New waters, Emma Martin

Reach
Laurence Fearnley
Penguin, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143571728

Novels about art sometimes also seem to be novels about novels. Laurence Fearnley’s latest work, Reach, not only explores the relationship between life and creative expression but also, in a sense, enacts it. It picks out recognisable elements of contemporary New Zealand life, shakes them around a little, turns them inside out, and searches for the meanings within.

Quinn and Marcus live on the rocky coast of the fictional, Wellington-esque city of Cook. Quinn is a mid-career artist who has hit a creatively fallow period; she is variously perplexed and irritated by the machinations of the art world on which she depends, and in which her currency has lately fallen. In a telling scene, she scours a magazine feature about a promising young artist for some reference to her own work: “All day she had kept going back to the text, still in the expectation that somewhere, hidden in its body, was a mention of her old show”. In doing so, she seems propelled less by vanity than by an existential fear that in being overlooked, her art – and, by extension, she herself – may somehow cease to exist.

Marcus is a vet who spends his days spaying cats and supervising post-mortems of yellow-eyed penguins. An affair with Quinn several years earlier led to the disintegration of his marriage and severance of contact with his daughter, Audrey; Marcus still does not understand how it was that without “wanting, anticipating, planning or being prepared for it”, he has given up what was, ostensibly, most precious to him. His regrets, however, are largely selfish – he is concerned less with the impact of his actions on Audrey than with what he himself has lost. His happiest moments are when he is out running with his dog, Tag, a stray brought to his clinic after being hit by a car, whose life Marcus saved against the odds and at vast expense in order to prove to himself that he “wasn’t a bastard”.

In the wake of all this, and perhaps not surprisingly, Marcus’s relationship with Quinn has also suffered. Fearnley is brilliantly incisive on the niggles and petty annoyances of relationships, the tiny resentments and rejections that cumulatively undermine intimacy. On an evening Quinn has planned a special meal, Marcus arrives home late and the food is ruined – a fairly stock example of domestic disharmony. But, Quinn observes that “now, even though Marcus could see dinner was ready, he had taken a block of cheese from the fridge and was slicing bits off and putting them on crackers.” It is Fearnley’s instinct to zero in on the crackers and cheese, on the crumbs spilling from Marcus’s mouth as he eats, that lifts the scene beyond the commonplace.

Quinn has prepared the meal so she can talk to Marcus about an exhibition she is planning – rightly suspecting that its subject will hit a raw nerve:

If she told Marcus her exhibition was about marriage he would assume it was about their marriage, though they lived together. He had been married but had left his wife and child for her. On that basis, Marcus would probably conclude the exhibition had to be about him. But it was about marriage in general.

 

For Quinn, “art was something she needed to do in order to make sense of her life”, though “it wasn’t about her life as such”. But Marcus senses an almost mercenary quality, a ruthlessness, in Quinn’s willingness to use her experiences and those of the people around her as artistic fodder. Years earlier, before they met, he had strayed into a talk she was giving at the city art gallery. Her exhibition consisted of ultrasound images of her recent pregnancy, which had ended in miscarriage. Marcus was intrigued and disconcerted by the cool, forensic gaze Quinn turned on this presumably traumatic experience; now, he has developed a horror of that gaze being turned on him. Over dinner, it dawns on him that Quinn’s latest art project has something to do with him: “He dropped his gaze and mumbled something Quinn couldn’t hear. ‘It’s not about vets, is it?’ he finally asked.”

Meanwhile, Marcus’s attention is focussed on an unexpected letter from Audrey which seems to offer a chance at reconciliation. True to previous form, he keeps the letter a secret from Quinn. When an opportunity arises to accompany Audrey on a trip to Israel, Marcus is prepared to do whatever it takes to join her. And then Quinn learns something that poses an even greater threat to the equilibrium of their relationship.

In the midst of all of this, a house-truck parks up in a lay-by across the road from Quinn’s house. It belongs to Callum, a well-meaning but self-absorbed commercial diver who has spent his working life carrying out dangerous salvage and maintenance jobs in cold, deep water, attached by an umbilical-like cord to a diving bell. Whilst underwater, saturation divers are profoundly isolated, unable to return to the surface in the event of an emergency until they have decompressed – a process that can take longer than returning to Earth from the moon. In a novel that concerns itself with the ways (verbal and non-verbal) that humans reflect on and communicate personal experience, this image reinforces the inaccessibility of one consciousness to another.

Callum, Marcus and Quinn all have their obsessions: for Callum it is diving, for Marcus it is running, for Quinn it is her serial enthusiasms for her artistic subject matter. The moments of connection between the characters all occur when one is willing to inhabit the obsessional realm of another. Marcus’s most poignant memories of Audrey are of the two of them running together, “her left foot [flicking] out to the side with each step”; Quinn remembers how, in the early days of their relationship, Marcus would spend time in her studio, helping her prepare her etching plates; Callum is embarrassed when Quinn finds him poring over the contents of a rock pool, then beguiled when she asks to borrow his diving mask and submerges her own face. Callum’s growing infatuation with Quinn is never overtly sexual; instead, he fantasises about taking her diving with him.

All of this offers terrific dramatic potential on which, however, the novel does not fully capitalise. As it progresses, Quinn’s story arc is prioritised, as perhaps it needs to be. But in the closing chapters an important strand of Marcus’s story is left hanging, while Callum’s story is tied up suddenly and rather too neatly, leaving the impression that he was present in the novel primarily as some kind of symbolic foil for the other two characters.

The prose has a direct, lucid precision: the breasts and belly of an elderly woman, who is floating on her back during an early morning swim, protrude from the water “like three ice cubes in a glass of gin”. Quinn rejects a nurse’s description of her miscarried baby as an “angel”, countering that “her proportions and the size of her eyes were more in keeping with a fledgling fallen from a nest”. Quinn’s unshrinking rendition of all she encounters seems to be an analogue to Fearnley’s approach to writing, or to the sweep of Callum’s torch as he dives underwater, revealing crayfish, nudibranchs, seahorses, paddle crabs.

I was struck by the extent to which the main characters think of themselves as particular kinds of people, even, and most interestingly, when their actions clash with their internal self-image. The consciousness of all three is a ceaseless commentary that sometimes leaves the reader with insufficient interpretative space; the most enjoyable passages are those in which there is a comic or ironic gap between the world and the characters’ view of it (in this respect, Marcus is blessedly lacking in self-insight). The early chapters of the novel alternate between the main characters’ points of view, but in later chapters there is an occasional mingling. In the end, it is this fine balance between interiority and connection that Fearnley captures most adroitly. Callum envies fish the way they negotiate the space around them, and wants his friends to be like a large school – close, but not bumping into him. Yet Fearnley knows it is the metaphorical bumping that drives narrative and life itself, knocking us off our charted courses, and propelling us into new waters.

Emma Martin is a Wellington writer, who won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the title story of Two Girls in a Boat, her first collection. 

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