Adrift on a sea of midlife dilem­mas

Cathy Peake

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

NO­TABLE for its vi­vac­ity and in­sight, Is­abel Fon­seca’s Bury Me Stand­ing: The Gyp­sies and Their Jour­ney, pub­lished in 1996, was widely praised and I looked for­ward to her fic­tional de­but with some an­tic­i­pa­tion. In At­tach­ment Fon­seca turns her at­ten­tion to the dilem­mas of mid­dle age, com­plex mar­riages and ca­reers, empty nests and the el­derly.

I have to ad­mit dis­ap­point­ment. The novel is less buoy­ant and cer­tainly less in­ter­est­ing than her ear­lier book.

It is set partly on the small is­land of St Jac­ques in the In­dian Ocean and partly in Lon­don and New York, and its pro­tag­o­nist, Jean Hub­bard, is a widely syn­di­cated colum­nist who writes about health. Her hus­band, Mark, is a suc­cess­ful ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive and their daugh­ter, Vic­to­ria, is a ter­tiary stu­dent in Lon­don.

One morn­ing Jean finds a let­ter ad­dressed to her hus­band in a new shipment of old mail — the mag­a­zines and travel- worn in­vi­ta­tions for cock­tail par­ties, char­ity dos and client lunches, all long past by the time they trav­elled 10,000 miles to reach the Hub­bards’’.

Drawn to the tape- sealed en­ve­lope, she opens it, not sur­rep­ti­tiously, or in er­ror, or even out of spe­cial cu­rios­ity about the con­tents’’, but in re­sponse to a sim­ple and greedy urge to open the one real let­ter in the bag’’. The en­su­ing novel charts her re­ac­tion to the dis­cov­ery of a lover’s let­ter, a spe­cial email ad­dress com­plete with se­cret pass­word, and its con­se­quences.

At­tach­ment is not easy to read. Fon­seca’s nar­ra­tive is cu­ri­ously ba­nal and of­ten te­dious; it is rather like that of a soap opera in which noth­ing much hap­pens and whose set in­cludes a television screen per­ma­nently tuned to pornog­ra­phy.

The metaphor­i­cal di­men­sion of the text is a li­a­bil­ity too. The pro­tag­o­nist’s fa­ther is re­ferred to through­out by his ini­tials, WWW, and to­gether with the novel’s ti­tle and the neon­blue print of email ad­dresses in the text, it helps lay out a sce­nario that is counter- in­tu­itive to the world of nar­ra­tive.

Turn­ing the pages, I of­ten found it dif­fi­cult to re­mem­ber I was read­ing a novel, and harder still to ig­nore the feel­ing that I was adrift and at the mercy of a dicey nav­i­ga­tor in the vast, map­less ter­rain of the world wide web.

It is also a con­stant chal­lenge to over­look the im­pres­sion that the life that is re­ported to be tak­ing place in At­tach­ment is hap­pen­ing else­where. Time is run­ning back­wards or side­ways here, and it does so in fits and starts. As the text un­coils and slith­ers across th­ese pages, the story has a ten­dency to grind to a halt or to find it­self stalled by the road humps of Jean’s cog­i­ta­tions. The ef­fect is dis­ori­ent­ing, dispir­it­ing and, fre­quently, kitsch.

Here, for in­stance, is the nar­ra­tor, Jean, with Larry Mond, the lawyer her mother wanted her to marry, ru­mi­nat­ing in a car in Man­hat­tan dur­ing a black­out of the east­ern seaboard.

Two Amer­i­cans, never mind their com­bined age, mak­ing out in a parked car — wasn’t this just the en­act­ment of their Amer­i­can essence in a time of fragility, on this one very dark night?’’

Jean is in­or­di­nately con­scious of clothes and of how she and oth­ers look; she is con­stantly ( and hi­lar­i­ously) telling us what she is wear­ing. The novel it­self shares this self- con­scious­ness, for­ever set­tling its skirts in prepa­ra­tion for the real thing, which is to tell the story, but some­how never quite get­ting around to do­ing so.

Frankly, de­spite her Ox­ford law de­gree and other cre­den­tials, and her per­sis­tent claims to the con­trary, Jean is lost in her pre­var­i­ca­tions. She sees her­self, un­con­vinc­ingly, as ethe­real and el­e­gant and god­dessy’’, and the en­ergy the au­thor de­votes to en­dors­ing and sus­tain­ing this per­cep­tion of her has dis­mal con­se­quences.

Fon­seca’s main char­ac­ter is like noth­ing so much as a vast cu­mu­lus cloud mov­ing across the text, mak­ing so much of it in­dis­tinct and un­in­tel­li­gi­ble.

Dante and Mil­ton are men­tioned from time to time, and Philip Larkin is quoted, but in the end At­tach­ment does seem to be­long to the rather less am­bi­tious genre of the god­dess novel, in which the fe­male pro­tag­o­nist’s role is like that of a drum- ma­jorette or cheer­leader.

The text swirls past its lit­er­ary ref­er­ences; they are just no­ta­tions in the land­scape like any other. The main game is to keep that ba­ton of il­lu­sion and for­ti­tude twirling across the page. In this Fon­seca cer­tainly suc­ceeds. Cathy Peake is a writer and lit­er­ary critic based in the south­ern table­lands of NSW.

Pic­ture: Mar­ion Et­tli

Fic­tional de­but: Is­abel Fon­seca

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