Monday, August 17, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE PALE NORTH” by Hamish Clayton (Penguin, $NZ30)
I have never thought that reviewers should spike the narrative surprises of new novels. It is permissible to give things away when talking about an old novel, I think, because an old novel has already had time for its surprises to become well known. But when it’s a new novel, it’s only fair to let the narrative have its way with readers. This applies as much to “literary novels” (horrible term!) as to thrillers, whodunits and the type of thing where surprise is the key element.
So I’m loath to say everything there is to say about the structure of Hamish Clayton’s second novel The Pale North, because so much depends on a change of perspective a bit under two thirds of the way through. Clayton’s first novel, the excellent Wulf (2011), was an historical novel, based on a real event, with a central English character facing the oddness and disorientation of being in such a remote and strange land as New Zealand in the early nineteenth century. The Pale North is a very different sort of story, but it has some similar concerns.
The best way I can tell you about it is to tell you how I experienced it in reading it.
Scrupulously avoiding the blurb, and any reviewers’ comments, I sat down and read the first part of the novel, “The City of Strange Things”.
It is a sort-of ghost story. It is a sort-of love story. Or at least it could be. The first-person narrator, Ash, is called back to New Zealand after years in London, when the great earthquake of 1998 destroys Wellington. A mysterious woman’s voice on the phone tells him “Come back”, and he does.
Wellington has been demolished. Ash walks its near empty streets and its suburbs where the window frames of deserted houses, now deprived of glass, look like staring eyes. In his wanderings, he meets, sheltering in a city ruin, a strange woman called Grace and her little daughter Charlotte… which sets Ash off thinking of another Charlotte he knew and loved in Wellington years before the earthquake.
The story becomes loose, reverie-like reminiscence.
When Ash was a young student and aspiring writer, he was beguiled by an exhibition of antique black-and-white photographs, which always appeared to suggest something evanescent – something that had just faded from view. This led him to the photographer Colin, whose forte was to photograph Wellington in ways that suggested some impending apocalyptic doom. But Ash was also beguiled by Charlotte, meeting her, and then seeing her disappear, in a park.
In trying to convey the flavour of this, I find myself reaching for clichés. It is surreal. Dreamlike. Nightmarish. Foreboding. Maybe Kafkaesque. Certainly it is not a story that develops in commonsensical daylight, for we are never sure of how “real” the people are whom Ash remembers in post-earthquake Wellington. Ash recalls, pre-earthquake, a country journey he took with Charlotte, where the statue of an angel seemed to watch over them in a country church and there was a mysterious “presence” which Charlotte saw but Ash didn’t. There is, later, Ash’s even more unsettling return visit to the same church.
Where this all goes, I will not specifically say, except to note that more than once, characters melt away as if they were ghosts.
What exactly is going on here?
From the very first page, we understand that this novel exists in a sort of parallel universe. Wellington, we know, still stands. There was no great earthquake of 1998. Ash tells us that he has had out-of-body experiences, and premonitory dreams about Wellington, when he was in London. Ash and the photographer Colin have produced images of Wellington’s destruction before it has happened. Is this, then, a novel about how much we live in our imaginations, and how subjective our lives are? Clayton infuses the novel with so many images suggesting psychological states that it is easy to make this reading. The gallery of fading photographs is like a metaphor for memory. The city we imagine is more real that the concrete and steel around us. Ash sees (remembers) the lost city more vividly that he sees the wrecked city.
At the same time, Wellington is a real city. The great earthquake of 1998 may never have happened, but the great Wellington earthquake of the 1855 and the lesser Wellington earthquake of 1942 did happen and Wellington does sit on a major fault-line. Perhaps Hamish Clayton has created his fictitious earthquake as a projection of the underlying anxiety of Wellington – the awareness Wellingtonians have that their city is not on stable ground.
Or is the real point that this city is the city as imagined by the expatriate New Zealander? So much of New Zealand’s literary and cultural experience has, after all, taken place in the heads of New Zealanders remembering or imagining the country from overseas. The Pale North emphasises Ash’s status as a long-time resident of London. When he returns to ruined Wellington, he views it as an outsider, for all the emotional pull of the city which his memories give him. This outsider status is clear in passages such as:
“As I walked it was as though I was moving untouched through the ruin all around me: like an angel I passed, present yet removed from its scenes of despair. Wellington had passed through a fire, a crucible, but I had not passed through this flame. I’d escaped that baptism and so I remained a creature of the old world, a child of the old city. As I walked I held within me the Wellington I’d known before the earthquake, its idea as delicate as a birdcage. I walked there with memory a staff in my hand.” (pp.13-14)
“Ever since I’d woken in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat in London, everything had changed. Wellington had been torn and ruined, and the fates of those I’d loved reduced to faded outlines of possibility. From London I beheld my past in New Zealand as if I were standing at the edge of a spare grove of elms, their shapes barely discernible in a field of grey mist.” (pp.51-52)
The oddness, the unexpectedness, the (yes) dreamlike quality of New Zealand as seen by an alienated person coming from somewhere else – these are the chief qualities that The Pale North has in common with Wulf.
