Dead People’s Music
Footnotes to Sex
I am male, middle-aged, heterosexual and monogamous. The first two terms make me different from the authors of all three of these novels. The third and fourth terms make me different from the characters in two of them. Am I therefore the right person to review them? Obviously the editors of New Zealand Books, who sent them to me as a package, think so. And I agree with them. If male, middle-aged etc guys can’t review novels by younger female etc authors, then we might as well chuck in the idea of reviewing altogether. Surely one real test of a novel is whether it can jump the specific demographic or interest group that produced it?
Okay. Enough homily. The good news is that all three of these novels have their engaging points. Two are by beginners and one by a more experienced hand. I admire novelists who are able to make diverse narrative materials coherent, and I certainly admire the way, in her debut novel, Sarah Laing is able to juggle three distinct plotlines.
First strand: New York 2003 (first person, present tense). In her 20s, Rebecca or “Beck” is in NY with her boyfriend Toby, hoping to break into the indie music scene. A backstory is alluded to. Beck trained as a classical cellist and won a scholarship to London, but somehow messed it up before deciding classical music was not her thing. Now she has another problem. Does she really want to stay with Toby? Or is she still interested in her old boyfriend Bruno?
Second strand: Wellington, the 1990s (first person, past tense). The teenaged Beck gives us the backstory. She has diabetes. It sets her apart from the other kids. The special discussion groups for diabetics are geeky and irritating. She wants to party and be a teenager. Classical music is as much her parents’ ambition as her own, and she rebels in various teenage ways. And then something awful happens to the precious cello that her Jewish grandmother Klara bequeathed her.
Third strand: New York and Wellington, the 1940s to the 1960s (third person, past tense). Klara’s story. A post-Holocaust Jewish settler in New Zealand, painfully adjusting to uncultured and philistine Kiwi ways and finding her salvation in the tiny circle of classical music lovers.
Like a slow waltz (1-2-3, 1-2-3) the chapters alternate between these three viewpoints. There are some neat contrasts and ironies. Beck in New York in 2003, adjusting to its alien ways, is the mirror image of Klara in 1940s New Zealand. Klara’s flight into classical music as her salvation. Beck’s flight from it as hers.
Of course the title is ambiguous. The only people who would seriously call the classical music canon “dead people’s music” are the same sort of dimwits who would damn the literary canon as the work of “dead white men”. Laing is savvy enough to know this, and in both Klara and Beck there is an intense love for music as a form.
Laing makes good and specific use of physical detail. Teenage Beck’s embarrassment at being diabetic is the objective correlative to all teenaged self-consciousness and awkwardness. Guilt about grandma’s cello is a good image of the weight of the past on any young person. So this is a very entertaining and proficient piece of writing. But novels with this sort of structure (lead-up to big debut) inevitably create a big let-down. It turns soapie when Beck becomes torn between two lovers. And we have to be as convinced as Beck is that her indie opening in New York really is a denouement. I’m not sure it is. In fact when Beck in her 20s hits the club scene, and downs Ecstasy, it’s hard to stop wondering whether she’s learnt anything from her experience. Is she chic and cute or just stupid?
Another debut novel, Mia Farlane’s Footnotes to Sex is not as tricky as Dead People’s Music in terms of narrative technique. It strives for modernist understatement. Essentially it charts the emotional ups-and-downs of a lesbian couple who have been together for some years. Its third-person narrative sees things from the viewpoint of May, who is 31, teaches primary school somewhat unhappily and may enrol for a PhD, having dropped out of university years before. She flats in London with her rather more butch lover Jansen (ex-army, drives for a living, enjoys the novels of Nick Hornby). May herself is more given to tears and stress than Jansen is.
May may be committed to Jansen, but she’s not sure. And she may be in love with the formidable French intellectual Francine Brion, whom she visits in Paris and about whom she may write her thesis. I think I’ve got it right in thus suggesting that the name May has been chosen to suggest the protagonist’s state of uncertainty and tentativeness. The reverse side of uncertainty is commitment. In a way this novel is one long definition of commitment as May slowly sorts out what her relationship with Jansen really means to her. Farlane is clever enough, however, not to provide a pat ending. She writes crisp, brittle, dialogue-driven prose, very clear and uncluttered and generally a pleasure to read, although occasionally the staccato of single-phrase sentences can be wearing: “The bathroom was free. May brushed her teeth. She wished Elizabeth would come and watch the bath. It would overflow. It was not May’s job to watch it” etc.
