21 July 2013
One woman writer, two male consciousnesses. These are separated, at the start of the novel, by 50-odd years: Chapters 1 and 3 belong to Frank, about 30, in the present day; Chapter 2, with no warning beforehand, belongs to 14-year-old Leon in the early 1950s. Leon is, I think, Frank’s grandfather. We’re in working class Australia – not quite the same place 50 years ago as it is now – and we’re also undeniably inside literary fiction. These guys have rich and problematic interior lives, so there’s plenty for an ambitious writer to get her teeth into. I’m not meaning to be sarcastic. I’d much rather have literary fiction than any other kind.
Frank has what would be called – perhaps it’s what he calls them – anger management issues which, along with other things, have led to his long-term girlfriend walking out on him. We don’t find this out straight away, because that isn’t how Wyld does things. At the start of the novel he’s just arrived back at the ‘shack’ that he later describes as his family’s holiday home when he was growing up. It’s his first visit for fifteen years, and there are ghosts there, in the form of painful memories. Cue not-quite full-on references to the crash that killed his mother, to the burial of her ashes at her favourite swimming place – the shack is not far from the sea – and to his father’s speedy collapse into alcohol-ridden uselessness. (It’s when Frank’s girlfriend tells him that she’s paid a visit to see him that his relationship with her, already rocky, finally breaks down.) One of his first acts is to make a bonfire of the old beds, including the marital bed he inevitably remembers creaking in a systematic way he didn’t understand at the time.
There’s a father-son relationship in Chapter 2 as well. As in Frank’s chapters, things emerge slowly, but we eventually discover that Leon’s parents are Jews who were both sent away from Europe in the 1930s and met in Australia. By the time of the Korean War – a big thing in Australia – they have an adolescent son still treated as a child by his mother and being taught the cake-baking business by his rather likeable father. (I wondered about the plausibility of the chronology here. Leon must have been conceived in about 1935, which seems rather sudden.)
There are so many parallels between the two time-lines I’ll concentrate on them. They are third person narratives, both highly focalised on whichever main character each chapter belongs to. We are inside either Frank or Leon’s head, and they are both sensitive souls, prone to blushing when embarrassed and lashing out when angry. In Leon’s story this approaches comedy when his mother takes him round to the house of a boy who punched him on the nose, only for the other boy’s red nose to make it clear that Leon had started it. But it doesn’t stay comic for long, because the other boy’s mother quickly resorts to racist taunts, another parallel with Frank’s story. He isn’t the victim, but he works with an aborigine at the marina where he gets a labouring job, and it’s clear that there are tensions, particularly to do with the safety of white girls. A thread in Frank’s chapters is the disappearance of a white girl, and it seems likely that Wyld is putting things in place for later.
There’s adolescent sex, Frank’s grubby first experience presented in one of many flashbacks in his story, but in Leon’s only a vague fantasy focused on a particular girl. There’s that thing you often get in novels like this concerning the mystery of what exactly it is that parents get up to behind closed doors. And, in both stories, there’s a crisis at around the age of 14 or 15: there’s the death of Frank’s mother that has such a devastating effect on his father; and there’s Leon’s father’s decision to join the army to fight in Korea. At the point I’ve reached, he’s first had the traumatic experience of fighting in hellish conditions – Leon’s mother tries to hide his letter from him – and now he’s been captured. We’ve already had a reference to one vet who came back changed after his experiences with ‘the Japs’, and it seem unlikely that Leon’s father is going to come out of this unscathed, if at all.
Anything else? For Frank, plenty of gritty, in-your-face detail about life in a shack with nothing plumbed in, about learning to shit in the sea, about learning to cope on your own. For Leon, a different set of almost hyper-real details, to do with school life (he’s teased), his emotionally overwrought mother and his father’s exquisite wedding-cake figures – two sets of which are in Frank’s possession, now I think of it. Which suggests either he survived the war, or Leon eventually does learn how to do them properly. Wyld likes to keep us guessing.
The structure is the same as before, with alternating chapters covering days and weeks in Frank’s life, several years in Leon’s. Wyld is staggeringly careless with the chronology of Leon’s life. We know he’s 16 not long before his father’s return from Korea, which must be in 1953. Not many chapters later, he is conscripted to fight in Vietnam, which makes it 1964. It actually feels as though two or three years have passed at most – Leon is still fretting that he hasn’t heard from the girl he was seeing at the age of 16 before she left for ‘finishing school’ – so, basically, Wyld has got it wrong, apparently placing the Korean War in the late 1950s. But I’ll shut up about that now, because one of the novel’s themes is to do with the male psyche, and she seems to need the experience of two generations of men at war.
