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.

Waxwings is the first in a projected sequence of novels to be set in the Pacific Northwest. It is nearly two decades since Raban’s last work of fiction, Foreign Land (1985), which was a novel by accident. Having stalled on a travel book – the journal of a solo sail round Britain – Raban recast his material as fiction. George Grey, the book’s hero, a spiritual descendant of George Bowling in Coming Up for Air, returns from a twenty-year African odyssey to find his native island horribly transformed. Britain under Thatcher is a scuzzy, lawless zone of tatty estates and bilious cabbies, soccer riots and village pornographers. Foreign Land is a compelling study of cultural estrangement and disenchantment. Coasting, by contrast, the travelogue Raban finally completed (and published the following year), is less a voyage of discovery than a circuit of the author’s prejudices: ‘I found my suspicions gratifyingly confirmed,’ he remarks at one point, to the surprise of no one.

There is a moment in most of his travelogues when Raban, having outlined the specs of his boat and detailed the scope of his voyage, settles down to describe his library. Novels, memoirs, tourist guides, natural histories, pamphlets, works of anthropology and sociology: his boat is always richly provisioned with books. He likes to describe them, reel off their titles, tell us where they are shelved. Another writer would defer this material to a bibliographical note or an acknowledgments page: Raban makes it part of the story. He also likes to have a strategic spell of dirty weather during which his library is pitched from its shelves to end in a tangle on the saloon floor. What such passages provide is an image of Raban’s method. The books are his navigational aids; he steers his narrative by them, jumping from genre to genre and measuring the landscape in the books against the view from the wheelhouse window. The method produces works that resemble Huck Finn’s barrel of odds and ends, where everything gets ‘mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better’. In most cases, Raban’s absorbing miscellanies are bound simply by the trajectory of the voyage and the timbre of his voice.

It is easy to imagine, then, that fiction, for all its freedoms, might look to Raban like the house of Widow Douglas, a redoubt of ‘sivilization’ and bothersome conventions. In the travel books he is free to go where he likes: he can follow a snatch of reportage with a passage of lit crit, and needs no excuse to drop a set of characters or to alter the scene. Yet he has settled smoothly to the disciplines of novel-writing. In Waxwings, character is developed, milieu is evoked and plotlines are finely integrated; the legend on Chick’s battered pick-up – ‘Excellent Construction’ – might apply to the novel as a whole.

It may be wrong, in any case, to draw large distinctions between travel books and novels. As Raban argues, his travel narratives – like those of W.G. Sebald – are fictions. They are not transcriptions, rattled out as the journey progresses, but artful reconstructions, patterned and plotted like novels. It does not follow, however, that the travel writer’s tricks can be transplanted to a novel. There is, for example, the appetite for comment. For the travel writer, nothing is permitted to be silently itself. He cannot seek out a tumbledown Montana shack without reflecting on the iconic place of the homestead in American culture; if he visits the Isle of Man he must discover a microcosm of British insularity. Everywhere the landscape is – a key Raban term – ‘legible’. The reading may be easy – in Old Glory (1981), Raban lights on a town ‘whose essential character and history were written clearly on its face’ – or it may be difficult, as when a Yemeni suburb in Arabia (1979) presents an ‘amazing stew of alien signs and symbols’. But in all cases the travel writer’s task is the same: he explains, he decodes, he interprets. It is his business to have something smart to say about what he encounters, and he worries when he fails: ‘I couldn’t come up with any very sophisticated interpretation of what I saw,’ is his defeated admission when touring a museum of barbed wire in Bad Land.

The danger is that the travel writer’s ‘sophisticated interpretation’ will hobble the novelist – that he will be forever telling instead of showing. Raban avoids this rather neatly in Waxwings by having as his central character an immigrant college professor who is always scouting for material for his commentary slot on NPR. But it is also noticeable – and there may be an element of self-mockery here – that Raban puts a satirical spin on Tom’s commentaries. To judge from his listeners’ responses, Tom’s radio slots are memorable chiefly for their literary quotations and the resonance of his rolled ‘r’s, and it is one of these broadcasts – a four-minute rumination on Internet start-ups – that prompts his wife to leave him: ‘All he knew or cared about were his stupid Victorian novels and his even stupider World War Two stories, yet he had the fucking shameless audacity to broadcast his worthless opinions about the “New Economy” and the company in which she was daily struggling to keep her own head above water.’

