THE LIVING SEA OF WAKING DREAMS
By Richard Flanagan
Knopf Australia, 304pp, $32.99 (HB) dial, tuning in and out of clarity: voice, tense and pronoun shifting and mashing together before language resolves itself firmly within Anna’s perspective. She turns out to be a brilliant vessel for the novelist’s concerns.
Anna is one who has been damaged by the escape velocity required to flee her origins. As a child of Tasmania’s lovely yet impoverished northwest, she has made a point of pride out of her adult mainland exile. Returning to the island to sit by her mother’s hospital bedside is a galling reminder of the past and its ongoing claims upon her.
And as a woman making her way in architecture, Anna has been forced to work harder, display greater talent and show more ambition than her male peers. Success has cost an early marriage and a relationship with her son, a bedroom-bound gamer who, now in his 20s, has failed to fly at all.
A bright, tough woman, unflappable and unillusioned. So when early on she looks down while driving out of a municipal carpark in Hobart to discover that one of her fingers has vanished, she can only understand the phenomenon as some form of category error. Such weird enchantment does not compute.
The magical realist vein in this novel starts small — a single absent knuckle-joint where a ring-finger once was — then accelerates as it spreads: a pandemic of vanishing. Flanagan reports these phenomena via Anna’s growing sense of unease, but he does not press the point. People are reluctant to address the vanishings directly: it’s a buzz-killer, socially, and vulgar to dwell on.
The result is a vague, uncanny air infecting the world of the novel. Like those Google Streetview images where office workers and shoppers are caught, frozen in banal attitudes, except each face is photoshopped to a blur.
What is the function of this vanishing? What is its place in a novel devoted to the intimate family dance of three siblings managing the descent of a beloved parent from maternal giant to frail, addled ghost?
The answer could lie in the book’s epigraph: a few lines from the great English Romantic poet John Clare, powerfully bemoaning the changes wrought by enclosure of agricultural Commons during the early 1800s.
Enclosure is also what the digital has done to us. It has taken our attention, fenced it off and monetised it — all with our enthusiastic ascent. Never before has a single device combined work, information, communication, entertainment and eros with such total, addictive elan. Yet it arrived at just the moment when we needed to attend most to our local realities and the diminishments they were suffering.
Anna, who turns from images of bushfire and superstorm, burned animals and battered humans fleeing disaster to post a pic of her new shoes on Instagram, represents a drive we all experience to some extent: the desire to escape from an unpalatable existence into the glossy, filtered comforts of the online ‘‘real’’.
Francie, by contrast, whose shifting consciousness we glean via her children, possesses the gravity of one who has dwelled in the tangible world all her life.
Even the unravelling of her mind, a process reflected in a notebook of scribbled reminiscence, seems like a sensible retort to a moment in which insanity is reflected in a doubling down on the sterile formulations and sclerotic ideological positions, where even facts are up for furious debate: a Brezhnev era of the human spirit.
She grows to become — just as Addie Bundren, matriarch of William Faulkner’s masterpiece As I Lay Dying did almost a century ago — a locus for love and dispute who lives and dies beyond the human claims made on her behalf. Both women’s very ordinary extinctions become the vehicle for universal concerns.
Yet the most significant link between these novels, written at an antipode to one other and yet sharing so much, has to do with the misuse of important words — first among them ‘‘love’’.
Anna and Terzo believe that submitting their mother to the soft, beeping tyranny of machines that keep her in a state of suspended animation is an act of love. They are really acting out of fear. Addie, in Faulkner’s novel, says of her husband: “He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack.’’
In this, Flanagan’s call-and-response to his revered literary antecedent — the second great novel the author has sent out straight from his imagination — he explores how our failures to properly love have led us to the point of destruction. What impresses most, however, is that Flanagan’s novel doesn’t end in condemnation. It keeps searching for the proper form for love; it seeks to supply the lack Addie intuits and Anna enacts.
And it concludes, astonishingly for a story about our flaws, our blindnesses — the individual and collective fiasco that has brought us to this point — with a message of hope, frail and tiny as an orange-bellied parrot, winging indomitably through a Bass Straight storm.