Life and Work
- Falling apart by Nicholas Salaman
Secker, 190 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 436 44087 3
- Memoirs of Many in One by Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray, edited by Patrick White
Cape, 192 pp, £8.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 224 02371 3
- Free Agents by Max Apple
Faber, 197 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 571 13852 7
Life and work are in the happiest relation when the life comfortably includes the work; the relation becomes unhappy when the work threatens to preclude the life. Then we have a competition between the demands of work and the duties of the domestic life, or the impulses of the inner life. The competition may be a matter of man-hours or of values, or both: at any rate the division, once established, exposes the individual to stress. Wemmick in Great Expectations has expressed his siege mentality in his moated home, a refuge from the Jaggers law-work: ‘the office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me.’ Wemmick’s chiasmus reflects the two selves he has contrived for his places of abode and work; he does his job well, working as a different person with a different expression on his face. Melville’s Bartleby, in contrast, a few years earlier, quite withdraws his labour – also legal in character – and goes with mysterious politeness to a death in the New York Tombs: an enigmatic martyr, he seems to suffer from some perception which makes intolerable to him his probably emblematic task of copying.
Nicholas Salaman’s heroine Charlet, ‘falling apart’ in his new novel, has more to do with up-to-the-minute advertising copy than with 19th-century legal scrivening, and is neither a survivor like Wemmick, nor a martyr like Bartleby, but a victim without dignity, a double failure. Wemmick’s moat is a constructed, defensive barrier with a proper draw-bridge to cross by; the chasm in Falling apart between Charlet’s crumbling suburban family and her marketing work in the City as a Brand Manager for Fastfoods is, at least by the time the novel begins, vertiginously difficult to manage. ‘She was treading a rope, she knew; the two halves of her life were ultimately irreconcilable.’ In the course of the book Charlet topples into this abyss.
The satirical pointing is adept; Salaman knows the world of marketing and advertising from the inside, and is cunning in his invention of the important new product which the deluded Charlet pays with body and conscience to have the chance of failing with: ‘Nut Puffs’. This is the latest emanation of the Fastfoods ‘bubble concept’: that
Bubbles are made of air. Air costs nothing. Surround your bubbles with a crispy crackly snappy integument and what do you have? A great big profit on every bag you sell.
Fastfoods, then, is a business built around and concealing a vacuum; and the novel takes place round this central emptiness. The company is all the more competitive for its delusive basis, and Charlet competes as much as anyone. She has lovers, a City love-nest, and no desire greater than to rise in the firm. Even when she’s well on the way to cracking up, a success at work carries her back to the company ethic: ‘she suddenly found again that the bubble meant more to her than anything else.’ But disaster brings a mad solipsistic despair in which the product controls their lives: ‘they were all in airtight sacs.’ Salaman puns on Charlet’s bubble; collapsing, she has ‘a certain puffiness around the eyes’, and goes nuts. She has, moreover, a probably paranoid notion that Nut Puffs contain an additive called Copulin, responsible for ‘the whole office ... fizzing with lust’ and presumably for her own sexual cravings.
Falling apart is a clever and disturbing novel, but its power is limited by an excess of contrivance. The image of the abyss, for example, comes up as an office lift-shaft occupied by a crazed liftman, as Etna, and as the mouths looked down by its narrator, an eccentric and too-whimsical dentist who is taking care of Charlet. This dentist-narrator introduces himself in a ‘Prologue’, not plausibly, as telling us the story while he works on our teeth, doing ‘reconstructive treatment’; he has been told most of it by Charlet, who is sitting shattered in the flat above his surgery, and he ‘will occasionally fill in with a little guesswork as and when it seems necessary’. Since we only really find out anything about the narrator in the second part, this twofold complication of variables tends to inhibit the reader’s sense of the subject. It serves no function in terms of plausibility, since the dentist is an incredibly over-mannered literary fabrication, and little in terms of characterisation, since the dentist tells Charlet’s story punchily, like an impersonal novelist, and without sufficient personal inflection. The book’s contract with the reader seems to have too much small print that is then not fully invoked; it would be more forceful if it had fewer modernistic get-out clauses. These may be related to the book’s imaginative indebtedness to another work disgusted at promiscuous sex in the City, The Waste Land (it directly alludes to it, with, for example ‘Do you remember nothing?’ and some sex ‘enacted on this same divan’). Eliot’s poem, too, sets a puzzling battery of personae between itself and its author: but there the deflections of voice potently coincide with a multiplication of narrative fragments. Falling apart sticks too fast to its main story to need, and thus justify, its fussy apparatus.
Another, more recent antecedent of which Salaman seems to be aware is that of the Australian Peter Carey’s very comparable Bliss (1981), whose ad-man hero Harry Joy revives at the start after being clinically dead for nine minutes, and returns, winded, to his former way of life, deprived of his former breezy ‘optimism’, even suspecting that he is still dead and now in Hell. It is not just in the cracking-up and dropping-out of the main characters that the two novels cover similar terrain; the paranoid theory about Copulin in the foods of Falling apart corresponds on a smaller scale to the implicitly apocalyptic fear of carcinogens in Bliss, where ‘Harry could feel the cancer in the air.’ The break-up of the family, and the memory of the parents’ stories, are less generously detailed in the narrow, rather chilly Falling apart, which at half Bliss’s length feels schematic and overworked. Carey, by contrast, absorbs the example of Marquez without much distortion of his own talents. Apart from an excursion to South America at the end, which seems too obtrusive an acknowledgement of influence, the commerce is mainly to his benefit, in its prompting to a panoramic and inclusive kind of fiction which is convincing as an exploration, the discovery of an ambitious subject. Falling apart is in this sense a bit short on vivifying contexts. The figure of Bettina Joy, Harry’s embittered, adulterous wife, obsessed with worldly success and the image of New York (‘Bettina was burning brightly. She was consuming herself’) imprints itself on the reader’s memory more urgently than that of Salaman’s Charlet, whose very fantasy-life is unsympathetically confined, and not even registered as such. It is perhaps because Salaman puts on his mannered dentist most of the burden of evoking potential value in Charlet’s life, and because she behaves so nastily until her breakdown, that it is hard to come up with much interest in her.
Like Falling apart, the latest novel by Patrick White, Memoirs of Many in One, is set up as a man’s intricate filtering of a woman’s story of delusion. Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray is imagined as an old Australianised Greek woman, a friend of Patrick White – the widow, in fact, of his lover. White himself ‘intrudes’ in person into the action as well as editorially into her text, and appears as an old man with a walking stick – prim, wry, subdued and awkward in suburban Sydney. It pays the reader of these Memoirs to attend to the small print: the relation between supposed editor and supposed writer, shifting about, is anything but easy-going. Alex herself is an egotistical monster in search of the ‘grand illusion’ of ‘independence’, and her Memoirs are not factual recollections but wilfully undertaken hallucinations of various lives, a seeming parallel with White’s own relation to his fictitious characters in the course of his long career. The dominating metaphor here is that of exploration, of an abstract quest for identity and meaning. Alex writes: ‘Only when you’re stranded among the human furniture, the awfulness of life, you’ve got to start out on a search to find some reason for it all.’ Often she associates the topic with Patrick White himself. ‘Age and arthritis have deprived Patrick of any but the wheelchair approach to exploration,’ she says – exaggerating, it seems. Recognising more robustness in him earlier, she sees that ‘Patrick himself is in search of the unanswerable, the unattainable. He well knows that we, the explorers, stop at nothing.’ This recalls the ‘fever of exploration’ evoked by the eponymous hero Johann Ulrich Voss in White’s ambitious novel of 1957: a fever which propels the tremulous heroine, Laura Trevelyan, into an imaginative experiment with the roles of wife to the absent Voss and mother to the bastard child of a servant. Laura mystically shares from her Sydney sickbed Voss’s disastrous journey in the out-back. The two settings are fantastically fused in White’s high-flowing style: ‘So the party rode down the terrible basalt stairs of the Bonners’ deserted house and onward.’
