Victoria University Press, $24.95,
Let me say at the outset that this is a remarkable novel; subtle, complex, delicately wrought. It is the kind of work that leaves you thinking not just about the material it presents but also about the book itself. It prompts the question that writers often get asked by people mystified by the creative process: “Did you mean to do all that or did it just happen?”
Todd Duval is a twenty-something mathematician and speleologist. He has quit his job, split up with his girlfriend and gone back to university to do a PhD in set theory as it might be applied to topology. In the weekends he goes caving, usually with Philip Mell, a man twenty years his senior who is fixated on the death of a young caver some eight years previously in a large and particularly difficult cave called Deadman’s.
Todd is a peculiar person. He is intelligent and acutely observant. He has a finely tuned intuition with which he senses things about other people without really understanding them. He fails to understand because, in comparison to his other faculties, his feelings play little part in his awareness. He gets angry. He feels afraid. He experiences guilt and the occasional outburst of irrational hatred. Towards the end of the book he becomes so worried about Philip’s safety that he drives through the night to try and find him in Deadman’s. All this is described with a curious kind of detachment, however. Todd’s feelings are not suppressed. They just seem to be somewhere else. Underground, perhaps.
Near the beginning of the novel, Todd reflects on his relationship with Clare, which has just ended. She “had described him as ‘opaque’ – she said he was ‘never there’, and Todd had said, ‘It was your need for love, which caused all the problems.’” With this comment, Todd seems to wipe the relationship from his mind. He thinks of Clare on only one other occasion, some hundred pages later, when he is about to make love to another woman: “He saw an image of Clare, standing by the door – her hand was on the knob – she was looking at him. He thought: why her, now?”
In his mathematical ponderings, Todd considers how space is a dense set, one consisting of an infinite number of points. It is not the points that interest him, however, but the space between them. There is always such a space, by definition. If we think of people as individual entities in the way points are, then touching is ultimately impossible. Todd is fascinated by “proximity”, but the closer he gets to someone physically, the more objectified and, therefore, distant that person becomes. Here he is embracing Tess, who has been sharing his bed if not his affections for several months:
his chin moved against the skin on the temple – he observed the feeling of hair against his lips. Todd felt a need to remember the feel of the body against his. It was warm, as though still retaining heat from the sun, and his hands were flat on a fine knit jersey, given contour by the shoulder blades underneath.
Taken in isolation, such a passage might be evidence of a serious psychological disorder. If we do not so conclude, it is because this description is consistent with the book’s overall perspective. Just as a particular topological theory is merely one characterisation of space, so this account is only one among many possibilities, chosen, perhaps, for its interest, for the paradoxes it generates.
The lens for this perspective is a style. Below is beautifully written. Its sentences are clean and clear, devoid of metaphor and embellishment. This is the language of logic. The words are like stones or drops of water, each distinct and bright and following from its predecessor with a sense of irrefutability. Such a style exemplifies and exaggerates Todd’s detachment, but it also slips smoothly into the practical details and intense sensations of exploring underground:
Philip threw the rope. There was a second as it hung in the air, then pulled downwards – it straightened before the excess slapped the wet ground below, in the darkness … Philip had a harness on, and was threading the rope through his abseil rack. He checked the gate on his carabiner, the thread of the rack, and the fall of the rope along his right leg and past the gumboot which rested on a slight lip at the edge of the drop. Steam was gathered here already from their bodies’ sweat.
If the novel is a mathematical theorem, it is also a cave. Corballis makes explicit the relationship between these two ideas:
Todd thought: if there was any connection between an interest in mathematics and the experience of caving, it was in their distance from the ordinary world. He thought: they were both worlds of their own, separated from everyday life – as though mathematics were, by its abstraction from the concrete detail of life, beneath the surface of that life.
Todd’s aim or his need at the start of the book is “no longer merely to observe but to participate fully in the world”. He tries to achieve this objective through the two different experiences of space – the topology and caving, the one intellectual and solitary, the other physical and cooperative. His method is to equate the two, to perform, in a sense, an operation that is the reverse of the Banach-Tarski Paradox, which demonstrates that one sphere can be logically transformed into two, both of which are identical to the original.
Paradox is the key to the resolution Todd seeks. In Deadman’s Cave, in the opening chapter, he and his companions sing a round and discover there is one more voice at the end of it than they can account for. Is it an echo or the ghost of the long-dead caver? Todd’s mathematical studies lead him to strive for a situation in which “the space itself would be charged with form” and, in turn, “the forms would be human”. Perhaps, in the end, “the space itself might announce itself in song”, just as the cave did. He tries to write an axiom for a song and fails, but in the closing pages, when he descends alone into Deadman’s to search for Philip, he experiences an epiphany in which the patterns on the rock and in the water become equated with the patterns on his own skin. These patterns, he realises, might account for the notion of “proximity”.
Does he find the resolution he seeks? It is hard to know. Although the logic might work out to Todd’s satisfaction, the reader is uncomfortably aware of everything that he fails to see. There is another, more standard, set of symbols that run counter to his argument. According to this set, mathematics and the cave cannot be equated because they are opposites. One is above in the rarefied atmosphere of the intellect, the other beneath in the physical world of the body, the emotions, the unconscious.
If Below is a cave, it is one full of Freudian echoes. Todd has an uncomfortable, awkward relationship with his father, Ian. We are told he is close to Cynthia, his mother, although for most of the book he seems estranged from her as well. She and Ian are long divorced, and she has acquired a new partner, Taylor. Todd seems oddly fascinated by this relationship. He imagines he sees Cynthia and Taylor in the street and follows them around. He is subject to unbidden images of hands closing round Cynthia’s throat. Are these Taylor’s hands? Or are they Todd’s, the projection of a jealousy so deep it is unrecognised? Todd’s most vigorous act is his descent into the underworld to rescue his surrogate father, Philip, and, in the last words of the book, we realise that his epiphany in the cave has led him back to Ian’s door, to the unfulfilled relationship with his real father.
These unexamined and barely realised emotional currents seem, in the end, more powerful than any logic. Todd’s failure to engage them, or even to be more than dimly aware of their significance, leaves him still with everything to learn. If we accept his frame of reference, he seems to have achieved something of great personal significance; but if we step outside it for a moment and take into account this shadowy world that his intellect fails to illuminate, he seems the victim of a terrible delusion, a sad half-creature still struggling to make the simplest of human connections.
Does Corballis mean it all this way? I’m not entirely sure, but let’s suppose he does.
Chris Else’s latest novel, The Beetle in the Box, was reviewed in our June 2001 issue.