Plotting outside the rules, Kim Worthington

The Bright Side of my Condition
Charlotte Randall
Penguin, $30.00,
ISBN 9780143570660

Charlotte Randall’s many strengths don’t, in general, extend to the provision of compelling plots. Tellingly, in an interview, she states, “I don’t really believe in ‘stories’ ”, and has this to say about the expectations readers (and publishers) bring to bear on fiction:

There has to be a satisfying character, a satisfying story, in short there are rules. One can try to ignore the rules, but will soon pay the price of not being released into the wider world, i.e. of not being published.

In her latest (seventh) novel, The Bright Side of my Condition, Randall deals with “the rules” by using what might be called a “found plot”. The jacket blurb tells us that the novel is “based on the true story of four convicts who spent nearly a decade on the Snares Islands in the early nineteenth century.” A preliminary paragraph before the novel starts reiterates the claim that the work “is based on a true story”.

This double stress on the truth behind the fiction is immediately interesting. Perhaps it’s because the plot – while compelling – is so implausible. Four British convicts escape from the brutal Norfolk Island penal colony and stow away on a sealing ship. When discovered by the ship’s captain, they are offered a choice: join the crew, or be put ashore at the nearest opportunity. Unanimously, they choose the latter, and are set ashore with “a few provisions and a trypot”, on a bleak, inhospitable sub-Antarctic island. The ship’s captain promises to return and pick them up within a year, along with the seal skins they collect. He doesn’t. It’s almost a decade before another ship comes to the island, not long after one of the four convicts has been murdered.

Or, perhaps Randall stresses the factuality of the tale to pre-empt suggestions that she’s borrowed, rather than “found” the plot which, in bald summary, might be considered a hybrid of Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies. The novel shares something in common with Robinson Crusoe with respect to detailing the mechanics of the men’s survival: what they eat, how they make a hut, how they cure seal skins and make clothing, for example. And it shares with Lord of the Flies a deep scepticism about human nature (although lacking Golding’s suggestion that civilisation is necessary to curb savage instinct). But it is set entirely apart from these precursors in its focus on narrative and in its narration. Through the bitter winters, the four men tell each other stories: “true” stories about their pasts and why they were convicted, and fictional stories they remember. Metafictional asides abound:

Toper say, let’s have a real story then, and Flonker ask how aint Robinson Crusoe a real story, and Toper say he mean a story with facts, and Fatty ask in what way dint his Crusoe story have facts?: Toper say, well of course it do have some facts but overall it weren’t true, and Fatty say it were a tale based on the true account of a man named Robert Knox that were shipwrecked …. There, say Toper, that second one were the real story and Crusoe weren’t … .

 

But the novel does more than engage with story-telling as a theme. Randall’s own acts of narration are foregrounded. Like many of her earlier works, this novel is narrated in the first person, and present tense, by one of the four convicts, Bloodworth. As the above passage indicates, Bloodworth’s account is decidedly vernacular: his grammar, syntax and spelling place him as the uneducated, impoverished man he is. Spelling is used to distinguish him from his fellow island inhabitants: Toper, Slangam and the considerably better-educated Gargantua (aka “Fatty” and “Flonker”). So Bloodworth speaks of “Arty Facts”, yet when he reports Gargantua’s speech the word is spelled, correctly, as “artefacts” (similarly with “stomick” and “stomach”). It’s a rather disconcerting ploy in a first-person narrative, and one Randall has used before. Clearly, this is yet another reminder to readers of the fictional status of our “true” narrator, but it is rather heavy-handed.

Bloodworth sums up the characters of his co-convicts: “Mr Sweat, Mr Pray and Mr Know-it-all”. “Mr Sweat” is Slangam, an embodiment of the Protestant work ethic. He believes in constant toil and order and, while largely responsible for the survival of the others, is a cold and mirthless taskmaster. “Mr Pray” is the moniker for Toper, hypocritical, superstitious, cantist. Both are less characters than caricatures, serving a perhaps necessary role in the moral schema of the work and in the characterisation of the narrator. Gargantua – “Mr Know-it-all” – is rather more interesting. But, if kinder and more open to self-reflection, in the final analysis he, too, is unable to rise above conditioning and circumstance.

The success of this novel turns on the complexity of Randall’s narrator. He lacks the venom and, more importantly, the education or language to parry with the decidedly brutal world he inhabits. In this respect, he’s rather reminiscent of Halfie, the narrator/protagonist of Hokitika Town: sad, damaged to the core, uneducated, socially outcast and without a place to belong. The novel’s strong social critique results, in part, from the exposure of Bloodworth’s fellow-convicts’ flaws, but ultimately arises from the characterisation and observations of Bloodworth himself. He recognises that the little community they’ve built on the island is nothing but a microcosm of the larger British society that’s condemned them, in every sense:

All them jostlings and arguments and bestings, it amaze me the way jes four men find all the ways of making trouble for each other a entire prison find. … Like penguins that of been pecked bloody, we know the rules on our Incognita isle and we keep them … .

 

It’s the rendition of Bloodworth, via his struggle to make sense of the world, which gives this novel its peculiar power and compulsion. If the other men remain trapped in their socially circumscribed roles, he ultimately transcends his. It’s nature, particularly the many hours he spends watching penguins, that’s the impetus for the increasingly complex questions he asks: how do we reconcile what ought (“ort”) to be with what is? What is freedom? Is life not a prelude to the hell/heaven of an after-life, but Hell itself? Or perhaps it’s Heaven? What makes it both is the world’s beauty:

now I do conclude man’s so afraid of going to Hell he don’t understand he’s already there …. God fashion for us a Hell that aint as restricted as men’s imaginings – why, He go at it with a zeal he aint felt since he made the Earth and stars, He make it beautiful to break the hearts of men. Beauty is the wheel. […] Imagine! Desperate for kindness and affection, our fellow man hate us and we hate him, still we would rather stay here than get our wings.

 

Elsewhere, he asks, “Aint it agony to see such beauty and live so ugly?”, and later concludes, “It would be tolerable if man did not care, but every heart bleed for joining and affection”. When watching the penguins and the sea, he says, “freedom come down like a spell, like love without the madness”:

I watch the penguins and wish everything were as simple as their lives, and maybe before Adam and Eve met the serpent and et the apple we do jes live penguin lives. We live the way we were made, without no contrivance.

 

But, in Bloodworth’s musings, Randall offers more than a Romantic elevation of the natural over the social world. Bloodworth knows that nature is deeply cruel, too – a whole chain of predation in which the fittest, and luckiest, survive: “Spilled blood’s at the bottom of everything”.

Having dealt with the demand for a plot in basing her novel on a “true story”, Randall is free to explore the things that have occupied her in previous novels: individual psychology, philosophical inquiry and social critique. Her familiar targets are greed, hypocrisy and cruelty, and the social institutions that encode and perpetuate these human qualities – the class system, the law, the church. It also frees her to explore the possibilities of narration and the ploys of story-telling, and to demonstrate her skill and inventiveness in both. In using narrative voice as a key aspect of Bloodworth’s characterisation, she is largely successful: he’s multi-faceted and memorable. However, the narrative experiment undertaken in the third and final part of the novel is far less successful. Rather than give away the conclusion, I urge others to decide for themselves, while enjoying the profundity of the novel’s ethical questioning and the deftness of Randall’s prose.

 

Kim Worthington teaches English literature at Massey University.

 

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