The Falling: A Memoir
Auckland University Press, $29.95,
The simplest way to begin unwrapping the gift of this book is to start with the title: The Falling: A Memoir.
Notice the first word, the definite article: the falling is not any old falling, it’s THE falling. In other words, an event all readers will know something about as a matter of common experience. The reader’s knowledge may arise from the particulars of their life. For instance, in my case, the bike went one way, I went another, and there I was, face down on the road and closely inspecting the detail of the tar-seal. Or maybe, the reader has a memory of a falling into self-knowledge; or of a more public falling, such as the Erebus crash, or the Tangiwai disaster (as in this book). And a wider cultural meaning may be intended. The Fall of Adam and Eve; followed by our falling into this world in which we die (as the story goes). There is a sense, then, in which The Falling is concerned with grave matters, like a Methodist minister gathering together his flock of sinners.
Yet notice also the indefinite article. This memoir is not definitive, but only one of a number of possible memoirs of falling. And although the book contains material on the Tangiwai disaster, it is not “about” that, nor is it a biography, fictional or otherwise, of a 14-year-old boy called Robert Hale who was killed at Tangiwai. Rather, in Loney’s words, the book is “a memorial to something in the author’s experience”. At the risk of tearing the remembered body apart, what, precisely, is that something? And what is the function within the book of “Robert Hale”?
Part One opens with the following: “My name is Robert Hale, or if you’d prefer, my name is Alan Loney. Or, my name could be any that any of us could choose. If all of us die, and if kings and paupers are the same in death … then what’s in a name?” Thus, in some sense, placed against death, Robert Hale and Alan Loney are the same person, as we all are. Of course, such an identification is literally absurd; and in any case, Alan Loney is completely aware that Robert Hale was killed, and not he. But on a metaphorical level it isn’t; it depends on how it’s read. Because what we have been given to unwrap is a book in which the writer has achieved a remarkable level of sympathetic imagination, about Robert Hale, about himself.
First, the identifications. In my opinion, the passages in the book that imagine the experience of Robert Hale as he’s about to die partly function as a way of writing about the feelings of Alan Loney at a particular crisis in his life. The details of this crisis are, thankfully, not given. It’s sufficient for Loney to write: “I went somewhere recently ‘to die’.”
And there’s another, more subtle, identification. Twice in The Falling, Loney mentions one of his previous books – dear Mondrian, published over 25 years ago. At least two of the poems in that book make reference to the death of someone in the Tangiwai disaster. And while the references are not immediately clear to a reader without the hindsight the present book gives, it would appear that, for some years, Loney has been carrying a particular knot of feeling identified with the death of Robert Hale. Part of the book’s narrative energy is the untangling of that knot.
Secondly, there are the differences. At the beginning of Part Two, Loney is driven to the airport by a friend who is almost certainly a Jungian of some kind. The friend says, “We all have to take the journey to the underworld in this life to prepare for death.” Though it’s unclear who gives this information, “The journey’s name is nekuia. In Homer it is Odysseus’s journey to the underworld where he questions Teiresias… ” And so on. The important thing is: “Robert Hale” is explicitly described as “my guide” to Alan Loney’s underworld. So, as we follow his unwrapping of his memory through the seven parts of the book, what Loney is writing of (his memorial journey to something in his experience, to his falling) is what being alive was like for him when he was 14. A home like the House of Usher; a mother who was beaten and whom he talked out of suicide; and a father who locked away his almost certainly unconfident emotional life created by working within a certain kind of socio-economic system. And thus the reader learns why the memory of a boyhood friend persisted in his memory: “I envied your death.” (Though I would add, behind that reason, there’s another, and behind that one, another, ad infinitum.)
And yet the book is not just the revelation of personal detail. Remember: all of us will die, some of us finding that “the small and delicate thread that attaches us to being alive” unexpectedly snaps. Robert Hale (along with his mother and 149 others) was killed at Tangiwai. One of the board of inquiry’s conclusions was that the train’s emergency brakes had been applied some 200 metres from the Tangiwai railway bridge. If the train had been travelling at its usual speed of 80 kilometers an hour, then the brakes needed to be applied 225 metres from the bridge, “a matter of only a few seconds”. And there are other things: like the writing about the signal from the so-called real world, the “lahar”, an Indonesian word for a mudflow or a debris-flow that springs from inside or outside a volcano; or the writing on why the writer named Alan Loney dislikes reading; or, for me (whoever I am), the magic writing about dew (read tears).
A review can only begin to scratch at the wrappings of a book like The Falling, dealing as it must with “a great deal of solid material in a finely suspended state”. But in a time when so much “auto-biographical” writing is so much gossip (I did this and that with X and Y, as well as doing the whole zoo with Zed in a motel in Gore), which reveals very little of the writer’s feeling about anything at all except their own self-satisfaction at being the latest Sunday Times darling, I think The Falling is a courageous book. So even if, as the person named Alan Loney claims, to say thank you is the mark of a fool, so be it. Thank you, Alan. The Falling is a gift worth unwrapping.
John Dickson is a Dunedin poet. His most recent collection is Sleeper (1998).