There’s a parallel between the two stories that I forgot to mention before, but which seems more important now. Early on, Frank is disturbed by a scratching creature in the night that he can’t identify. Later, during one of his toilet breaks in the sea, he is shocked enough to scream out when he is buffeted by a different creature. He takes it to be a shark, but it’s only one of a school of mullet. The second of these can be explained rationally, but both of them echo fears of a more troubling, irrational presence that haunts Leon. He first imagines it in the darkness beneath a bridge in Chapter 2, but by later chapters it is a dark presence, accompanied by a ‘scritch-scratch’ sound that comes to represent his unspoken fears. I’m not sure how well it works as a metaphor, but never mind that for now. It’s becomes part of a pattern of darkness and light that Wyld sets up in Leon’s chapters and, despite her surname, the first sign of the light is… Amy Blackwell.
She is the girl Leon fantasised about in school, before he decided to leave in Chapter 2. (Didn’t I mention that?) With supportive looks and secret signs, she made him feel less alone in the gung-ho atmosphere of the classroom – and, on his 16th birthday, she’s the one who brings him ripe pears from her parents’ shop. The darkness, identified with his loneliness and sense of being adrift, is dispelled by her arrival, and soon one thing leads to another between them. Wyld doesn’t make it clear whether they have full-on sex, even on the day when they hitch a ride to the seaside and she swims, fully dressed. He doesn’t….
After Amy is sent away to school, and time passes, Leon’s way of dispelling the darkness for a time is to hook up with girls for sex. The ease with which he is able to do this stretches credibility, because Wyld is keen to let us know how much of a loner he remains. At 16 he has to lie to his mother about the friends he has, when all he does is sit alone in a bar. As time passes, this doesn’t change. He never learns the names of the men in the bar, despite one of them, the one who has lost three fingers and who he thinks of as the guy with the lobster claw, offering a kind of older bloke friendliness.
The man’s injury is never explained, but it is only one example of the damage suffered by these ordinary men. Heavy drinking is the norm – I’ll come back to Frank as well soon – and the most serious victim in Leon’s chapters is his father. He returns the broken man that Wyld has led us to be expecting, and the damage runs right through him. There are toes missing from one foot, but there’s a lot more missing from him psychologically. (If this sounds a bit schematic, well, that’s how it feels sometimes.) He can’t touch meat, he can’t bear company, he can’t bake any more – his one attempt at a cake is a childish mess – and he drinks all day. Eventually he takes to systematically pacing all the streets of their district of Sydney, and always ends up at the station. One night, inevitably, he doesn’t come home.
How to convey the effect on Leon and his mother? All through Leon’s eyes, so that when she goes looking for his father we hear about her finding him, and their buying the shack that must be the same one that Frank now inhabits, through a series of postcards. They are all childish and cartoony, as befits his mother’s image of her son – except the one that is forwarded to him in Vietnam. It seems to be a scrappy black-and-white photograph of where they are… and I’ll come back to photographs later.
Any parallels with Frank so far? There’s the drinking, which he’s trying to put a limit on. He’s not trying very hard, and neither is Vicky, wife of Bob, the bloke who got him the job in the marina and lives in the nearest house. They invite him over for Christmas and, if her edgy seven-year-old daughter is to believed, is drunk when he arrives in the morning. There’s sex, although things are a bit lean for Frank at the moment. There is an interesting assistant in the toy shop where he buys a present for the girl – a ‘pornographic-looking’ Barbie doll he later finds shoved into the incinerator, after she’s dressed a carrot in its clothes. He later dreams about the assistant after his long drinking session on Christmas day. (Or is it after his session on his own the next day?) Vicky seems to be making a move on him just before he leaves, but he decides against.
I suppose we’re slowly realising that Frank and Leon are as lost as each other, with no certainties in either of their lives. Both their fathers are currently incommunicado. Neither has any friends: Frank has the same kind of thrown-together contact with other blokes at the marina as Leon does in Vietnam. Sexual relationships might be possible, but they aren’t happening. In both stories, where there are relationships between the sexes they present problems rather than any kind of fulfilment. Frank witnesses Vicky’s slow, unspectacular disintegration. Leon witnesses the desperate Mrs Shnnon, pregnant again and always bruised, trying to pretend she’s young enough to chat him up. And when her daughter comes into the shop, she’s as thin as a rail except for the pronounced bump of the inevitable under-age pregnancy.
