The unexpected past, Jenny Robin Jones

What Happen Then, Mr Bones?
Charlotte Randall
Penguin, $28.00,
ISBN 0143019171

With her three previous novels, Dead Sea Fruit, The Curative and Within the Kiss, Charlotte Randall has developed a voice clearly identifiable in New Zealand literature. In What Happen Then, Mr Bones? the same elements come into play: fecund imagination, delight in playing with words, an unusually wide-ranging vocabulary and, above all, intelligence of rare energy and breadth that finds fulfillment in creating structures and worlds within them.

In The Curative, Randall’s chained protagonist is a man who can’t move – a challenging stricture for a narrator who is already in first person and can’t know what is happening unless it occurs in his sight or hearing. The challenge is to make the mind of the protagonist so agile in reason and memory that the reader is never bored.

Within the Kiss throws down a different challenge by circumscribing more than usual the powers of the narrator. He isn’t allowed to introduce characters unless one of them, a tennis coach, deems it desirable for the bestseller being written by the other protagonist. Rather than straighten out her circular referencing, Randall navigates the consequences of this flouting of fictional convention.

On to What Happen Then, Mr Bones? where it’s as if Randall has said to herself, “Novels are usually about life, so I’ll write one about death. Novels usually start at a point in time and move forward; I’ll start with the present and move steadily back.”

So we start in 2002 with the suicide of a man who will not be mentioned again, and move on to that of Joe Halifax who has lived the life of a hypochondriac and mistakenly believes he has an inoperable tumour. Then it’s backwards to his wife Susan on their daughter Valentina’s wedding day. Each thumbnail graphic of a fencer lunging away from the text heralds another step back in time. In this fashion we trace the Montague family back to the fencing instructor who in 1651 impregnates Valentina’s namesake. Not surprisingly, there are many deaths along the way. These are dwelt upon in loving and fascinated detail, implying that humanity’s dominant life experiences are poxes and tumours, death in childbirth, medical misadventure, sensational accidents and premature burial.

But the novel purports to be less about death itself than about the fear of dying. Starting with the modern world in which Joe’s niece and her boyfriend live miserable, stunted lives trying to avoid death-by-food and Susan’s flight to Italy is marred by fear of terrorists and blood clots, we move on to find young Joe being sent to school with a muslin bag of chopped garlic round his neck. As we move back through the years, we see people using infected plasters and having limbs amputated at the slightest sign of infection. Perceiving diseases as punishment by God, they seek to deflect them with regular church attendance. They also make special expeditions to view corpses on public display for the sake of their healing power. Death by syphilis in one generation engenders morbid fear of it in the next. And on it goes.

The novel is structured like a house of cards. You take off the top level and see the one beneath, remove that level and the next is revealed until after 280 pages all the levels are stripped away and you are left with … knowledge of something that once existed. The novel begins in Petone 2002 and we move progressively backwards until we reach Oxford, England in 1651. At that point none of the rest of the novel technically exists, because it hasn’t happened yet. Whereas the flashback convention is typically used to illuminate a present from which we have temporarily strayed, in Randall’s hands the past obliterates the present. We never return unless by our own volition, as a flash-forward.

Her treatment of time defies the conventional wisdom that the excitement of a story, the dénouement, lies in the unexpected future. Here we experience the unexpected past. When we finally get back to the beginning, Anne Green is executed and dies – and is resurrected on the dissecting table of an anatomy class. This has been presaged by references throughout the novel to Valentina’s diary which has been handed down through the generations, but Randall’s time-backwards approach means that although we know Anne will be resurrected as Valentina, the last pages of the novel delineate her death. The effect of all this is like being caught in a storm at sea and trying to hold on to the rail.

If the novel is about dying, what is it saying? By focusing on how her characters die, Randall builds a picture of people whose lives are morbidly affected by their fear of death. Some hasten their own deaths through their fear, others stunt their lives. Upon her death, Anne Green triumphantly morphs into independent-thinker Valentina who has no fear of dying and is able to live a fully articulated life. Unfortunately she fails even through her diary to pass on her wisdom, but her namesake – Joe’s astonishingly beautiful daughter – echoes her fearless defiance. We stay just long enough with Valentina to see her leave her Italian husband and her beautiful life of weekends in Florence and Venice to seek out the deprived and poor.

It’s far from a Danilo Dolci epiphany, however. Randall refers to “the annexation of Valentina’s guilt-softened heart by predatory low-life” and, before deserting her, claims that “This is where the crimes against the innocents eternally repeat themselves: in the hearts of the loving who are espoused to the wronged and vengeful.” Since Joe’s daughter is named after the first Valentina and possesses some of her qualities, we might have expected more from her than this dismal destiny and a summing up by the author that has no resonance with the rest of the novel.

The novel traces the emigration of the Montague family from London to Petone and Randall’s depiction of early “Pito-one” is vivid and convincing. She has the gift of presenting characters who are instantly engaging, but her fascination with knowledge (and especially the gruesome side of early medical science) has a trivialising, voyeuristic effect on their development. Instead, she often seems to be pulling her puppets’ strings to show off their deaths.

Admittedly, it is an enjoyable experience. Randall’s play with words, her shards of brilliant humour and her admirable mastery of paradox sparkle from beginning to end, illuminating the gloomy path backwards. Even the title is paradoxical: “What happen then?” implies forward progression but, in fact, Randall insists, time can go this way or that way and in this novel it’s to go that way.

In the end, I’m left with the feeling that What Happen Then, Mr Bones? is an interesting and instructive exercise. When it’s a choice between empathising with a character or staring ghoulishly at death, Randall’s predilection is clear:

We could go with [James] into the cold passageway, stand with him and watch him wringing his hands over the indignity about to be afflicted on the corpse of his mother, but it will be far more interesting and instructive to stay in the kitchen and witness one of the more disgusting and ludicrous tests of life ever invented.

 

Jenny Robin Jones’s Writers in Residence: a Journey with Pioneer New Zealand Writers was reviewed in our August 2004 issue.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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