Inner storyteller out in the cold
THAT Michelle de Kretser’s third novel, The Lost Dog, arrives at almost precisely the point that her second novel, The Hamilton Case , is awarded yet another honour ( the German LiBeratur award; it has already won the Encore Prize, a Commonwealth Writers’ prize and the Tasmania Pacific Prize) lends it a certain notional padding, a layer of protection to add to the layers of bubblewrap and publicity puff in which it is inevitably swathed.
Clearly, here is an important novel, written by an important novelist. However, it is also a disappointing novel written by an important novelist, and not to say so would not only be dishonest but ultimately unfair to de Kretser. After all, as Cyril Connolly put it: ‘‘ What kills a literary reputation is inflation.’’
The central character of The Lost Dog is Tom Loxley, an academic of Anglo- Indian background. When the novel opens, he is staying in the bush, putting the finishing touches to his book, Meddlesome Ghosts: Henry James and the Uncanny. He is out walking the eponymous dog when a wallaby hops across his path causing said dog to take off in pursuit, getting comprehensively lost in the process. The subsequent search for the errant pooch is conducted over the course of 10 days and occasions various recollections of the recent and not- so- recent past. Hence, for Tom, the search for his dog is also an exercise in selfexploration, one in which his own ‘‘ meddlesome ghosts’’ are embraced, put to rest, or allowed to linger.
Thus, The Lost Dog, like The Hamilton Case , has a deliberately weak narrative centre. ( For all its religious symbolism, Moby- Dick is still a book about a whale; The Lost Dog is not a book about a dog.) Clearly, what really interests de Kretser are the relationships constellated around that centre. Of these, the most significant by far is Tom’s relationship with Nelly Zhang (‘‘ an enabling, untragic muse’’), whose bush shack Tom has been staying in and into whose circle of artists and friends he has recently been initiated. An artist herself, Nelly is also at the centre of a mystery ( at least, Tom chooses to regard it as such) involving the disappearance of her ex- husband, a trader in bonds at an investment bank who vanished after being exposed as a crook.
On the whole, the book is exceptionally well written. De Kretser is an excellent narrator and her almost obsessive attention to detail — the mighty effort of imagination expended on the incidental — is revealing of a dedication that should serve as a model to younger writers. Take, for example, the following sentence: ‘‘ Nelly was endlessly forbearing, tolerant of the dull, the deluded, the earnest, the video artist who steered all conversations to his gall bladder meridian.’’ Many novelists would not have bothered with the 12 words after that final comma, and yet this colourful bloom of detail with its roots in the world of real people ensures that the observation hits home.
The problem with the novel can be simply stated: the subtext isn’t sub enough. Much of the book is a meditation on the possibility of authenticity in a postmodern, post- colonial world. This finds an echo in Nelly’s paintings, which are, in fact, not paintings at all but photographs of paintings since discarded.
Even Nelly raises questions about how authentic it is possible to be in a world of simulacra and ephemera. Thus: The cast of her adulterated features was only vaguely Asiatic. She exploited it to the hilt, exaggerating the slant of her eyes with kohl, powdering her face into an expressionless mask. Stilettos and a slit skirt, and she might have stepped from a Shanghai den . . . She wore her hair cut blunt across her forehead, and drew attention to what she called her ‘‘ thick Chinese calves’’. This is well described, as always: we get the idea because we get the picture. But two paragraphs later, de Kretser writes: ‘‘ Tom could see Nelly’s choices as parody, as a defensive flaunting of caricature. There was playfulness in her imagery; and something sad. It was also kitsch.’’ The question is: is this really needed?
Of course, there is nothing to say that Tom ( who teaches something called textual studies) can’t, or wouldn’t, have such thoughts, and we are not to take such meditations as the novelist’s own gloss or commentary ( indeed, there is plenty of evidence that de Kretser is mocking the cliches of postmodern ‘‘ discourse’’). But there is something nevertheless contrived about the way that she explores these topics.
In The Hamilton Case , one character writes stories, while another is immersed in detective fiction, facts that occasion much metafictional speculation about the nature of narrative. In The Lost Dog, such speculation abounds. It’s a sort of Pompidou Centre of a novel: it wears its circuitry and plumbing on the outside.
Many readers won’t mind such intrusions and some may even welcome them. I find them irritating. De Kretser’s fiction would be better served if she could just put textual studies aside and trust her inner storyteller.
Richard King is a literary critic based in Perth.
A way with words: Novelist Michelle de Kretser shows attention to detail