Have I said enough? There’ll be things I’ve forgotten, and I never did get around to the photographs that Leon takes with his father’s old Leica…. Basically, this novel is turning into a portrait of Australia – dysfunctional, violent, deeply racist – familiar from The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, published the previous year (2008). There are a lot of slaps in this one as well. And, now I come to think about it, problematic children – Sal, Vicky and Bob’s seven-year-old, is trying to become a worker on Frank’s non-existent farm – and the ways that one generation messes up the next. And, in the Frank storyline, that girl’s still missing.
(Chronology note: if Leon’s story is the late 50s and early 60s and Frank’s is, say, the 90s… maybe Leon is Frank’s father, not his grandfather. Ah.)
I mentioned that a large sections of Frank’s chapters are devoted to flashbacks. I haven’t checked it, but now it seems that this is what most of his story consists of, mainly focused on two specific periods: the unsatisfactory things he used to get up to with Bo, the lumpish boy he only accidentally made friends with at school, and on times he remembers with his former partner, Lucy. Whether the memories are good or bad depends on his current mood, and I’ll get back to them.
Wyld signals the parallels between the two main characters’ narratives more clearly than ever. There’s now invasive darkness in both stories, not only for Leon in the Vietnamese jungle but for Frank in a memory of a near-hallucination brought on through his habit of inhaling gasoline fumes with Bo. The darkness becomes a living thing, ‘beetling’ in from the shadows – and it’s in the shack where he’s now living as an adult. Frank remembers that this is the night when he finally became disgusted by Bo and their stupid fantasies of a life of freedom. Maybe the darkness was telling him something. How should I know? Meanwhile, in the present, the creature that haunts the cane fields at night is now ‘creeping Jesus’. Ok.
The sugar wedding-cake figures are becoming another of those metaphors that Wyld signals perhaps too clearly. Frank accidentally knocks over those of his parents and grandparents and regrets it, not that he ever really liked them. As he inspects the damage he notices the thumbprints of whoever made them and feels… something. I think it’s in the next chapter that Leon, shown at the age of five the sugar baby in its sugar cradle that represents himself – because Frank isn’t the only one to get flashbacks – automatically pops it into his mouth. His mother is appalled, but his father laughs and sees it as appropriate. Years later, in the jungle, he carefully forms the tiny figure of a baby out of mud. Go figure.
Next. There are machetes in both storylines, each closely linked to the threat of death – dead Viet Cong for the violent one in Leon’s little troop, dead chickens for Bob as part of his fantasy of freedom: they could kill every ‘chook’ on their farm in half a day and then move on, as they have done before. This isn’t the only violence lurking below the surface of these male worlds. There’s a bar-room incident in which Frank is ready to punch Stuart, the racist worker with a thing about Aborigines. In the makeshift barrack room in Vietnam the threat of violence is partly sexual, as they take it in turns to scrawl obscenities on a ‘Dear John’ letter one of them receives. One of them even wakes up the others by shooting it. The violence turns real in an ambush, during which Leon is perfectly cool in his gunning-down of up to nine Viet Cong, including the boy his own age who had looked right at him. A chapter later, during an ‘R&R’ period in the city, he is still showing no signs of remorse. Yet.
Women. Don’t ask. Another parallel is the conversations that men have, or don’t have, about their relationships. The ‘Dear John’ letter is at one extreme – nobody, including the recipient, actually talks about it beyond abuse of the ‘whore’ who wrote it – and at the other comes Bob, in an unplanned drinking session with Frank. We get the story of Vicky, not really coping following the horrible death of their first child from leukaemia a couple of years previously. But he’s as blokeish as the next bloke, seeking comfort in those fantasies of freedom that we somehow understand he knows to be unreal. Frank doesn’t aim to be so frank, until Bob persuades him to tell the story of his bad treatment of Lucy. Since Chapter 9 we’ve had flashbacks to when he ‘started to get bad’, as Wyld has him put it to himself. In Chapter 15 we get something approaching the full story, from the two calculated slaps, one on each cheek, that were the beginning of the end. His anger – which we don’t yet understand – is at her insistence that she wants to meet his father. She has no family, was a foundling, and he resents her attempt to co-opt his family.
