Let the River Stand
Amongst conceptions of history, at least in its articulations with fiction and with postmodernism as perception of a contemporary cultural movement, grand narratives of human progress give way to local detail, to the sense that life is most poignant and real in the myriad confusions that constitute individual identity. The explanatory frames of period, place, political disposition or cultural dominant are only ever more-or-less accurate as enabling descriptions; they are challenged always by the very particularities they purport to describe, explain and contain.
As O’Sullivan’s Alex suggests, in one self-conscious reference to language: “It’s not only the names of things make them real.” And, as this writer knows, the words are not the “whole truth”, despite their power and lyricism and authority. It is a special attraction of this work of fiction as informal social document, not only that the local is represented so richly, but also that the processes of representation themselves become items of attention.
Located in the Waikato district of the 1930s and 1940s and including experiences in the Spanish civil war and Tasmania, Let the River Stand offers its slice of fictitious New Zealand history as a complex intersection of stories, memories and nostalgic recollection. Employing from the start a narrative strategy of anticipation and deferral, one that emphasises shifts in time and perspective, O’Sullivan simultaneously constructs and deconstructs “the story”, showing that it, like any other, may be seen as a shifting product of event and rumour and interpretation, created, whether spoken or written, in the wonderfully powerful and unstable medium of language.
The novel consists of five parts separated by short passages in italics that constitute a link, a notional present and a hospital location with a silent female patient and recurrent images of white clothes, her head wound, sunlight and water, a river. Such are the displacements of sequence and perspective, that readers are invited to participate in “putting the story together”, knowing that the story is indeed many stories that may come together and fall apart in various ways.
The identity of the accident victim, her history and details of what becomes known as “the tragedy” are withheld and pieced together gradually, as gossip and speculation and story, as the novel proceeds. She is indeed the one called “Princess”, a term of adulation or disparagement depending on its user and the circumstances, and the meanings of the work’s title are caught up with our readings of this character and river as a figure of speech. Beginning with a description of the hospital patient in her silence, the novel ends:
The bangles drawing back, the images receding, the river lying flat again as tin as Prince thought it. The river as her hand flows softly across her neck, along her throat, the quick tocking of the woman walking down the corridor’s polished lino, river-flat, reflecting. The room then quiet in its yellow glare, its rafting now above the cooling silence, the always drifting flow.
If this river signifies particular tragedy, but also in that event the quick life of youth and passion and rebellion, it also suggests the unavoidable flow (and flux) of time and circumstance. Paradoxically, Let the River Stand affirms the precious significance of individual experience while affirming at the same time that larger sense of flow in its inevitability and seeming indifference, the river of Time and of Language figured most famously in James Joyce’s “riverrun” in Finnegan’s Wake.
Foregrounded throughout in the novel’s structure, it informs details as various as Emily MacLeod’s journal-keeping (“I have this sensation of life flickering on and on, and only writing holds the image of what that flicker was”) and effete Mr Wallace’s reflections (“Tears which he knew were for no particular memory ‑ not Pietro, not a living soul ‑ but for such a vast absurdity, he supposed, as Time. The hopeless, endless ringing in the stellar places. Plato, Pascal, what did it matter who had said it? “). It is consistent with the double-plays that Mr Wallace provides the money to allow two young adventurers to go off to the Spanish civil war from which only one of them returns, and he missing three toes.
Character is a construction of details, usually within a web of cultural markers, and Vincent O’Sullivan provides memorable images. These include the touching image of young Alex MacLeod reading adventure fiction to his mother and the farm manager’s daughter, the new girl’s arrival at school in her white dress and on a tractor driven by a man wearing shorts, gumboots and a balaclava, Schwartz at night whittling at the kitchen table alongside the girl at her homework and the shop-woman scribbling in her ledgers, the violence and malevolence of the shop-woman’s sexual passion, the hanged man partly eaten by foraging pigs, Bet’s repeated stories to the silent and apparently uncomprehending hospital patient and the recurrent central figure of the accident victim in the silence of her arrest – “it was only Princess who really was no older than those days at school, she never would be”.
Characters exist in stories, pieced together only gradually, and never completely, in a flexible interplay of subjectivities and rhetoric as story-tellers change and as curiosity, rivalry, jealousy, enmity, passion, love and opportunity prescribe the tellers and their narratives. Joseph Conrad wrote about the “backwards and forwards” strategy of character presentation, emphasising the gradual process in its incompleteness practised deliberately by so many writers (and, in its way, theorised in psychology, philosophy and linguistics). In its radical disjunctions and displacements, Let the River Stand denies any simple sense of linearity, causal explanation and reader convenience.
