Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser

This is an older review I did for The Compulsive Reader. I'm just getting around to reading The Hamilton Case:

It is no accident that Tom Loxley, the Indian-Australian professor who is the central character in Michelle de Kretser’s third novel, The Lost Dog, is writing a scholarly discussion of the work of Henry James, nor is it any accident that of the many individual James’ stories she mentions, one that seems to get a greater emphasis is "The Turn of the Screw." "The Turn of the Screw" is perhaps the most controversial of all the stories that the American novelist produced, the one that has produced the most critical polemic. The bulk of the story is the first person narrative of a governess who is entrusted with the care of two small children who she claims have been corrupted by the ghosts of two ex-servants. The crux of the critical argument is whether or not she is a reliable witness. Are there really ghosts or are they simply a figment of her imagination? What is reality? Where is truth? Readers have been able to find textual support for both of these positions; but no critic has managed to convince the other side. In the end, any universal agreement unlikely, many have opted for none of the above: in effect saying that ghosts or no ghosts; that is not the question.

The problem in The Lost Dog is not the question of supernatural presences; it is not a question of a reliable narrator. The problem is much akin to the problem of the critics and readers of "The Turn of the Screw." In the light of the limitations of human understanding can one determine truth is situations where the evidence is not always black and white.

Loxley is holed up in a friend’s cabin in the Australian bush finishing his book, and just before he is about to leave for home, his dog breaks loose and runs off still tethered to a long rope lead. Loxley chases after, to no avail. He searches for day or so; but needing to return to the city, he asks the neighbors to keep an eye out, leaves out some food, and plans to return in a few days. When he does return, it is with Nelly Zhang, a Chinese-Australian artist who owns the cabin, and for whom he has developed a passionate romantic attachment. Nelly is an enigma. There are some significant questions about an earlier marriage and what may or may not have happened to her first husband. We learn parts of her story through flashbacks over the course of the novel, bits and pieces from her friends and people who know of her, from microfilmed news reports, her own account of events, but much of what we learn is simply gossip and much contradictory. It is up to Loxley to wade through this mess of information and try to establish some sense of what might be truth. Loxley, unfortunately for him, is in the same position as the reader of "The Turn of the Screw." . He must make a judgment on the basis of inadequate and perhaps unreliable information.

Yet this is after all the enigma of all of life: judgment must be made on the basis of information that is often incomplete and even when complete open to interpretation. Late in the novel, Loxley thinks back to a time in his childhood in India, when in his innocent religious zeal he tried to convert a young playmate to Christianity by showing her a stained glass depiction of Christ’s crucifixion. "She, however, had no means of understanding these things, let alone the allegory of suffering and redemption portrayed before her. And so she screamed and, covering her head with her arms, dashed in terror from the place." He, on the other hand "beheld the sacrifice that illustrated his god’s infinite compassion, and saw, also, a man whose broken white body and crimsoned wounds the light endowed with awful verisimilitude." His conclusion is a formula for the problem we all face: " That a sign might proclaim a truth as well as its opposite was in itself a disturbing magic."

The book is replete with analogs–signs that "proclaim a truth as well as its opposite" and thus create a "disturbing magic" that at the very least confuses the perception of reality and truth.

These analogs run the gamut from what seem to be obvious misperceptions about the physical world like Loxley’s aging mother’s constant fear that she is falling whenever she moves to misjudgments about others, like his expectations of how both his mother and his ex-wife will react to the news of the lost dog. There are misjudgments about motivation: is the relationship between an older male art dealer and a younger man a homosexual affair or is it something else? Are the charitable actions of an older aunt really simply an opportunity to oppress the less fortunate? The signs can be comic: Loxley’s mother wants to know how little fish will be able to take over the office when she loses her job because of "microfish," The signs can contain an element of tragedy: the infant Loxley’s attitude towards excrement as opposed to his mother’s set against the reversal of that attitude and her embarrassment at her inability to control her bowels in her dotage.

