Sydney’s Inferno

Jonathan Coe

Mess is one of the distinguishing features of Janette Turner Hospital’s writing, but also one of its abiding themes: and part of the reader’s difficulty has always been to decide how much of the mess is intention, and how much miscalculation. The characters in Borderline, her 1985 novel which has many formal similarities with The Last Magician (including an obsession with Dante), are all engaged in transgressing boundaries, whether willingly or not, and the title story of her collection Isobars makes explicit its preoccupation with ‘ideas of order’ imposed upon a messy and shifting reality Lines drawn on a map, she wrote in that story, are ‘talismanic’ and represent ‘the magical thinking of quantitative and rational people’. Her latest novel gives this notion an urgent political twist, by supposing that the ‘ideas of order’ entertained by our governing classes are equally talismanic, and that their regulating power is in fact just as illusory as the power of isobars to make sense of ‘the sloshing flood of time and space’. From the perspective of a smart garden party overlooking Sydney harbour, the line separating order (of which Hospital disapproves, because it’s authoritarian) from chaos (of which she approves, because it’s human) is called sharply into question: ‘Where else,’ her narrator asks, ‘is the membrane between manicured lawn and quarry so wafer thin?’ The ‘quarry’ referred to here is a nightmarish warren into which Sydney’s underclass has been driven: Hospital likes to describe it in terms of Dante’s hellish circles, its outer regions consisting of seedy pubs and bars, its innermost recesses taking the form of hideaways beneath railway tunnels and tube lines. Somewhere in side this labyrinth there is a woman called Cat, and the search to find her keeps the plot’s engine ticking over, although the narrator is certainly in no hurry to let us know why it should be so important, Eventually we learn of a childhood trauma. A quartet of friends indulge in a dangerous game which goes tragically wrong. When the blame is laid, unjustly, on Cat, she is sent away to reform school and from that day onward can never be persuaded to speak. One or the participants and chief witnesses to the injustice, a young prig called Robinson Gray, keeps quiet about his part in it and grows up to be a distinguished judge even while the secret continues to burn away inside him. The other two children, one called (confusingly) Catherine and the other a Chinese Australian by the name of Charlie Chang, spend the rest of their horrified lives trying to make contact with Cat, tracing her fleeting appearances through strip joints, prisons and police files in Sydney and Brisbane.

Chang finally makes a career out of photography – which makes him the ‘last magician’ of the title – and his photographs become one of the key devices through which the narrative gets filtered. Their quizzical, open-eyed, receptive viewpoint is the one which the book clearly endorses, and an implicit contrast is set up with Robinson Gray’s sinister, furtive power-mongering. One flashback to their school debating society finds them on opposite sides. The subject is ‘Triage’ (which is the bête noire of the whole novel) – the theory that ‘in times of crisis or natural disaster, it is legitimate, in the interests of a stable society, and for the greater good of the majority, for the authorities to establish a system of priorities; that is it is legitimate to ask, If all cannot be saved, who then should be saved?’ Gray proposes the motion, Chang opposes it, and the headmaster judges Gray the winner for successfully arguing that ‘the ability to be intelligently “cruel” when the occasion demands is the hallmark of enduring civilisations.’ This is a bald statement of the attitude The Last Magician sets out to rail against, and which it shows to be fixed in the psyche of the power-hungry as immovably as the rituals of a children’s game.

The novel’s polemic, then, is loud and forthright: but there’s a good deal of apparatus to dismantle before we can arrive at it. The narrator of these events is Lucy, a call-girl turned TV researcher, who is a generation younger than the traumatised quartet but becomes a close friend of both Charlie and Catherine, as well as having an affair with Robinson Gray’s son, Gabriel. This makes for a peculiar narrative perspective: at once distanced from the action by the intervention of a third person, we are also brought uncomfortably close to it by virtue of her intense emotional involvement. Hospital used this effect in Borderline, where the narrator was a piano tuner called Jean-Marc whose life only occasionally intersected with those of the protagonists. The problem with such an approach is that it makes enormous demands on the character in question: the voice and the range of sympathies must be much more than usually flexible. And in some ways Lucy fits the bill. She’s a one-time private schoolgirl who sheds her snobbish attitudes following a youthful encounter at a railway station with another girl who spits at her for being a ‘prissy little fancy-pants cunt’. The ease with which she discards her former identity derives from her gift for ‘shapeshifting’ (‘from time to time, I find myself inside the skin of other people’), and we get a graphic illustration of this when, on the same day and the same railway platform, a middle-aged woman exposes herself to the assembled crowd and Lucy suddenly finds that she identifies with her vividly, so that ‘through some unimaginable, unconscionable error, she is exposed, without underwear, to a mob’.

