Faber and Faber, $33.00,
Caroline’s Bikini is a text written by Emily Stuart, in which she “takes dictation” from her oldest friend, Evan Gordonston, recently returned from the United States to London, and helplessly in love with his landlady, Caroline Beresford. Caroline is (the novel tells us so) Laura to Evan’s Petrarch, Beatrice to his Dante, Dorothea to his Will Ladislaw. There’s even a Casaubon, Caroline’s husband David, closeted away with his Greek and Latin texts.
Except the novel is not really this at all. Emily claims that she is performing as an “amanuensis”, merely taking down Evan’s words as Milton’s daughters recorded his. In fact, she is creator and composer. Her text includes a few of Evan’s words, carefully curated, but otherwise is entirely made up of her two preoccupations: the difficulty of writing, and – barely admitted – Evan himself. The “story”, such as it is, tracks her meetings with Evan in all the bars of west London over the course of six months, in parallel to his ongoing breakfast coffees with Caroline. It’s a novel that enacts futility, yearning towards a consummation that is infinitely deferred.
But there’s no point in trying to be a smarty-pants critic with Caroline’s Bikini. Pretty much any type of analysis you might want to throw at it is already inside the covers. At the end of the novel proper (also self-described variously as a project, a document, a book, an essay, an intervention and a report) come 100 pages of “Notes”. These notes supply meta-comment on a text already so saturated with awareness of its own artifice that the fabric of the thing barely holds together (which is the point). Mock-serious in tone, the “Notes” take meta-comment to the next level:
“Make it new,” said the modernist poet Ezra Pound in his outline of the poetic project; well, then, so might Caroline’s Bikini be, to paraphrase another poet, Wallace Stevens, no representation of an event, but the event itself, as Stevens put it: “The cry of its own creation.”
Is this exhausting? Yep, pretty much. And, although there are nods and winks as to the dementedness of all these trappings, I think we are also meant to read these notes, broken into sections on the character’s histories, on “Old London”, on “Courtly Love”, on “Unrequited Love as a Creative Act”, on “The Role of The Beloved”, as sincerely offering a framework for interpretation, if such a task is possible.
How a reader reacts to Caroline’s Bikini as a whole depends on how you feel about a novel which is relentlessly hyper-conscious and hyper-articulate about its methods and aims, its doubts and stammers, albeit while delivering charm and wit on every page. There is a great deal of interpretation, and very, very little story. What does that do to a reader? It certainly does mess fantastically with your general sense of what a novel is, expands our sense of what might be valid methods for fiction. Telling a tale is out. Three-dimensional layering, to the point where any nascent story is muffled, half-suffocated in thick blankets of self-consciousness, is in. Forward motion is out. Rotating back, and back, and back upon events which are small to start with and which fade away to nothing on re-examination, is in.
What does it mean to write in circles? Our narrator Emily berates herself:
Stuck is how it felt, like a machine gets stuck, mid-action, and can’t sort itself, can’t click into gear to start up its whirring and turning again but only spins, over and over, brokenly and pathetically in the same place.
But circularity, it seems to me, is a deep method of Gunn’s and has been throughout her career. It’s built into the architecture of her paragraphs and chapters. Again and again, a motif or a phrase is laid down, moved away from, returned to.
Caroline’s Bikini seems built out of a profound scepticism about linear progress. That plot, those various imagined futures that we strain towards as writers and readers, the drive towards climax and resolution, is it necessary? We habitually long for a consummation but, when it arrives, it’s utterly hollow: just a bad pun. This doubt about the value of moving forward is there in Gunn’s earlier work, too:
The future was simply a set of parts you didn’t yet possess. You struggled to lay claim and the minute you had one, you had the rest. Not so the past. That was already deep in: it was this place, earth and sky, these creased hills. It was the few sheep picking along the side of the road for comfort. The woman wound down the window to smell the tang of their wool in the cold air. The past, from now on, was where she always wanted to be.
That piece comes from Gunn’s 1999 collection of stories, This Place You Return to is Home, the title itself a kind of circle. Returning home is the topic of Gunn’s 2015 essay My Katherine Mansfield Project, in which she comes back to the Thorndon of her girlhood. It’s an essay which both meditates on and re-enacts Katherine Mansfield’s sense of exile from home.
To recreate childhood, to bring the circle round to a new home, which is at the same time an old home, is the deepest animating emotion of the narrator in Caroline’s Bikini. Emily’s unspoken desire and loneliness for the boy she loved as a child pulses through her ponderous, self-conscious mutterings about the progress of the text. She wishes that Evan might agree to come back to hers, that she might cook him rice, or pasta, that they might eat together in a domestic setting, but even these modest fantasies are not to be: they never get out of gin bars, doomed to share only the thin sustenance of nuts and chips. Emily’s longing for Evan is genuinely poignant. It’s also the place where Gunn finally gifts her narrator with the fluent lyricism that is her signature style:
For Evan, as long as I have known him, has always been like that. A man, and before that a boy, who, even when we were over at each other’s house every day, was always capable and organized and with a quiet animal’s ability to fit in, and alter quickly, adapt immediately, it would seem, to the new situation he found himself in. So he lost a shoe at mine? He just borrowed my brother’s gumboots. So he didn’t have any change for sweets because he’d forgotten to ask for his pocket money? Well, he could use mine and we could choose together because he didn’t like gobstoppers. So in the same way, now, in London, he’d come straight back into a smart high-powered position with his firm and could have lived in pretty much any flat anywhere he’d chosen, still here he was, a lodger, and I could so easily forget that it might be otherwise. As though one might say to him now, “Why not move in with me and here are the gumboots, the pound coins for as many sweets as we need,” and he might reply, “I’d love that,” and arrive the same night with a small bag of clothes, and that would be all it would take. Instead of a preoccupation with an invitation, a host family’s social plans for a Saturday in July, there’d be a knock on the door, a greeting. I’d say, “Hello there. What took you so long?” and he would just come inside.
The stagnant, circling form of Caroline’s Bikini works as a critique of capitalist logic. “There’s nothing about what you’re doing that constitutes proper, constructive work,” chastises Emily’s right-wing friend Christopher, “as though he’d committed some terrible Conservative party manifesto from the eighties to memory and was now doomed to deliver it up in flat monologues left on my voicemail and answer machine.” Emily’s finances get ever more precarious as she gets ever deeper into the project. “You can’t afford to go without proper work for so long,” lectures friend Marjorie. “What about your mortgage? Christopher did tell me he thinks you’re being irresponsible on this.” Caroline’s Bikini, this purported “novel” which does (practically) nothing, which fails to get on with its job, never earns its right to exist. It doesn’t tell a story. It is not useful. In this way it asks: does something (someone) who doesn’t contribute in a purposeful way have any value?
Caroline’s Bikini is undeniably hypnotic, soporific and slow. “Readers,” says Emily, “like resolution, conflict, drama”, and, well, that’s not what’s on offer here. If you want a low-stimulation bedtime read, this is the book for you. You may find it maddening and you find yourself marooned in it for some time. However, for me, Emily’s invisible suffering gave the novel a vital heart: that’s what kept me persevering to the end. I’m glad I did. Probably the only way to enjoy Caroline’s Bikini is to stop fighting it and give yourself over – to its peculiar charm, to the stubbornness and eccentricity and cheerful haplessness of the project.
Kate Duignan’s latest novel, The New Ships, published by Victoria University Press, is reviewed on p6.