Adrift on a sea of midlife dilemmas
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.
Fictional debut: Isabel Fonseca