Whose pain? Sarah Ross

Strip
Sue Wootton
Mākaro, $40.00,
ISBN 9780994123756

To spend the duration of Sue Wootton’s Strip in the presence of her protagonist, Dr Harvey Wright, is not an entirely comfortable experience. Harvey is a community GP who is dissatisfied in an unspectacular kind of way – a little ground down by the reality of keeping up a practice, a little paunchy, in a marriage grappling with unsuccessful IVF – when he becomes, in the novel’s opening page, a cartoonist. The medical magazine Health Matters takes on his Dr Doctor strip, a monthly funny of a Dad-joke kind, and it is for Harvey as if “a window had cracked open a tad and a puff of fresh air blown in”. Into his baggily comfortable existence, his new identity as a cartoonist injects a “flower-burst of elation”.

Perhaps reflecting the art-form of its protagonist, Strip is episodic, dipping in and out of Harvey’s life and those of his wife Isobel and daughter Fleur as they unfurl over more than 20 years. Its episodes are at once intensely real and disjointed, offering strip-like windows into the family’s lives, while maintaining a distance through fragmentation and unexpected gaps in chronology. Milestone phases are evoked in vivid detail: Isobel’s suppressed grief at her undesired childlessness, the shocking trauma of parenting the adopted infant Fleur, the intense bond of a mother and teenage daughter, and Isobel’s later quest for self-fulfilment.

Isobel’s pain and elation, her grief and disillusionment, are deftly rendered, but this is essentially Harvey’s story. Wootton circles around his point of view, privileging it as he does, and making it the decentred locus of the narrative. Harvey is an ordinary man whose flawed decisions threaten the fabric of his family. He is at once well-meaning and selfish, professional and criminal, a loving husband and father, and a bully preying on the vulnerable; he is always understandable, but never entirely sympathetic. He takes actions that seem extreme (and which would spoil the novel to reveal in this review), but in doing so he is discomfortingly ordinary – and all the more compelling for it.

Also compelling is the suggestion, in the title, of the novel’s thematic relationship to Harvey’s cartooning, as a kind of meditation on the art of ethical and social critique. Harvey’s story – and the actions which wrest all other stories away from others and make them his own – interrogates ethical questions about adoption, social power, medical obligation, euthanasia, and marital integrity, but none of these questions are easily answered. Harvey is a doctor and a cartoonist – a God-like medical professional and a social commentator – but he fails to escape the prison of everyday decisions and everyday consequences. Murray Ball, in a 2007 interview with Adam Dudding for Sunday Star Times, described cartooning as “very much a negative thing; you look for the weak spots”, and, just like a cartoon, Strip identifies ethical cruxes, but offers no simple solution. “Anything to ease the dreadful pain”, the flyleaf quotes from the centre of the novel, along with Harvey’s question to himself: “Whose dreadful pain, Harvey?” The paradox that the experience of pain within a family is at once inviolably shared and violently self-centred makes Strip all the more absorbing.

This is not a novel to judge by the bold colours of its cover: the wearied face of the cartoonist in the cover’s midst speaks most to its exploration of the weight of lives lived together. But its surprisingly dark portrayal is offset with passages of humour. Wootton’s delight in wordplay comes to the fore as Isobel takes on a job as administrative assistant to the most distracted breed of university professors, middle-aged male philosophers:

I am the philosophers’ administrator. I’m kind of an auxiliary brain for philosophers. I don’t know much about Kant, but I can find car keys and do double-sided photocopying, that kind of thing.

“She’s their rock,” said Helen. “She’s the philosopher’s stone.”

“The philosopher’s drone, more like.”

“She’s Isobel Necessary-to-the-philosophers,” said Helen.

There is a ready wit – an appreciation of the ridiculous in everyday interchange – that perhaps stretches the novel’s tone, but keeps its characters constantly real. Strip is a capacious whole, incorporating levity alongside the bleak and the routine.

More profoundly, the novel’s ethical musings are balanced against its longue durée portrait of Harvey’s and Isobel’s relationship, a marriage before, during, and after their daughter, Fleur. This unusually lengthy time-span offers a generous view of life’s imperfections and its quiet reconciliations. Fleur’s and her parents’ lives are as fleetingly organic as the birthday rose they plant at their family home, and so is Harvey’s happiness and that of Isobel. The recurrent flowers in Wootton’s novel are delicately handled. Not unlike the rose of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which “holds in perfection but a little moment”, Harvey’s and Isobel’s fragile and organic bloom is a constantly fading – and reflowering – emblem of possibility, set against the “viewless square” of life’s progress. Neither sentimental nor satirical, this is a finely nuanced first novel, and a rewarding read.

Sarah Ross is an associate professor in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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