The Pages, Murray Bail. Vintage. 224pp.
Australian novelist Murray Bail made a note in the early 1970s in which he instructed himself to “Invent (for depth of individuality); less ‘reportage.’” He seems to have followed it quite faithfully. From the outset, Bail’s fiction has been driven by this commitment to imagination and a concomitant disregard, verging on contempt, for the conventions of realism. Bail is a storyteller, but not in the reactionary “thumping good read” sense. He belongs rather to the tradition of Borges and Calvino, a tradition in which the conventions of folk storytelling (fables, parables, tall tales) meld with modern (often modernist) literary techniques. Postmodernism, magic realism—call it what you will, this is a storytelling tradition that, among other things, conducts a reflexive dialogue with the very idea of story itself. As a character in Bail’s novel Eucalyptus puts it, “beware of any man who deliberately tells a story. . . . Why is he telling it? What does he want?”
Bail’s early short fiction, collected in Contemporary Portraits (1975; subsequently amended and retitled numerous times), sometimes gives a sly impersonation of “dun coloured realism” (Patrick White’s dismissive characterization of most Australian fiction) before twisting out of its grip; more often it is subtly and willfully absurd. Homesickness, Bail’s first novel, abandoned realism (and subtlety) altogether to tell the surreal story of a group of generally unpleasant Australian tourists traipsing around the world on a package tour. Homesickness mercilessly satirizes Australian boorishness, provincialism, and ignorance, and although (one hopes) Australia is a markedly more sophisticated place nearly 30 years on, it is impossible to deny the accuracy of many of Bail’s observations. Of course, this description makes Homesickness itself sound provincial; in fact it is a capacious work, full of fascinating and often bizarre set-pieces in which everything from photography to museums to colonialism is examined through Bail’s absurdist lens.
Holden’s Performance (1987) and Eucalyptus (1998) consolidated Bail’s aesthetic of laconic, playful language, detached irony, and ambiguous, almost obsessive toying with a cluster of preoccupations. