It is perhaps a commonplace to note that at no point in history have we relied so heavily on the written word, or been such avid readers: of e-mail, junk mail, the Internet, the sheer glut of publication. Until the time (apparently soon) we can all speak our e-mails, surf the web by oral command, give orders to our appliances and happily listen to literature, we are all, one way or another, readers and writers – even if we are light ones.
Many of the stories in Farrell’s latest collection suggest this contemporary reliance on reading and writing – although this is no metafictional meditation on the world as text. Indeed, if anything, the nod is towards the separate spheres of “reality” and “romance”, suggesting the partiality of the solace that words can realise. At times words serve to “enlighten” the characters, despite (perhaps because of) their misreadings: words can unburden, may render the world comprehensible and even, perhaps, momentarily luminous.
The collection is framed by two long stories, “The Play of Light” and “Light Reading” (about 80 and 60 pages in length, respectively). Between these are 13 much shorter stories. “The Play of Light” flounders somewhat. Caught between short story and novella, it is compromised by stereotypical and undeveloped characterisation (despite alternating character perspectives between clearly delineated sections) and a plot (for want of a better word) that is episodic and, frankly, rather tedious.
The story is of a New Zealand family on holiday in Europe: Mum (Sarah), Dad (Leo) and two teenage kids (Amy and Tom). Sarah is besieged by guilt for having “give[n her] son blindness”. As the result of a congenital disease, he is losing his sight, and the holiday is a last-ditch attempt to show him “the sights” before darkness sets in. The ordinariness of character and event might well be the point, however, arguably sharpening each character’s moment of illumination: despite blindness (literal and metaphoric), each “sees the light”.
Sarah’s seeing, achieved at the flick of a light switch, is a graphic and horrific vision of hell, a religious tableau which confirms her guilt:
It’s a world full of demons who are quite capable of driving other people into a fiery pit at the point of a bayonet, but worse than them, worse than any pain they might cause, is the harm done by those who love you.
Leo is haunted by a remembered vision, of surfacing from cellared darkness into the light of utter loss and destruction wreaked by bombs in wartime:
Houses can disappear. Families can disappear. A child can disappear. And you could work and work to make the world strong against such waves, but in the end you were helpless against them. [….] They lie in the hotel room, each inhabiting their own black cellar.
Amy loses, and then “sees” her family anew in the crowds beneath the Eiffel Tower (“she had seen them as a stranger would”), a moment in which she “revisions” her relationship to them, and her independence: “She was herself. She was alone.” Tom’s is the illumination of sexual initiation. Although “[h]e cannot see her [his lover]”, it is an epiphany which affirms his other senses: “he runs his hands over her, across the strange curves and declivities, the scent of her sweet and salty in his mouth.”
Each of the 14 sections of the story is introduced by a short poem, variations on “Facts about Light”. These are wonderful interludes – witty, knowing, concise – in the rather over-long story proper. Each details “recorded facts” about the intersection of life and the many senses of light: its play, touch, scent and sound. They trace light’s destruction and magic, its power and grace, from lightning and fireballs to rainbows and the “silken threads” of an aurora. As here (“The scent of light”), “recorded / by a carver in Neufchatel”:
When light touched earth as a fiery
whirlwind in Carcassone, sheep were
killed, walls broken and the air stank
of sulphur and burnt flesh. In Berne
the light came down with hailstones.
Where they touched stone or skin
they stuck, stinking of garlic.
But where a rainbow touches wood it
leaves the scent of purple tinged with
a whiff of yellow. When you carve a
bowl from such wood, it leaves traces
on your fingers. When you drink soup
from such a bowl, you can taste it still:
the flavour of light …
Farrell’s writing works, more or less successfully, in just this juxtaposition of prose and poetry. At its best, it captures the tension between the mundane and the magic, the dumb endurance of the ordinary and domestic set against the piercing agony and pleasure of its moments of light.
