The virtues of style, Peter Hawes

Losing Alice
Noel Virtue
Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 370 9

I saw a TV interview with Noel Virtue while writing this review. Fortunately he got everything right. He spoke about personal redemption in his work, and how it comes about by “solving” one’s past – given that one can’t change it. He also gave a qualified “yes” to the question “do you constantly go over the same ground, as many of your readers believe you do?” These facts, coupled with the admission that he writes strictly for himself, make his motivations clear and admirable.

His own past, it would seem, needs much solving. It involved misery under the tyrannical strictures of Plymouth Brethrenism; then unresolved guilt at the loss of parents who died before he could confront and perhaps come to terms with them. His present consists of writing splendid novels about protagonists turning back to solve their pasts, and, vicariously, his future. That he has always seen the novel as a useful cathartic device is apparent from the list of his earlier titles in which such words as “Transfiguration”, “Salvation”and “Redemption” itself – abound.

In Losing Alice Mr Arnold Valler has fled from his chaotic Auckland past to Mr Ezra Samuel Johnson Bountiful’s courtly Carlyle Mansions in London. Here Arnold immerses himself in a congeries of inconsequential daily ceremonies – “Late Sunday mornings were for visiting St James Park to delicately feed left-over stale bread to the ducks …” etc. The Procrustean inflexibility of these ceremonies gives them significance, while their banality renders them undangerous: “The only way to a comfortable daily life was to have everything in its place … Order brought contentment and control.” Get the furniture in order and the mental furniture will hopefully follow. Of course it doesn’t – the lost Alice of the title will later “be sitting on that cushion in my [Arnold’s] rooms, the one I never let anyone touch. Smiling up at me.” She was a ghost at the time, suggesting unfinished business, but while the situation may be unresolved, Arnold was going to give her no grounds for complaint about the tidiness of it.

Arnold’s earnest pedantry is mirrored in the form of the narrative, allowing delightful fugues between style and content. We are fastidiously told that an earlier tenant had been “found lying half naked in an alley just off Oxford Street in the arms of a locally known post-middle-aged woman who ran a notorious casino and brothel somewhere south of the river.” They were both dead, run over by “an articulated truck delivering several tonnes of new bricks to a building site.” Violence and dread are emasculated by the mannered whimsy of their presentation. Arnold and his story, in fact, are chillingly reminiscent of the human brain itself, with its raging centre – the R-complex which we inherited from the dinosaurs – enwrapt by the elegant organs of reason and humanity. And neither brain nor narrative are completely trustworthy – there can be break-outs. The fascinatingly uneventful first chapter ends thus:

So ordered and comfortable and, yes, even peaceful here in the centre of the city. Alice had never visited London, never even been out of New Zealand at all, before she had died so wretchedly, with so much pain and screaming and hurt.

And thus Virtue achieves that tone of “modern Gothic” for which he is known.

Per medium of pages and pages of gentle sentences we meet the people in Arnold’s London life. We learn, to our delight, that Mr Bountiful grinds ivory figures to powder which he returns to Nature via the moat round the Elephant and Rhinoceros Pavilion at London Zoo. And that Mrs Warboys (tenant) frequently travels to Spain to release caged birds while Mrs Rainbird (tenant) will steal her ex-husband’s collection of empty baked bean tins. In other words, everyone at Carlyle Mansions is barking mad – driven so by pasts nearly as dark as Arnold’s. Who – as merely one proof of his own insanity – spends five weeks seeking the right knob for his door.

So beautifully crafted is the narrative that it is often doing more than one thing at once. In a splendidly hard-working scene, Arnold trips on the stairs and ends, in missionary position, atop Mrs Warboys at the bottom. Expanses of “burgeoning white brassière covered with faded Disney characters” are revealed and so is a breast – hers, of course. While she is turning pale as cream cheese and Arnold is trying hard not to stare, the voice of Mr B engulfs them: “WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON? ARE YOU HAVING SEX AGAIN, MOTHER?” For all we know, Mr B may have just revealed the foundations of the blackness of his past. And we certainly learn later that this is the very moment in which the seeds of Mrs Warboys’ lust for Arnold take root. As a consequence, Arnold will later find himself wooed from all directions by all known genders. High farce, splendidly wrought,

But for all the fastidious lists of activity and surroundings, there are always curious gaps in the information. Little things. Plays at the Lyric are warmly recommended, but the name is omitted. A testimonial is given from “someone famous in the Theatre”. Mrs Rainbird charges a Mrs Brocklehurst with being “somewhat addicted to a certain brand of baked beans.” She of course meanz Heinz, but is constrained – by the in-built secrecy of the narrative – from saying so. More importantly, in a seminal confrontation scene deep into the book, Arnold is described as an “arrogant snot”, and we suddenly realise it’s the most we’ve actually ever been told about Arnold.

Further, although the style is Arnold’s, there are times when, with a frisson of alarm, we realise it can’t possibly be he who is telling the story: “Neither she nor Mrs Warboys noticed that Arnold had paled.” Nor of course, could Arnold himself, but there were only the three of them in the room. Maybe Alice, from her cushion, has taken up the story?

She has certainly influenced the style, which is crammed with more diminutives than I knew existed. In the book they begin at page one (“small mahogany breakfast table”); in Arnold’s life they began the near-Christmas day of his youth when Alice looked upwards and exclaimed, “It’s so big, Arnie, the sky is so big and we’re so small.” He has been down-sizing existentialism ever since.

I may as well say now, I regard the style as the best character in the book: it is as transparent, opaque, intelligent, misleading and mischievous as any of the memorable protagonists it describes. It provides an ether in which anything can happen – from “look out behind you!” melodrama to hilarity to gag-making violence. It is rich mulch in comparison with the etiolated raciness now considered de rigueur in writing schools. It allows Arnold, for example, to find he still loves the man who savaged him three-quarters to death through hatred – a literary feat as daring as the boy’s need for beatings from his father in the bone people.

Anyway, back to the pasts. The Warboys/Rainbird pasts involve estranged men and children; Ezra Bountiful’s past involves strange choices of young men: “It’s as if I have a destruction button in me … that I constantly finger, longing to press it, to descend into a maelstrom.”

The major past, however, is Arnold’s. “Only once,” we are told, “had the passion of love touched him. The love – deep, unrequited and cruelly exposed – was to make his life miserable and had been the indirect cause, Arnold believed, of his sister Alice’s terrible death.” The effects of this single love can only be subverted for so long by London strolls, the dusting of leather-bound books, visits to West End plays and the making of more tea than a career geisha girl. Arnold falls in love a second time and thus finds happiness. Alas, that first-time touch of love rages on beneath the still surfaces of his life. It  occurred in Auckland, Arnold’s home town. After ten years of obsessive minimalism in Mr B’s splendid mansions (and one year in Mr B’s splendid arms), Arnold returns home, to do his solving of “that morbid magnet”, the past.

He does so with exemplary finality, losing, alas, Ezra in the meantime. So, with 103 pages to go, we are bereft of all major protagonists except Arnold. No! there is one more – Narrative. And they begin to blend. Arnold inherits Carlyle Mansions. It is he who now grinds ivory to cast in the moat at the Zoo. He who reads the thrillers, once reviled when read by Ezra. He (and Narrative) who now describes young male delivery boys as “exceptionally pretty”. Arnold has inherited Ezra. Will he take up also the destruction button? Aha. Mr Virtue has told us enough. He leaves Arnold, on page 400, standing on the balcony of Ezra’s – now his – studio apartment, singing the daily song to youth first sung by Ezra on page one.

Peter Hawes is a novelist who lives in Palmerston North.

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