The sadness of the incomplete, Elizabeth Caffin

A Boy and his Uncle
Anne Kennedy
ISBN 0 33036057 4

Leave Before You Go
Emily Perkins
ISBN 0 33037204 1

In the opening pages of both these novels is that journey we all are heir to, between Europe and the Antipodes. In Anne Kennedy’s novel it is the traditional ancestral voyage from Irish peat bog to gorse-covered Wadestown hillside; in Emily Perkins’ it is a tense late 1990s plane trip by a young Englishman carrying drugs. Perkins’ characters live now, the immediate past and long-term future to be equally evaded: most of her novel is written in the present tense. By contrast the European cultural past pervades A Boy and his Uncle at all levels. Class, religion, gender patterns create the outlines of a family saga; at the same time though this book is an emblematic text, a poem or a prayer – all ancient forms – in which the telling of the story is its meaning.

In A Boy and his Uncle, the story of the McGahans is told – we are reminded in occasional reflective (and reflexive) passages – by the Contemplative, or Lex, the uncle of the title. Sometimes he appears as “I” in the main text, more usually a detached third-person narrative is used. This however always has a sense of signifying more than appears and of a prevailing interpretive pattern given by a kind of spiritual hindsight: “But of course you are not to take it literally. It is only what happened.” It is, as is often remarked, a parable, “a sort of lyric for what can otherwise not be put into words” or slightly mockingly, “God’s truth”. Visions, verses, dreams and magical events occur as a matter of course. Anne Kennedy is at once our most mediaeval writer and our most modern one: her originality lies in her joyous, inventive, moving use of a tradition, what you might call her “traditional smile”.

This is a story of limited expectations, frustrated dreams, “the sadness of the incomplete”. Born into the “genteel poor”, Lex follows his father into the Post Office, where he works in that home of disappointment, Dead Letters. He is defined by the demands placed on him by the women in his family, his mother, Dympna, and his sister, Honor. He should be home for dinner; and his brief hope for Bernadette from the Green Parrot is doomed. The wonderful episode of the love potion given to Lex by his mother engagingly represents this female power over men in the family, a power embodied of course in cooking and feeding (the recipe is given). Its bizarre outcome has its own logic, the logic of course of parable. The same pattern of mother, daughter and son, including the mother’s powerful, painful hopes for the son and the tension between mother and daughter, occurs in the second generation; the love potion is administered again, once more with disastrous and unforeseen consequences.

Kennedy is playing around with ideas of gender roles and gender conflict: the women care about what the world thinks, the men live in the mind and suffer from alexithymia, cannot express their feelings; the women act, the men submit. Pregnant, Lex switches genders and enters on the farm into a world of women which is supportive and affectionate. But his son, Maurice, is taken from him, mother/ father, he becomes uncle and the pain of the loss of his child – a pain indifferent to gender – fills the latter half of the novel. For the boy and his uncle are father and son, and we may read into that whatever we will.

Contemplation, abstraction, withdrawal from the world into a monastic order (ironically into the “Mother House”) becomes a choice “to remove all choices”. Thus it falls to him to tell the story. In this way Lex regains what he has lost and the power that he lacked. The telling of the story is the act of understanding and of communication and the way in which “Sadness can be converted into ecstasy, so I found”. This is perhaps what gives Kennedy the greatest pleasure, for the role of the Contemplative is also crafted, stylised, patterned according to our idea of spiritual wisdom and holy utterance. Her gentle irony about even the making of parables (or of novels) is only about the way we use picture or pattern to embody the unknown. Throughout, the language is at the forefront, the sounds and rhythms, the way words have of taking on a life of their own, the oddity of common phrases in new settings, the power that words can be made to have and yet the impossibility of getting them anywhere near the essence of things. Kennedy is always alert and active in the verbal texture of her work, witty and resonant, bold and resourceful. The fragmentary way she writes is related perhaps to this intensity of language but in this novel the movement towards a climax is sure and the last pages a moving resolution:

My problem – there is always a problem! – was in not being able to survive any amount of aloneness, yet on coming down from the hill, I would face once again the impossibility of existing with the intensity of anyone close. Caught somewhere between the two, suspended like a hammock subbed to the lightest puff of wind, I lived in the crush of the day where people live close but are not near. I used to think I was the only one who lived that way, but I have come to believe – with a sort of faith, there was no way to know it – that most people live that way. But they learn, we learn, a compromise between the two, a way to weigh down the hammock with the reality of our bodies.

In these final pages the voice becomes direct, first person, philosophic, almost eschewing the guise of fiction. This is a Kennedy voice but it is also the Perkins subject. Leave Before You Go likewise explores aloneness, which is not loneliness or solitude, but the knowledge that in the end you’re on your own. It is a much shallower novel, cool and careless, deliberately sceptical about “meaning”. Fast-paced and fluent, Perkins writes with great confidence about insecurity and paranoia; she sallies up to resolution and significance and, shrugging, rapidly retreats.

