In Marilyn Duckworth, New Zealand has its finest writer of the absurd. Although others have written about states of unreality or non-reality – most particularly Janet Frame, younger novelists like Elizabeth Knox, Fiona Farrell, and Christine Johnston who use magic realism, and Ronald Hugh Morrieson, that avatar of Gothic melodrama – only Duckworth, in novel after novel, has effortlessly captured the flavour of life’s strangeness. The normal and the bizarre interact in her work to produce states of disorientation, heightened perceptions, unpredictable outcomes. Duckworth is one of those rare writers who knows how to let her imagination have full rein, and who lifts the reader into realms where the unexpected becomes a character in its own right.
In Swallowing Diamonds, her fourteenth novel, and the first since her sensational autobiography Camping on the Faultline (2000), Duckworth returns in good form. Her story is inspired by her favourite subject, a young woman whose life is about to take off despite her unpromising start, and who on this occasion has hopes of becoming a writer.
In this, of course, the main protagonist is modelled on Duckworth herself, who always saw herself as a writer from the age of 10 when she began her first novel. She and her sister, the poet Fleur Adcock, lived through a Bronte-like childhood during the war in Britain, entertaining each other with poems and stories which they recited and wrote down in notebooks. Later they inhabited an invented fantasy world called “Dreamland”. Duckworth, always solitary by nature, found the very sounds of words mesmeric: “I would swing by myself for hours … talking poetry of my own making, a senseless scribbling of words together.” Fleur describes how her sister’s imagination ruled: “She was a nervous child … and given to bizarre imaginings …. Ghosts and ghouls and nameless hauntings also featured in her night terrors.”
Certainly the paradoxical situation of habitual estrangement was one she learnt to live with early on. The Adcock family’s move to London, when Marilyn was three and Fleur five, made both sisters outsiders: first among the British, and then, when they returned to New Zealand in 1947 at the ages of 11 and 13, among New Zealanders. Expatriatism, no doubt, contributed to the intensity of their relationship as sisters, and Duckworth wonders even now: “Where did she end and I begin?”
Right from the beginning, then, Duckworth was conscious that the boundaries between herself and others were porous, prone to dissolve, and a cause of disorientation. The heightened sense in her work of the unfamiliar intruding upon the everyday, as if a stranger had entered the bedroom, comes from this fundamental perception which she uses to probe peculiar mental states. In her first novel, A Gap in the Spectrum (1958), she introduces a fantasy world in order to draw upon her own alienated psychology (she returned to London at the age of 19), and in her second, The Matchbox House (1960), fantasy becomes a refuge for her heroine, paralysed by her husband’s infidelities.
Heroines trapped in claustrophobic relationships are a feature of the early work, probably reflecting Duckworth’s own sense at the time of entrapment in marriage and motherhood; the preoccupation recurs in the dilemma of the heroine in Rest for the Wicked (1986), who cannot escape family pressures. When escape does occur, Duckworth has been controversial. For instance, the supposed “immorality” of Frieda, the unmarried mother of her third novel A Barbarous Tongue (1963), who takes more than one lover in order to establish her independence, was sharply criticised. The violent shoot-out and fatal car crash at the conclusion of her fourth, Over the Fence is Out (1969), was also criticised – for lack of verisimilitude. Such endings may, however, be read as another form of escape – from the fictional world – and violent denouements remain Duckworth’s preferred exit strategy.
After a silence of 15 years, following Over the Fence, Duckworth made a comeback in the 1980s, writing about more empowering heroines whose sense of life’s oddness is mirrored in a larger social vision of chaos. In Disorderly Conduct (1984), solo mum Sophie juggles competing demands of children and lovers while New Zealand society is torn apart over the 1981 Springbok Tour, suggesting that the irrational had found a new place in Duckworth’s domestic comedy. Strange undertakings, the unpredictable consequences of medicine and technology, and scientific experimentation, give several subsequent novels the stamp of science fiction: Married Alive (1985) is a futuristic vision of New Zealand crippled by the effects of a polluted flu vaccine which undermines trust between people. Elements of horror pervade Rest for the Wicked (1986), about a sleep research laboratory in England, which is in effect a death research lab. Pulling Faces (1987) links its love story to a study of hypnosis and a sleep-reading machine. The drama of her thirteenth novel, Studmuffin (1997), whose protagonists find themselves in a looking-glass world which operates according to different laws, centres round ontological collision.
These social mishaps in Duckworth’s novels often function in metaphoric or analogic relation to the bizarre events in her characters’ lives when they veer out of control. But despite her love of the unexpected, she revels in the ordinary: in particular, how the processes of self-discovery invade its continuum. The unpredictability of being human underlies her comic vision: how people click, fall out, try to understand themselves and each other or mend fractured relationships. It is not surprising, then, that her own life and art have overlapped untidily. Of her 15-year silence, she has written that raising children, stepchildren, and dealing with lovers and husbands was necessary for broadening her experience. Through the domestic school of life, Duckworth fine-tuned her ear for snappy dialogue and sharpened her sense of the absurd. Take her insights into sex:
She begins to reach for the light switch, then changes her mind, turns herself round and strokes Sam hopefully. His penis hardens but his expression remains preoccupied.
“What are you thinking about?” she asks quietly. Could he be jealous of her first husband? Her blood quickens at the thought of this and she moves closer.
“The lease,” he says, “I have to make a decision before –”
“How can you have an erection when you are thinking of a bloody lease?” she asks angrily.
“But you were stroking me,” he says affronted. “And look what you’ve done to me now.” He pulls a face as he peers across his stomach to his limp member. “I was enjoying it too.”
