Monday, September 22, 2014

Something New

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

“REACH” by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin, $NZ38)
            I sometimes wish that I could read a novel without suspecting that I am meant to decode a web of symbols, or look for subtleties underneath the overt narrative. But some novels make it very hard to enjoy the obvious. The symbolism lies heavy on them. Events do not happen because of naturalistic necessity, but because the author wants to deploy imagery in a particular way, or construct a symbolic picture. The novel clogs and ends up seeming “posed”.
            With the deepest of regret, because it is a novel of many merits, this is how Laurence Fearnley’s latest novel Reach strikes me.  When I say “regret” I mean it. Reach is a novel with a very interesting and plausible premise, and with three main characters who are worth caring about. When she is dramatizing their stresses, anxieties and hopes, Laurence Fearnley draws us into the little world she has created. The way she resolves her story is, however, more problematic and left me wondering why and how it had misfired. The weight of the symbolism is part of the answer.
The interesting premise first. Quinn, a woman with an androgynous name something like the author’s, is an artist who is living in a seaside town with a veterinary surgeon, Marcus. Marcus has deserted his wife Vivienne, and his teenaged daughter Audrey, to live with Quinn. When their affair first began, Quinn wasn’t aware that Marcus was married, as Marcus didn’t tell her, so there has always been an element of deceit in the man. From the very opening sentence, we understand that all does not run smoothly in Quinn’s and Marcus’s relationship. As they lie in bed at night, the (symbolic!) creaking of a gate brings out different reactions in them.
Marcus still feels a mixture of self-justification and guilt over his desertion of a wife and a daughter who now live far away. He still wishes that he could go on runs with Audrey as he used to, but he is in danger of becoming completely estranged from her. When the possibility arises of taking an overseas trip with his daughter, he jumps at it. And that is one strand of the plot – Marcus’s complex of guilt fighting with his commitment to Quinn as he plans to bond with his daughter.
Quinn, meanwhile, is fully aware that she is sometimes too absorbed in her art. She has had two miscarriages in the past, and makes the experiences the subject for artworks. She holds an exhibition of ultrascan images of the womb, empty or full. When, in the opening chapter, Quinn and Marcus see a forest fire in the distance threatening houses, Marcus worries about the people who will be hurt, while Quinn simply notes what a spectacular image it makes. In a way, this is a probing of the familiar problem that, no matter how broad their vision may be, artists have to play the long-legged fly and be very egotistical and self-absorbed in order to produce their art. Life is demoted to being “material” for the art.
Quinn herself is fully aware of this problem and aware of her sometime insensitivity. After offending a woman at the supermarket with a thoughtless comment, she reflects:
The woman had clearly been hurt by Quinn’s insensitivity, and Quinn spent the day feeling bad about her tactless behaviour. The thing was, she was often so absorbed in her own world, and by her own thoughts, that she forgot about other people. She didn’t mean to be cruel. In fact, knowing she had a tendency to be thoughtless made her self-conscious and anxious in social situations. She tried to pay more attention to what she said and keep her thoughts to herself. After all, she wasn’t a child.” (p.37)
Then comes the major change. Quinn finds she is pregnant by Marcus. In the earlier stages of pregnancy, she is still looking at the experience as “material”, or as something detached from herself:
Prior to her pregnancy she had spent hours examining her body in a mirror, drawing hundreds of self-portraits and nudes. She knew her body. But more than that, she had been complete, as one. Yet once her pregnancy had started to show, she had found it difficult to recognise her self in the mirror. Her face, her breasts, her belly and legs – all features that she had studied and copied onto paper – were not transformed by pregnancy, but distorted by it. It wasn’t that she was ugly or ungainly, simply that she suddenly felt like an onlooker to a spectacle over which she had no power. To become a participant, she had had to retrain her eye in order to recognise herself through her art. Essentially, she had refashioned herself as a new subject.” (pp.137-138)
The pregnancy develops with two particular anxieties for Quinn. One is her fear that the baby might not survive until birth because Quinn might miscarry a third time. The other is her planning of a new exhibition on the sensitive topic of marriage, a condition which she has never tried. And added to these is her complex, uncertain relationship with Marcus – the fear (which Marcus shares) that having lost one child to divorce, he might be unaccepting of another.
