31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 30: “Neptune’s Necklace” by Alice Petersen

May 30, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

From All the Voices Cry

In his guide for fiction writers, The Art of Fiction, one of the exercises John Gardner provides reads as follows: “Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.” The point, of course, is to develop the ability to convey a mood without being overly explicit or expository. Mood should arise organically out of a work of fiction, not be larded onto it in an artificial way.

The thing about mood, though, is that it is sometimes inextricably tied into setting. Locating a story in 1939 Poland, for instance, will infuse that story with a certain resonance for readers, no matter what the specifics of that story may be. But what if a story is set in a less archetypal, but nonetheless fraught, locale? How are readers expected to react, and how does a reader’s reaction change should he or she be cognizant of the setting’s import?

“Neptune’s Necklace” focuses on a seventy-three-year-old artist living in New Zealand. As the story opens, the artist, Hattie, walks along the beach with her dog. There is nothing particularly unusual about this scene, except for the focus on images of death or passage. As she walks along the beach, Hattie imagines seeing “a clutch of child-sized shades running before her,” and pictures them “gazing at a dead mollymawk where it had washed up against a piece of driftwood.” The word “shades,” although somewhat outmoded, clearly refers to ghosts, and a mollymawk is a kind of albatross, a type of bird that has obvious literary connotations. We later discover that “the shades were girls, all of them, and one of the shades was Hattie’s daughter.”

The balance of the story involves Hattie retreating home to evade the rains that occur daily, and being interrupted in her business by two young people whose car has broken down. The couple, a young man and a young woman, ask to use Hattie’s phone and Hattie offers to make them tea. In the course of their discussion, it transpires that the young woman is an art history student who has to do an essay “on someone contemporary.” She asks about Hattie’s influences, to which the older woman replies, “I don’t have any influences.”

The only significant influence Hattie has is her daughter, one of the three shades she imagines seeing at the beach. Her daughter, along with two other girls, died when a “rogue current” dragged her out to sea: this is the event that Hattie has simultaneously been running from and been unable to evade ever since. All well and good, and a perfectly crafted example of a rather melancholy domestic tale.

And yet.

Hattie lives near a beach by the city of Dunedin in New Zealand, and the opening sentence of the story makes reference to a salt marsh. These details imply that the beach in question is Aramoana Beach, near Otago harbour in New Zealand. Aramoana Beach is the site of a 1990 massacre of thirteen people by a lone gunman, the most egregious instance of gun violence in New Zealand’s history. “I did not want to write about the massacre itself,” Petersen says, “so I made a parallel narrative, as my own act of memorial.”

It is coincidental that I read the interview with Petersen prior to reading her story. But how does a knowledge of Aramoana Beach’s history change the effect of the story, if at all? How would one react to the melancholy aspect of the tale if one thought it had no real world resonance? Does the knowledge of the 1990 massacre lend Hattie’s story additional gravitas? Does it tug at a reader differently? In Gardner’s terms, Petersen describes the setting of the massacre without ever mentioning the massacre. The story stands on its own. Armed with the background knowledge of what the story’s setting implies, how does that change a reader’s experience of it? Since it is impossible to erase the knowledge of what the setting implies, it is impossible for me to answer these questions. I would be interested to find out, however.

Scenes from a life

September 20, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Perfect Order of Things. David Gilmour; $27.95 cloth 978-0-88762-807-8, 228 pp., Thomas Allen Publishers

It may be a function of reaching a certain age that prompts men to look back on their past achievements with a kind of combined wistfulness and aggrandizement. Bruce Springsteen was only thirty-five when he noticed his glory days slipping away “in the wink of a young girl’s eye;” in Canada, we tend to wait a bit longer before taking the measure of lost youth. This season, no fewer than three big novels adopt the mantle of fictionalized autobiographies to dramatize their authors’ experiences and highlight the distances they have travelled – geographically and emotionally – over the course of a lifetime.

Michael Ondaatje has denied that the child in his new novel, The Cat’s Table, bears any resemblance to his creator. That child, nicknamed Mynah, boards a ship from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) bound for England; it is worth noting that his creator embarked on a similar voyage as a boy. It is also worth noting that Mynah’s real name is Michael, and the character in the book ends up leaving his adopted country of England for Canada, where he becomes a writer.

Dany Laferrière, meanwhile, fled his homeland of Haiti some thirty-five years ago after a friend and colleague was killed under the repressive regime of Baby Doc Duvalier. Laferrière resettled in Montreal, where he has lived in self-imposed exile ever since. His latest novel in English, The Return, tells the story of a Haitian-born writer living in Montreal who travels back to his homeland after learning of his father’s death.