“Well, that’s too bad. I use my mind and my body when I make love. Not just one.”
(Message from Harpo)
In her “second career”, Duckworth has become increasingly subtle in handling point of view and juggling casts of characters; she uses flashback to link different eras and events yet anchors the reader in the present. Message from Harpo (1989) ranges over three generations of women, but the novel’s period is 1986 and they confront the social upheavals marked by Halley’s Comet and the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. In novels of the 1990s, the darker side of Duckworth’s quirky, comic mode emerges as she explores the disturbing motives by which people act. In Unlawful Entry (1992), she again “ducks and dives” between three generations. But this time she balances comedy and tragedy in dealing with the facts of death, a suicide and a 15-year-old’s desperate attempt to help an ageing widow by kidnapping her own grandfather as a possible marriage partner.
Women’s violence, incest and lesbianism appear in Seeing Red (1993), a scary tale with hints of perversion and cruelty associated with two mysterious characters called the Burberries. The male narrator was a new departure in Pulling Faces (1987); in Leather Wings (1995), Duckworth’s versatility dazzles as she juxtaposes the voices of 56-year-old Esther, grandmother of six-year-old Jania, and – most revealingly – Jania’s kidnapper, the innocuous paedophile, the Rawleigh’s man. Studmuffin (1997) is a culminating vision of malevolence. The sinister forces, which dominate an island society and which her romantic protagonists resist, appear in an ominous, hooded figure called Powell, who questions the power of words and insists on silence.
Fuelling Duckworth’s fictions is the childhood desire she shared with Fleur to find “the exact truth of what was said, felt, done”. The title of her new novel, Swallowing Diamonds, suggests that Bun’s ability to swallow pins – useful if she ever wanted to smuggle diamonds – is a metaphor for recognising the often unpalatable truth that “At twenty-eight, attempting her own story, bits of real stuff, diamonds of truth, come pricking back, unsmuggle into her consciousness.” Swallowing Diamonds is a genuine post-autobiography novel in its belief that writing creates a self. Bun, abandoned at birth and therefore ignorant of her genetic make-up, is a tabula rasa, able to mould herself to whatever identity she constructs. Needing love, yet precariously clutching at life, Bun recalls the youthful Duckworth’s sense of evanescence: “He has seen her. She freezes and doesn’t move in case it is a mistake. If she stands very still he might blink and find she is someone else. Is she someone else?” But after her love affair with Dermot is interrupted, and when her new-found friend, her old school teacher, Stella Sumpster, travels to America, Bun does not hesitate to take matters into her own hands. Having been stuffed into a refrigerator as a baby and brought up in a girls’ home, she has little difficulty in transforming her lifestyle. She abandons her flat, lives in her car, and intrudes into a family’s home, observing and then entering their lives – all of which recalls Duckworth’s own habit of making herself homeless, and house-sitting for other people while she is writing.
Swallowing Diamonds again straddles three generations of women, though the point of view moves between Bun, Dermot and Stella. Duckworth has never written more acutely of Wellington, an animated, animistic urban setting: “Outside a steely sky rides over the city like a glass cake dome, flakes of icing sugar pretending to be clouds”. In the second setting, after Stella travels to America and joins a new age, transcendental meditation community, communication with Bun becomes more urgent – especially when Stella’s ancient aunt, left in a home near Wellington, falls fatally ill. In the third setting, the plot begins to creak. Stella idiosyncratically abandons her original mission and decides to travel to Prague with an improbable young man to visit his uncle; but Bun’s arrival in Prague to see her and find Dermot restores thematic coherence and narrative continuity.
What follows is pure Duckworth: the inevitable fatal car accident, off-stage this time, an inheritance, reunions with Tui (Bun’s friend from the children’s home) and coincidentally with Dermot. These coincidences are anticipated in the earlier recounting of situations and events: Tui appears in Bun’s disturbed memories of the girls’ home; the family whose house Bun invades pays for Tui’s airfare to Prague; the shoplifting scene at the end recalls a similar scene in the opening, and so on. More importantly, Bun’s feelings and responses are by now sufficiently enthralling to offset these artificial contrivances and the reader, as always with a Duckworth novel, continues compulsively to the end.
Duckworth’s unpredictable narrative directions and mechanistically contrived conclusions have deterred some readers; but the vitality with which she conjures up a plot, mobilises her story and animates her characters is never in any doubt. In her recent fiction, she integrates the workings of the unconscious with the narrative voice. In the opening of Studmuffin, for example, apparently random, alliterating, rhyming words appear: the name “Shilling” (appropriate for an accountant), who is “up-skilling” (his profession) and then “silliness” (Alice’s problematic attraction to him). Through wordplay Duckworth creates an idea of character and a motive for action. This technique of free association suggests how repressed or unfamiliar urges – for possession, revenge, lust or love – emerge unexpectedly.
A textual self-consciousness about life’s arbitrariness is just one similarity that Swallowing Diamonds has to Gen-X fiction. Bun and Dermot belong to the youth culture of the 1990s. Their erratic lifestyles, unpredictable work patterns, embrace of eastern philosophy and fascination with arcane ideas like synaesthesia, might have come from an Emily Perkins short story. But this novel also clings tenaciously to its idea of “unpalatable truth”. In speaking of her literary ambitions, Bun comments: “No-one wants old lady novels these days.” In Swallowing Diamonds Duckworth kills off her “old ladies” – Stella and her aunt – dramatising her triumph over age and confirming her own literary survival. The substance that remains, however, is not just an image of youth, but a story that reflects the art of a lifetime of writing.
Janet Wilson is currently working at University College, Northampton (UK) and writing a monograph on Fleur Adcock’s poetry.