Lloyd Jones is the man who wrote a book about a child molester, and no one noticed – what better proof do we need that journalists don’t really read fiction? And yet some of them seem very excited by his new novel Mister Pip. By their account, the publishing world is agog, especially the part of it that lives Overseas, where publishers are depicted as bidding urgently for the book in auctions. And we should be agog too, it seems, because Jones is about to become our first million-dollar writer! With this work, apparently, his time has come, even though it might be thought already to have done so a few years ago with The Book of Fame.
We need to understand how this publisher-driven commodification of writing deflects attention from the inside of a book to the outside, from what a writer is trying to do to the authorial imago which commodification creates – exemplified in one recent article by the pleasantly ovoid image of the writer that accompanied it. We may not know much more about Jones’s writing after a treatment like this, but at least we know that he lives in inner Wellington. Somewhere behind this approach is a vague, unexamined equation of financial success and the winning of prizes: surely Mister Pip is now a front-runner for our top awards? For Overseas ones? To make up our minds on this question, we may even be forced to read it.
No wonder Jones regrets (as he apparently does) the lack of informed response to his best writing, the failure to see that he never does the same thing twice and that the carefully pared-back style he has developed sometimes conceals just how odd, how risky, some of his work is. Biografi: An Albanian Quest (1993), for example, carefully blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction to the point where it is not quite clear which of the two it is, or whether that matters very much. Mister Pip is narrated by a young Bougainvillean woman, exact converse of White Man Jones; The Book of Fame is narrated entirely in the second person; Choo Woo is the one about the child molester; Paint Your Wife about a man who moves an entire hill. How artists write, what they write about and, especially, how ordinary people make art are his central interests. It is tempting to see the famous Deans “try” that, if not quite at the centre of The Book of Fame, was certainly at the centre of the tour that is its subject, as the centre of Jones’s writing as well, emblem of the unknowability that confronts all who try to deal with lumpen, unsatisfactory Life through painting, dancing, writing and, of course, that most sublime of all art forms, rugby football.
In Mister Pip, Jones challenges this theme by setting his novel, unexpectedly, in the unwriterly turmoil of the western Pacific island of Bougainville during the early 1990s civil war there. Bougainville’s secessionist struggle provides the tension that drives this part of the book as, alternately, government soldiers and local rebels turn up, each looking for collaboration with the other; the former tend to drop the latter in the sea from helicopters when they find them. Caught between these two forces, the villagers – mostly women and children, of those who haven’t fled – simply wait for the terrible end. This is certainly the new, politicised Pacific, fraught with danger, full of plausible colour and detail – Jones has been there, done that – but not particularly nice, reeking of fear and poverty, thoroughly “primitive”.
Somewhere about here, we start to need that most neglected word in our local critical lexicon, “postcolonialism”, and on cue it comes shuffling in at the start of the novel in the form of Mr Watts, the last white man left on the island. A baffled and baffling figure who tows his giant Bougainvillean wife around on a little cart, he is a perfect image for the Fall of Empah and of Literature itself. With his occasional clown nose and his perpetually sad demeanour, he is like something out of Waiting for Godot, with his love of Dickens like the madman at the end of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. And in fact Dickens is who he wants to tell us about, the man he claims is the finest English writer of the 19th century, and, in particular, the novel he claims was Dickens’ best, Great Expectations.
In the absence of the regular teacher who has fled, Mr Watts takes over the local schoolhouse, where he reads a chapter of the novel a day to the village children, and sometimes to their mothers as well, since he has asked them to drop by regularly in order to stiffen his pedagogy. And thus a sort of double narrative emerges: each day, Dickens-read-aloud alternates with these women’s show-and-tell exercises, in which they impart a sort of “island news” that is clearly meant to contrast with the Great Tradition. For example, the story of the heart-seed, which floats ashore, takes root, becomes a tree, and yields new seeds that, lit, keep the mosquitoes away.
Gradually, the decrepit little classroom begins to fill with the two worlds of imperialism: the quotidian reality of survival, and the strange Disneyland of British culture that was brought around the world to its various Hearts of Darkness and set up there to represent Progress and Knowledge.
When the novel’s inevitable crisis comes about, it seems above all else to suggest the dysfunctional nature of the Great Tradition in the ruck of the postcolonial. As Great Expectations hits the oral, “Pip” becomes “Mister Pip”, becomes a rumoured, hallucinated rebel mastermind whom government soldiers turn up to find. And that is the end of both Mr Watts, the figure out of literature, and the narrator’s mother, the figure out of life. Knowing about the heart-seed, in other words, seems to be no more important for surviving secessionist Bougainville than knowing about Pip and Joe Gargery; or, alternatively, you might say that in a roundabout way it is Joe and Pip who have killed Matilda’s mother off.
But somewhere in the contrast between these modes, written and oral, literature and life, is the core of Jones’s novel, the grist that will serve many university mills over the next few years. I can see the exam questions now (“Show how the local and the global meet in Mister Pip”; “What does Mister Pip tell us about the relationship of written and oral cultures?”); and I can see the movie, too, come to that – with Anthony Hopkins, of course, fresh off Bert Munro’s motorcycle and out in the noonday sun.
None of this, though, would catch the distinctive effect of this novel as a reading experience, the quality which only literature possesses and which Jones has mastered as a trace in his writing that is impossible to pin down but impossible to deny: the persistently elegiac mood of The Book of Fame, for example, or the persistently enigmatic quality of Paint Your Wife; that unlocatable but unmistakable aftertaste of the reading experience. In Mister Pip, it is the property of its most compelling part, the final 37 pages, most of them set off the island and in Australia and New Zealand: in them, Matilda grows up, studies, and is “civilised”; she becomes – the horror, the horror! – an academic, specialising in Dickens; she finds out more about Mister Pip himself and in due course reverses the trajectory of colonialism by travelling to Britain and, specifically, to the places where Dickens lived and wrote.
It is in these scenes that is lit the novel’s peculiar charge that I associate especially with this writer’s laconic art: for me, they bring to vivid life for the first time just the sheer oddity of the colonial enterprise, its delusional pathos, the audacity and the simple-mindedness of it, the wrong-headedness at its centre that, in this rendering, becomes quite touching. I can’t quite put my finger on it, and that is my point: it is there to be read, not written about, experienced, not spoken. It is a sort of poetry, distinctively the author’s.
This novel is certain to be a success in the ways I have suggested, but it would be an injustice if it were celebrated entirely for the wrong reasons – for Henry Fielding’s “fame and fortune” – rather than for what it has really achieved: a triumph of the art of writing for the reader, giving us something that has to be worked on, reflected on, and read again as it moves away in front of us. That is the way this unassuming, thoughtful writer seems to work, and this seems to be his best example so far of what he does. It is far too important an achievement to be thrown away heedlessly into postmodernism’s unheeding hysterical sublime.
Patrick Evans’ literary history The Long Forgetting will be published by Canterbury University Press this year.