The aged Alex in her Sydney suburb similarly extends herself in distant adventures. Just as with Voss and Laura Trevelyan the driving force behind the process is a revulsion from the ‘flesh of human relationships’ and their ‘dreadful, cloying tyranny’, so here it is a wish to get away from ‘the human furniture’. The debate in Voss concerns the difficulty of love and humility for the infinitely arrogant soul of the Kurtz-like explorer, who ‘accepted his own divinity’ until ‘at last truly humbled’; in contrast to him, Laura curbs some of her disdain for humanity in adopting the maid Rose’s bastard daughter Mercy, ‘roseflesh’. In these Memoirs Alex corresponds, with qualifications, to Voss. Like him, she shoots a dog to demonstrate her strength of character, and repeatedly says things like: ‘My range is immense. There is no reason why I should doubt my potentialities.’ Patrick White in the novel corresponds to Laura, perhaps: an explorer chastened to a consciousness of human limitation, yet fascinated by and respectful of the grandeur of human delusions.
Exploration is White’s image for the creative process, a fitting one for an Australian writer. Voss claimed that ‘in this disturbing country ... it is possible more easily to discard the inessential and to attempt the infinite.’ What attempting the infinite means seemed by the end of that book to consist of behaving badly and doing your best to feel good about it on the ground of being a superman and thus above ordinary decencies. In the Memoirs the quest is supposedly for values, for the significance of a life splintered into lives. ‘However they torment me,’ Alex says, ‘I must find out whether the lives I have lived amount to anything. I have always been searching, however squalid the circumstances.’ In various fancied or fancifully reconstructed lives Alex plays roles: as nun-concubine to a monk on a Greek island; dancing outrageously at a charity ball in Washington; as ‘Empress and circus rider’ breaking up a society party in Sydney; as an enthusiast making a tramp into ‘the Mystic’; as Sister Benedict on a nuns’ picnic humiliated by ineffectualness when another sister, ancient and saintly, collapses and is carted off; and as herself, or Dolly Formosa, performing highlights of Shakespeare and dancing naked improvisations in the towns of the Australian outback. She writes her Memoirs as an extravagantly fictitious alternative to the family archives kept by her oppressed, pestering daughter Hilda: ‘That’s why I’m writing my memoirs. Archives have no soul.’ Alex is hostile to ‘Hilda the archivist’: ‘the great flights my temperament requires and my state of mind allows are something she will never imagine.’ Alex is a caricature artist, a prima donna whose search for significance in life seems mainly to consist in a queenish craving for melodrama and attention, and in pretentious claims for her creativeness, punctuated by lapses into self-loathing.
Patrick White himself is at different times described by Alex as ‘the old sod’, someone ‘you can rely on’, someone she ‘can get round’, ‘a performer’, ‘looking his primmest’, ‘leaning on his stick, the born Mother Superior’, ‘my husband’s lover’, ‘always pompous’, ‘the most élite of élitists’, and ‘too piss-elegant by half’. He and Alex have a strange relation in which they seem, indefinably, to be each other’s creations, or at least interdependent; Finally ‘quits, oh yes, but never quit of each other’. The relations in his life – or at least the fictionalised version of them here – sometimes swallow up and seem to devalue his work, as when he is summoned to see Alex: ‘My work! Shoving it into a drawer of my desk, I wondered whether it could be of any account. Insistent characters like Hilda, Alex, Hilary, Magda make you suspect their lives count for more than the flesh and blood of your own creating.’ But ‘characters’ sounds like fictional material, ‘flesh and blood’ like life. It is characteristic of this book to blur such edges for the sake of easier transitions between the one and the many, in order to present the creation of character as something that goes on not just in books but also in lives. Patrick White has apparently encouraged Alex’s memoirs: ‘I try to turn our attention from the reality of our immediate surroundings to the fantasy life we have helped her create for herself.’ He is in one sense a collaborator in the memoirs. In addition, his ‘Editor’s Introduction’ gives as one of his reasons for agreeing to do the editing the fact that they correspond to his fictional perferences: ‘Although an Anglo-Saxon Australian on both sides, I am a sybarite and masochist; some of the dramatis personae of this Levantine script could be the offspring of my own psyche.’ Alex, even if based on real people White has known, is his creation; she has her own mystical idea of the creative self, wanting at one point to ‘nip upstairs and read all I have written’ in order ‘to confirm that I am I. I.’ This is something like accepting her own divinity, even if it is only a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation. At any rate it anticipates Patrick White’s admission at the end that ‘I I – the great creative ego – had possessed myself of Alex Gray’s life while she was still an innocent girl and created from it the many images I needed to develop my own obsessions, both literary and real.’ Though he pays by getting stuck with the bossy daughter Hilda.
