Telling tales, Tessa Barringer

Black Light
Laura Solomon
Tandem Press, $24.95
ISBN 0 908884 80 x

The Silicon Tongue
Beryl Fletcher
Spinifex Press, $24.95
ISBN 1 875559 49 3

On the Grapevine
Linda Burgess
University of Otago Press, $24.95
ISBN 1 877133 12 4

We all tell tales. The need to translate our lives into language appears intrinsic to our being. Our relationship to language is, however, no simple matter but is determined by a complex dynamic of social and psychological forces. For those who are comfortable with their place in the scheme of things, language often appears as no more than a useful tool, a straightforward and uncomplicated means of representation. For those who find themselves marginalised or alienated by established norms however, language can limit or even obstruct their attempts to express their particular ways of being and seeing. Each of the three works under discussion here evolves out of a very different relation to language and text as the writers experiment with, challenge, or affirm conventional subjectivities.

Black Light, Laura Solomon’s first novel, is the most unorthodox and avant-garde of the three texts. This work reflects a postmodern awareness of the unstable, fragmented nature of identity and the ambivalent role played by language in securing a “self”. Rather than trying to affirm any particular subject position — personal or political — Solomon plays with the inherently textual nature of being as she explores the ways in which we use fiction(s) to find and lose ourselves in a more-often-than-not hostile world. She takes as her protagonist young Jim, a recently graduated would-be novelist who is trying to make his way in(to) the world while struggling to come to terms with the unresolved traumas of his childhood. When we first meet Jim, he is in the process of developing two very different story-lines for himself. The first is his “American Psycho” piece in which the main character has, in a fit of rage, murdered his father with a spade. The second is his “attempt at the opposite gender”, a “piss-take” of Jane Gardam’s Queen of the Tambourine in which Carry, the rebellious housewife, has run away to the circus (shades of Angela Carter?) and is being pursued by her righteous busybody neighbour, Patricia Gluckendown.

Locked in his room, with Bach’s Mass in B minor playing at full volume, Jim tries to escape from the unhappy reality of his life into his writing. Both his stories, he explains (in a real or imagined conversation with one of his “friends”), represent a character “in the grips of a slow and stealthy mental decline … loss of cerebral control, inability to differentiate between reality and fantasy”. (p37) Jim maintains that he himself is a detached and objective artist (“you”ll find no stench of Jimmy in these texts”). His strangely juxtaposed narratives of extreme violence and domestic confinement, with their unstable patterns of association and resonance, suggest however that his repressed feelings of guilt, anger, frustration and inadequacy, and his need to escape (from himself?), are all being displaced into and worked through his stories. And, as these stories unfold, it becomes increasingly clear that the text is chronicling not only the disintegration of his characters but also his own collapse as the boundaries between his real and imagined worlds dissolve.

The reader does not, however, remain trapped inside Jimmy’s fevered imagination for the entire text. We do catch a glimpse of him through the eyes of another, Kate, his idealised “ice-cream angel”. Sadly, while Jim fantasises about his “little nymphet” with the “deep violet eyes … luscious dark lashes … [and] silken thighs”, she finds little to admire in him. After meeting him one night in the pub, she tells the reader that “he’s right fucking creepy”; he made me want to vomit, she says, “made me want to run a fucking mile”. Yet, despite this obvious antipathy, Kate and Jim are, in many ways, two of a kind. Kate is also troubled by unsettling experiences in her past and, like Jim, has developed her own escape strategies — “I’ve learnt to switch off [she says]. I’ve learnt to put myself somewhere else”. (p101) The later part of the text is made up of Kate’s escapist fantasy, a fantasy which has incorporated Jim and rewritten him as manic artist (one day she comes home to find him leaping about the room naked with a paint-brush strapped to his penis) and lover. It is here that the complex layered structure of the text begins to falter under its own weight. The quality of the earlier pieces is not sustained in the Kate/Katherine and James passages and, though Solomon recovers to make a strong finish, their weakness diminishes the effectiveness of the text as a whole.

As the various stories begin to collapse into each other and then begin to collapse into and disrupt (an assumed) reality, it becomes increasingly difficult to know who is real and who is imagined. The disorientation and sense of subjective disintegration thus become part of the reading experience as we try to negotiate Solomon’s fragmented text. While such tension can be very productive, it can also (if not carefully handled) have quite the opposite effect. I remain both uneasy and ambivalent about Black Light. Solomon, like her protagonist, Jim, appears to be experimenting with a variety of “voices” (perhaps in an attempt to find one of her own?). She draws openly on Gardam’s Queen of the Tambourine and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury not only for inspiration but also for specific elements of content, style and structure. The derivative nature of parts of the text unsettled and at times irritated me but perhaps that was the point. Perhaps in creating these intertextual associations, Solomon is challenging the very notion of “originality”; perhaps she is invoking Barthes, suggesting that the writer’s voice can be nothing more than a mosaic of quotations drawn from prior texts.

Is Black Light best read, therefore, as a playful postmodern experiment in form or is it intended as an in-depth psychological exploration of subjective crisis and collapse? It could, of course, be both but it risks falling between two stools and being neither. For me at least, that is what happened. The work was not quite clever enough to be effective as the former, yet it lacked the affective depth to be convincing as the later. Though I experienced the alienation, confusion and abjection of Jim’s (and the text’s) disintegration, the displacements were so frequent and unsettling that I was never able really to empathise with the protagonists and become involved in the necessity that drove their story-telling. However, in spite of these doubts and reservations, I did find this to be a most unusual and adventurous literary beginning.

