Victoria University Press, $29.95,
Writing a review of Tim Corballis’ second novel Measurement feels a bit like writing a review of a review. The fictitious book constantly referred to by the narrator, Measurement by Peter Korngold, is presented through the prism of the narrator’s perception and state of mind. It is many pages before we begin to have any understanding of how Korngold has handled his subject and what he thinks about it. Even then, we have only a sketchy idea of what the book is like, though its effect on the narrator, Antony, is obviously profound.
But Korngold’s book is not ultimately the subject of Corballis’ novel. It’s a hook on which to hang the intellectual debate that rages through the narrator’s head, centring around whether measurement is possible.
The reason this matters is that Antony is in a state of crisis. His treasured sister Jane has died of a terminal illness, robbing him of any sense of certainty in life. With Jane gone, the whole structure and meaning of his life is threatened. His internal chaos is echoed by the physical world around him. Ordinary things change shape and meaning as he looks at them; an automatic teller machine, for instance:
Instead of merely being a functional device the automatic teller is a series of planes and colours which reminds me of another, similar machine in Wellington (and to the right I think I catch a glimpse of the building where I work; a seagull which flies in front of it redefines it as the awning on the supermarket in the town by the sea. Underneath the awning, I imagine I see an adolescent boy carrying a rock – which turns out to be a suitcase, and the boy is a man in an open-collared shirt whose colour has vanished into the street).
But there’s a paradox here. Antony tells us early on that the thesis of his bible is actually that people have made a mistake in thinking measurement is possible. Life, in fact, is precarious. Although Antony knows, at an intellectual level, that measurement is not possible, an obsession with achieving it dominates his consciousness. As he makes his way south to his sister Elizabeth and her husband Gordon, he is not only obsessed by his memories and their meaning but also under a compulsion to observe the physical details of his surroundings.
The novel splices events happening in the narrator’s immediate physical surroundings with ideas emanating from Korngold’s book, then invites us to look at Antony’s particular experience in that light. For instance, he notices he is sensing rather than seeing the sun shining through a gap between two buildings. When the sun disappears, the gap loses its definition and the whole street merges in a blur. That reminds him of Korngold’s claim that it’s not possible to measure things themselves, but only the gaps between, and that it’s still less possible to measure people, or, in fact, to measure oneself. He remembers two nights he once spent in the town with his friend Carl, thus offering us a way of considering the friendship between Ant and Carl in terms of the gap between them and what it tells us about each character individually. This movement from landscape to intellectual question to embodiment in personal history occurs throughout the novel.
As with Corballis’ first novel Below, his rendering of the physical environment is staggeringly well done. The incidents of Ant’s personal history that Corballis chooses for our illumination are always telling, and he conveys them with elegant and dramatic succinctness. The transition from intellectual or obsessive observation to memory-filtered recreation of incident is smoothly done. The unfaltering, sparsely paragraphed result is mesmerising, but in the gaps between my reading sessions I was aware of a sense of contrivance.
Sometimes the obsessive fascination with every minute thing that happens around Ant and in his own mind became wearisome, and it was with relief that I discovered several of his friends had actually accused this character of narcissism. Though the sentences are for the most part beautifully constructed, repetitive illustrations of Antony’s state of mind detract from the momentum. We keep coming back to the already achieved understanding that this character has lost his sense of self, reality and meaning.
I know “show, don’t tell” is a doctrine formed in heaven, but sometimes I longed for a bit less “show” and even a bit of “tell” for the sake of moving the story on. It was, however, refreshing not to be offered clichés like “having issues with” or “come to terms with”. What saves us from losing patience with Ant is that the things he is dealing with are real and universal – loss, grief, the constantly shifting nature of perception, the difficulty of achieving shared perception between oneself and others.
The elusiveness of Ant’s bible became a problem as I read on and on without ever really meeting this “character”. Although I knew the elusiveness was the author’s way of demonstrating the unquantifiably unreliable perceptions of a measurement-freak, I couldn’t help wanting to see the book and examine its contents for myself.
If the point of the novel is to get us to understand that we don’t need to measure or control in order to live effectively, then is there any point in taking so seriously the subject of measurement? If measurement is not the key to living, there is something unsatisfying in reading a novel so preoccupied with the assumption that it is, particularly when we are never allowed direct communication with the source of the intellectual argument. This sometimes results in rather glib, unsubstantiated claims being made, such as “in all things all we do is measure ourselves without realising it” (my italics).
But there are very good things in this novel. In many ways it’s a major achievement and it’s surprisingly moving. In a fascinating ending, Corballis introduces the idea that creating fictions can play a role in helping people accept and understand reality. Ant plays with the fiction that he has no sister, never had any sisters, instead has a brother. At first I was dismayed. Had Ant achieved nothing? Was the fellow in complete denial? No, he’s found the key to completing his spiritual journey and beginning the journey home. That kind of paradox, explained and made convincing within just a few more pages of “show, don’t tell”, exemplifies what makes Measurement so well worth the read.
Jenny Robin Jones (formerly Jenny Jones) is an Auckland reviewer.