Elizabeth Knox

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In purgatory stories are street lamps (1)

I thought it might be easiest just to post the lovely photo of Mum from her order of service (it’s on my facebook). But then I wrote this.

Over the past few years it’s been family, friends, and fiction for me. They were all a challenge, and all sustained me. I want to write a bit about the fiction, and some of the things I watched and read that got me through. I’ll start by reflecting upon why those things and not others. Why th0se books, films, TV—all superior entertainment, all very good of their kind, and all very different.

One of the things you hear people say when they’re discontented, and hard-pressed, is that they don’t have the energy for anything difficult, sad, or dark. “I just want diversion. Something that carries me away.” I been thinking about how “diversions” work in our times of crisis (and of waiting). I thought how, years ago, during a relationship breakup, my sister told me that she got through her hardest night by watching John Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, watching John Wayne call Jimmy Stewart “Pilgrim”, watching a story that says—among other things—this: Just because something comes to an end that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real, or in itself the heart of a story. I thought of that, and I remembered my son at 18 months, the night before he had grommets put in his ears to save his hearing, already brewing another ear infection and up all night, lying on the couch, flushed, tearful, and exhausted. We were watching Disney’s The Jungle Book for the first time, and when Baloo began to sing “Bare Necessities” Jack got up off the couch to do a smiling, tearstained dance, because the invitation of the music, and Baloo’s performance, was irresistible to him. I was thinking was that we have this wonderful ability to be comforted by the life we see in art. And how it’s not simply a matter being diverted. Art isn’t an analgesic. It’s more like a temporary cure.

During the worst bits of my mother’s illness (worst for witnesses—she had her own private worst bits too) the fiction I needed, the fiction I turned to, changed. The tougher things were, the more engaged I wanted to be by what I watched or read. I discovered that I was completely out of patience with the speedy, or glib; with narrative swollen by explanatory mountains-made-of-molehill plot-points; with received language, familiar phrases, even the workmanlike storytelling language of polished genre books. I needed literary books. So, in a reading month or two I might go through four contemporary German novelists (Herta Muller, Juli Zeh, Peter Stamm, Judith Hermann; Fergus and I were reading contemporary German literature, beginning in a spirit of gracious interest after learning that New Zealand would be the country of honour at Frankfurt in 2012.) I read a lot of Roberto Bolano; and reread Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Then, for a change of pace, I reread Diana Wynne Jones The Power of Three—a brisk paced book, but one that didn’t take its reader’s hand and tell them where it was going.  A sly, intricate, and lively book. I was tired, and blue, and reading slowly, and it turned out that the books that demanded to be read slowly were the easiest to read.

For a time I stopped watching TV. I’d been watching a lot of TV. And, without bodies (the actors) to embody the stories, I discovered that words really did have to do all the work. They couldn’t just make the right noises. I had to be kept alert. The kind of books I’d always try and tolerate (because I wanted to know why millions of people read them) I began to find unreadable. It turned out that all that television—my favourite long form storytelling apart from book series like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin, and Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles—hadn’t spoiled me for books, only for bad books. Or not even bad—but the efficient works of genre that I’d quite enjoyed before.

So why was this? Well, perhaps the defining conditions for a book’s being genre aren’t its setting, subject matter, or audience. No, it seems to me that one of the very few things that distinguishes what is purely genre from what’s literary is language. I’ve read “How To Write A Novel” gurus confidently describing genre fiction as having “transparent language”. I think the suggestion is that the reader can see the world of the story through the language. It’s a language that doesn’t get in the way, or cast any shadows. With my convalescent sensibility what I saw in these books wasn’t transparency. I saw that many of them were written in a kind of kitset language, phrases we’ve all heard before. Like, for example, “Her heart was pounding” rather than, “Her heart had hurried up into her head, planted its sour shoes on the back of her tongue, and was hammering on her eardrums as if it at locked doors.” The second example is extravagant, and much longer, but it does so much more with that little homunculus of the heroine trying to fight her way out of her body as well as her situation. The kitset phrase is unexceptional; you don’t have to think about it, it’s efficient that way. It’s lubricating language, you slide on through, there’s the story, but it isn’t offering any resistance, and it hasn’t any gravity that you can use to change your own trajectory. And I’m talking here about books that are actually good—clean assemblages of familiar language. Books where you wouldn’t, for instance, find: “Her diaphanous robe was cool against her skin.” That’s an example of one of those monstrosities of POV. We are to note the woman’s robe is transparent as if we’re watching her, although we are inside, registering the sensation of her robe on her skin. The authorial mirror follows the heroine around hoping she comes off as sensual and uninhibited (surely the author’s intention), but instead she comes across as weirdly self-conscious and narcissistic.

Anyway, I started to think of these good clean assemblages of genre language as being written in “Television Standard”. I began to be a very fussy book buyer. I would browse book stores, open books, to do my usual prose sampling, and notice how many of the books in the shelves I’d always check out with interest—Fantasy and Science Fiction, Young Adult and Thriller—were written in this style-cancelling Television Standard, a language whose only aim seemed to be to get out of the way of what was happening, as if what was happening wasn’t in the end only happening in language. “Good plain language, without artifice,” as the how-to guru might describe it, language without jolts of strangeness, traction, or hauling power.

So, picture me, a tired, blue reader putting down the thriller, turning off the television, and opening Jude the Obscure. A blockbuster will fly through the time it occupies like a cannonball. Jude walked around me and breathed on me. I took in world of the book, and my world grew to accommodate it. My own fears and frustrations got smaller. I got smaller. Small and integral. It was as if I was one of Hardy’s country people, out on the heath, walking from town to town. I was reading the book, performing its main character’s pilgrimages, his flights, and exiled wandering. I was making it happen all over again. Whatever purpose my journey had, it also served in a small way to keep the path clear of weeds. The path from town to town. Jude the Obscure was mine intimately. It was written just for me. And, at the same time, it didn’t need me at all. How comforting it was—that being there, and being no one.



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