Carnival of los st souls
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
emarks are there