Monday, September 23, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE VIRGIN AND THE WHALE – A Love Story” by Carl Nixon (Vintage / Random House, $NZ37:99)

            I’m always wary about narrative techniques that are described as “postmodern”.

            Take the technique of having an author-narrator who butts into a novel and comments upon it, drawing the reader’s attention to the novel’s style and technique and artifice. This is supposed to be very postmodern and a sign of the “new novel” which deconstructs itself before our very eyes, puts a meta-narrative in control of a narrative, and so forth.

But I keep asking myself – is this carry-on all that new? Isn’t it really a reversion to the way novels were routinely written in the nineteenth century and earlier, with all their authorial comment and direct address to the reader? The postmodern novelist who deconstructs his/her narrative for our conscious inspection is only a whisker removed from Thackeray with his “Dear Reader” asides, or Charlotte Bronte having Jane Eyre say “Reader, I married him!” or the likes of Henry Fielding and George Eliot dropping long, self-contained essays and general observations on life into their tales. Readers then were frequently reminded that an author was in charge of whatever story they were reading, and that the story itself was an artificial construct – and that is all that the “new novel” tells us too.

Postmodern? Nah! It’s just a revival of the old.

Forgive this little rant, but it was brought on by reading Carl Nixon’s brisk and generally entertaining tale The Virgin and the Whale.

Nixon begins by telling us that the central idea of the story is true and was told to him by an elderly correspondent. This may or may not be the case; but is certainly similar to those ancient novels purporting to be true stories which have only been “edited” by the author.

Nixon then frequently makes his own first person asides. When, for example, he is explaining at the beginning of Chapter 17 how a very unlikely event has completely deprived one of his main characters of his memory, he writes:

At this point the story will be frustrating certain readers.
‘Impossible!’ or ‘Isn’t this supposed to be based on a true story?’
Perhaps you have already drawn back the book, set to lob it towards the far wall. No doubt there are other far more credible narratives stacked upon your bedside table. Or perhaps you prefer your books to be more explicitly incredible – strange planets, or goblins and dragons…Perhaps some earnest book reviewer is scribbling in the margin of his or her uncorrected proof copy ‘Too much suspension of disbelief required.’ ” (pp.92-93)

And so on.

            Sometimes his intrusions and direct addresses are playful, teasing us with the way the same story could have been written in more clichĂ© terms. Consider this passage in Chapter 32, where characters are entering a psychiatric hospital:
Even though the institution has been renamed the much more felicitous Sunnyside, it still manages to loom over the three figures walking towards the entrance. The large wooden door is flanked by two lanterns, recently electrified. It may give a very slight creak as it swings open. Perhaps it does close rather heavily. But to say that the sound echoes down the corridor like hollow laughter, well, that is a bridge too far. Such descriptions belong to a model of mental institution that by 1919 was already antiquated.” (p.154)

Much later – and without my providing any “spoilers”  - he suggests a “false” ending to the novel before giving us the “real” ending.

Just as “postmodern” as the authorial intrusions, however, is the whole conceit of this story. In short chapters, written mainly in the present tense, it is a story that is consciously and overtly about the telling of stories.

In 1919, shortly after the end of the Great War, the nurse Elizabeth Whitman has returned to “Mansfield’ (i.e. Christchurch) with her young son Jack. Jack’s father, Elizabeth’s husband, is missing, presumed dead, in the war; but Elizabeth can’t bring herself to tell Jack this terrible fact, and the little boy lives with the hope that his father will some day return. Elizabeth entertains the boy with an ongoing bedtime story about an adventurous balloonist and his encounters with a civilized tiger. That is one story within the story – a story of hope and unlikely survival.

Elizabeth takes on the commission of looking after and nursing Paul Blackwell, a wealthy man in a toney part of “Mansfield”. Blackwell, returned from the war, has completely lost his memory after an unusual head wound sustained in the trenches (perhaps his name – Blackwell – suggests the black hole left where his memory should be). Blackwell’s snobbish and somewhat patronising wife hopes that Elizabeth will be able to restore her husband’s memory, but there is not the least real hope of this. Paul Blackwell has no memory of being Paul Blackwell and answers only to the name of Lucky. His very first recollection is of the moment in the trenches when he was found, hanging between life and death, by a stretcher party. In effect, that was the moment when he began to be the man he is now.

Unlike Blackwell’s wife, Elizabeth realizes the truth of Lucky’s situation. In telling him stories of herself, she begins to heal him and rebuild him as a person, different from the one that used to inhabit his body. These are the other stories within the story – in this case, stories as therapeutic means of rebuilding a personality.

The Virgin and the Whale is subtitled “A Love Story”, so from the title page (and from Carl Nixon’s prologue), you will probably have guessed where this story is going without any prompting from me.

Allow me first to say a few negative things. I think the novel’s title is an unnecessary tease. The Moon Virgin and the helpful Whale appear very late in the novel, in the fantastical story that Elizabeth tells her young son. True, the skeleton of another whale is mentioned early in the novel; but the novel’s title still seems a mildly sensationalist way of grabbing the reader’s attention. There’s also a vague hint of Random Harvest in any story about amnesia – once one of the most popular themes in romantic bestsellers – and the premise of nurse and helpless-but-forceful male can’t help carrying overtones of Rebecca, Jane Eyre etc. In saying this, Cynical Old Me is simply saying that, whether it is based on a true story or not, The Virgin and the Whale has elements of the romantic novelette.

But Carl Nixon’s merits as a writer outweigh these defects. For one thing, he writes a beautiful, clean prose. Take, for example, this early passage, where he gives a clear impression of the process of ageing by describing what happens to the skeleton of a whale that was once the pride of “Mansfield” (i.e. Canterbury) Museum:

Here at the start of our story, in 1919, the time since the end of the Great War can still be counted in months. While the citizens of Mansfield looked away across the oceans to husbands and fiancĂ©s, sons and brothers fighting in Europe, rain has blown in under the roof of the corrugated shelter. The crowds had long ago dispersed. The once crisp white bones are faded to grey. The metal rods have rusted, leaving stains the colour of strong tea around the edges of the drilled holes. The damage is most obvious in the multiple joints of the hands. Lichen has found a home along the southernmost jaw (20 feet 8 inches).” (p.17)

Nixon also conjures up this past age concisely, in telling details, which suggest discreetly class differences and tensions rather than mere quaintness. Elizabeth Whitman’s impressions of the Blackwell mansion and its servants contrast, without unduly lengthy descriptions, with the cramped quarters of her parents’ home. Nixon also takes some care in emphasising the physical damage to men who have returned from the war, as seen in the wards where Elizabeth works before she takes up her commission with Lucky. These men hurt physically, but are as afraid of being looked down upon and pitied:

The truth is that the men in Ward Six have come to despise Kind. Every day, they look with far-seeing eyes from the mountaintop of their situation over the kingdom of Kind. They see how it borders on the desert land of Condescension. They understand that Kind has as its capital city the crumbled ruins called Pity.” (p.34)

This may be a trifle forced, but it does remind me of Siegfried Sassoon’s “Does it matter - losing your legs? / For people will always be kind” etc. so its grandiloquence is probably true to the novel’s period setting.

            Time for a verdict, after these disjointed remarks. I think The Virgin and the Whale is a good, enjoyable middlebrow read on familiar themes. It has the advantage of a clear prose, which makes it a brisk reading experience. The author’s intrusions into the narrative are urbane and amusing and don’t hold things up unduly. But as for being postmodern – poppycock. It’s a good yarn with authorial comments.

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