Despite all the hard work she has put into giving her a plausible history, though, Hospital continues to ask too much of her narrator. Doubts about Lucy arise quite early in the novel, when she takes a ferry across the harbour to Manly and finds herself being chatted up by a sleazeball. Her peppering of the subsequent conversation with literary and artistic references may, I suppose, be a ploy to deter his advances: more likely, it’s the author’s way of smuggling in the allusive baggage which she feels (mistakenly) will give the novel resonance. These awkwardly colloquial manoeuvrings (‘You ever read the Russian novelists?’ ‘You heard of Titian?’) do nothing except guarantee the sacrifice of credibility on the altar of a pointless intertextuality. Lucy describes herself, at one point, as having ‘an inconveniently busy and sceptical mind’. But this is disingenuous, because the busy-ness of her mind is nothing if not convenient for the author, enabling her to drop in those all-important gestures towards Dante (‘You know what else it reminds me of? ... Dante’s Inferno. The Boticelli drawings. Have you seen them?’), and even a few references to art movies – always thrown off, of course, with the same note of assumed vagueness (‘like one of those European movies ... something by that Italian director’, ‘like someone in a mournful intellectual movie ... one of those slow bleak things by that Japanese bloke’). By turning her into such a compulsive name-dropper, Hospital makes it increasingly difficult for us to believe in Lucy’s stated preference for low-life company over Sydney’s literati. In the scene at the posh garden party she makes a beeline for the barman, saying that ‘I do feel at home with the people who tap off beer and dole out icecubes for the cocktail crowd’: but why should this be, if what she really wants to talk about is Browning and De Sica? By now we might well feel that Lucy’s shapeshifting, her chameleonic crossing of borders, is essentially a function of the various uses which the author intends to put her to, so that the decision to interpose her between the reader and some of the novel’s most significant events can only dilute their impact.

Luckily this is not a fatal flaw, since the most powerful passages in the book – the scenes describing the all-important childhood incident – are presented without too much of Lucy’s mediating presence. Hospital seems a little nervous that these passages are going to strike people as lurid, because she allows herself some moments of overt self-justification in which she makes sarcastic calls for a literature of ‘modesty and social decorum ... a literature that is unassertive, limpid, economical and lean’ (all of which The Last Magician is most certainly not). Such tactics are still considered tricksy and new-fangled by some readers (and critics), who perhaps forget that the privilege of authorial self-criticism dates back at least to the introductory chapters of Tom Jones. In Hospital’s case, they are, all the same, unnecessary: few novelists have written with such authority about childish passions and the influence they carry over into what passes for adulthood. It isn’t only the reader’s relief at being allowed to bask in the waters of realism after the necessary thorniness of the earlier sections: more importantly. Hospital’s imagination takes fire at this point, and the descriptions of Cat, Charlie, Robinson and Catherine as they pass from idyllic play at Cedar Creek Falls to disaster and recrimination are filled – as befits a novel of this title – with a dark and terrible magic. Other affecting touches are less insistently signalled, such as the unobtrusively devastating moment when the six-year-old Gabriel realises the depth of contempt his father feels for his mother, as he watches him cutting in on a newspaper reporter to save him the wasted effort of seeking his wife’s opinion on anything. The leaps of sympathy which Hospital performs at times like this make her more overtly adventurous techniques seem laboured: it’s ironic, really, that they should turn out to be the most memorable features of a novel which professes such vigorous disdain for ‘modest late 20th-century social realism’.