If it’s sounding schematic again, well, sometimes that’s how it feels. It seems to me that Wyld relies too much on situations rather than the development of plot or character. This is what Australian men are like, she constantly tells us, and I felt I’d got it long before the half-way point that comes somewhere around Chapter 14. The descriptions are good, and the relentless physicality of both her main characters’ lives is always well done, but… is there really enough here to justify this novel’s length? Did she cut her teeth on short stories before this debut novel?
(I realise haven’t mentioned the seven-year-old Sal, who is showing Frank how to grow vegetables, and for whom he is trying to clean up his domestic habits a bit. And we’ve just got the first reference to the novel’s title: on R&R leave, Leon buys a Zippo lighter carrying an overlapping part of the quotation from Kings: ‘After the earthquake, a fire.’…)
I think I might have been a bit harsh in my judgments so far. For a debut novelist Wyld is excellent at mise-en-scène, and she assembles those situations I’ve mentioned into a kind of montage to create a vivid impression of the mind-set of Australian men. This is hugely ambitious for a woman who hasn’t really lived in Australia as an adult, and if she doesn’t always get it pitch-perfect, well, she’s doing a pretty good job. I just thought I’d say.
Frank’s chapters have been much longer than Leon’s for some time now, and – and what? – Wyld is slowly moving towards some sort of resolution for him. He’s beginning to face up to his own loneliness, which is a start. On more than one occasion he wishes he had someone simply to lie down next to; on another he plays out a scenario in which, with a couple of tweaks, a conversation with the fishing-tackle seller might have led to a drink in the pub; later he wonders if Sal – Wyld has gone quiet about Sal, now I think about it – would like to be picked up from school. (I’ll come back later to why that doesn’t happen.)
Meanwhile, Leon is having a bad time. In three short chapters he seems to have had more or less every possible bad experience in Vietnam, from the discovery of a gangrenous but still living ‘baddie’ – that’s their gung-ho name for the Viet Cong – locked in a cellar to the killing or wounding of everybody else in his little troop in a single ambush. There’s the clearing of a village, during which he finds himself pointing his gun at a child – later he can’t convince himself he wouldn’t have shot if necessary – followed by a night on sentry duty during which he understands why the Vietnamese believe in ghosts… and we get the beginnings of the post-traumatic stress we’ve been expecting as he keeps remembering that first Viet Cong he shot. Miraculously, the tiny mud baby survives. Ok.
Frank’s life isn’t quite as event-strewn, but plenty happens. Briefly – I’ll go into more detail next time – he talks to Linus, the old Aborigine he works with, Bob, Vicky, the granddaughter of Mrs Shannon (remember her?) and the woman who – wait for it – has encouraged his father to find God and is now married to him in a town of bible-bashers. He also survives what seems to be the threat of a shark attack, gets himself cleaned up – shave, removal of ticks – by Vicky, and attends the funeral of the missing girl. Only her jawbone has turned up, but it’s enough to identify her. And, oh yeh: Lucy has been looking for him in Sydney. She’s pregnant.
Obviously, the most important thread is his realisation that the argument with his father needs to be brought to some kind of resolution. There’s a flashback to their last meeting, at which the old man seems to have reached rock bottom and the woman he is with wears one of his mother’s favourite dresses, but Frank finally – and, let’s face it, unaccountably – decides to go and see him in the old family bakery. He isn’t there, but the problematic June Shannon is, and she tells him both where he’s gone and that Lucy is looking for Frank. He takes the address she gives him, but nothing is resolved. The evangelical new wife is a caricature of born-again mindlessness, and Frank only waits long enough to watch his father’s return from a trip publicising the Book. There’s something gloriously conclusive about the way the old man – and yes, it’s Leon, now known as Leo – touches everything twice as he removes it from the car as though to confirm that it’s where it should be. Life? Under control. Frank has even been shown the samplers he sews now, including – guess – ‘After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice.’ Ah. But, a few chapters from the end, any voice there might be is too small for Frank to hear.
