The Beetle in the Box: a love story
Anyone who has sat on the selection panel for a writer’s fellowship knows that the worst thing applicants can do is include a bald précis of what they want to write. It always sounds banal, or ridiculous, or second-hand. And any writer knows that the first and often only question people ask when they hear you are writing a book is, “What is it about?”, and that unless it is about something simple like keeping bees (and often even then) it is best to avoid answering.
So to describe the plot of Chris Else’s novel is only a preliminary, a clearing of the ground. It is indeed a lyrical and passionate love story. Jack, a young man immobilised by a secret in his past which has left him twitchy about guns, with no drive or ambition, is taken on as a chauffeur by a businessman, Mr Casturian, whose mansion in the country and its estate are constantly monitored by security cameras. Mr Casturian has a beautiful young wife, Theresa, a fashionable photographer. She finds Jack an appealing model. He falls in love with her. He discovers she reciprocates. They make love on riverbanks and in motels. Theresa is however attached to her wealth and her daughter, while Jack is guiltily conscious of his practical and ambitious girlfriend. They temporise.
Mr Casturian, while being driven in his Daimler, draws Jack into conversation, and likes what he hears. Jack has covered his mental void by studying philosophy. Casturian offers to make him a highly paid personal assistant, an ethical adviser. Jack and Theresa grow careless and let their affection be seen within range of the security cameras. Denouement. Or possibly one of several denouements. Or possibly an ambiguous mixture of denouements.
What this summary leaves out, of course, is practically everything. How well Else writes, for one. His style is clear, flexible and expressive. His characters are subtly but clearly differentiated. Theresa, on Jack’s first sight of her, “seemed unreal, an artificial creature from another world pretending to be human, a perfect replica betrayed only by its flawlessness. He had an impulse to speak, as if in greeting another alien; but his words got stuck before they formed.” He wonders if she can smile. Jack is “the hollow man, the jester, the suit of clothes stuffed with straw.” Mr Casturian is a cellphone-dependent sharp-dealing businessman who is also reflective and wary of himself. Secondary characters are equally diverse. Unlike some of Else’s fiction, this novel is set in a familiar, vividly described present which is at the same time carefully rendered unfamiliar. The location is New Zealand; the place names within New Zealand are all plausible, but none of them is the name of an existing place. Localities are familiar yet unacknowledged and sometimes shifted around. The city where Casturian does his business might be Auckland; his estate somewhere in the Waikato; but possibly not.
As a narrator, Else is patient. He bides his time. He drops hints, but is in no hurry to pick them up. He builds up tension and is in no hurry to resolve it. A modern realist novel, therefore, with sinister overtones and the tautness of a thriller.
But there are other characteristic elements. These are the opening words: “Here is a love story of the old kind. It begins on a fine spring day. The sun is shining. The air is fresh in the hills above the valley. A young man arrives at the gates of the enchanted castle. On a bicycle.” In other words, Jack arrives at Paragon for his job interview. (He is hired by the estate manager.) The ambience of these early pages is that of a fairy tale, and also of a gothic romance – Jane Eyre, Rebecca, even Dracula. Especially Dracula, when the Casturians come on the scene, at the airport, from an overseas trip. That event is also the return of the king and queen from a far country, “and the people felt that life had meaning again.”
The mythical element culminates in an old Scottish ballad, “The Twa Corbies”, of which five stanzas are quoted. This is one:
– In behint yon auld fail dyke
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there
But his hawk, his hound, and his lady fair.
The quotation is followed by an explication, a one-page masterpiece of literary, historical and sociological criticism, leading into a chapter about numbers and numerology. After that, myth is subsumed into and superseded by another element, with which it overlaps. A “love story” this may be, but the subtitle is disingenuous. The main title, The Beetle in the Box, reflects Wittgenstein:
Imagine that everyone has a box with something in it and that we all use the same word, “beetle”, to refer to what’s inside. The only way you can find out what a beetle is like is by looking in your own box, and only you know what it contains. You can’t take your beetle out and you can’t describe its appearance or condition or behaviour to anyone else. Beetles are like our inner experience, in other words: utterly private. Your beetle could be completely different from mine, or Jack’s, and none of us would ever know.
The beetle and the book are about consciousness, identity, recognition, reality, and the dilemmas that arise from the fact that none of the characters knows quite what the others’ beetles are up to. That is in part an outcome of Jack’s habit of disappearing into philosophy. But it is the narrator, not Jack, who inserts into the text every few pages musings that derive almost chronologically from the philosophers, starting with Plato and Aristotle, through Descartes, Locke, Kant, Leibniz, to Wittgenstein and, right at the end, to Ayn Rand. The musings are sometimes more or less related to the stage the characters have arrived at, sometimes apparently not. In total, they amount almost to a history of philosophy, a dazzling display of erudition. The gradual displacement of mythology from the presentation of the story seems to coincide with the disappearance of metaphysics from philosophy. Finally, you come to Ayn Rand’s upside-down world where selfishness equates with good and altruism with evil. This should prescribe how the story goes, except that not all the beetles have caught up.
The question soon intrudes as to whether the interpolated musings are integral, or simply interruptions. Do they affect what is going on? Do they explain what is going on? Is Else using the history of world views to illuminate the story; or the story to humanise the history? In the end I concluded that the progress of the story and of views of the self simply mirror one another, but other beetles may see it differently. What is certainly true is that a Chris Else novel provides an experience and a pleasure of quite a different kind from most novels written in New Zealand today.
Dennis McEldowney is an Auckland reviewer.