Tryst with cre­ativ­ity trig­gers a ro­mance

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Cross­ing the Lines is a book that smiles and of­fers cake while it thinks. Su­lari Gen­till de­liv­ers ideas and nar­ra­tive en­ter­tain­ment, and it’s a bonus that her novel is also sub-acidly satir­i­cal.

When a friend ir­ri­tated by pro­tag­o­nist Madeleine’s un­avail­abil­ity laughs in re­sponse to her apolo­getic ex­pla­na­tion that she is com­pletely her­self only when writ­ing, “scorn was cut into the mirth like some bit­ter essence folded into whipped cream”.

Events are set in mo­tion when an arts critic and for­mer book ed­i­tor named Vo­gel is found dead in the stair­well of an Aus­tralian city gallery, his head “pe­cu­liarly off­set from his neck”. An amus­ing but con­sciously flimsy who­dunit re­sults, while in par­al­lel a tragi­com­edy of thwarted cre­ativ­ity in a ru­ral do­mes­tic en­vi­ron­ment evolves. Cor­re­spon­dences abound.

Madeleine, heart­beat of the do­mes­tic story, is a crime writer who un­der­stands her­self to be imag­in­ing the pro­tag­o­nist of the who­dunit into be­ing and im­pro­vis­ing that plot. The who­dunit’s pro­tag­o­nist, lit­ter­a­teur Ed­ward, be­lieves he has dis­cov­ered the down-mar­ket writer char­ac­ter Madeleine and is record­ing and in­flu­enc­ing her for­tunes. Grad­u­ally the two pro­tag­o­nists ad­vance from ob­serv­ing each other across the no­tional lines sep­a­rat­ing them to tran­si­tion­ing into each other’s worlds, at first con­vers­ing and then mak­ing love.

So far so in­ge­nious. How­ever, Gen­till also de­liv­ers a meta-nar­ra­tive that is both a col­lo­quium about peren­nial puz­zles such as the na­ture of re­al­ity and an il­lus­tra­tive ex­am­i­na­tion of why and how writ­ers con­struct char­ac­ters and fic­tions.

Over­all, the book may also be read as a self­in­ter­ro­ga­tion, with a mid-ca­reer au­thor who has mas­tered her cho­sen field (crime fic­tion set in the early 20th cen­tury) pon­der­ing whether she cares to as­pire to write in high-cul­ture mode. Elab­o­rat­ing the metaphor of Ge­n­e­sis­like cre­ation out of form­less­ness, it also asks whether greater sat­is­fac­tions might be found in freely mix­ing gen­res to make new hy­brids.

The con­cerns ad­dressed in Cross­ing the Lines re­minded me of some of the nov­els pub­lished in those so-called tran­si­tional decades in English writ­ing, the 1880s to the 1930s. Like John Galswor­thy, Alan Ben­nett and others, Gen­till is wary of fash­ion­able moder­nity yet wants to take ac­count of so­ciopo­lit­i­cal change.

She ac­knowl­edges the worth of the ma­te­rial and is un­easy around sen­ti­men­tal­ity and sen­sa­tion­al­ism. Ni­cola Hum­ble has de­fined mid­dle­brow fic­tion as strad­dling the di­vide be­tween light­weight ro­mances and thrillers, and philo­soph­i­cally and for­mally chal­leng­ing texts. Cross­ing the Lines can be called mid­dle­brow in an ap­pre­cia­tive sense.

The ex­is­tence of a crime fic­tion genre dis­tinct from lit­er­ary prose is firmly posited in Gen­till’s pro­tag­o­nists’ bi­nary-minded dis­cus­sions. As a self-re­gard­ing lit­er­ary au­thor, ur­bane Ed­ward re­gards crime writ­ers as a naive lot who be­lieve in jus­tice and retri­bu­tion, are doggedly com­mit­ted to plot, ac­tion and pace, want the pu­rity of story with­out the shack­les of sec­ondary mean­ing, and can be ac­cepted into the aes­thetic elite only if they are ex­cep­tional stylists. His bour­geois Madeleine suits the take­aways-and-py­ja­mas cosi­ness of the cot­tage she shares with her GP hus­band.

As a part-time cor­po­rate lawyer and pro­fes­sional au­thor, Gen­till’s play­fully self-ref­er­en­tial Madeleine does not care to be un­der­es­ti­mated. She puts Ed­ward in his place as her fan­tasy crea­ture, a nos­tal­gic fig­ure who would be more at home in the 1930s, jus­ti­fy­ing her choices with a mix of com­mer­cial nous and fa­mil­iar crit­i­cisms of lit­er­ary writ­ing (noth­ing hap­pens, it’s dull, it’s in­com­pre­hen­si­ble, it’s wor­thy navel-gaz­ing).

Com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity is so very genre, Ed­ward ri­postes, the de­bate pro­ceed­ing like the ban­ter of a Beatrice and Bene­dict as the two pro­tago- nists grow fonder of each other. Con­ced­ing the im­pacts fam­ily losses have had on him, Ed­ward as­serts Madeleine fails to ex­am­ine the causes of grief, her mis­car­riages be­ing the most per­ti­nent ex­am­ple. “Lit­tle sad­nesses are not a plot,” she replies.

Ed­ward’s self-im­por­tance is di­min­ished by the ab­sence of sam­ples of his pub­lished writ­ing and names of au­thors he es­teems. Hav­ing scarcely both­ered to read any of “his” Madeleine’s tales, he is un­cer­tain how to re­pro­duce her voice. From the be­gin­ning, Ed­ward ac­knowl­edges his griev­ance against Vo­gel, who “de­filed” and “mur­dered” his first man­u­script, ti­tled Sen­tience, when charged with edit­ing it. In Madeleine’s plot, this resentment is rea­son enough for the po­lice to sus­pect Ed­ward of Vo­gel’s mur­der. Her Ed­ward is a hero falsely ac­cused and obliged to turn am­a­teur de­tec­tive.

Madeleine’s ar­gu­ments are un­der­cut by her dis­sat­is­fac­tion, de­rived from the lim­its she has placed on her writ­ing prac­tice. Per­haps try­ing to chal­lenge her­self, or per­haps self-sub­vert­ing, she coun­te­nances fool­hardy risks. Tak­ing lit­er­ally the ad­vice of Ray­mond Chan­dler, an­other writer frus­trated by the con­straints of plot­ting, she has three un­known men burst into Ed­ward’s house, even though she has no idea who would want to at­tack Ed­ward or why.

Can she make lemon­ade from this le­mon? “Have you worked out who at­tacked me?” the

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