And then there is that matter of prose style.
“The City of Strange Things” is written in a style that is scrupulously (and one assumes deliberately) old-fashioned. It is first-person confessional with very little dialogue, and often with an exalted vocabulary that belongs to another age. Indeed it reads like a pastiche of early nineteenth century Romantic-era prose in such passages as:
“Through the thin film of grime on her skin I saw that she was beautiful but worn out too, hardened as if she had borne a solitary weight of sadness. Like one suffering alone through illness, her face had creased in dark arches. And yet her eyes shone. I saw horizons in them. I was mesmerised. I offered the sandwiches to her, and as she took them from me a look of sudden, exquisite compassion crossed her face. She looked down on me with divine tenderness, as if she’d held and weighed my soul in a balance. I knelt there on the ruin of broken bricks, beneath the light of her eyes, with the grace of her look falling upon me amid a soft rain of dust and sunlight, and for a brief shining second it was a though she knew me. It was as though she knew everything.” (p.27)
“Returning to the ruin of Wellington, I was, in one way, cast back to a version of the city just as I’d left it: as the place I’d once loved but whose streets I could no longer bear for how they had become symbols of unnavigable confusion and loss. And even though the raft of desolation to which I’d returned made a pittance of the private anguish I’d borne in the time before, still it made sense to me, as I walked there for the first time in years, that I was profoundly reminded of the last months I’d spent there with Charlotte, in the weeks before she left me, the weeks before I fled Wellington for good.” (p.68)
Reading this, I for a while toyed with the idea that this was meant to be a novel written long ago, with the earthquake of 1998 a projected future event – but this theory was rather foxed by the appearance in the story of such modern items as answerphones etc. I understood fully that Hamish Clayton was playing with notions of time and memory, and sometimes suggesting that we, as readers, should experience the same thing more than once, just as Ash does. (One stylistic game is to have three or four paragraphs, about a meeting between Ash and Colin, repeated word-for-word on pp.107-110 after their earlier appearance on pp.47-50). And of course I was also bemused by those quasi-religious images. Characters with resonant signpost names like Ash and Grace. The country church and the angel.
Thus my reading of “The City of Strange Things”, the first 126 pages of The Pale North, which left me piqued, puzzled, and not quite sure of what I was reading.
And then the stink bomb.
The remaining 78 pages of The Pale North, called “In Dark Arches”, introduce a new narrator, Simon Petherick, who tells us that all we have read so far was written by a Gabriel North (note the angel’s name), a chap who, like Hamish Clayton, was born in Hawke’s Bay in 1977. So we have the meta-narrative, commenting on and teasing out ideas raised in the first part.
And it is this meta-narrative that I do not wish to explain in too much detail, for fear that I will spike all the book’s surprises. Suffice it only to say that “In Dark Arches” gives a sly critique (at, for example. Pp.158-59) of the type of things that unwary critics (like the present one) might say about “The City of Strange Things”. In its long references to Weimar Berlin, to the Aztec Empire, and to the last expedition of Captain Percy Fawcett in South America, “In Dark Arches” hits again and again the idea that what is gone, lost and destroyed can live more vividly in the mind and the imagination than what physically exists. Things that disappear always leave room for rich speculation, in the way that ruins often conjure up stories more readily than preserved buildings do. Hence the potency of evanescence. [See my post On the Potency of Ruins]. Things fade and die as the year declines to autumn. Only on p.195 is the novel’s title explained when we learn that in New Zealand, the autumn sun is in “the pale north” – although this also provides a punning reference to the Gabriel North who has supposedly written the novel’s narrative section.
There are boxes within boxes in this short novel – a fiction within a critique within a meta-narrative. Whether the meta-narrative undermines or enhances the narrative is something for each reader to decide. For myself, I remain piqued and puzzled. But then, as Simon Petherick warns in his meta-narrative, critics always do expect too much neatness.