David Gilmour’s new novel, his seventh, is perhaps the most transparently autobiographical of the three, but then Gilmour has always been an autobiographical writer, mining his own life and experiences for material in much the same way Philip Roth does. In The Perfect Order of Things, the narrator acknowledges that the impulse to look back and take the measure of a life is prompted in no small part by a recognition of mortality. At the start of the novel, the narrator sets out the book’s conceit: he will revisit key moments in his past in an attempt to notice all the things he missed at the time due to heightened emotions, misery, or simple self-absorption. By the book’s final chapter, entitled “The Big Circle,” the narrator, now in his sixties, finally realizes what the true nature of his project is: “what I’m doing is getting ready to die.” Recalling Montaigne’s idea that the goal of philosophy is to learn how to die properly, the narrator accedes to the notion that he has reached the late autumn of his life: “It’s not a morbid thought. I’m not talking about next week or next year. I’m simply saying that my boat is gradually turning toward harbour.”

The eventual demise of the narrator, seen in soft-focus over the horizon, is not the only time death encroaches on the novel; it is, however, the most peaceful and recondite. The narrator’s friend, Justin Strawbridge (a character who will be recognizable to readers familiar with Gilmour’s 1993 novel An Affair with the Moon), commits a murder that is startling in its violence, and the narrator’s father, suffering the onset of dementia, commits suicide. This latter sequence, dramatized early in the novel, occasions some of Gilmour’s most heartfelt writing:

Sometimes I wonder if my father, as he swept the gun up and placed the barrel to his temple, had, in the moment before he squeezed the trigger and the bullet knocked him onto the floor, second thoughts. Did he think it would hurt? Did he think about me? Could he see the ceiling of the kitchen when he hit the floor? Did he know, lying there, that he was dying? Did he regret it? Do you go on dreaming when you die like that, the images moving further and further and further away? Is that what he thought at the very last second: This is the perfect order of things.

The novel’s repeated insistence on death should not make the book sound overly dour; to the contrary, Gilmour’s picaresque autobiography-manqué is a celebration of life. If death is acknowledged, it is only because it is an inevitable part of living. Indeed, many of Gilmour’s readers fail to acknowledge (perhaps because humour is so personal and individual) how funny the man can be; The Perfect Order of Things contains moments liable to make a reader laugh out loud. Gilmour’s four-line summation of Anna Karenina, for example, is hilarious in both its economy and its accuracy. (No, I shan’t reproduce it here: you’ll have to search it out for yourself.)

That four-line précis is included in a chapter that is ever so slightly adapted from Gilmour’s award-winning Walrus article about the joys of discovering Tolstoy for the first time as an adult. The chapter, “My Life with Tolstoy,” is thoroughly entertaining: at once funny, moving, and erudite. But it’s impossible to ignore a sense that it is out of place in the context of Gilmour’s novel. Other similar chapters, on the author’s interview with George Harrison and his book tour for his memoir, The Film Club, contain material that likewise feels ultra vires. This is a danger inherent in Gilmour’s chosen form: by so insistently inserting his own life into the work, and by cutting up the narrative into ten (more or less) self-contained chapters, the author blurs the line between fiction and autobiography to such an extent that the so-called fourth wall is all but obliterated. The trade-off is that the fictional elements in the novel appear intermittent; the book feels as though it is constantly dropping in and out of a consistent narrative.

Much of this is intentional and, as Michel Basilières pointed out in his review of the book, has more in common with a European tradition than what we are used to here in North America. Nevertheless, readers who agree with John Gardner that for a novel to be effective, the fictional dream it creates “must probably be vivid and continuous” will in all likelihood come away from Gilmour’s novel disappointed. Those familiar with Gilmour’s oeuvre will find characters and scenes from earlier books repurposed here; this postmodern metatextual aspect will be inviting or alienating depending upon the reader’s temperament.

What is undeniable, however, is Gilmour’s seemingly effortless facility at turning a sentence, his searing honesty and self-awareness (however harsh the narrator can be in his assessments of others, he saves all the nastiest barbs for himself), and his incisive eye for cultural worth (Gilmour is someone who recognizes the value distinction between Proust and Tolstoy on the one hand, and our sadly denuded, celebrity-driven culture on the other).

Life, said Kierkegaard, can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. Gilmour’s novel, in all its messiness, is a testament to a well-lived life, and the understanding that comes with a certain age.