Car­ni­val of los st souls

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

BERYL Bain­bridge’s fi­nal novel is a daz­zling, dis­cor­dant odd­ity. It is an old Po­laroid that has only half de­vel­oped. Her lap­idary prose ac­counts for some of the strange­ness, but the de­scrip­tive con­ci­sion, the jump-cut nar­ra­tive progress, the el­lip­ti­cal treat­ment of char­ac­ter and the swift, keen sar­casm on dis­play have been Bain­bridge’s au­tho­rial wa­ter­mark through 18 nov­els across four decades. This last work is a more ex­treme in­stance yet.

The an­swer comes with a note at the novel’s con­clu­sion. Bain­bridge was in the process of com­plet­ing The Girl in the Polka­Dot Dress when she died in July last year. It fell to her long-time edi­tor to as­sem­ble the fi­nal draft from the au­thor’s work­ing man­u­script. He in­cor­po­rated Bain­bridge’s writ­ten sug­ges­tions but made no at­tempt to in­clude ad­di­tional ma­te­rial.

Though the re­sult can be breath­less, raw and some­times con­fus­ing, the de­ci­sion not to posthu­mously tidy the work was sound. Even trun­cated and rough-cut, a Bain­bridge fic­tion has its wicked charms.

The girl in the polka-dot dress is Rose, an English­woman ar­rived in the US in search of a mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure from her child­hood and youth, part-Sven­gali, part-adop­tive fa­ther, known as Dr Wheeler.

At var­i­ous points in the story she comes across as an in­genue, a de­vout Catholic, a tom­boy, a neu­rotic and a naif.

She has ques­tion­able hy­giene habits, and a spec­tac­u­lar ef­fect on the many men who cross her path. While pos­sessed of a lim­ited ed­u­ca­tion, she dashes off Latin tags on cock­tail nap­kins. She is drawn so vividly she blurs.

Not so Wash­ing­ton Harold, an Amer­i­can who is Rose’s guide and ac­com­plice. He’s older, ed­u­cated, a wid­ower with a murky back­ground in pol­i­tics and an in­born sense of anger and self-loathing. It hap­pens that Harold has un­fin­ished busi­ness with Wheeler, too. This much read­ers learn via the briefest epis­to­lary in­tro­duc­tion; the rest un­folds through a nar­ra­tive whose mode is re­al­ist but whose ef­fect is fi­nally phan­tas­magoric.

The mul­ti­ply­ing weird­ness is partly ex­plained by the his­tor­i­cal mo­ment. Rose and Harold set off on their road trip in the dy­ing years of the 1960s, when the as­sas­si­na­tions of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King had knocked the nation out of true. Race ri­ots con­vulse the great cities of the US. A newly per­mis­sive sex­ual cul­ture seems to have le­git­imised overt misog­yny and rape.

This is no sum­mer of love, rather a sour car­ni­val of lost souls and con­tem­po­rary grotesques.

Rose waltzes through this wel­ter of fear and loathing with the in­sou­ciance of a mad­woman or a saint. She’s canny enough to read Harold’s in­ter­mit­tent lust and on­go­ing de­pres­sion but not far-sighted enough to see his ex­pe­ri­ence of Wheeler as rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from hers. It was as a young girl grow­ing up in wartime Bri­tain that she met the mys­te­ri­ous man. He moved in and out of her life as a be­nign pres­ence, al­beit one ca­pa­ble of vi­o­lence to­wards those who would do her harm. Harold knows a wholly dif­fer­ent fel­low, though in what way the nar­ra­tive keeps mum.

It is Rose to whom Wheeler vouch­safes his var­i­ous ad­dresses, how­ever. And it is she who must guide the pair through the heart of the con­ti­nent and a fi­nal en­counter with him. But what is it all about, re­ally? There is plenty of his­tor­i­cal tex­ture here. The novel even ends in the ho­tel lobby where Bobby Kennedy was shot (a lobby from which a woman wear­ing a polka-dot dress ap­par­ently fled, ac­cord­ing to a con­tem­po­rary

news­pa­per ac­count, reprinted at the novel’s con­clu­sion). Yet the road trip it­self, a geo­graphic mir­ror of Hum­bert Hum­bert’s and Lolita’s in Nabokov’s great mid-cen­tury novel, takes place in the night­mare world of art.

At times Bain­bridge seems to aim at a cross-cul­tural com­edy of man­ners. (Wilde’s sug­ges­tion that Bri­tain and Amer­ica are two na­tions di­vided by a com­mon lan­guage is given full play.) At oth­ers she at­tempts a con­cor­dance of the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal, with Rose an ob­ject made to suf­fer var­i­ous hu­mil­i­a­tions to sa­ti­ate oth­ers’ pain and de­sire. (Bain­bridge, how­ever, no or­di­nary fem­i­nist, makes her char­ac­ter ev­ery­thing but a vic­tim.)

Mostly, though, the au­thor seems to take grim plea­sure in set­ting off para­doxes like fire­works. Just try to un­ravel the sar­donic from the in­sight­ful, the full-feel­ing from the cold-hearted in the fol­low­ing pas­sage: She felt very sorry for Harold, and was vexed that she hadn’t thought him ca­pa­ble ei­ther of be­ing mar­ried or of suf­fer­ing a tragedy. She’d al­ways prided her­self on be­ing clever at sens­ing other peo­ple’s emo­tions and the rea­sons for their de­fi­cien­cies. It was cu­ri­ous, see­ing that she had such a knowl­edge of char­ac­ter, that she hadn’t di­vined Harold as be­ing the sort of man to have a wife, let alone one who had topped her­self.

That fact of the novel’s in­com­plete­ness should warn us off the ef­fort of as­crib­ing some fi­nal mean­ing to the story it tells. In­deed its ram­shackle struc­ture, its swerves in and out of his­tory and fic­tion, pol­i­tics and satire, are in their own way apt.

It just so hap­pens that Bain­bridge’s swan song is bro­ken novel for a bro­ken time. Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is The Aus­tralian’s chief lit­er­ary critic and win­ner of this year’s Pas­call Prize for crit­i­cism.

Beryl Bain­bridge died be­fore she com­pleted The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, but all her trade

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