End of Story

Robert Taubman

  • A Humument by Tom Phillips
    Thames and Hudson, 367 pp, £12.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 500 09146 3
  • The Past by Neil Jordan
    Cape, 232 pp, £6.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 224 01845 0
  • Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips
    Allen Lane, 194 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 7139 1354 1

‘In this unique fiction,’ say the publishers, ‘word and image meet with a richness scarcely seen since Blake.’ Certainly A Humument is no ordinary novel: but nor is it much like Blake’s engravings, ‘Word and image’ meet in these pages more as they do in a comic strip – in particular, the comic strip as it has entered Pop Art – or as in the single words of type in a Cubist painting. Tom Phillips is a painter who has exhibited earlier versions of these pages as a form of Gesamtkunstwerk, with the Coleridgean aim of ‘keeping the greatest number of things suspended in a unity’. In the past, he has also used other material such as picture-postcards, with the axiom ‘Everything in the world exists to end up as a postcard.’ But everything ends up as a book, in Mallarmé’s original words, and a book comes appropriately from a painter who first found his own voice, in 1965, through ‘chance procedures and the extensive use of texts’. This is what Burroughs and other novelists have been up to. And the sub-text of A Humument’s 367 pages is itself a novel: W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document, in an edition of 1892. Most of this sub-text has disappeared under acrylic gouache, collage or pen and ink, leaving a few islands or isthmuses that stand out to be read as words. If there’s a connection with games played by Max Beerbohm and Joe Orton in ‘treating’ a printed text, A Humument is never merely subversive or facetious, and pictorially is highly effective. There are pages that suggest soil profiles as used by ecologists, or Matisse cut-outs or Pop Art fashions: but brought together in a pocket book they reveal that Mr Phillips has a distinct and pleasant voice of his own.

Is it a ‘fiction’? From the older novel that one isn’t allowed to read, some characters survive by name – Irma, Grenville – but the hero is a new invention, ‘toge’, who only appears on the pages of the original containing the words ‘together’ or ‘altogether’. The fact that the story can be read as a Progress of Love (‘a favourite neo-platonic tropos’), or that various themes, first encountered by chance, have been projected ‘backwards and forwards into the volume’, can be gathered from the author’s notes or his earlier Words. Texts. To 1974. But the words on the page resist merging into character or story in the usual way of words in a novel. Suspended in a painting, each page’s rather few words refer only to themselves or to their visual surroundings. They are less reassuring than words that have meaning in the context of a novel. The sort of thing they say, in what has survived from a page of W.H. Mallock, is ‘he showed me a certain photograph, posed I dare say, of the waterworks at Bucharest.’ There are jokey texts like ‘the Pasha whose balls looked like four milk-white horses’, and inventions in the style of Lewis Carroll: ‘She getting laden with gvalk and fromck and painful interest’. Usually, however, they mean nothing at all. Purely cryptographic pages not only cancel the meaning of the Mallock original but seem to celebrate joyfully the impossibility of any meaning. These are the most satisfying. In the words of one of the more explicit pages, ‘it is as if it is and exists in the purposes it does’. This is what makes it a ‘fiction’ – a term that has less to do with conventional ideas about fiction and what it’s for than with current ideas about redefining it. On the current view, whatever else a novel refers to, it refers primarily to itself: it’s not there to make sense of the world.

The Past contains a number of ‘given’ facts that the narrator knows, or wants to know, about his parents and grandparents. In June 1914 Michael and Una O’Shaughnessy have a reason for their stay in Cornwall: to conceal the date of birth of their child, conceived out of wedlock. This child is Rene, who grows up in Dublin, Bray and Sandymount in the 1920s. In 1934 she is an actress in a touring company and two men are in love with her, a photographer James Vance and his son Luke. On a train near a remote village in Clare she gives birth to a son, the narrator of the novel. Who was his father? Lili, a schoolfriend of Rene, and a priest, Father Beausang, help him to investigate. In the end the question is unanswered: but it was a reasonable question. Such are the ‘given’ facts. In this novel, however, facts are no sooner given than all their conventional meanings are dispersed. The question of parentage, for instance, is quite unimportant, because none of the characters exists for us in the borrowed-from-life fashion of characters in a conventional novel. We know that Rene and her mother were both minor actresses, had lovers, bore children, but we know nothing about what they were ‘really’ like: that is as absent as if they’d been painted over, like the original characters of A Humument. What we get instead exists only in the mind of the narrator, an imaginary reconstruction of the past seemingly no less valid than the facts at his disposal. For the episode in Cornwall in 1914, what he has to go on is a picture-postcard (view of the esplanade – just such as Tom Phillips was using for his pictures of the early Seventies), out of which come not only facts – the long-ago look of the place, or the reason for the trip to Cornwall – but also a wholly imaginary story of an affair between Michael and a girl on the beach. It’s as if the validity of any interpretation of the facts were always in question. On visiting James Vance’s former home in Bray, he says: ‘I felt proud of these dimensions. Nothing smaller would have done you, father or grandfather, whichever you turn out to be. I stepped inside and I smelt his world, knowing each detail was right whether it happened or not, whether real or not.’ And speculation becomes part of the narrative itself in the shape of chance conjunctions. There’s the strange apparition of De Valera outside the train on the coast of Clare at the moment of the narrator’s birth. In whose mind is this particular fact or invention to be located?