If you want to consider the struggle of the individual in the face of supernatural forces, to address what George Mackay Brown calls ‘the riddle of fate and freedom’, then you are best-off retreating into the distant past, as he has done in his fifth novel, Vinland. Here Brown has returned to the world of his beloved Orkneyinga Saga, that astonishing, bloody and darkly humorous chronicle of early Orkney which also provided material for his novel Magnus in 1973. This time, instead of drawing modern historical parallels. Brown has confined himself to putting fictional flesh onto historical bones, in a narrative which switches back and forth from the diplomatic warring between the rival Earls of Orkney and their sovereigns, the Kings of Norway, to detailed imaginative re-inventions of the lives of ordinary farmers, merchants and seamen forcing out a living from the islands.

On the face of it the book has an obvious structural flaw. It begins as a thrilling adventure story, with a young seafarer, Ranald Sigmundson, stowing away on a ship from Greenland which sets its course for the edge of the world and manages to end up in North America, which the explorers dub ‘Vinland’ on account of the lushness of its grapes. Initially friendly relations with the American Indians are promptly ruined by a callous act of violence from one of the seamen, and the colonisers are obliged to sail home, vowing to return one day and in the meantime cherishing a life-long image of the newfound country as earthly paradise. After that, Ranald is introduced at the Norwegian court, returns to Orkney, grows up, becomes a respected farmer and travels to Ireland to assist at the disastrous battle of Clontarf, which takes place on Good Friday 1014 and from which he emerges mercifully unscathed. At this point Ranald, filled with a healthy disgust for politics and warmongering, beats a high-minded retreat to his farm: but ‘those blood-splashed men in high places, and ... their plots and counter-plots’ continue to form the main substance of the narrative, while the protagonist who is clearly intended to channel our sympathies stands back, uninterested and aloof, and so the book becomes curiously diffuse, dwindling to a series of breathlessly disconnected episodes which remain colourful and exciting but fatally lacking in any central focus.

To insist upon this awkwardness, all the same, is to forget the thematic strands which hold the novel together, and to ignore the fact that, while it masquerades as an adventure yarn, its subject is really Ranald’s spiritual development. With grace and economy, Brown draws a trajectory which transforms his hero from a golden-haired youth, brimful of hope, steaming ahead in the world of business and drawing the admiration of all who meet him, into a wise old dotard, groping his way towards a final understanding even as his mental and physical abilities are on the wane. In this way Vinland reminded me strongly of Hrabal’s marvellous (though far jokier and more worldly) I served the King of England. Such a reading, however, makes the American prologue at first something of a puzzle. There’s no authority for it in the saga which Brown uses as his source for most of the novel: could he simply have included it to make the opportunistic point, in this anniversary year, that the Orcadians’ Nordic ancestors got there five hundred years before Columbus? Only in the closing pages do we realise that Ranald’s boyhood memory of Vinland is central to his chances of redemption: ‘every man born,’ a priest tells him, ‘is aware, now and then in the course of his life, of ... a wild sweet freedom when all seems to be possible and good.’ For Ranald, this awareness is ‘lost somewhere in the dream of childhood’ and represents ‘a state beyond the dark operatings of fate, a place of light and peace’. Vinland, then, comes to symbolise a hope of release from the grip of the Orcadians’ primitive, fatalistic Christianity, as well as providing a model of man in harmony rather than conflict with the physical world – a natural equivalent of the ‘Seamless Coat’ after which St Magnus was searching in the earlier novel. This symbolism may leave Brown in the position of idealising the American Indians, observing that they had ‘entered into a kind of sacred bond with all the creatures, and there was a fruitful exchange between them, both in matters of life and death’, but there is no denying the lethal accuracy and economy with which he portrays the hotheadedness of their invaders. When a seaman called Wolf misinterprets their ceremonial war dance and kills one of the Indians on the spot, his actions echo throughout the entire book: ‘It’s some great fool like you,’ says his captain, ‘that will bring the world to an end.’ Brown’s coolly horrified unravelling of the cycles of violence and acquisitiveness which follow from such behaviour mark Vinland as not only the work of a master storyteller, but a novel of fierce contemporary relevance.