Within the Kiss
When I was young and stupid, I used to believe that reading a novel meant that you had to try to understand what the author wanted to say. If the writing was any good, then this exercise would be worthwhile because the experience would be a valuable one. After all, I naively believed, if this particular bunch of words didn’t actually make a difference to someone, then it probably wasn’t worth putting down on paper.
Now I am old and stupid, but I am much more socialised into the literary world. I have learnt the error of my youthful ways. Post-modernist theory tells me that literature is about nothing at all. Just as I can’t expect the state to look after me in my dotage, so I can’t expect a piece of fiction to deliver me any kind of sustenance. Nobody is responsible for what I get out of it but me. This is a startling realisation for a reviewer. I no longer have any duty towards the author’s intention. All I have to do is elucidate my own reaction.
But wait. There’s more. Some theories suggest not only that writers do not know what they are doing but also that they are doing the very opposite of what they think they are doing. If you want to know what a book is about, so this doctrine goes, you must look not at what it says but at the things it avoids saying, the things it skirts around and turns away from at the last minute. Jane Eyre, for example, is all about sex, and Pride and Prejudice … well, that’s probably about horse-racing or child abuse. Carte blanche for the reviewer. My God, who wouldn’t jump at the chance? Herewith, then, my shamelessly post-modernist review of Charlotte Randall’s shamelessly post-modernist novel, Within the Kiss.
What is the ostensible subject of this book? Writing. What is its implicit subject, the thing it hints at but never manages to face openly? Insecurity. Not insecurity in a general sense. This is the insecurity that all writers suffer, which arises when the secret need to be admired meets the awful fear that no one will take any notice or, worse still, that they will respond to your most sincerely meant and cunningly wrought pronouncements with Yeah, well, whatever. It is the insecurity that means we can never be seen to want to be taken seriously.
Within the Kiss has a traditional structure: a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning, which takes up 40% of the book, we have a man in lateish middle age, who is in a relationship with a woman many years his junior. In amongst their vigorous coupling, he tells her the story of his ex-wife, who made a deal with the Devil in exchange for literary gifts. She is going to write a bestseller, which begins with a man in lateish middle age who is in a relationship with a woman many years his junior, who in between their vigorous couplings … Life and literature form a system of mutual self-reference. The Work is the Life, which means that every novel is, perhaps unwittingly, an autobiography, and every review may be no more than an extension of the work.
Striking deals with the Devil is the Faustian game, which in Goethe’s version of the story is steeped in the Romantic glorification of desire, the endless striving after the unachievable, the archetypal male’s yearning for union with the feminine. We can’t have that sort of stuff in a post-modernist novel, of course, so Randall’s version is deflationary. Faust is a woman and she sells not her soul (she doesn’t have one) but the future of her daughter. Mephistopheles is a tennis coach. In return for taking over the life of the daughter and making her into a future champion, he will enable Faust to play a good game of tennis herself and to write her bestseller, which is to be about tennis and the man in lateish middle age who tells his bedmate about his ex-wife, Faust, who …
Thus, instead of a yearning for wisdom or art or a lust for power, we have sport. And we desire it not for ourselves (after all we can’t hope to achieve anything) but for our children: “But don’t you see, [Faust] replies, that’s what we all want from them, clean-cut enriching wins in perfectly white clothes in a world where everyone loves us.” Indeed. We’ve all been tempted to sell our children into dreams like this.
Acute observations and subtle insights abound in the first part of the book – an impressionistic pastiche of psychology and aesthetic and judicious social irony that is careful to contradict itself every few pages. Randall writes admirably, although she does not expend much of her talent on creating characters that might engage us. They are all either cynical or whining or just plain dull. But life’s like that. We’re like that. Even if some of us fondly believe we are witty and charming and have something significant to say.
After the twists and turns of the self-referential beginning, the book settles down in the middle section. Mephistopheles takes over, as he would, and he and Faust bicker over what should or should not go into the story. Faust, of course, is also a character in the novel they are working on, so the writing keeps jolting you, flicking back and forth between Faust’s bestseller and the process of writing it. Just as well really, because the bestseller is as banal as any airport novel. The bloke of lateish middle age is demoted from his narrator status and then disappears. Faust and her Gretchen analogue go looking for him. It’s hard to know why precisely but then do any of us know why we do things? I suggest you read this section as a paradigm of the writing process: the endless debates within oneself, the struggle to remain true to one’s vision in face of the inevitable pull towards (commercial?) compromise. Of course, the rubbish Faust is writing is not worth the effort, but all writers have this secret fear that they are actually McGonagall, with a bloated inspiration, zero talent, and a negative capacity for self-criticism. And every novel is an autobiography, right?
There are lots of sharp and ironically self-referential asides on the process of writing here. If you decide to read them as desperately disarming, then I couldn’t possibly comment:
“Goethe said: I’ve always hated arbitrary designs. Whatever has no true inner existence has no life, and cannot be made to come alive, and cannot be great.”
“Fiction is where one inserts one’s own opinions as if they were fixed and eternal truths and then falls back on the notion of creativity and artificiality if anyone seems inclined to probe them.”
“Jesus, I love this, the punters’ll take anything.” Mephisto says.
“No, they bloody won’t.”
“They bloody will if the Devil is behind it.”
These remarks come from Mephisto, who tells lies all the time, of course. However, it is Faust herself who delivers the judgement “I’ve just realised that what the world doesn’t need is another bloody book.”
From here we move towards the end, which I won’t tell you about (I have some principles) except to say that Goethe and Byron turn up, as they would, and are treated with all the respect they deserve. I won’t tell you what “within the kiss” means either, although you might like to know that it concerns the sacrifice of virgins.
And the fate of Faust’s novel? Mephisto tells her it won’t be a bestseller because she’s put the poets in it. Instead, she should turn it into the story of Faust. She should add a despairing fool and a pact signed in blood:
“Then, around what you have written, insert everything you and I have said and done. Voilà, the job is finished.”
Faust stops smiling, sees her book flare into completion before her eyes, sees the Devil’s revenant guiding hand on every page. Mephisto is watching Faust’s face with dark penetrating eyes, he see the realisation come upon her, has watched the shock chase out the smile.
Voilà. Faust completes her novel and goes home to her husband who is not, incidentally, the bloke of lateish middle age with the nubile floozy, but then none of us ever really though he was, did we?
So that’s it. I suppose what you want now is for me to tell you plainly what I think of it. You want to know if it’s any good and if you ought to spend $27.95 on it. Well, I’m sorry but you’ve got the wrong bloke there. I have my own insecurities to deal with and, in any case, this isn’t that kind of review.
Chris Else is a Wellington novelist.