books Where the Bod­ies Are Buried

Adam Rivett on Cerid­wen Dovey’s ‘In the Gar­den of the Fugi­tives’

The Monthly (Australia) - - APRIL 2018 - Adam Rivett on Cerid­wen Dovey’s ‘In the Gar­den of the Fugi­tives’

While read­ing fic­tion as lit­tle more than smug­gled au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is an in­her­ently crass and un­der­grad­u­ate ap­proach to lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, I’d none­the­less like to start that way. I have, after all, some­thing close to the au­thor’s per­mis­sion. Pon­der­ing the lac­er­a­tions of Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s My Strug­gle in th­ese pages only a few years ago, Cerid­wen Dovey, in an es­say ti­tled “The Pen­cil and the Dam­age Done”, wrote: I kept be­ing dis­tracted by my own hor­ror at what Knaus­gaard was do­ing, slash­ing away at his world, and by the over­whelm­ing feel­ing that it would cost him too much as a hu­man be­ing. I googled his wife, his un­cle, his mother, even his chil­dren, fix­at­ing on the walk­ing wounded sur­round­ing the liv­ing au­thor. Upon read­ing Dovey’s new novel, In the Gar­den of the Fugi­tives (Hamish Hamil­ton; $32.99), I, too, googled, and un­der the “Early Years and Ed­u­ca­tion” sub­head­ing of her Wikipedia page found a life story re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to that of the novel’s cen­tral char­ac­ter, Vita. The child­hood in South Africa and Aus­tralia, the school­ing at Har­vard, the early ca­reer in film­mak­ing. All there, all echo­ing unig­nor­ably. The liv­ing au­thor was in­sist­ing upon con­fla­tion with a fic­tional cre­ation.