The relation between identity and language is also explored in The Silicon Tongue by Beryl Fletcher. This text is the third in a trilogy that began with The Word Burners (1991), followed by The Iron Mouth (1993), both of which explore the place/plight of women in what Fletcher perceives as our inherently destructive male society. The first work focuses on the attempts of women to speak with their own voices inside the academy and considers the constraints, the necessary duplicity and the very real dangers of trying to articulate one’s (female) self within the close(d) confines of (phallologocentric) academic discourse. The second explores the female artist’s frustrated attempts to represent her feminist political vision creatively; once again, because the models for such artistic endeavours are part of the patriarchal system, they prove anti-pathetic to the feminist enterprise.

The Silicon Tongue resumes Fletcher’s attempts at the (re)writing of female subjectivities as it enters the lives of four generations of women who are working to recover their own stories and each other, having been dispersed and dissociated over several decades by the abuses of power perpetrated in the name of the church and the agencies of the welfare state.

The narrative opens as Alice Nellie Smallacomb begins to recount her story to a mysterious oral historian who is apparently gathering the life histories of old women who came to New Zealand from Britain in the 1930s. Seventy-five-year-old Alice relishes the opportunity to translate her story not only into words but also into cash and so proceeds with enthusiasm to tell of her early years as the illegitimate child of servants in an upper-class household, of being cast out into poverty, of being abandoned by her desperate mother into the care of the church, of the rigours of life in an orphanage and of being shipped out to New Zealand as part of a scheme to provide domestic servants for selected religious families. Interwoven through Alice’s story is that of her middle-aged daughter, Joy. Recently made redundant and alone in the world, Joy has decided to do some research of her own as she sets about tracing her daughter, born when Joy was only 15 and taken, against her will, to be put up for adoption. As their respective stories unfold, each recognises the need to speak her secret and, through that speaking, they are finally able to recover the part of their lives that had been lost to them.

This is a powerful and disturbing account of the way in which mothers and daughters have suffered under and been separated by the codes of secrecy that have surrounded the unacceptable aspects of their experience as women. At times however I felt that the politics of Fletcher’s text worked against its creative vision. There is, for example, an almost Victorian excessiveness about some of Alice’s stories, especially those relating to her early childhood, which endows them with a rather wistful/wishful charm. Her daughter even suggests that this may be the case, that Alice has indeed borrowed her story from amongst the pages of fiction.

Alice, however, repeatedly asserts the authenticity and immutable “truth” of her narrative. She has, she explains, developed a fail-safe means of remembering, a strategy based on the colours of a kaleidoscope she saw as a small child. By colour-coding her memories and fitting them into the kaleidoscope’s pattern(s) she is able, she asserts, to remember everything that has ever happened to her. Though it is a charming metaphor it is also a rather dubious one, for a kaleidoscope is renowned not only for its bright colours but also, and more so, for its endlessly shifting shapes; the desire to stabilise and secure one particular pattern rejects an infinite number of other possibilities.

Despite the overlay of computer culture and the gestures toward the advent of a multi-dimensional (kaleidoscopic) virtual reality, Fletcher chooses to play it straight; the past is not open to (further) negotiation. She can thus be seen to be caught in the double bind inherent in contemporary identity politics as the plural possibilities of a postmodern way of seeing and being undermine the affirmation of a stable female subjectivity. Unlike Solomon, Fletcher is not willing (or perhaps able) to play with identity and in her text the issues are for her far too important to be taken so lightly.

This seriousness, combined with a tendency towards a rather monochromatic and melodramatic tone, meant that the novel was constantly at risk of tipping over into bathos; I kept waiting to be allowed to laugh and to see these women laugh at themselves but they never did.

A much lighter touch characterises Linda Burgess’s new novel On the Grapevine, the sequel to Between Friends (1994). Now comfortably middle-class and reluctantly middle-aged, Sally, Tessa, Daniel and friends are trying to come to terms with their various mid-life crises, their adolescent children, their aging parents. The exchanging of confidences, about themselves and others, provides these women with their necessary social currency. They are all caught up in that familiar narrative economy in which we buy time and attention from each other with the stories we have to tell. And, like the rest of us, even when they know they should not, even when they have been sworn to secrecy, they can rarely resist the temptation to tell.

Burgess thus paints for her readers a familiar picture of a certain portion of New Zealand society. Her characters are viewed with sympathy and with warmth, she is accepting of their idiosyncrasies and failings and writes with a wry humour and gentle irony that makes no judgments. On the Grapevine is a pleasant and undemanding read (like indulging in a really good gossip with old friends). It is not a substantial work but, on its own terms, is quite successful and eminently readable. While Solomon and Fletcher play and/or wrestle with the politics of identity, with issues of gender, genre, language and their relations to subjectivity, Burgess accepts those limits without question. Her work will no doubt prove popular because it does not strive to challenge or disturb the reader but instead gently affirms the status quo.

Tessa Barringer is a postgraduate student at the University of Otago and is still completing her PhD thesis on Janet Frame.

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