True to its theme of uncertainty, much of the novel charts the suppressed jealousy of May as Jansen seems tempted to take up again with her ex. It has a good feel for the necessary trivia of domestic life, especially in the sections where May’s nuisance of a sister spends time freeloading in May’s and Jansen’s flat and upsetting their relationship. Like a cold slap in the face are the pages where May meets Francine Brion, and is subjected to interrogations abrupt and patronising enough to be intimidating. I don’t know if it was Farlane’s intention to say something about French intellectuals in general, but these scenes run as true as they can to the experience of any rookie thesis-writer who has ever been subjected to an academic inquisition.
Three footnotes of my own to Footnotes to Sex. First, if it were not clearly ironical, the novel’s title would be as irritating as the title Dead People’s Music at first seems. But it makes perfect sense if read as Footnotes to Sexuality rather than Footnotes to Sexual Intercourse, of which there is none in this novel. Second, it’s interesting that the publisher’s blurb (at least on the proof-copy I was given) carefully avoids saying this is a lesbian story – made easier by the fact that one half of the couple (Jansen) has an androgynous name. I wonder why this should be so? Third, a “not achieved” grading to the publicist who sent out material saying: “Mia Farlane is the daughter of well-known novelist Marilyn Duckworth, and is the niece of Fleur Adcock.” Surely we judge novelists by what they write rather than by who their relatives are?
Speaking of inept blurbs, for a long time I hesitated to read Laurence Fearnley’s Mother’s Day because the blurb describes it as “heart-warming”, which is generally code for “sentimental”. I am therefore happy to report that the novel is not heart-warming in the least. I still feel twitchy, however, over the blurb’s presenting as central certain events that occur nearly halfway through the novel. Maybe the blurb-writer had a hard time finding a selling plot-element, given Fearnley’s resolutely deadpan, realistic and unemphatic style.
Mother’s Day is described as the last of Fearnley’s southern “trilogy” which began with Butler’s Ringlet and Edwin and Matilda. But this is to use “trilogy” only in the loosest possible sense. Here it denotes three books of similar mood and deep south setting, but otherwise unconnected.
The issue in Mother’s Day is, logically, motherhood, painted as a long demanding slog carrying no material rewards. Deserted by her husband, solo mum Maggie struggles to remain afloat while devoting herself to her three children. Elder daughter Justine whines, exploits and dumps grandchildren on her. Son Bevan is on the verge of becoming a teenage tearaway with unsavoury street-thug mates. Younger daughter Lisa seems a good kid.
Maggie earns a living cleaning houses for disabled and elderly people, who are clients of the care agency run by her bossy and pretentious younger sister. This is Maggie’s other cross. Not only is she on the verge of poverty, but she has a sibling always ready to show off her own affluence and Maggie’s social inferiority. I think this relationship is as crucial to the pattern of the novel as the one the blurb chooses to highlight, between Maggie, who is a thwarted singer, and Tim, a shut-in, disabled musician. I still wonder why Fearnley chose to make Maggie Catholic, with her faith mentioned every so often. Possibly the answer is in the way the Tim element of the story ends, and how we are meant to see it from a moral perspective. But I’m only hazarding a guess here.
In one national magazine, a reviewer took issue with what she saw as the novel’s plodding set-up. The first hundred-or-so pages are a long exposition of Maggie’s way of life. I dissent from this negative judgment. Fearnley is in fact at her best when chronicling the everyday trials of Maggie queuing for Pak’n’Save specials, worrying over her car’s warrant of fitness, having to attend a school careers evening and so forth. She gives them importance (and hence gives Maggie dignity) simply by presenting them in such detail. The flaw as I see it is that Maggie herself is passive to the point of being a doormat. Is this woman really only 40 as the novel insists? More often she is like an oppressed little old lady. Or are we meant to see Maggie’s pieties as the reason she is such a doormat, allowing others to trample over her? If so, then her internal triumphs over her sister – finally seeing her as a shallow person – are drained of meaning.
Fearnley ventures just a little symbolism with Maggie compared to a dying salmon struggling upstream “as part of God’s design”. This, however, steps outside her real forte, which is the literary equivalent of photographic realism.
Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian and reviewer.