One of the more interesting signs of this "disturbing magic" is the installation art which is associated with Nelly. She is constantly collecting found objects, the detritus of the city. She has draws filled with material, a room full of yesterday’s electronic discards. Walking on the street she stoops to pick up coins, a plastic fish. From the trash of others, she creates art. She fills printers trays lined with jeweler’s felt (indicating the value of what they contain) with swizzle sticks and condom wrappers. She photographs them to emphasize the value therein. After all we photograph what we privilege. The addition of images from advertising ( perhaps the cultural detritus of a society in its ephemerality, if nothing else)–the logo of Skipping Girl Vinegar most particularly–is simply a further extension of this theme.

This perplexing character of reality and the difficulty individuals have in reading it and coming to terms with it is the essence of the riddle that lies at the heart of the novel, for its protagonist and for its reader as well. Both live in a world that requires action based on signs that are at the least open to more than one reading.

Like "The Turn of the Screw," The Lost Dog packs its thematic concerns into a haunting suspenseful tale that comes at the reader in maddeningly tiny atoms of information which expand and grow in significance as we learn more and more about Loxley and as he learns more about Nelly. A bit of information will be presented: Loxley overhears an older man makes a comment to a younger at an art gallery. It seems little more than a random detail. A name is dropped, not even in a sentence. Posner. It seems to come from nowhere, mean nothing. But slowly piece by piece the details fill in the narrative. They are discovered as clues are discovered in a detective story, they just never seem to add up quite as neatly as they do in the hands of Agatha Christie.

The story begins with the loss of the dog and goes back in time to give the reader the back story: Loxley’s parents, his childhood in India, the immigration to Australia, his meeting with Nelly, his academic life. All of this is interspersed into the search for the lost dog coupled to the search for the solution to the puzzle that is Nelly Zhang. The trouble is whenever a solution seems about to emerge something new comes up to complicate the issue and keep the pages turning.

Not only does Michelle de Kretser tell a suspenseful story, she does it with the pen–or more probably the laptop–of a poet. Her prose crackles with sensuous imagery, often draped in alliteration: "The pale pillar of Posner was rising from the black scoop of a chair. For a large man, he moved as if oiled." The sight sends a "dribble of dismay down Tom’s spine." Or, "Flowers were everywhere, fat spillages of cream and pink, belled blue spikes, frothy lemon, Leaves and grasses moved, the scene shaking in light." She revels in figurative language. One man "resembled a hinged ruler, his long body forever obliged to fold itself into deficient spaces." Tom is "stabbed" with impatience. Birds fly our of "the muscled mauve arms of a eucalypt: a Fauve canvas come to life." Darkness spreads "like leaves." Sometimes the language moves into the allegorical: "Love was represented as a load; one saw tiny figures broken-backed under monstrous cargoes." Her language is rich and lush, at times filled with the flora and fauna of the Australian bush, at times the plastic and concrete of the city.

This sense of place is central to the novel. Whether she is talking about India or Australia, the author is always speaking in the idiom of the place. Unfortunately for a botanically/zoologically illiterate North American like myself, too often she sent me to an inadequate dictionary for help in identifying some probably not very obscure bush or bird. Yet this seems a small price for the intimacy of the detail and the evocation of locale. The same can be said for her use of local products, brands and advertising. The interesting thing is how she manages to infuse the realism of her local color with the sense of magic, or perhaps to infuse the "disturbing magic" with the realism of everyday.

One is reminded of the explanations Wordsworth and Coleridge have given about what they were trying to do in the poems of the "Lyrical Ballads." Wordsworth aimed to paint the marvel and mystery of the real world, Coleridge, the reality of the marvelous and mysterious. I t is almost as though there was a truth that lies somewhere in the combining of the two. Here is de Krester describing the thoughts of Thomas Loxley: ". . .he thought it was an error to equate authenticity with even tones. Existence was inseparable from tragedy and adventure, horror and romance; realism’s quiet hue derived from a blend of dramatic elements, as a child pressing together bright strands of plasticine creates a drab sphere."

Michelle de Kretser has won numerous awards for her prior work. Read The Lost Dog. You will understand why.

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