Saturday, October 24, 2009

Drornin Designs in the Dirt

Sometimes the whole problem of finding something is solved when you work out where to look. I poked around after Kilvert's diary for a while before thinking to check the British History section of one secondhand bookshop, and there it was, green-faced and innocent behind a picture of a man on a horse jigging through foliage. "If you had Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy," I asked the woman behind the counter, "where would you put it?"

She said: "In the window and it would sell in five minutes." There are beautiful copies of the Anatomy, she went on, valued at thousands of dollars: thousands. Everyone who has the book holds on to it. Difficult to find, impossible. And thousands of dollars - think!

When I asked a man behind the counter of a different shop the same question he replied smartly, "Here!" and put his arm out to the shelf behind him, and laid his hand on the spines of three large grey-blue rough-textured hardbacks. I checked the price. It cost two hundred dollars.

When I asked at a third place they asked me to describe it, then, after I tried to explain, recommended the self-help section.

If a stranger told me they were looking for a long book in which a man writes about the causes and cures of depressive sadness I would probably recommend self-help too, or maybe psychology. This third shop has some very exact categories, for example: Naval Fiction, which is three shelves of paperback spines decorated with tall ships, bits of fierce opal-coloured seas, and the disembodied hands of sailors holding swords or flintlocks. These are leftover gesticulations from the wraparound illustrations on the front and back covers. Sometimes a little face comes into it, wearing a hat and straining forward to reach whatever is happening under the title. Somewhere inside the story the counterpart of this man is reaching that event, whatever it is, and getting shot or sliced open with a cutlass, or perhaps surviving, or losing an eye; he probably doesn't even have a name assigned to him, this man with his pink face, brown moustache, and one brisk black dot of an eye, he's nothing but a background character who wants a moment of glory or intelligence, a Rosencrantz or a Guildenstern, always trying to find out what is going on, and never getting to the cover where everything is explained, even the name of his creator, who, given the category, is usually going to be Patrick O'Brian, author of the Aubrey-Maturin series. I own one of O'Brian's books but haven't read it; I picked it up at a library sale for fifty cents.

"The author's use of naval jargon provides another noteworthy stylistic feature, with little or no translation for the "lubberly" reader," says the Aubrey-Maturin Wikipedia page, and I think of Christina Stead, and the baby-slang she invented for Sam Pollitt, although she sometimes gives you translations in brackets, as O'Brian does not:

Henny heard him going past the back veranda with three boys, saying, "See what Megalops donin: he don't say nuffin, maybe he's thinking; wook [look]. Little-Sam, Megalops drornin [drawing] designs in the dirt."

Stead establishes a difference between family-Sam and work-Sam, telling us that when he comes home from a field trip to Malaysia, having spoken to adults for eight months, his private language comes rustily off his tongue. Her slang locates us in this private world, the family, that outsiders never see. We're buried in it, as the children are, we're given its perspective. But after finishing A Little Tea, A Little Chat last night I wonder if Stead's greater immersion technique isn't the repetition she uses, the habit she has of giving a character one or two stock responses and then having him -- in Chat it's a man -- re-use them until the character becomes a monument to those words, cemented in place, as Dickens cements Micawber by having him swear that something will always turn up, so that the character becomes a constellation of its own tropes. The author of Chat is vicious about this, though, in a way that Dickens is not. Stead's circumstances as she was writing the book were not good; she was living in a single room, in Brussels, with her lover but without friends: "She was monumentally bored," writes her biographer Hazel Rowley. She was "subject to low-grade depression," "she was profoundly disillusioned" and "A Little Tea, A Little Chat was Stead's angriest book to date."

The lead character in Chat, Robert Grant, is not funny, not likely to charm a reader, he is self-deluding, a liar, a cheat, not a sweet rogue, but a droning self-absorbed one. He says, pitifully, "I need a 'ooman," then says it again, then again, then speaks for half a page on the subject (a good, sweet 'ooman, who will take care of him) and then, a little while later, resurrects this 'ooman once more, and then gives another wheedling speech, this one lasting for a page. On and on this goes, speech after speech, and if it's not the 'ooman, then it's his plans for a Broadway play that will push 'em into the Atlantic, or some other idea that keeps rotating through his head. We hear about these ideas once, twice, three times, four, five, six. He never changes. There are only three or four notions in his head and he keeps recycling them. Grant is the city-man as machine, so caught up in the forward-moving life of the city that he never pauses to take stock of his ideas; outer progress is inner stasis. The author pushes our noses in his rottenness and holds them there. The only way to get away from him - to come up for air - is to shut the book.

Plenty of writers create characters who are bores, sometimes for comic relief, sometimes in order to make them serious or vicious, but it's not often that an author impresses the character's boringness on the reader by making them bored with him as well. Usually this is something a writer tries to avoid. Mervyn Peake, fretting over Nannie Slagg's long speeches in a letter to a friend, decided to trim her short. Stead would have made her longer - would have fashioned the entire book around her. The weight of her Gormenghast would have been a different weight. Peake gives the reader the idea that life in Gormenghast is heavy, irresponsive, opposed to the light, bright, active life he tells us he prefers, by moving the story along slowly, describing the setting minutely, and making the setting itself large and heavy. Stead, in Chat, works toward a sense of oppressive weight as well, but here the setting is New York city in the 1930s, an active place, full of opportunities to make a profit, get money, get ahead, meet artists, actors, writers - the horrible oppressive weight is inside the characters, not in the setting, and they have no wish to escape it, they can't, or won't, or don't realise that they might. Her idea of human nature here is a kind of internalised castle Gormenghast.

Sam is one of those providential larger-than-life creations, like Falstaff, whom we wonder and laugh at and can't get enough of …

wrote Randall Jarrell in his introduction to the Man Who Loved Children, but by page three hundred of Chat I was thinking: "I wish this book would end. I wish this man would stop, just stop." Robert Grant is Stead at her most reader-punishing.

She sat with her head sunk between her shoulders. Amazed, he got up and came up to the other end of the table. She sat there without a movement. He bent over her shoulder and read,

Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, I can't stand your gassing, oh, what a windbag, what will shut you up, shut up, shut up. And so on ad infinitum.

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