Gail Jone’s Orange long-listed Dreams of Speaking is quite probably the worst literary fiction I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. Thank all the gods I borrowed it from the library…I’d hate to think I’d paid actual money for such blustering, purple-prosed and pointless pretension.
Alice Black is a (piteously self-obsessed) Australian academic writing a book on “the aesthetics of technology”. The blurb unabashedly captures the affectation of the project:
…”in every aeroplane flight, every Xerox machine, every neon sign, she sees the poetics of modernity.”
Hopping a plane to Europe, she arrives in Paris funded by some utterly unlikely academic grant that not only provides for her living costs but also includes a lovely little apartment. Immediately the alarm bells should start ringing: Why is Paris the best place to write about modernity? What exactly does Paris have in the way of technology that Sydney doesn’t? And can I have some of this miraculously undemanding funding too?!?
Once in Paris Alice does nothing but have epiphanies related to modernity (perhaps it’s something in the air?) and swan around in a state of existential listlessness. By some unhappy coincidence her ex-boyfriend Stephen is also in Paris, more than prepared to add some sexual tension. (They had lots of hot sex in university but his emotional poverty inevitably led to relationship collapse. He once saw his father stood on top of a disembowelled whale. It scarred him for life. Enough said.) Sadly, however, he doesn’t appear to know *why* else he’s there and Gail Jones doesn’t deign to tell us. Maybe he too was there to partake of the existential airs? Some hearty breathes of technological spiritism? Who knows. I don’t (and really couldn't care less). Anyway, it doesn’t matter because no sooner has he become properly obsessed with Alice than he’s being hussled onto a plane back to Austrailia. (His mother, who left the whale-mounting father and son to each other decades ago, now has cancer and needs some care.)
Alice, meanwhile, has more epiphanies. She is helped in this by the idiosyncratic Mr Sakamoto, an elderly survivor of Nagasaki's atomic bomb and an expert on Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. The pair form an unlikely friendship based on this and their mutual fascination with the beauty of twentieth century inventions. They go to a particular bistro a lot and have epiphanies there. The epiphanies form no coherent philosophical revelation whatsoever.
Then Mr. Sakamoto returns to Japan and gets sick; Alice follows but isn’t allowed to see him.
More epiphanies. She goes home to Australia.
Mr. Sakamoto dies. Alice finds out her sister has had cancer in her absence but didn’t bother to tell her because, well, quite frankly everyone knew she was too solipsistic to care. Then, for no reason I could fathom at all, Alice finds out she was adopted.
Nevertheless, in spite of its heroic effort, it isn't the plot that kills Dreams of Speaking as dead as the deadest dead thing. Its the prose, which is redundant, ludicrous and grating by turns, and often manages to be all three at once. A sample:
“Alice was flying to Europe, following darkness around the planet in her north-westerly projection. She would have a doubled night – the nothing-space of jet flight was freighted with black magic, so that passengers bore stoically their extended nocturne, relinquishing the ordinariness of time, relinquishing good meals and intelligent conversation, for this wearisome, dull, zombie imprisoning. The habit of detachment was useful in such situations. In the incessant roar of the wind tunnel of flight, Alice watched the serried strangers around her. They were fixed in crepuscular gloom onto screens or magazines, each locked away, looking sad, in a solipsistic reverie. Alice wondered what form of modernity this might be and how she might include it in her book…”
Crepuscular gloom? Solipsistic reveries? The incessant roar of the wind tunnel of flight? I say again: Shoot me with a spoon. And it keeps up this bone-wearing verbosity throughout, saying a sum total of nothing in as many words as possible. The central pomposity of Alice’s project – The Poetics of Modernity – provides any number of opportunities for Jones to work herself up into an adverbious frenzy as she demands we see “the unremarked beauty of modern things”. Her desire to demonstrate that technology has soul is always overblown. Take for example:
“By the light of television – a spooky indigo glow – one can see mortality itself dance on the faces of entire families. They look arrested, dumb. Death is already claiming them. Flicker is the mode of televisual morbidity.”
“There is little as artificially brilliant as a neon sign. Pause and consider. The glow in incomparable… [looooong explanation of its invention and development, followed by a description of its ecstatic reception in New York] They were applauding the transformation of air. Their eyes were lit with novel amazement. City streets would never be the same again…. Words written above buildings in purest white.”
Or my own personal favourite:
“The telephone is our rapturous disembodiment. We breathe ourselves, like lovers, into its tiny receptacle, and glide out the other end, mere voice, mere function…The dark space of technology between mouths is a space of pure wind; it is a wind that snatches presences, an erosion, a loss.”
And all three of these in the opening 33 pages, with a whole wealth of twaddle to follow. It’s laughable in its intensity and all for no coherent purpose.
Forced to carry this level of revelation Jones’ characters don’t even stand a chance. Alice is no more than a pack animal for a bunch of philosophical ideas, dodging from one “illuminating” experience to another and viewing them all as equally commonplace. She has to bludgeon a kangaroo to death, aged 10, but she isn’t phased. She hears a homeless man sing Beatle’s songs on the Parisian underground and placidly absorbs the lyrics’ poignant significance. She sees a man beating up his girlfriend and launches in to her rescue, wrestling him to the ground, only to be joined in her altruism by a concentration camp survivor. An unknown young boy is murdered outside her apartment and she spends weeks meditating on her grief for him. When she speaks to people she mouths wisdoms:
“Let me show you,” she said changing the subject, “what I found in a toyshop. Like objects from the ruins of a lost civilisation.”
The auxiliary characters, including Mr. Sakamoto, are little better but Stephen is worst of all. He kindly lends me the title to my post, his despair apparently “like clothing”.
I’m not sure what disturbs me more. That this is Gail Jones’ second published novel and that she teaches literature at the University of Western Australia, or that the Orange prize judges chose to put Dreams of Speaking on their longlist.
It begs the question: did they even read it?
Then Esther and I read The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders and all was well again.
“Ever had a burr in your sock?” begins this satirical little gem of children’s book, “A Gapper’s like that, only bigger about the size of a baseball, bright orange, with multiple eyes like a potato.” And Gapper’s like goats. They like them so much that when they find them they attach themselves to the goats with cries of delight and cling on, shrieking and shrieking happily until the goats lose all hope of rest, stop giving milk and die. Unsurprisingly, in villages where goats, and goats’ milk and cheese, are the only source of income Gappers are considered a serious pest.
Such a village is Frip, a little settlement of just three houses between the coast and a swamp where Gappers are a constant problem. So much so in fact that all Frip’s five children are employed full time, combing Gappers off goats and tossing them into the sea. Sadly, Gappers are hardy little creatures and as soon as they hit the sea floor they begin to inch back to land, inexorably towards Frip's poor goats. That is until one Gapper “less stupid than the others and with a lump on one side of its skull that was actually its somewhat larger-than-average brain, sort of sticking out” decides to reco-ordinate the goat-loving tendencies of the Gapper nation…
What follows is just delicious, combining the Dave Mckean-esque illustrations of Lane Smith with Saunder’s sardonic prose. It restored my faith in life and literature post-Dreams of Speaking.
Amen to that.