“Light Reading” similarly juxtaposes two forms of writing: romance fiction and ordinary “prose”. Again, the “real” writing traces the relational interactions of the everyday. Here lies Farrell’s strength, in this as in her other writing: her acute portrayal of the compromises of co-existence, the pain we inflict on our lovers and loved ones, the comfort and joys they bring and, ultimately, crucially, our need for the certainties they offer. Her focus – as in much of the collection – is on adolescence, its needy rebellion and urgent, inevitable hurt and on the negotiated certainties of middle-aged marriage. Against this is set the ideal of romance, the fulfilment of perfect bodies in perfect love.
Patsy, wife of Greg and mother of three, teaches High School English. Two kids have flown her nest, and another is about to leave; Greg is preoccupied by his work as a chemistry lecturer, his obsession with explanatory “research” and, it transpires, an Other Woman. Patsy takes to writing a romance novel to fill her hours of emptiness and insomnia, and her calculated pastiche provides an idealised counter-point to domestic love – parental and marital: after a tempestuous meeting, Mallory (Titian hair, sea-green eyes and long slender legs) and Alex (wealthy, famous, drop-dead gorgeous) fall into each other’s arms and live happily ever after. Patsy herself briefly seeks true love in the arms of “woebegone” Warren. But the short-lived affair only confirms her need and love for her husband whom “she understands … without knowing him at all.” All concludes with passionate love-making, in “reality” and romance. Although for Patsy the possibilities of imagination are firmly circumscribed by the limitations of the (mundane) real.
Between these two long short stories are a mixed bag one is tempted to call slight readings: fragmentary, thin, often unsatisfactory. Again and again, words – in recipe books, e-mails, gardening catalogues and junk-mail – are used to staunch the terrible gaps of longing, loneliness and loss that accompany relational failure. Characters are besieged by disaster in almost melodramatic proportions, and emotional impact is often achieved through the account of impending or unnatural death: car-accidents leave widows and orphans; air-crashes mercilessly drop children into the depths of the deep blue sea; illness and disease sever children from parents, husbands from wives. The stories are perhaps at their weakest when the insistent catalogue of tragedies concedes wholly to the happy endings of romance, as in “Heads or Tails”, where the loss of love is righted by the cheap trick of a miraculous return. A mother’s life crumbles after losing her child in an air-crash, only to have her daughter reappear at the beach along which the mother paces, imagining the bones of her child beneath the sea:
[A]nd she’s saying that some bastard nicked her passport and all her stuff … while she was sick … up in a village in Bolivia and there weren’t any phones and you can’t make collect calls from Bolivia anyway and it took her three weeks to get back …
“So we’re not dead, you see”, she says …
And the bones have all washed ashore and taken on their dear warm selves.
Death looms nastily throughout, although rarely as wittily as in “Worm”, which concludes with an old, wheelchair-bound biologist imagining the conversation of garden worms – a cruel take on the salvationist’s resurrection to light:
Soon, it will be our turn.
Soon, we too shall make our thorough examination.
Soon we shall strip back your skin.
Soon we shall study your every crevice, your every cavity.
And then we shall gather you up and carry you,
bit by bit,
back into the light.
Life may well be full of looming darkness, but its shadows are persistent and overdrawn in many of the stories. Characters, to a fault, are lonely and unfulfilled, and words rarely fill the gaps between reality and imagination. “Don’t you wish she could fill in all the gaps?” asks the narrator in the fine “P-R-D-S D-CKS”. Why can’t some woman provide paradise for the lonely duck watcher? “Don’t you wish they could fly together, he with his deep call, she with her higher cry, the female brilliant white and chestnut, the male darker in his eclipse …?”
Dark stuff indeed. With a few exceptions, happiness in these stories is only a trick of light, of language: compensatory imagination, wordy romance. As a rule, the lives of characters are illuminated only by the destructive lightning bolts of tragedy or the unreality of romance. It’s not exactly light reading.
Kim Worthington teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.