“THE INVISIBLE RIDER” by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)
Who is the invisible rider? By definition, he is a rider who cannot be seen easily .
In this short novel, he is the lawyer Philip Fetch, married with two kids, who often rides his bicycle through Wellington’s suburbs. Motorists sometimes fail to see cyclists, so the invisible rider is often in danger of being skittled. But Philip Fetch is invisible in a less literal sense, too. He is the working husband and father who is often ignored, and rarely analysed, in our literature. Not of interest to most novelists and social commentators, he is therefore invisible.
The Invisible Rider, Kristen McDougall’s first book, is such a good piece of writing that I am afraid of over-praising it lest I hex a talented emerging writer’s career. I will limit myself, therefore, to listing the book’s verifiable merits.
The first is McDougall’s acute observation of the external conditions of Philip’s life – in this account of a suburban man trying to be happy, Philip has the shock of finding out that colleagues [the office help Lukas] and clients [the businessman Stan] have private lives too. He walks his kids to school, takes them on outings, referees their soccer games. He worries about how real estate developments are going to change his neighbourhood. He takes refuge in reading and in bookshops and in conversation with his neuro-scientist mate James.
All this might appear both loosely episodic and commonplace, but the skill of McDougall’s writing is in the way she gradually builds up a very detailed sense of the social pressures that bear on this man, and his uncertainty about his own status.
This is the novel’s second great merit - the acute observation of the main character’s psychological states. Kirsten McDougall writes in the third person, but stays with Philip’s consciousness and outlook. We therefore get Philip’s view of the world. Speaking as a male reader, I salute a woman writer who has climbed so perceptively into the male psyche. Her acuteness is seen in many passages.
Thinking of people other than himself, Philip notes “they squash themselves down and down, until there’s nothing particularly noticeable about them.” (Pg.30) The observation is similar to Thoreau’s “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and clearly bears on Philip’s own sense of inadequacy and of being “invisible”.
Self-criticism leads Philip to believe that his perception of the world may be defective, and that any problems he is experiencing are the product of his own mind. Indicative of a quiet man in the grip of an identity crisis, this mindset is seen in passages such as: “Out the window, Philip thought he saw the hem of Anna’s coat disappear around the corner, but it was almost dark and when he blinked and looked again it was just himself and the room behind him that he could see reflected in the glass. He looked tired.” (Pg.39)
Then there is that nagging male suspicion that women are more competent than men in social situations. When his wife receives an invitation to a party which Philip doesn’t particularly want to attend, he reflects: “Marilyn looked good at parties. She had a soft glow about her that quietly attracted people. Philip would stand beside his wife and make his own small gestures. After a while he’d felt that he was weighing her down, clouding her grace. He’d remove himself to a quiet room that would, with luck, have a magazine to flick through (a book was an obvious sign of failure) and try to look self-contained.” (Pg.50)
All I can say about these observations is that they strike me as authentic, and true to the way many men think. The one that really grabbed me was this passage on how Philip does (or does not) sleep: “He could not remember his life before insomnia grabbed his tail and twisted it. It was rare that he woke feeling rested or spent the night oblivious to the stunned forms that stalked the dark outside his window. Sometimes he envied the dead with their unbroken sleep. He sat up at 1:03 a.m. with nothing to show for the three hours he’d been in bed. Marilyn slept beside him. She was, he’d often thought, a talented sleeper.” (Pg.103)
God, I’ve been there often!
Precise in both physical observation and psychological analysis, the novel’s third great merit is its delicate use of fantasy and dream [echoed in the five full-page drawings by Gerard Crewdson that illustrate the text.] In one episode Philip takes his young sons on a visit to zoo, and one of them gets trapped in the lemur enclosure. The episode sounds far-fetched. Indeed it sounds like fantasy. But it could be read as a projection of the father’s anxieties, or the anxieties of any parents as they manoeuvre young children past displays of wild animals. Later Philip’s deceased mother appears to him, during an eclipse, and she takes on a role in the novel, periodically scolding him. Philip himself sees her as a literal ghost and worries for his sanity – but again, this can be read as the persistent weight of the grown man’s upbringing. Other moments of dream occur. In every case, they grow out of the character, give us a greater sense of the geography of his mind, and do not seem arbitrary. There is nothing fey about them.
The greatest merit of The Invisible Rider, however, is the author’s lack of condescension. Hovering in this novel is a sense of love – love desired, love thwarted, love not always guaranteed. It is found in the episode where Philip steps aside from his role as a lawyer and attempts, a little ham-fistedly, to reconcile a client to the wife he is considering divorcing. Underlying this is Philip’s esteem and appreciation of his own wife and (again a typically male thing) his fear that he doesn’t match up to her expectations and isn’t worthy of her. Later, the novel delivers a very credible epiphany when Philip understands that he, too, often ignores other invisible riders, just as he himself is ignored. This is the novel’s real moral centre. It is not saying Philip is an exceptional human being – only that he, like others, deserves the respect that should be awarded to all human beings.
A real sympathy for people lives in this novel. Philip’s problems may seem quite commonplace in the telling - his sense that his life doesn’t quite add up, much as he loves his wife and kids; his sense that what he does for a living is not of huge importance in itself; his insidious sense of his own insignificance [and invisibility]. His clear victories are rare, and they are short-lived – when, at a party, he forthrightly tells a politician what he really thinks of him, he is at once gripped by a sense of social embarrassment. Many have experienced the feelings that Philip experiences. That may explain why it reads so well.
At fewer than 150 largish-print pages [if we exclude Gerard Crewdson’s drawings], The Invisible Rider is a beautifully-proportioned work. Deliberately not giving away one crucial plot development, I note that Kirsten McDougall takes it just as far as it should go and no further.
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