“A con­fes­sional style of film­mak­ing was as­cen­dant. It was the dawn of the age of bar­ing it all. I liked my class­mates’ work but I felt an eth­i­cal obli­ga­tion to leave my­self out of my films.” So ob­serves Vita, early in the novel. A sim­i­lar au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ret­i­cence marks Dovey’s early work – a re­move per­haps more common in an ear­lier era, but strik­ing in our con­fes­sional present. Her first novel, Blood Kin, is a care­fully cal­i­brated and al­most ab­stract po­lit­i­cal thriller, stripped of any specifics of char­ac­ter or na­tion, leav­ing only bru­tal ges­tures of power and de­sire. Her sec­ond book, the ac­claimed story col­lec­tion Only the An­i­mals, is stranger still – a se­ries of mono­logues de­liv­ered by crea­tures as var­ied as the camel and the par­rot, some be­long­ing to fa­mous lit­er­ary fig­ures, all caught up in scenes of cri­sis and war. The books – par­tic­u­larly An­i­mals – are vividly con­ceived and ex­e­cuted pieces of writ­ing, but also at times feel like the work of a bril­liant stu­dent still find­ing their own voice. Fugi­tives marks a le­git­i­mate ad­vance on Dovey’s ear­lier work – not only is it a voice found but it is all voice: rec­ol­lec­tion, con­fes­sion, mono­logue. The novel’s struc­ture is sim­ple. Re­viv­ing a friend­ship long con­sid­ered over, Royce, an el­derly Amer­i­can bene­fac­tor, con­tacts Vita, a one-time re­cip­i­ent of his largesse. Royce has re­cently been di­ag­nosed with a dis­ease whose specifics he with­holds (“I stew in sick­ness, and in my own nos­tal­gia”), and his pro­posal, such as it is, seems straight­for­ward: con­fes­sion lead­ing to cathar­sis, for a read­er­ship of one. For Royce the ar­range­ment in­volves re­count­ing mem­o­ries of his un­re­quited love for Kitty, an­other re­cip­i­ent of his fi­nan­cial and emo­tional sup­port. For Vita, whose mem­o­ries are more var­ied, it draws out some­thing ap­prox­i­mat­ing a com­ing-of-age story: a stalled film­mak­ing ca­reer in the United States, poor treat­ment by sev­eral men, and, even­tu­ally, a re­turn to South Africa. Vita at one point talks of their “par­al­lel nar­ra­tive tracks”, which aptly de­scribes this new re­la­tion­ship. While the novel apes the epis­to­lary form, th­ese are mod­ern peo­ple, mod­ern talkers – their words ad­dress a void, and them­selves, as much as any po­ten­tial lis­tener. Con­fes­sion, fi­nally, is its own com­fort. While the oc­ca­sional re­sponse men­tions an is­sue raised in the pre­vi­ous mis­sive, both cor­re­spon­dents for the most part tell their own tale with lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion of pro­vid­ing good com­pany. Royce’s tale is a for­lorn one: dom­i­nated by his pur­suit of Kitty to Pom­peii on a re­search project as her friend and as­sis­tant. (The novel takes its ti­tle from an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site.) His story, like any story of un­re­quited love, ul­ti­mately be­comes the prop­erty of an­other. Yet be­yond his per­sonal ag­o­nies lies the city it­self, a seem­ingly in­ex­haustible metaphor for mourn­ing and loss. In­del­i­cate tools de­stroy an­cient paint­ings, while all around them sit or stand pre­served bod­ies, sadly un­aware that what were once ev­ery­day ges­tures have be­come their fi­nal form. “Lit­tle did they know,” Royce pon­ders, be­hold­ing homes frozen in fash­ions out­dated even then, “that this mi­nor fail­ure of taste or econ­omy would be doc­u­mented for­ever.” The tone of th­ese pages is dis­tinct: eru­dite, qui­etly chau­vin­is­tic (Royce is an old-fash­ioned “ap­pre­ci­a­tor” of women) and oc­ca­sion­ally self-conscious. Vita’s half of the book feels more plainly and force­fully stated – ruth­lessly in­ter­rog­a­tive, but sig­nif­i­cantly more clear-sighted. Yet there is mis­ery there too, some­thing un­shake­able that tracks her from awk­ward col­lege years to the mar­ket­place of pro­fes­sional film­mak­ing: “I was over­taken then by a fore­bod­ing that I was on the wrong path, in life and in art. What if my own earnest­ness were a cover for some­thing else, some­thing left un­ex­am­ined, some­thing pu­trid?” Ear­lier in the novel, her col­lege film sub­mis­sion about a South African wine farm is crit­i­cised for its in­abil­ity to “fo­cus on hu­mans”. In the novel’s sec­ond half it’s that South Africa she re­turns to, where she con­fronts the ex­act na­ture of that thing “left un­ex­am­ined”. “I’m sick of whites mak­ing films about the suf­fer­ing of blacks,” a Nige­rian fes­ti­val or­gan­iser tells her. “I want to see whites deal with their own shit in­stead of try­ing to claim a moral free pass be­cause they’re so fuck­ing in­ter­ested in other peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing.”

All around them sit or stand pre­served bod­ies, sadly un­aware that what were once ev­ery­day ges­tures have be­come their fi­nal form.

To say more about where th­ese nar­ra­tive lines travel and re­solve would re­veal too much. This is, for two thirds of its length, a gen­tly plot­ted novel, me­lan­choly in its sen­si­bil­ity and too in­vested in its char­ac­ters to hurry them into false en­coun­ters, yet in its fi­nal third there are rev­e­la­tions and re­ver­sals of a con­sid­er­able na­ture. What can be said is this: the very act of writ­ing, and of per­sonal ac­count­abil­ity, is called into ques­tion. Which re­turns us to what we might call the Knaus­gaard Google Dilemma. There is a pas­sage from “The Pen­cil and the Dam­age Done” that seems so cen­tral to this novel’s con­cep­tion and fun­da­men­tal odd­ness it is worth quot­ing at length: Any dream of an un­me­di­ated re­la­tion­ship be­tween writer and reader is bound to fail be­cause real­ism is no more than a con­ven­tion that pro­duces the ef­fect of verisimil­i­tude. And the read­ers who iden­tify so strongly with the pro­tag­o­nists of au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal fic­tion are, no less than read­ers of fan­tasy, en­gaged in a kind of will­ing sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief – de­lib­er­ately not see­ing the writ­ing for what it is. To put it an­other way, Dovey has called her own bluff. To con­flate Vita and the au­thor is si­mul­ta­ne­ously un­avoid­able and a mas­sive mis­un­der­stand­ing.