Amid such dissolves from person to person, such deliberate challenges to the boundaries of identity, it would probably be unwise to do more than express scepticism about the cogency of this extremely Romantic idea of metempsychotic exploration, which amounts to a qualified escapism. The qualifications can be poignant, and the wish to escape intelligible, but the concentration on transcendent creativity in people’s lives – when it takes this form – could be regarded as an occupational hazard of writers, a percolation into non-literary areas of what are strictly literary values. A loathing of the ordinary is surely often a less admirable feeling than a hatred of cruelty or injustice, and flights of fancy are in many cases less desirable than principled stands. If the means are unlikely, however, the apparent end of the enterprise is decent enough, though ‘unattainable’. It seems to be a kind of human communion, a supreme moment of connection between human beings. Memoirs of Many in One is not satisfyingly shaped, grippingly plotted, or beautifully written, but it has its own undeniable power, ‘however squalid’.
If Patrick White is preoccupied with ‘the great creative ego’, Max Apple, a Jewish Mid-Westerner living in Houston, often goes back to the original Creator in the stories in Free Agents, his excellent first collection. In ‘Stranger at the Table’, an autobiographical essay about the impediments to, and the necessity of, observing kosher restrictions on food, he observes: ‘One of the sublime biblical lines is God’s definition of himself: “I am what I am.” So are we all.’ The piece is urbane, carefully crafted and even a little precious, certainly not intense in its address, but it has a serious core which is Max Apple’s sense of identity, expressed in his inherited resolution: ‘I do it in spite of all the difficulties, simply because it seems right.’ This kind of integrity, a quiet consciousness of what is fitting that is intuitively there rather than rationally arrived at, comes up in another story, one which could be brought to bear on the identity-quests of Patrick White’s Alex. ‘The Eighth Day’ has a Jewish first-person narrator whose goy girlfriend, ‘the Einstein of pseudo-science’, is keen on primal therapy, and wants him to re-experience his own birth. But he can’t get back beyond the eighth day, when he was circumcised. The couple, she charmingly earnest and he affectionately co-operative, track down the original circumciser and drive 300 miles to South Bend, Indiana for a therapeutic mock-re-enactment of the operation. The narrator, lying embarrassed on the circumciser’s dining-room table, feels ‘not primal fear but very contemporary panic’ at the sight of the knife. And then the circumciser, the ‘mohel’, can’t, at the last, go through with it: ‘ “I can’t do it,” Berkowitz says. “I can’t do this, even symbolically, to a full-grown male. It may not be against the law; still, I consider it an abomination.” ’ This is a surprising and powerful moment, a confrontation of worlds. The force of ‘abomination’ is that Berkowitz’s conversation has been until this point affable, mild, and self-deprecating, and he has jokily called himself ‘up to date’, so that he brings out the uncompromising Old Testament word ‘in spite of all the difficulties’. In a sense this is a primal moment, if not the one originally planned by the narrator’s girlfriend, who has amazed the diffident Berkowitz by calling him ‘indeed a holy man’. The narrator realises something about his past – that he is beyond it:
My past remains as secret, as mysterious, as my father’s baldness. My mother in the throes of labour is a stranger I never knew. It will always be so. She is as lost to me as my foreskin.
As they leave South Bend, the narrator is ‘not sure of whether I’m a failure at knowing myself’, but on the long drive home pulls into ‘a roadside rest stop’ to wake his girlfriend: ‘Fitfully, imperfectly, we know each other.’
