Drowning in psychic storms, Lawrence Jones

The Lifeboat
Graham Billing
Cape Catley, $27.95,
ISBN 0908561 68 7

“Quite the most curious of the recent crop of New Zealand fiction” (Kevin Ireland, Listener); “an intense, demanding, cryptic novel by one of our most respected but enigmatic writers” (Graeme Lay, North and South) – the adjectives used by the reviewers of The Lifeboat indicate the position of Graham Billing in New Zealand letters, a unique position that he has created for himself in the 32 years since Forbush and the Penguins first appeared.

The years 1962-67 saw the promising novelistic debuts of four writers born in the 1930s – Maurice Gee with The Big Season (1962), Maurice Shadbolt with Among the Cinders (1965), Billing the same year, and Joy Cowley with Nest in a Falling Tree (1967). From the responses to those first books, it would have been safe to assume that Billing would become the most commercially successful of the four. Hardcover publication in New Zealand, England and (in 1966) the United States, excellent reviews in places like the New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review, paperback republication in all three countries, and a successful film – Billing seemed well on the way to popular success. At the time some might have labelled Forbush and the Penguins “journalistic”, but that would have been a misreading. In his foreword Billing had declared the book a “serious novel”, and it is really a philosophical novel, like most of those he has published since. While there is a lot of local colour concerning life in the Antarctic, human and animal, it is all relevant to Forbush’s search for a meaning beyond a sense of universal victimisation, culminating in his existential affirmation of his freedom in his victimhood, free because he knew.

That quest for meaning by the Man Alone was to be taken in increasingly idiosyncratic directions in the novels to come. The Alpha Trip (1969), a political thriller, might have seemed to support the charges of “journalistic”, and certainly it is impossible to take seriously the more James Bond-ish aspects of the hero, but it becomes at the very least a serious social problem novel, with its investigation of the relation between the hero’s New Zealand cultural nationalism and his opposition to the more malign and secretive aspects of ANZUS. But it is more than that in its hints of the Man Alone victimised by his own sexuality.

If the questing, victimised aspect of Man Alone was only peripheral in The Alpha Trip (perhaps significantly, that book was not named in the blurbs to the next few novels), it was central in Statues (1971), a serious novel in anybody’s book, with its experiments in point of view, its dense and metaphorical style, and its questing hero whose development is marked by responses to archetypal symbols. M K Joseph described the novel as “an odd, in some ways unsatisfactory, but individual book, the work of a distinctive and uncompromising talent”. He might well have been describing also the novels that were to follow. Like Herman Melville after Typee and his popular early novels, Billing seemed to have as his “earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to ‘fail'” (as Melville had remarked to his father-in-law). Statues was perhaps Billing’s Mardi.

While both The Alpha Trip and Statues were published in England as well as in New Zealand, neither made much of a splash. The Slipway (1973), on the other hand, looked as if it might be the book that would follow up and build on the popularity of Forbush and the Penguins. Published in England and the United States, it was well reviewed. Pushed by the English publisher as “perhaps the most powerful evocation of alcoholism since The Lost Weekend“, the book was closer to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano than to Charles Jackson’s novel in its focus on its alcoholic Man Alone hero’s move towards self-destruction as he searches for his own soul. Once again the novel turned more on symbolic than literal action, with a journey to the Leith Valley to fetch his dog becoming the hero’s descent into Hell to retrieve his soul, giving him the strength to face the externalisation of his situation, the sinking of his once-wealthy family’s last derelict ship for target practice by the navy. The novel perhaps found its ideal reader-reviewer in Maurice Duggan, who saw in the sinking of the ship a symbolic solution “dramatic enough to exhibit the true magnitude of [the hero’s] dilemma”.

The Slipway had been written while Billing held the Scholarship in Letters and appeared while he was Burns Fellow, working on his next novel, The Primal Therapy of Tom Purslane. Billing seemed to be succeeding in making a viable career, with the visible perquisites of recognition, despite his uncompromising turn inward towards the psychological and symbolic. However, that next novel was refused by his publishers and it wasn’t until 1980 that it was brought out, along with Changing Countries, a book of poetry, by Dunedin’s Caveman Press. The books were an attempt at a comeback after literary and personal difficulties, and were marked by an interview with Richard Corballis and an article by Howard McNaughton in Landfall, both dealing sympathetically with this writer whom McNaughton called “one of the most stylishly and stubbornly idiosyncratic contributors to our literature”. The novel was again about a self-destructive, questingly Man Alone, addicted this time not to alcohol but to obsessive sexual love (the epigraph is from Hazlitt’s classic autobiographical novella of sexual obsession, Liber Amoris).