Not enough is said in praise of lit­er­a­ture’s cold touch, its quiet dev­as­ta­tions, its beau­ti­ful nonan­swers.

Knaus­gaard’s work – both in its dis­dain for overt style and its forthright­ness – can make most fic­tion seem tired, need­lessly fussy, mere “in­ven­tion”; fic­tion isn’t a the­sis state­ment and nov­els aren’t man­i­festos. Yet each novel en­acts its own ar­gu­ment about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the form, and Fugi­tives as­serts the ne­ces­sity of its in­ven­tions at ev­ery turn. We see on ev­ery page “the writ­ing for what it is”, first in the self-conscious stiff­ness of the cor­re­spon­dents build­ing them­selves on the page – the for­mal­ity of the early pages, the oc­ca­sion­ally arch ro­man­ti­cism of Royce’s long­ings – and then later when it be­comes clear just what th­ese con­struc­tion-svia-con­fes­sion truly mean. The Knaus­gaar­dian ap­proach de­liv­ers the very cathar­sis Royce prom­ises in the novel’s open­ing pages (“purga­tive, pu­ri­fy­ing”), while the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of Fugi­tives re­jects the prom­ises of the per­sonal form: th­ese words do not ex­or­cise or clar­ify. No cob­webs are blown away, no sad­ness ex­punged. The book, fi­nally, is un­re­solv­able. What can fic­tion do? It can tease us with the shape of re­al­ity. What can fic­tion deny? That it can ever be fully mis­taken for that re­al­ity. Fic­tion has since its wind­milltilt­ing in­cep­tion car­ried its fal­sity as reg­u­lar bur­den and oc­ca­sional virtue. In the penul­ti­mate chap­ter of Only the An­i­mals, a dol­phin writes to Sylvia Plath about Ted Hughes’ work: “Back then, I had ad­mir­ingly thought he was try­ing to un­der­stand the hu­man by way of the an­i­mal, but now I can see that in fact he wanted to jus­tify the an­i­mal in the hu­man.” Re­place truth for hu­man and fic­tion for an­i­mal and you have, mi­nus a few un­gainly def­i­nite ar­ti­cles, Fugi­tives’ phi­los­o­phy in a sen­tence. There is much talk th­ese days about the con­so­la­tions of lit­er­a­ture, of the em­pa­thy it en­gen­ders in the reader. A smug and ba­nal boos­t­er­ism colours such a claim. While it is on oc­ca­sion true, I sus­pect it’s more of­ten than not a left­ish panacea, a nec­es­sary lie to jus­tify the ex­quis­ite point­less­ness of lit­er­a­ture un­der the logic of ne­olib­er­al­ism. Not enough is said in praise of lit­er­a­ture’s cold touch, its quiet dev­as­ta­tions, its beau­ti­ful non-an­swers. The mar­ket­ing for Fugi­tives can op­ti­misti­cally point to its glo­be­trot­ting, its sex­ual in­trigue, its po­lit­i­cal cur­rency, yet th­ese are in the end left be­hind, mere rec­ol­lec­tions of fig­ures dy­ing or in un­shake­able soli­tude. Dovey is a com­pelling writer, but a des­o­late one too – an in­erad­i­ca­ble lone­li­ness echoes through­out her work. The words of the aban­doned par­rot that close her pre­vi­ous book seem as fit­ting here as they are there: “What choice did she have but to hook my cage to the awning over­head and leave as qui­etly as she could, be­fore I re­alised I was alone?”

Pom­peii. © DeA­gos­tini / Getty Im­ages

Cerid­wen Dovey.

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