Friday, November 28, 2008

Vertigo: oscillations of emergence

***Spoiler Alert: below is a review of this novella which discusses aspects of the plot***

Lohrey’s fifth major fictional work is, unusually for this novelist, of novella-length. In her previous four novels Lohrey turned her acute vision to fictional critiques and portrayals of the political and ethical lives of contemporary Australians, making use of the longer novel form to build size into an aspect of the narrative: the minutae of renovating and interior home design in The Reading Group (1988); the techniques of macrobiotic food preparation in Camille’s Bread (1995); the complex informal social and political network of 1950s Labor politics in The Morality of Gentlemen (1984); and the fine sifting of questions of timing a pregnancy in The Philosopher’s Doll (2004). Starting from a focus on a more publicly and male-based form of political content in her earlier novels, which are treated to astringent Brechtian alienation techniques, Lohrey shifted to a concern with more domestic and intimate forms of politics, de-intensifying the acidic effects of Brechtian presentation which were replaced by a more allusive, dream-like layering of narrating levels and tones. This shift is most notable between 1988’s The Reading Group – an elegy for an ensemble of the cultural Left in Australia who in the post-Whitlam interregnum are no longer able to read the politics of the time: the old body politic has passed, the new is yet to be born – and 1995’s Camille’s Bread – in which a triadic ‘family’ negotiate the politics of the body and the formation of new techniques of self. Indeed, Lohrey’s fictional trajectory can be said to begin with Left critiques of (political) Labourism moving into narratives heavy with (physical) labourism: from works of mourning into works of emergence.

Vertigo as both a shorter novel and coming after a novel concerned with the timing of a young professional couple’s reproduction would seem to offer no way of furthering the direction of this trajectory, for what comes after a novel about birth?

First things first. Lohrey’s voice is a distinctive one and in Vertigo the distancing tone – that in her earlier novels was at times harshly misanthropic – and sly humour are still present though there is an affection for her central characters and the community life they find after leaving Sydney, arriving in a small fictitious NSW Southern Coast town, that is increased after the rather cold portrayal of the couple in The Philosopher’s Doll. The constant narratorial distance present throughout much of the novella is, as its mysteries are revealed, seen as a technique to delay the re-connection of the central characters into their mournful emotional lives after the devastation of a miscarriage.

Vertigo is, like The Reading Group, elegiaic in tone. Unlike her post-Whitlam political work of mourning, Vertigo resolves its loss through a cathartic bushfire that opens the central couple up to working-through the pain brought by the loss of their boy, who appears throughout the novel as a ghostly child. Vertigo is a pastoral narrative that ascribes a spiritual force to the land that these young sea-changing escapees of Sydney experience as a terrifying power and as a cathartic spur to mourn a loss, enabling them to find a redemptive hope by the end of the story.

The novella is dramatically structured by the bushfire and by the effects that its aftermath has on the grief of the central couple. If there is a stunted emotional life drawn for the couple then the break-though into grief-saturated feeling near the story’s end is clearly meant to have been built toward through the more distancing narratorial tone prior to that moment. This technique of shiftnig the tone was unsuccessful on first reading as it seemed too transparently designed to promote a readerly catharthis as feeling rushes back into the narrative via the narrator closing the distance from which the lives of the central characters are presented. I actually think that this novel is profoundly conservative as it aligns reproduction with nature-land. If what the couple do in their new village is of any political consequence then we are not given any presentation of this form of politics. Surely if Lohrey’s interest in the demographics of sea-changers and tree-changers in terms of how these new forces are producing new social forms, or even hybrid social forms, then the focus on the emotional life of a grieving couple and their encounter with the redemptive power of the Bush is to present a portrait of politics that is Romantic and subject to the vitalist powers of nature. There seems to be a complete lack of what sort of social forms such stories of migration might presage or be emblematic of, except that there is the beginnings of such a paradigm shift. Lohrey has become a writer of new beginnings. The disappointment is that these conditions for new or even hybrid techniques of self are only ever part of the continuum of governmentality: techniques of self are connected to techniques of state. No one can escape the public world and a condition of the freedom to have nature cleanse and purge grief – as occurs in Vertigo – is that practices and rationalities of government extend from the preparation of a property for bushfire, the care of blackbirds and magpies to the Land Planning acts and local council regulations that fundamentally affect the Bush that is so capable of producing epiphanies and metamorphosis. In increasing her novelistic focus on emergence and re-birth Lohrey’s earlier concern with the techniques of state – the other end of the continuum of governmentality – has fallen away.

In one sense a corrective to the lack of narrativising those public-political concerns of her earlier novels in her more recent ones has been Lohrey’s non-fiction essays. Her Quarterly Essay on the emergence of the Greens in Tasmania, when placed alongside Vertigo, does indeed plug some of the gaps that the novel leaves. The poor reception of The Reading Group, which in lacking conventional narrative closure seemed to strike some reader-reviewers as thereby unsuccessfully incomplete, might explain why Lohrey abandoned the acrid Brechtian presentation of what is her most accomplished and richest novel: to have a readership.

Yet Vertigo, like The Philosopher’s Doll, lacks the warmth that dropping the Brechtian mode could allow more room to radiate. The slewing off of the negating and critical orientation in her earlier novels seems to have been exchanged for a slow diminution of a broader conception of politics in her fiction. Where in The Reading Group the loss of Social-Liberal-Labourist governmentalities is presented as a tear in the continuum of practices of self and state, in her more recent novels, techniques of self have come to dominate the narratives. The implicit project of The Reading Group -- to begin the work of mourning so as to repair and re-form a new continuum -- seems to have been placed aside and each new novel or novella has become a repetition of a scene of emergence that is never developed, or drawn into practices and rationalities of state that hover in the background, unsaid, invisible and off-stage. Where in The Reading Group these rationalities and techniques were front of stage -- the novel's bushfires symbolizing a permanent crisis of state security -- in Vertigo the bushfires are symbols of nature's sublime power to re-birth and heal, albeit a spiritually local and Australian nature. It seems jarring then that apart from the naming of the fictitious town there is little Aboriginal presence in the novel. In Vertigo nature's sublime power is specifically local, Australian and has had its indigenous history abjected.

Vertigo hints at a new forms of governmentality, but Lohrey has been hinting at emerging forms since 1995. Hopefully her next long-form work of fiction sees her return to the poetics of politics that The Reading Group dropped its readers into. If there are ways out of Neoliberalism then narratives of beginnings and emergences while good starts need to be developed. The tear in the continuum of governmentality presented so forcefully in The Reading Group is yet to be sutured. I hope her next work attends to such work as we need her voice in these times.

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