Quinn and Marcus are the heart of the novel. Laurence Fearnley chooses to narrate the novel – and hence convey their thoughts – in the third person, which gives her greater freedom to dissect them. The characters are both self-absorbed. For a couple who live together, Quinn and Marcus do not share much vital emotional information in their conversations. They hold back. They are reluctant to reveal much of themselves and hence to make themselves vulnerable. They are emotionally isolated. It’s as if each is in an individual bubble.
The third major character of the novel does not drive the narrative along in any major sense, but functions more as a symbolic counterpart to Quinn and Marcus. This is the deep-sea-diver Callum, a loner who lives in a house-truck near the beach. Like Quinn with her miscarriages and Marcus with his divorce, he is dominated by a tragic event in his past – in his case, the death of a fellow diver whom he could not save. Callum is as much absorbed in his own thoughts, as much isolated and confined to his own head, as Quinn and Marcus are. He thinks:  
He could have explained why he liked saturation diving. That spending a month living beside six men in a space not much bigger than a bathroom wasn’t a problem to him. She might understand when he said that being in a large city, like Hong Kong, was far more claustrophobic than being in a diving chamber. He had always been drawn to the simplicity of being a saturation diver. The reduction of life to a few essentials gave the whole experience a certain existential bent. It was a good way to live – pure. Most people didn’t understand that space and privacy had nothing to do with the size of a place – it was all about what went on in your head.” (pp.84-85)
Marcus’s profession as a vet, specialising in small domestic animals, brings to the novel a train of images concerning animals and their suffering. Quinn, being an artist, is always consciously in search of images and is always evaluating them. But as soon as Callum, hanging isolated in the darkness of the sea, entered the novel, I saw the symbolic connection with the baby swimming in the amniotic fluid of the womb. The precariousness of the diver’s life links with the precariousness of the baby’s position in the mother who has twice miscarried. No, I am not straining at interpretation here. Late in the novel (p.232 to be precise), specific images connect deep sea diving with the womb, sperm, the umbilical cord and so forth.
As I’ve remarked before, it’s not my intention on this blog to spike the effects of newly-published novels by giving away all the developments of their plots. Readers have to discover things for themselves and authors can reasonably expect their intended surprises to be respected. But, without offering any “spoilers”, I can say that I felt cheated by the way one major strand of the plot simply petered out.
When she depicts the society in which Quinn, Marcus and Callum move, Laurence Fearnley can verge on the satirical. When Quinn decides not to fix her creaking gate, there are intimations of the creeping gentrification of the beach community: “It was as if she was playing a part: trying to turn an old, dilapidated gate into some political protest – a defiant ‘up yours’ to all the rich people who had moved in and gentrified what was once a ramshackle but authentic beach community” (p.9). Of course Quinn’s impulse here is itself ripe for satire. How many affluent bohemians are there (including artists) who delude themselves with the thought that they are more “authentic” than their wealthier neighbours? I suspect there is also some subsumed satire in Quinn’s occasional asides on the changing nature of art exhibitions when she converses with the gallery owner Iris; and in her memories of the aggressive ultra-feminism of a few decades ago; and in her awareness of the new  “professionalization” of galleries and the commerce side of art and the filling out of forms. There are also her fears about the artistic clichés to which images are often reduced: “Besides, the world was already full of clichéd images. A photograph of graffiti, no matter how interesting, reminded her of art student work. Pictures of warehouse doors or old wooden piers reminded her of images found in tasteful Mediterranean cookbooks, decorating the pages between rustic seafood recipes.” (p.93). When, on pony-club days, Marcus is besieged by parents wanting free veterinary advice about their kiddies’ mounts, there is mild satire of the horsey set.
But Reach is not dominantly a work of satire. It is a rather self-consciously earnest novel about the relationship of Art to Life. And the symbols keep on coming. The rock by the sea where Quinn rests – an anchor for her artistic vision.  The silent death underwater which Callum recalls – objective correlative to the ego-driven silences of the cohabiting couple. The long episode where Callum struggles to free a trapped and dying seabird – symbol of …. God knows what really, but surely something to do with the pain and psychic suffering of the trapped main characters.
Given that the novel is about an artist who is fully aware of the constructed nature of images and their symbolic force, it may seem churlish of me to criticise the novel’s symbolism. After all, isn’t Reach specifically and intentionally about images and symbols? I reply that they lie so heavily on the characters and their lives that they threaten to drown them. I say this in the full awareness that Laurence Fearnley has created believable characters and at least the beginnings of an engaging story.

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