Tom’s observations – on food courts, stock options, Santa Claus, Antiques Roadshow, immigration – represent the wised-up, data-rich writing that Raban is at pains to avoid. Indeed, he spends a fair bit of time in this novel providing satirical instances of how not to write. There are the GetaShack blurbs with their ‘offhand, knowing style’. There is the ‘artful mix of dizzy fandom and jaded Weltschmerz’ in the gossip column written by Beth’s friend Debra. There is Dave Rice, blokeish novelist (and LRB diarist), whose latest offering is a ‘sequence of riffs on the workings of the London Stock Exchange, the Spice Girls, New Labour, the cult of Diana, scooters, Mad Cow Disease, and the decline of the Gunners, the Arsenal Football Club’. Rice’s novel sounds ominously close to the one Tom is failing to write, which currently exists as a ‘brimming cardboard box of scattered riffs and takes on polymorphous, polyphonic, polycentric America’.

In Waxwings, Raban leaves punditry to his characters. The digressive ‘I’ of his travel books has gone, to be replaced by a reticent, focused third person. There are bright shards of satire: e-millionaires who take a seaplane across the lake to attend a party, who tile their bathrooms in Zambian malachite, who have Romanian gardeners flown in to landscape their yards. But these excesses are beside the book’s point, and indeed their excess is impugned by the rest of the narrative, which goes quietly about its business of charting the Janeways’ fragmenting marriage. The good things in the book – the father-son relationship; Chick’s stirring rise – owe little of their force to the novel’s topicality.

Restraint is at the heart of Raban’s method, and his willingness to understate, to imply, to suggest, is rewardingly deployed in his treatment of chronology. Tom catches the Queen’s 1999 Christmas message: ‘As I look to the future I have no doubt at all that the one certainty is change, and the pace of that change will only seem to increase.’ Much of the novel’s power derives from our knowledge of how spectacularly this anodyne prediction will be fulfilled. The Nasdaq will crash, the Florida chads will remain uncounted, and the Boeings will converge on the New York skyline. All this is anticipated – there are various intimations of 11 September, from an Arab terrorist intercepted by the police on his way to blow up the Seattle Space Needle to Beth’s complaint that ‘there’s a jihad on at work’ – but none of it is directly discussed. Quite punctiliously, Waxwings pulls up short, cuts off just before the events that will transform the world of its characters.

As a portrait of a society on the verge of catastrophe, the novel recalls Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song and, once again, Coming Up for Air. The difference is that, while Orwell expressly adverts to the coming trouble, to ‘the bullet Hitler’s keeping for you’, Raban refuses to mention 11 September. This silence both amplifies and diminishes the novel’s social resonance. From one perspective, the big social traumas on the horizon determine the novel’s mood. The failure to mention 11 September means we can never forget it. The effect is to suggest a great discontinuity between the characters’ world and our own, as if the book were – as Raban has argued – a historical novel. In this view, it is the wider narrative of geopolitical crisis that lends weight to the events of the book.

At the same time Raban seems to make light of the novel’s timeliness, as if he wanted to reduce its dependence on ‘news’. One important subplot of Waxwings concerns the development of Beth’s Internet start-up. But while the novel’s ‘times of raging plenty’ may be coming to an end (the Nasdaq is going to crash), and while we may read something gloomy into the name of the GetaShack building (the Klondike), we do not learn whether the company finally succeeds or fails. GetaShack isn’t important as a story in its own right, but as a context for the stories of the characters. What matters is the way the company impinges on the lives of the Janeways: it prevents Beth from seeing her son as often as she ought to, and perhaps it contributes to the break-up of her marriage. In this sense, the big social dramas to which the novel sometimes gestures are subdued to its plot. When the WTO riots erupt around Beth’s office building, our focus is on Tom’s anxiety, set off nicely by Beth’s unconcern.

‘A

‘An English writer produces a great American novel’ was the rubric on the back of the proof copy of Waxwings. It’s difficult to see what, beyond its setting, qualifies Raban’s novel for this distinction. It lacks the bloated scope of DeLillo or Powers or Foster Wallace. It is innocent of what James Wood calls ‘Franzenism’, ‘a fondness for over-articulate explanation’. And its fastidiously disciplined prose has none of the vernacular mobility, the freewheeling syntax, of current American fiction. Idiomatically, Waxwings hedges its bets: we have ‘aluminium’ not ‘aluminum’, but we also have ‘arugula’, ‘eggplant’ and something called a ‘British accent’. There are signs that Raban is attempting to mimic the ‘great polyglot sprawl of America’ (‘lakh’, ‘tchotchke’, ‘Navidad’, ‘Muttafukka’). For the most part, though, the novel maintains a lively tension between modish technospeak (there is a self-satirising reliance on acronyms) and the mildly archaic verbs (‘fossicking’, ‘dickered’, ‘galumphed’) in which Raban has always specialised.