On a few such points, the risk of mere mystification might have been avoided. But the failure to know anything with certainty is itself scrutinised in the novel, and possible means of knowing – such diverse means as mathematics (De Valera’s own subject) and photography – are evoked. Photography is a main concern, from the postcard of the Cornish resort to the character of James Vance, who has more depth for the reader as a photographer than as the lover of Rene. ‘It is the spirit of that photographer that impels this book,’ and we see him as an artist sharing the same preoccupations as the author of the novel: ‘And yet it still clung to him, a dogged belief in surfaces. He would have even then liked to photograph that scene, to capture that precise balance of elements, why the rain was thus on the sea, why the trees made it mist and channelled the water in sheets and perhaps it was precisely for that reason – that tomorrow the sea might be blue and the air contain nothing but the odour of dust and sunlight. And it could all be held then and pasted in his black book on his green felt table and seen as evidence of, if nothing else, the impossibility of answers.’

One of the strengths of the novel comes from that respect for facts, with the implied ‘impossibility of answers’. Objective recording of facts has much the same role here as in the ‘new novel’ of the last generation, whose manner is taken to the point of parody in a chapter that describes Rene’s leg as she poses for a photograph. But objectivity could be arid in the ‘new novel’, and Neil Jordan is both more questioning and more imaginative. A bafflement by life isn’t just blankly recorded here: it releases in the narrator an imagination especially sympathetic to others in their moments of bafflement. Here is his imaginary picture of Rene at her convent school, under the eye of a nun:

Her presence is hypnotic, as are her maxims. ‘Keep your hands,’ she tells you, ‘to yourself. Keep your hands from yourself.’ You cannot understand the contradictions of this dictum, but through your efforts to understand them it assumes a sense of truth that is, for you, greater than words. It hints at the mystery behind movement and gesture. You say the maxim to yourself in situations that have nothing to do with hands. You know the ideal is hands folded and demure on the lap of your unfolded legs, neither to nor from yourself, and you know too that this is not the final answer which, you suspect, has nothing to do with the dimpled, fleshy hands before you. Are there other hands, you wonder, unseen ones which these real hands must train to lie at rest, ready to suddenly bloom into a gesture of giving? The hands of the soul, you think, and stare at the nun who has repeated her maxim once more and is sitting, hands unseen, at the top of the classroom.

I haven’t so far understood the ending, where the themes of the novel seem to be left to drift, and the narrator obtrudes a bit self-consciously by bringing things to an end at the moment of his birth. What I most admire in the novel are particular insights and particular conjunctions. ‘And so I am jealous of every detail in any of those carriages in which she sat, all the more so since the Dublin-Bray train has been sheared of all its niceties over the years, the chairs now being movable and plastic and not even arranged in rows but fixed, backs to the wall, in a way that’s more appropriate to a public bus.’ Mr Jordan is good at this combination of vague but obsessive feeling – whose vagueness is at the same time strategically placed – and of hard irreducible facts which have their own fascination. It’s a sentence that recalls Nabokov in its conjunction of attachment and detachment. The novel as a whole attempts the task Nabokov set himself in Ada: to construct a past out of both fantasy and fact, with the onus on the narrator of finding a meaning in what he himself can only imagine. The Past is a more cautious novel, without Nabokov’s panache and energies, or the playfulness that ends in disorder – which isn’t altogether to Mr Jordan’s disadvantage. He is a true descendant of Nabokov, but with energies of his own.

One thing Jayne Anne Phillips has pat is bourgeois America and its ostensible decencies: ‘Her mother’s curtains were all the same, white cotton hemmed with a ruffle, tiebacks blousing the cloth into identical shapes. From the street it looked as if the house was always in order.’ In this sort of story, marriages, affairs and families fall apart in despair or misunderstanding, but not without the loving detail that gives love a place: ‘Her father wore a wool hat with a turned-up brim and a small gray feather. Jancy loved the feather.’ Among the stories in Black Tickets, these ones provide a somewhat over-cultivated performance, such as John Updike is famous for. But there are black tickets to another kind of performance, where the story is indeed all performance, in one of the modes of post-modernist fiction, and voluntarily severs itself from the old modes of observation or criticism of life. These stories are set far away from the middleclass belt, among Mexicans, winos, addicts, the deformed or the really weird; and here horror, violence and pathos have a sign language of their own, much as they’ve had for some time now in other media.

‘She stands in the kitchin shaking while the Drifters do some easy moanin.’ End of story. But the media are present from beginning to end: transistor and jukebox, television personalities, porno postcards, gospel show, True Confessions, Reader’s Digest, late movies. And though they’re not stories about the media, they turn events into media events. ‘He knows languages with no letters. When he sees Mr Rockers glitter under strobes, he grips my arm and buzzes like a bee.’ In ‘El Paso’ Mexicans bum a child. ‘Snow’ is a collage of fairground scenes and the sensations of Characters who are blind or going blind. The narrator of ‘Lechery’ is a 14-year-old prostitute among heroin addicts: if this is hell, she’s aware of it only as a subject for True Confessions, and her baby-doll mind, naive and knowing, doesn’t seem a real mind so much as itself a product of the story. There’s as much pathos as horror – ‘I think Natalie is dead, she said she would die when she was twelve’ – and images where pathos has the look of poetry: ‘Inside him an acrobat tumbled over death. And walked thin wires with nothing above or below. She cried, he was so beautiful in his scarlet tights and white face the size of a dime.’ But it’s always a designed pathos, and designed to look designed. There’s no gap in these stories to allow any leakage into them from life outside, whether of simple artlessness or of decent feeling. And no point in asking what they mean: they are staged, designed, edited events which escape from such questions. Like media events, they refer to life only in order to displace it and offer their own kinds of gratification.