There is an effective comic/satiric edge in the presentation of main character Alex MacLeod. Pale and gangly, a bit dreamy, hopeless at sport, he becomes one of the text’s many interesting eccentrics in an implicit value system that, like Patrick White’s, prizes idiosyncrasy above conformity:
As a child it was said that young Alex took everything in, as though behind the steady lift of his eyes there was some kind of reservoir where intuitions floated to make a certain kind of grown-up uneasy. Others confidently said the boy was thick as pig-shit.
But, presented within the regular economies of school life and farming community, where difference is suspicious, the decent “dull” boy who doesn’t have many cobbers studies history (“Me at the centre of all that whirls and flows”), defends the new girl and becomes leading male figure in a local real-life tragedy. Although the opening ‘interlude’ signifies one result of that tragedy, the details of what happened are withheld until late in the novel. What associations are there between a funeral, a sexual encounter, a stolen car and a tragic accident?
There is a similar sympathy in detail in the presentation of other characters, notably Barbara Trevaskis as the one who dared to be different, Schwartz as the partly-deaf boxer become itinerant worker and pig-farmer, the impassioned shop-woman Jess Trevaskis who goads her lover by erotic swearing and Frances, the brightest of four sisters, who eloped with a jockey, became a prostitute in Sydney and was “rescued” by spindly and cultured Mr Wallace, becoming the mountainous fat woman to his reduced sexuality.
Touches of grotesquerie and even prurience in these portraits are more than balanced by implications of repression and desire, of cultural constraint and the need for intimate contact and expression. O’Sullivan’s characters constitute no rogues gallery but, rather, figures caught variously in family relationships and social contexts that shape behaviour. It is a tribute to his conception and skill with language that, despite the apparent revelations of their actions, his characters retain their measures of mystery. They are shown to be figures for speculation; they are the products of variable interpretation by narrators who are also constructions of language, inside and not outside the discourse.
There is considerable authority in this novel’s evocation of the 1930s and 1940s cultural setting. O’Sullivan’s attention to school-life, farming, shop work and family relationships is detailed and persuasive. His focus upon colloquial speech and upon local curiosity and gossip presents a particularly strong sense of the extraordinary within the ordinary.
It is not so much that the familiar and the mundane are defamiliarised; rather, this concentration on feelings, desires, tensions, hopes and uncertainties reminds us of the qualities of the individual life in its complex interrelationships with a local community. If milking is a common social practice, so, too, are the weighing of flour and the packaging of tea. But, because they are embroiled with personal feelings, the apparently common also shifts into new particularities.
In this representation of the thirties wanderers, for example, those men on the road seeking work and favour, there is a significant difference compared with John Mulgan’s in Man Alone. Although markers of the Depression recur, O’Sullivan’s impression of an era assumes added complications through the interplay of contrasting male and female subjectivities, together with those displacements in time that make them the stuff of selection (as in memory – or research) and story-making.
There is in Let the River Stand literariness, an appealing self-consciousness about language resources and narrative art that invites its placement within literary traditions. Rich in its attention to local detail, arguably postmodernist in its elaborate fragmentations, it also embraces, however ironically, the great modernist achievements of Joyce. This is not just the possibility, whatever the author’s intention, of O’Sullivan’s title alongside Joyce’s “riverrun”, provocative as that comparison is, but recollection, as well, of Stephen Daedalus’s ephiphanic moment in A Portrait of the Artist in which a female figure arises gleaming from a river. The romanticism is displaced, of course, for “Late in the morning the girl was operated on, the sheared metal strip taken from her head, the long scar sutured.”
But such consequences obliterate neither the erotically charged image of the girl in white nor its tragic aftermath as part of the flow, of water and of time. Making its literary contribution to history, the novel makes its place in the archives of literature.
Vincent O’Sullivan’s writing in various genres is well known. This first novel is an impressive addition. Offering sensitive explorations of character, Let the River Stand is notable for its formal discontinuities and its lyricism. Developing through recurrences and loops, shifts and interweavings, it challenges fixities and draws attention to the play of language.
In the process the hard edge of its detail creates a strong sense of place while moving, as well, into the alluring instabilities of feeling that give provocation to understandings of place crossed by time. The particular edges into the symbolic as images resonate and connect. As the text’s journal-keeper, Emily MacLeod, writes:
If I were asked to put down our story without emotion, as though I were writing for someone else who wanted only to know bare fact, I would say…
Eschewing the “bare fact” approach, this novel is challenging and intriguing. We are asked to defer our satisfaction in answers to the puzzles of character and event for enjoyment of the writerly process itself. There are gaps always in the answers, in any case, and the process is deft. Let the River Stand is a fine achievement.
Brian Edwards is head of the School of Literature and journalism at Deakin University and editor of the literary journal Mattoid. He publishes extensively in the fields of literary theory and contemporary fiction.