Such quasi-rueful, impeded epiphanies are the matter of the best of the 20 stories in this ingenious and likable volume, which covers a variety of subjects, many of them cropping up more than once. Max Apple teaches literature at Rice, and three pieces – ‘Post-Modernism’, ‘The American Bakery’ and ‘An Offering’ – are what we could call directly literary, the last two autobiographically so. The most immediately convincing stories are those which deal with his parents and grandparents, his dead wife and his children. Some are political conceits (‘The National Debt’, ‘Small Island Republics’), considerations of business (‘Walt and Will’, ‘Pizza Time’, ‘Business Talk’, ‘An Offering’), or oblique and worked-out entertainings of some idea about the film industry (‘Child’s Play’), diet and running (‘Carbo-Loading’), hi-tech fast food (‘Pizza Time’), illegal immigrants (‘Help’) or gambling (‘Kitty Partners’). If the collection were to be accused of a fault, in fact, the charge would involve the somewhat ‘winning’ air with which a few of these conceits are presented: a liability to surreal turns in the fashion of Donald Barthelme, without quite the cool reticence that distances Barthelme from cuteness. But such an accusation would only be made by an unsympathetic reader, and Max Apple’s carefully measured candour in the firmest stories and pieces ought to make such readers rare. In ‘An Offering’, moreover, which is the penultimate piece, a parody of an investors’ prospectus for shares in ‘Max Apple, Inc., PC’, the teasing ingenuity of the conceit pays in entertainment for the touching directness of the author’s appeal to the reader for the ‘risk’ of attention, the attention which is the reward ‘the Company’ hopes for the hardships endured as a result of its choice, 20 years before, of the risky business of writing. The cumulative value of the preceding stories, and the wonderfully affecting story which follows, ‘Blood Relatives’, fully justify the appeal: Max Apple is a true writer, deserving of investment.
The opening story of Free Agents, ‘Walt and Will’, may have a special connection with ‘An Offering’, insofar as its titular subjects are the Disney brothers, a brilliant cartoonist and an austere businessman whose fraternity stands, in Max Apple’s suggestive sketch, for the relation between business and the imagination in America. ‘Walt and Will’ is a saddened story of compromise, of Walt’s vividly rodent mice cleaned up and humanised – set on the two feet of another species – for commercial reasons, so that Minnie Mouse is ‘created in spite of the stubbornness of the creator by the worldly wisdom of his brother’. It culminates in Will’s excited discovery of Orlando, Florida as a site for ‘another Land’: ‘when I saw it I knew how Columbus must have felt.’ And of course it’s in the event not just a Land but a World. Will has conceived of ‘a center for America. A place where you can stand and move the world from.’ In ‘Small Island Republics’ the bright idea of the central character is to convert the newly-disadvantaged Taiwan into a Disneyland. To this world-encompassing business of America Max Apple opposes a personal integrity based on family and tradition. The kosher piece ends wryly by offering an alternative fulcrum to Will Disney’s:
‘Show me where to stand,’ Archimedes said, ‘and I’ll move the world.’ ‘Show me where to sit,’ I say, ‘and maybe there’ll be something I can eat.’ If I have to move the world, I’ll do it with vegetable shortening.
It may properly be objected, from the unsympathetic point of view, that this is cloying smart-sentimental Jewish humour, but Max Apple is elsewhere conscious of the commercial function of charm even in an upmarket writer – in the desperately witty idiom of ‘An Offering’ he reaches the point where ‘the Company no longer possesses the facility to be ingratiating for profit’ – and it may not be too far-fetched to suggest that the too-fetching expressive gambits in Free Agents are there as tricks of the trade, bids for recognition, bribes offered in a good cause. Writing is a tough business as well as an art. Getting established without being strident is tricky, as this writer has evidently learned by experience.
That Max Apple’s is a good cause is demonstrated by his care in ‘getting the sentences to sound exactly right’ (‘The American Bakery’), a concern continuous with his maintaining of kosher ‘simply because it seems right’. ‘Post-Modernism’ ends with an impassive recognition: ‘Everything is the way it is.’ And ‘Eskimo Love’, an unsettling story whose probably autobiographical narrator is only after three years beginning to get over his wife’s death, finishes with a tender dissolution of the nightmarish wintry tangle of fantastic guilts it has evoked earlier. The girl pulls him into a creek.
The noise of our splashing doesn’t bother a soul. I chase Sue through the creek. Stumbling on rocks we fall onto one another, laughing. There is no fish, no ghost underfoot, no Eskimo – just water – just camping with friends on a warm night in the middle of my life. It’s enough.
The rightness of this, ‘in the middle of my life’ delicately not bringing so much to the surface, is something to be grateful for.