In­ner sto­ry­teller out in the cold

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

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

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