Chapter 23 to the end
Do the resolutions come? Yes, I’d say, but not exactly as we might expect. On his return from his three-day trip to find his father, Frank discovers that Sal went missing more or less just when he left. This news arrives piecemeal, after he finds his shack ransacked and his vegetable garden dug up. It’s at this point that he comes out with the perfect lines, ‘What the fuck now? What else, possibly?’ and the reader knows exactly what he means. He doesn’t know he’s in a novel, but we do – and I wondered if Wyld might have been advised to beef it up a bit. (If I said last time that Frank’s life isn’t as event-strewn as Leon’s in Vietnam, well, I didn’t know what was coming.) As it happens, he’s only suspected of her murder for as long as it takes for the police to check out his alibi and, following the requisite heart-searching and despair, she turns up. It’s Frank who’s earlier guessed that she’d simply gone off for a while because, as Sal’s father admits, he’s been shit as a father since the first daughter’s death. So the unfortunate turn his relationship has taken with the parents, with Bob wanting to smash him up in spite of the alibi and Vicky wanting to scream obscenities at him, all comes right. His chapters end with him looking on as the little family begins to bond for the first time ever. Bless. But…
…the predictable moment when Lucy finally tracks him down doesn’t go exactly as we might have been expecting. It’s a short scene, during which she angrily tells him that he has no idea what he has done to her – and Frank decides that he knows it so well he doesn’t ever want to put her through it again. She walks back to her car, gets in… and he doesn’t try to stop her. The end. He’s evidently discovered something about himself in the weeks and months since he began his self-imposed exile. I’m not quite sure what. It could be acceptance of himself as he really is, acceptance that there’s no point in brooding over the past – the sugar figurines, further damaged during the smashing-up of his place, are finally given a ritual send-off on the beach with Sal – and acceptance that human contact isn’t necessarily a bad thing…. Yep, that’s about it. Not that Wyld spells it out, of course, this being a blokes’ book. If we’ve learnt one thing (and boy, have we learnt it) it’s that blokes don’t spell it out.
Anything else about Frank? Maybe what he’s really doing is laying ghosts, in one case quite literally. It’s Linus the old Aborigine who has talked to him about not obsessing over the past, and has suggested that whatever it is that keeps spooking him might be something that he brought with him. (It doesn’t sound quite as glib as that in the actual conversation, although the presence of this wise old man just when Frank needs him is somewhat convenient.) Another ghost is the grown-up version of June Shannon, who he remembers as a bitch when they were at school. Whatever contact they had before – and it sounds as though he didn’t come out of it very well, whatever it was – he is able to come to terms with it now. She’s trapped in an unhappy marriage, a life going nowhere and… a fierce, rutty shag in the darkness of the local park seems to help him come to terms with it. And it allows Wyld to shoehorn in a rare sex scene.
Leon’s story, meanwhile, is as episodic as ever. That final ambush in the jungle seems to signal the early end of his army career, presumably because Wyld has taken what she needs from it. What she needs now is the aftermath. He can’t settle back into the bakery business, goes walkabout – in fact, a long drive to nowhere – during which he develops the same habit of sleepwalking as his father. (At one points he finds himself declaiming an earlier phrase from that quotation from Kings. Fair enough… but one day, haunted and not thinking straight, he forgets to fill up both his petrol tank and his supply of drinking water and is left stranded in the desert. He is saved by – what should I call them? – a band of feral army vets, all as traumatised as he is and letting their beards grow in blokeish solidarity. For a while he’s comfortable with their men-only lifestyle… and then he isn’t. What ends it for him is their killing of a cow for meat. The killing itself isn’t the issue, but the way they leave its calf alone in the night and lowing for its mother…. It isn’t any accident that a few short chapters later he refers to the child growing inside the belly of his new wife – tell you later – as a calf.
What we get is his life-changing encounter with a woman who comes into the shop. She looks shabby-smart, and she turns out to be – guess. It’s Amy Blackwell, of course, and it’s love at last. (Leon hasn’t been his old self with the ladies since his time in Vietnam. You can’t stroke a girl’s ear, or whatever, with your hands trembling.) But what we don’t get is how this apparent redemption comes to nothing as far as his relationship with his son is concerned. His life after this is sketchy, as presented both in Frank’s version so far and in his own final chapter or two.
Wyld hurries past the next thirty years to get to Leon’s own moment of redemption, or reconciliation, or whatever it is. And, for the first time ever in these not-quite parallel stories, they overlap: Wyld presents that moment of Leon’s return with his car-load of bibles not as Frank sees it, but through Leon’s eyes. Reader, he’s happy. He touches the box of books and the door of the car boot, as though confirming that they really are there and he is living this unbelievable life. He hears the engine of a car starting up, and someone driving off. And it has nothing in the world to do with him. He loves his wife, loves that blue dress she wears… and goes with her into the house. In Wyld’s universe of individuals – particularly individual men – you definitely need people to help you along the road, but the only person who can find the life that’s right for you is… you.