Perkins’ work has generally been seen as a kind of sociological text whereby an older generation can spy on the doings of the twenty-somethings with a mixture of envy and distaste. It thus depicts a restless, impermanent world of flats, casual jobs, sex, smoking, drinking, movie-going, travelling. A world beyond school, church, family, though some tendrils of family prove annoying; a world with no future and little past. Perkins’ characters proclaim their aimlessness frequently and perhaps too emphatically: “Everything out there became pretty much hopeless” or “‘Sometimes I think what I’m looking for is a life, not a lifestyle'” or “nothing, anywhere, mattered to him”. The two main characters, Daniel and Kate, are possibly looking for each other but are certainly looking for themselves. The title of the book nicely captures these people who are always departing – to New York or the South Island – or who if they’re staying (in Auckland of course) aren’t always there.

The social context is loose and fluid and the greatest loyalties are friendships. By introducing a stranger, Daniel, Perkins skilfully explores the uneasy way sexual attraction – destabilising, unpredictable, necessary – cuts across friendship and scorned, older notions of love and commitment keep awkwardly reappearing. There is much preoccupation with reading signals: will he make a pass or won’t he? where did A go and what was she doing? who rang and why? Lies and secrets abound and ideas of morality seem as much in flux as everything else. Acts of betrayal remain that, however, and misunderstanding or failure of communication causes the same pain it always did: the book concludes in dislocation, uncertainty and entrapment.

But I think there is something more conscious going on here from a literary point of view. Kate works as an usher in a movie theatre; when Daniel hits rock bottom, “He had to get some breakfast. He had to find a job. What he really wanted to do though, more than anything, was go and see a film.” Setting out from London on a rather terrifying journey, he sees himself in a movie, embarking on an adventure, a glamorous drama far removed from his aimless current existence. There is a sense in which all these characters are looking for roles in movies, self-conscious, self-absorbed, watching their own small stories, hoping for greatness. This is a novel which is talking to the movies, engaging with a different art form in a creative and provocative way, the glimpses of New Zealand scenery, especially the brilliant little scene when Daniel “photographs” the whales, are part of this stylish conversation At the same time Perkins is playing with other genres: the opening drug run and the mysterious phone calls suggest a thriller parodied not least by its missing conclusion. We never know if the drugs reached their intended destination or if Daniel is in sinister trouble. Similarly there is a mock love story going on: will Kate and Daniel get together or won’t they? We don’t know this for sure at the end of the novel either. The comforts of closure are denied, but so are the certainties of feelings.

Much of the easy pleasure in reading Leave Before You Go lies in the energy and wit of Perkins’ writing, especially in the dialogue, where her ear is acute. Pervasive tensions arise almost always from the contrasts between the snap and crackle of the conversations and the anxiety and angst of the inner thoughts. Listen to Daniel and Kate discuss the discovery that Josh, living with Lucy, has had a relationship with Mary:

“Yeah, well. Did you know he was – you know?”
Daniel bites his thumb and squints at her. “Yeah, he said something.”
“And Frank knew too.”
He shrugs. “I suppose.”
Kate shakes her head. “Prick.” She looks up at Daniel again and he feels her gaze sharp as razors. “Why are you guys so lame?” she asks him. “Don’t you know anything?”
For a second he wonders if she knows about Nina, but no. She’d have said. He smiles and shrugs and says, “No. I don’t know if I do.” He grinds his cigarette out, carefully. “What about you?” he says.
Suddenly she wishes she’d got dressed properly, instead of just sitting here in her pyjamas and old torn jersey with no bra on or anything. “What about me?”

Perkins’ tone is subtle; the laid-back knowingness of her characters is itself subject to an amused irony which comes from the deft shifts of position in an extract like this, from the deliberately flat, worn language in phrases like “it all became too much” or “he just couldn’t” or in the lists Kate makes attempting to get her life in order. Lyrical descriptive passages play a role here too, though not always successfully, the jolt into contemplation being a little raw.

Perkins is never less than intelligent and sophisticated; the step from short story to novel worth, in my view, making. If the novel has a picaresque quality with strong scenes strung together along a loose peripatetic narrative, that limitation is precisely the point: the funny, sad inadequacies of the stories we’ve been told or try to make for ourselves. Anne Kennedy opens A Boy and his Uncle with a quotation from E M Forster, “The sadness of the incomplete, the sadness that is always life but never should be art”, which could also stand as an epigraph for Leave Before You Go. In very different ways, both these fine novels are preoccupied with the question of making stories to overcome human aloneness. Seen together, they reveal the range and the quality of the current practice of fiction by New Zealand writers.

Elizabeth Caffin is Director of Auckland University Press and a contributor to The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, which was reviewed in our June issue.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
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