Again the resolution was symbolic, shooting a gander and a goose and then in a dream burying them on a circular island, the long-awaited dream of certainty and wholeness, the manifestation of Aion, the release from the tyranny of Primal Love.

Although the two books received little attention, Billing seemed ready to continue his idiosyncratic search. There were rumours of a great epic, his Moby Dick, to be called Terra Incognito. An excerpt from it, proclaiming it was from the first volume of a trilogy, appeared in Untold in 1984, with publication “overseas” promised the next year. However, the prospective publisher backed away, and twenty others were approached to no avail. Nothing appeared until 1993, when a reputedly much-edited version of that first volume” emerged as The Chambered Nautilus.

Not as long as Moby Dick, at least in its edited form, The Chambered Nautilus was still a whale of a novel, over 400 pages of extremely densely-written, uncompromising prose. Billing had complained in 1980 that all of his novels could be said to have only one real character and that he was struggling to broaden his writing “away from the preoccupation with the central self”. In a sense the answer in The Chambered Nautilus was to splinter that one persona into many personae: Dowser the academic child of an academic, an obsessive mythologian”, Vodanovich, the sailor and man of action, obsessed with natural symbolism, Bracknell, the philandering novelist, obsessed with sexual love, Travis, the surveyor and antiquarian, the man of measurement and material objects, the sanest and least attractive of the four childhood friends, Windseer, the nineteenth-century missionary studied by Dowser, obsessed with the split between his spiritual and sensual selves, even, crossing sexual lines, Mareikura, Dowser’s Maori wife, obsessed with the discovery of the traces of the matriarchal religion of Io in patriarchal Maori mythology and culture.

The conversations of these questers, really dialogical lectures, especially those between Dowser and Mareikura, read like Robert Graves arguing the White Goddess with Joseph Campbell. It would be a rare reader who could take them with the serious intensity with which they were written. But the finest passages – the Otago whaling scenes, Windseer’s horrendous “krill Sunday”, Vodanovich and Bricknell’s fishing top, Vodanovich’s Antarctic voyage, among others – have a realised intensity even greater than the finest sequences of the earlier novels. The reviewers were rightly respectful of the novel, and called up the names of Conrad, Melville, and Lawrence. Of contemporary New Zealand writers, only Ian Wedde and Keri Hulme at their best can evoke physical and emotional experience as powerfully.

Where could Billing go after such a flawed but magnificent novel? The Lifeboat is the answer. Shower, more focused, less ambitious, not quite Pierre to The Chambered Nautilus‘s Moby Dick, it is nonetheless a dense and fiercely idiosyncratic novel. It contains most of the elements that Billing had concentrated on in the previous novels. Most obviously, there is the Otago landscape – here “Merton”, a mythologised Karitane, with a private mental hospital, Merton Hall, that seems to be a conflation of Seacliff. Ashburn Hall and the Truby King house. There is even a carryover of characters from The Chambered Nautilus, for Phoebe Suckling, the primary female character, is an offstage character in the earlier novel (just as in that novel Vodanovich has worked for the shipping line of the Targett family of The Slipway) . The world of the “Port Paradise” area, based on the Dunedin where Billing says “everything has become symbolic” for him, is thus extended in the novel. There is even an import from previous novels in the sense that the shipwreck scene that Billing says he had planned for The Slipway but did not use is a key scene here. The idiosyncratic recurring characteristics of the earlier novels are likewise here – the disastrously obsessive love affairs, the concern with myth and the occult, the sudden death by water, the almost surrealistically symbolic scenes and characters interjected into a more realistic world. Most strikingly, there; is the central symbolic scene with the animals – the killing of the skua gulls in Forbush, the sacrificial death of the dog in The Alpha Trip, the killing of the pig in Statues, the retrieval of the dog in The Slipway, the hunting of the geese in Purslane, the hunting and the sighting of whales and the ritual killing of the deer in The Chambered Nautilus, and here the freeing of the albatross from the tree.

