoe has built a warren of concealments (food hidden from himself) and false signs (a fake telescope which he mistakes for his Zeiss); then, via a fantasia of eating, flashes back to the metamorphosising restaurant which has tortuously cheated him of his right to eat. ‘Footprint’ builds fantastic hypotheses around the origin of the footprint in the sand. The possibility that it might be Man Friday never occurs to him. Yet a double appears, a plane-crashed rotting corpse whose multiple returns are powered by the rats and maggots which consume it, in ‘Treat thy neighbour as thyself’. The treatment is to shoot, stick, skin, gut and eat him. Butchering instructions and a recipe (the one that never made it to The Anthropologist’s Cookbook?) are provided.
‘Power from the Bottom’ – a technological perversion of a good idea – generates methane from guano and dung; but as the temperature rises and fuel runs short, Crusoe is boxed into his privy, munching mangoes from his gas-run fridge, plumbed into his own system. ‘My Parrot’, side-swiping Desert Island Discs, fills the isle with noises from solo double canon to ‘the “Hinton Manor” slipping on a frosty track at Mile Bank’. The bird, like the human, rots alive; attempted drowning fails; only fire will suffice. ‘Getting Back’, a short transitional section, prefigures Crusoe’s unbegetting:
Back, back, seeking to get up the anus of my father, back into his intestines where it really matters. Back, back. Getting at my mother’s red truth by unzipping her labia all the way up to the chin. Before my brothers do it first. It’s no good. All the time, the bacteria are there, thriving in the plasma of the ideal. In their hordes they scurry, sweeping over the steppes of the idea like the extras in a Russian epic. The sky here is so full of unidentified flying objects, wing tip to wing tip, nose to tail, that it might be just the sky. I can’t see my hand before my face here. Not that I need to. There are no Venetian plots, no daggers in the hand, no coups, no applause while the catharsis bubbles in the brain like caustic soda, not even a fatal auto on the street after the theatre.
Clearly the man needs help in this self-reflexive pickle. He gets it in ‘Uncreative Thinking’, where Pearl and Arthur and their offspring, a surrogate nuclear family invented for the occasion, are given the bum’s rush backwards, with narrative élan full astern, to their respective lost origins, before particularity, before thought, before desire. Brilliant and nasty; nihilistic and hilarious; one’s reservations are those on waking from a splendid post-Freudian nightmare.