Some novels are charming. They slip down into you, smooth and clean, without being irksome or setting off critical sirens, without really raising the pulse or inspiring long-lived emotion. Sometimes this means they’re not particularly challenging, that they’re so much lovely fluff, but oftentimes it also means that they speak vitally in their own quiet ways. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Thinking by Carrie Tiffany, the surprise entrant on the Orange Prize shortlist, surely falls into the latter category. A debut novel by an unknown ex-park ranger from Australia, the UK edition is dinky and cute (I’m strangely possessed by the little embroidered train, and the mice and the wheat on the jacket), not to mention tactile and perfectly formed. (It’s of that breed of smaller, compact hardback that a) isn’t too big for my hands, and b) I can read in the bath without aching arms.) I’ve read a number of casually derogatory summaries of its plot: nothing but a book about a train and farming and a failed marriage. Now while I can’t deny that these things are at the core of Everyman’s Rules…, any simple synopsis sells it short, concealing as it does a strong thematic thread and a delicate emotional core.
It is 1934 and Jean Finnegan, aged twenty-three and the orphaned daughter of an Australian Orange grower, is on the Good Farming Train. A seamstress by trade she works as a “demonstrator”, and along with soft-hearted Mary – the cook - and the indefatigable Sister Crock – domestic management and maternity - forms the women’s division of an agricultural road-show (or rather, rail show). Their job, as the train thrusts its way through the endless farming acres, is to bring “science” into the homes, and “progress” to the women, of the Victorian outback. So while their male counterparts give talks on animal husbandry, soil composition and the universal applications of super phosphate, all in the hope of increasing the yield of an unyielding landscape, Jean, Mary and Sister Crock offer “lecturettes” on the creation of domestic bliss. Good farming, they believe, starts in the home: “man, as a single unit of production, is not viable…a wife is essential”. A “scientific” wife, who knows how to marshal her every move for the sake of efficiency, is even better.
Also on the train is determined English agrostologist (= a soil expert) Robert L. Pettegree, a man who quite literally has a “taste” for soil, being able to identify the origins of any Australian sample in one lick. Believing absolutely in man’s ability to chemically enhance wheat growth and net harvest, even in the poorest of loams, he is a disciple of the fundamental regulations of “science” (as he sees them). His rules are the rules of the novel’s title, submitted as an article and published by Victorian Department of Agriculture Journal:
- Contribute to society for the achievement of mutual benefits.
- The only true foundation is a fact.
- Keep up-to-date.
- Avoid mawkish consideration of history or religion.
- Keep the mind flexible through the development and testing of new hypotheses
- Cultivate the company of wiser men – men who are stickers – not shirkers.
- Disseminate the labours and achievements of men of science. They must become the permanent possession of many.
- Bring science into the home.
It quickly becomes clear that Jean, “scientific” role-model that she is, has a sure part to play in Robert’s fulfilment of Rule 8. Having passionately seduced in the Honey compartment of the train he initiates her into his diagram for scientific living, buys a plot in the Mallee (a district of far north-western Victoria, now part of the Big Desert Wilderness Park) and, intending to impose his agrostological regime on its dusty soil and unrelenting climate, takes her there as his wife.
Robert L. Pettegree is determined to show the world a Better Way of Doing Things. His is the simple, confident world of catchphrases and sound-bites that pervade the whole novel – “All the money in the bank comes from the soil”; “Cheap cows are costly cows”; “Grow two blades of grass where one grew before”. It is a brand of philosophy that brooks no argument and allows for little flexibility; if you like, it is a method for living as determined and constrained as the method of experimentation which Robert teaches Jean on their first “date”. Tiffany also makes neat comparisons between its brash confidence and the terrible overbearingness of the slogans that characterise recruitment for the two World Wars that bracket the main narrative: both are ultimately manipulative and misleading.
At first Jean is eager to share Robert’s sense of purpose. She regiments her kitchen: “my labelled tins and boxes, my lists of oven temperatures and my cleaning rota pinned to the wall. He looks through the glass the covers the kitchen table to the menu underneath with the list of meals and ingredients; Monday through Sunday – roast of course, with a fruit or egg pudding depending upon availability.” Every year she draws up an experiment to test the quality of her husband’s chemically enhanced wheat, baking ten loaves and awarding their volume, crumb structure and crust colour marks out of ten. But as the vagaries of the Mallee’s droughts, dust storms and close knit communities become apparent, and Robert and Jean’s marriage begins to loose its momentum, the experiment falters and then finally founders under the shadow of the Second World War.
Essentially what Tiffany has written is the story of Jean’s containment – by marriage and by a fundamental domestic ideology - and then her revelation of self-determination, the kind of bildungsroman that women novelists have been writing for half a century and more. The moral and meaning is manifest: the human individual responds poorly, and without potential, to absolute determination by rule. When Jean cries out: “Useless rules. Where is the heart in your useless rules? The rules don’t mean anything… They just get in the way of seeing things how they really are. They get in the way of the truth…” she confirms something the reader already knows. There is no real confrontation to it and the novel suggests nothing new about how these crises of agency vs. control are to be overcome either within the family and in the wider world community.
Yet Tiffany has done it with such a quirky delight in character and for context, in such a clever, parsed-down and funny prose, that she manages to negate or conceal any real cliché (despite the ending being inevitable from page 2). Jean narrates in an immediate and short-sentenced first person, strengthened by her naivety and manifest decency, and by the terrible difficulty of her situation. And Everyman’s Rules…sees clear to complicating Robert as a fundamentalist, to suggesting both social and psychological roots for his impulses to control. Indeed, he too is a victim of ideology's containment and is hardly a villain; he loves Jean and their friends and their farm, it is only that, in the end, he loves his ideologies more, even unto destruction.
This little debut against totalism and for flexibility is highly compelling as well as quite beautifully told; it isn't be difficult to see what the Orange short list judges saw. Still, to read a novel and find nothing question or interrogate in it? Can that be prize-worthy? I’m not sure it can be. Certainly, I thoroughly enjoyed Everyman’s Rules For Scientific Thinking and it moved me during and in the minutes after reading…but that feeling will have faded to vagueness by next month, and to faintness by next year. It’s not a novel to strike the roots; a soothing massage is more in its nature.
I should make a very quick note to explain the sudden appearance of the Summer Reading Challenge button over in the right hand column. The upshot of it is this: that blogger Amanda over at Weekly Zen has initiated challenge to encourage lit-bloggers to set themselves reading targets and since my Orange shortlist challenge is so nearly at an end, and because I've enjoyed it so much, I thought I'd join in. Now 'tis very flexible. All I have to do is read two books a week, fiction or non-fiction, all summer and post on them...which is pretty much what I do already. The only difference will be that at least one a week must be from my behemoth of a "to be read" pile, while the other can be a new release if I so choose. I'll be posting up a list of what I've lined up after this weekend - my plan being to catalogue all my unread books on Saturday and thus avoid any more embarressing duplicate buys. *is sheepish* ;-) Please feel free to join me, or to spread the book love.