The splitting of the quest hero, first attempted in The Chambered Nautilus, is more simply done here: Conrad Thorne, the master mariner who becomes a therapist, and Jonathon Weygood, the engineer-artist who becomes his patient. Both are trying to recover from being left or locked out by their sexual partners; both are fascinated with the symbolic and the occult; both are seeking a Jungian integration of the self. Each is one-sided, Thorne too caught up in discipline and control, unable to let go, and Weygood out of control in his rebellion against any discipline, his ambition to exercise a Faustian “ultimate power”.

Thorne develops through a series of symbolic and relational experiences: letting himself go down a waterslide, pulling a dead man from the shipwreck, rescuing a live woman from the shipwreck and giving her the kiss of life, making love to Phoebe Suckling, and, most important, rescuing an albatross stuck in a tree after the storm that sank the ship. He meditates on that bird as he attempts to free himself of his fears in climbing the tree, seeing it as his “personal apotheosis”, the “image of God given to [him] to be saved and made new”.

Weygood at the same time is going through his own symbolic experiences. He observes the wreck but is unable to help, too isolated from others; he meets his Mephistopheles, a blacksmith who gives him the idea of creating by pouring molten metal into casts instead of, as he had been doing, making his own shapes out of found objects, and he is then able to enter into contact with others, stopping the Russian sailors from whipping their captain to punish him for the wreck.

The two processes come together when Thorne falls rescuing his albatross, and Weygood, who has followed him there, is able to pick him up, clean his wound, and help him help the bird to fly away. This joint accomplishment frees each from his isolation, with Weygood able to offer help to an authority-figure, Thorne able to receive it and forgo control. Weygood was there because the transference that Thorne was seeking in the therapeutic process had actually taken place, so that Weygood was projecting his feelings upon Thorne and identifying with him. The two emerge from the experience transformed: Thorne is able to love and accept love from Phoebe (an ethologist who is fascinated with albatross behaviour) and Weygood is able to reunite with his wife and begin anew as an artist. The novel is thus about the therapeutic process, the “lifeboat” that saves Weygood and Thorne from drowning in their psychic storms (and the final reconciliations take place in the context of the villages mid-winter celebration of the Royal Melon Lifeboat Institution).

The quest in The Chambered Nautilus had been for nothing less than the secret of life, culminating in Mareikura’s discovery that “the Supreme Being, the God/Goddess universe of unified polarities, is itself sexual energy”, while the spiral chambered nautilus is the symbol of how to live at one with that force, both in its dark and its light, its death-giving and life-giving properties. Here the quest is more modest, for psychic wholeness, although the superintendent of Merton Hall, Moller, speaks for the continuing religious quest when he reinterprets the Oedipus story to put Tiresias in the centre, seeing the story not as about incest but about Tiresias’ vision of the divine spirit (for which he was made blind and lame), the secret we’re all got to find out about now.

I have been attempting to explicate the novel in its own terms, so far as I can discover them (and I may be wildly astray). If we bring to it terms not its own, the terms implicit in a realistic novel, such as ordinariness, probability, and causal coherence, it falls to pieces in our hands. Unlike Under the Volcano, and like all of Billing’s work since Statues, the novel does not ground its symbolism in the realistically explicable. The Mephistophelian blacksmith, the Russian sailors whipping their captain, the statue of the lifeboat and the weird festival, the albatross in the tree – all work symbolically but are hard to accept literally. And yet the symbols are grounded in a sense, for Billing’s descriptive writing has an almost hallucinatory power of realisation.

Merton as first seen by Thorne, the shipwreck as viewed through Weygood’s disturbed sensibility, the rescue of the albatross as experienced in tactile and aural terms by Thorne – such experiences are brought to intense life. For us to fully experience these, the novel asks that we suspend disbelief, that we enter a kind of parallel world created by Billing, a wildly idiosyncratic symbolic world that we can experience intensely as “real” in its own terms but cannot fully understand. Such an uncompromising contract with the reader is perhaps why Billing’s work, for all its power, remains a minority taste, evoking those adjectives which have been pinned by reviewers on The Lifeboat. It is truly “cryptic”, “curious”, “demanding”, and there is nothing else quite like it in New Zealand literature.

Lawrence Jones teaches English at the University of Otago.

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