Monday, May 30, 2016

Something New

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

“THE SALTED AIR” by Thom Conroy (Vintage, Penguin / Random House, $NZ38)

What is the cumulative effect of using the present tense in fictional narrative rather than the past tense?
I am sure many people in university literature studies have written theses on this matter, but I have not read them. Instead, I offer my own simple answer. Certainly the present tense adds immediacy and has – I speculate – become so common in narrative fiction because of the great imaginative influence of film and television. When we watch film and TV, we are watching things happening now. I know cinema does have flashbacks and voice-over to simulate the past tense, but in essence film and television make the present the new norm of narrative.
But there is an odd downside to the use of the present tense in prose.
Characters, seen always in the present, often lack shadows and lack substance. Speaking in the past tense allows narrative comment on characters’ actions; and a sense of events having happened and having consequences. Speaking in the present tense denies these possibilities. Of course this may be the author’s deliberate and conscious intention – modernist and postmodernist prose desire implication rather than commentary. From simple actions and words, readers are meant to infer subtext. We see what the character does and says in the present tense, but we ourselves are meant to join the dots. Yet I still find something lacking in characters presented in the present tense only.
Obviously I would not begin in this way a review of Thom Conroy’s second novel The Salted Air if it were not written in the present tense. The Salted Air is in both the first-person and the present tense throughout, except in one late and brief chapter (pp.232-234) which, I infer, is meant to be a fantasy of something that might have happened rather than a record of something that really did happen. And I think that, cumulatively, this shallows out the characters – or at least the narrator.
All “plot summaries” are reductionist distortions, but in a review they can be helpful ways of getting our bearings. So here is my plot summary – which of course is not so crass as to reveal how it all ends.
Djuna Jane Clairmont, aged about 30, is in a state of bereavement. Apparently afflicted by long depression, her “boyfriend” (as she calls him – the cover blurb says “partner”) Harvey committed suicide about eighteen months before the narrative begins. Djuna still misses Harvey deeply, even if she now cohabits on-and-off with a guy called Lyle. In a major sense, then, The Salted Air is a novel about the power and influence of grief. But there are a number of complicating factors in Djuna’s situation.
More long-term is her relationship with her American parents, Lucy and Eugene, whose marriage is on the verge of collapse. Lucy has gone back to America. Eugene has disappeared up the East Coast. Djuna thinks nostalgically of childhood family scenes in Wellington and Palmerston North. Although there is no great traumatic event to record, there is something unresolved from Djuna’s childhood and in her relationship with two parents of very different temperaments. Djuna wants to confront and resolve all this.
Then there’s the more immediate complication. Djuna has begun what amounts to an affair with Bruce, the brother of the late Harvey. This brings on scenes of social awkwardness and Djuna’s false consciousness with Bruce’s parents, Irene and Gary, when the affair has to be concealed. More pressingly, there is Djuna’s sense of guilt because Bruce is married with an unsuspecting wife, Joanna, who is looking after his eight-year-old daughter Ella. Bruce and Joanna’s marriage is apparently on the rocks and (in ways I won’t reveal here) Bruce is involved in dodgy matters that have nothing to do with illicit sex.
So there is Djuna’s grief, there is Djuna’s relationship with her parents, there is Djuna’s guilt about potentially messing up another woman’s life, and there is Djuna’s uncertainty, and lack of decision, about the men Lyle and Bruce. We are told very early that this will be a story of self-discovery as Djuna declares on the second page “maybe this story is about what’s lost, but it’s also about what’s waiting to be found.”
Not much later, this is reinforced when Djuna says:
All my life I had grown up believing that something miraculous was about to occur, some unexpected door was on the verge of opening, and my second life, my real life, would begin. In this life nothing would be ordinary and nothing would be as it had been before. A complete transformation awaited me – I had believed that with all I was worth. But on that night with Harvey, I remember thinking I had been wrong. Or perhaps I had been right, only in reverse. The miracle, the transformation, was simply that I would come to accept myself as I was. It seemed to me then that this revelation was something unheard of and astonishing. To succumb like that, so simply, to what was ordinary. That was my gift. Still is.” (p.13)
            While accurate, this (partial) synopsis of The Salted Air is also a distortion as all synopses are. The novel is narrated in what the back-cover blurb calls “vivid confessional vignettes” – in other words, it’s a non-linear narrative presented in very short chapters which allow Djuna’s mind to switch from past to present (although always in the present tense) as she connects childhood memories and events with her present situation and as she writes a journal – and sometimes reads other people’s journals. (The short chapters with big headings also leave acres of blank page. If I were cynical I would call it “bulking-up”.)
Much of the earlier part of the novel is taken up with social awkwardnesses as Djuna does not know what is the acceptable or right way, in her situation, to react to other people. When she finds another woman with Lyle and wonders how intimate they are, she wails: “What I want to know is this: has anyone here done anything wrong and why can’t it be easier to tell? ” (p.78) This could almost be the epigraph to the novel as Djuna seeks her moral bearings.