As one would expect from a novel about immigrants, Waxwings isn’t short on wonder. The scene in which Chick, having evaded the INS agents at the freighter terminal, makes his way towards the city, is marvellous. This is Chick’s discovery of America, and the prose has a heightened lucidity. He registers the silence of the traffic: drivers don’t use their horns and (after Lowell) the cars swim past ‘like giant fish’. He savours the clean, woodsy smell: ‘That’s how money is, he thought: it smells of nothingness.’ He studies the street people, who are apparently invisible to the city’s moneyed inhabitants. He wonders at the profligacy on show: ‘What things Americans abandoned! . . . Wherever he looked he saw neglected valuables.’ Chick sometimes gets things comically wrong: copying the dress sense and hairstyles of the ‘smartest’ Americans, he is quietly reassured by the smiles he starts to draw from ‘friendly’ men. For the most part, however, he bears out the novel’s contention that the ‘people who dared to see America whole were greenhorns and tourists’.

In a fiction preoccupied with lightness and weight, with substance and shadow, Chick at first appears alarmingly impalpable. He is a ‘ghost’, a bag of bones who can barely fill his clothes, a ‘presence so attenuated that it was hardly there at all’. Bit by bit, however, as he establishes a foothold in America, Chick takes on solidity. He is like a reverse image of the houses he repairs – those solid-seeming, four-square mansions whose timber frames turn out to be friable as cheese. He may at first seem a ‘papery shadow’, but the labours of men like Chick are what sustain the fabric of the city: in a town where people get rich selling ‘digital smells’ he demonstrates the ‘marvel of men doing things’ – repairing roofs, chopping down trees. When Chick eventually makes a substantial fortune it is through buying and selling something tangible – a factory-sized steam-barge.

Chick is the kind of indispensable manual worker taken too much for granted in the city of virtual reality: the trouble is that Raban also takes him too much for granted. While we learn a good deal about Tom Janeway’s past – his Ilford upbringing, his Hungarian parents, his purgatorial sojourns in the Upton Park stands – we are told almost nothing about Chick’s life in China. In a novel that invests so much in the parallel between its two protagonists, this asymmetry is damaging. Chick is an impressive creation, but he remains more a point of view than a character. His jump-cut pidgin and his inexperience make him seem something of a child (he watches Rugrats and reads The Cat in the Hat), and the narrative compounds this, refusing to accord him adult autonomy.

The relationship between Tom and Beth is similarly problematic. Marriages, their codes, their little civilisations, have seldom been central to Raban’s concerns. The persona of his travel books is detached, aloof, incorrigibly single, a ‘sloppy, liberal, bookish, agnostic republic of one’. In Waxwings, Raban has extended the franchise, but Tom and Beth still seem to inhabit separate countries. When we meet them, the Janeways have been growing apart, but at no stage in the novel is the marriage remotely believable. The evocation of the couple’s salad days, when loving Beth was ‘as easy as two plus two’, is trite, and the break-up has very little emotional resonance. As in Raban’s travel books, there is only one consciousness that counts here. If you are writing witty, reflective and highly personal travelogues, this hardly matters. If you are aiming to write a big social novel, you have a problem.

In Hunting Mister Heartbreak, Raban describes Seattle as a ‘novel-sized city’. Its population of 1.7 million (around the same as Dickens’s London) is both sufficiently large and sufficiently small: it throws up a welter of incident while permitting the connections and coincidences on which a plot battens. He describes his dream of writing the definitive Seattle novel, a rumbling, populous vortex of a book in which the hero would be the city itself. Waxwings is not this novel, and we should be thankful that it isn’t. In Raban’s travel books, the interest lies less in the places described – in the smells or the sounds or the fidelity of the reportage – than in the consciousness which registers the places. The same is true of Waxwings, which is the portrait not of a city but of a man coming to terms with loss. At one point Tom says that, every time he travels by air, he feels it is only his willpower that keeps the plane aloft. What keeps Waxwings in the air is precisely the strenuous, sparky, beleaguered consciousness of its central character. In Tom Janeway, Raban has found a worthy counterpart to the persona of his travel books.