The very best of it is the way Thom Conroy examines grief. Many of Djuna’s feelings amount to a sort of “survivor guilt” – Harvey’s death sets her off seeing herself as morally flawed and speculating on what went wrong in her upbringing. There is also a moment of the sort that must be familiar to all the bereaved. The moment when you slip into thinking that the dead loved one is still alive somewhere:
The face of the bearded, white-haired men looks up at me with an expression somewhere between stern and beatific, but all I find myself wondering is where Harvey has gone. Thinking of it this way, as if he’s only missing, as if he’s been lost like a comb or a car key, sends a thrill through me. For a moment it feels like I may have it wrong, and in my mind I go searching for where he might be, my thoughts flicking through the series of ordinary things that made up our lives. It could be he has gone out for milk. Ducked out to visit a friend. Stepped out for a midnight stroll.” (p.149)
Grief also brings nostalgia –the desire for the security of the unchangeable past. When Djuna thinks of her parents, she thinks: “What I want is for Mum and [Dad] and me to live together again. But, no, this is not what I want. What I want is the past back, and the nicked table of our kitchen and the sickly old tui outside who croaked every morning, and I want no death, never.” (p.56)
This is the sort of unchanging childhood security that the adolescent Holden Caulfield wishes to revert to, as he watches his little sister ride the carousel in the last pages of The Catcher in the Rye. It may be natural in an adolescent who has just left childhood and finds the prospect of adulthood scary. But there is a big trap for adults who entertain this nostalgia and this identification with childhood innocence. In adults, it can become self-justification for questionable behaviour. When Djuna sleeps with Bruce one more time, and basically feels guilty about it, she entertains a childhood memory that conveniently tells her “that absolutely nothing has been under your [i.e. her] control all along.” (p.95). Childhood innocence becomes a pretext, as if the adult Djuna is saying: “I’m merely an innocent and vulnerable child, so don’t judge me as you would judge an adult.” I detect this tone in her narrative a little further on, when Djuna wishes to recapture the “joy” of childhood. (p.103)
Thom Conroy reinforces this part of Djuna’s psyche with literary references. There is an allusion to Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies, to show the influence of first-person, and somewhat rambling, soliloquy on this novel. But more often the references are to childhood literature – Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh and Katherine Mansfield’s childhood reminiscence “At the Bay”. All, as I read it, are part of Djuna’s desire for regression to a state without responsibility.
As an observation of grief, then, The Salted Air works very well.
How it resolves itself is more problematic.
Without spiking the denouement, I can say that (most improbably, given who the characters are), Djuna is given permission by Bruce’s wife Joanna to take eight-year-old Ella on a journey out to the East Cape to find Djuna’s father. There are cathartic and poetic images here – sea and salty air and crashing waves and White Island smoking in the distance. For a moment (p.159) the little girl Ella “becomes” young Djuna – or her substitute – in relating to Djuna’s father. A vagrant and erratic butterfly (pp.208-209) seems to symbolise the ability of beauty to unite people. Thom Conroy is not so simplistic as to present the East Cape’s Maori community as an Edenic alternative to the complexities of Djuna’s emotional life and her tangled personal relationships, but there are passages in the novel that tend in that direction. When (pp.252-253) an old kuia gives her little speech on Waitangi Day (an author’s note says it is lifted from a news report) it seems like a de rigueur nod to a Maori viewpoint.
Yes, there is a sort of resolution to the characters’ lives. Without dismissing her continuing feelings for Harvey, Djuna learns to accommodate her grief by relating to people in new ways and accepting how they relate to others. How this happens, though, strikes me as a little pat (especially in Djuna’s relationship with Bruce) – but you’ll have to read the novel yourself to see if you agree with my view. One major problem I am sure of, though, is the thinness as a character of the remembered Harvey. By novel’s end, apart from the most basic data about him, we are not really sure what sort of man he was – or why he aroused such love in Djuna. Perhaps we just have to take this on trust.
            The Salted Air is an interesting novel and a sound observation of grief. Despite the perils of the shadowless present tense, Thom Conroy has done well to move into the contemporary scene and engage in an alternative form of narrative. As for the matter of a male novelist presuming to inhabit the psyche of a female narrator – I found it convincing enough, but then I’m male and women readers might judge it differently.

Footnote on another novel: The year before last (23 August 2014, to be precise) the NZ Listener asked me to review Thom Conroy’s debut novel The Naturalist, a fictionalised account of the New Zealand experience of the nineteenth century German scientist Ernst Dieffenbach. Unfortunately, I was allocated a mere 250 words for the review. This meant my review amounted to a brief notice only. I do not resile from the judgment I made therein – that The Naturalist is informative and interesting as fictionalised biography, but rather plodding and literal as novel. But more space might have given me the chance to express this with some nuance, while also noting some of the novel’s strong points. Brevity often makes opinions sound more absolute and inflexible than they really are.

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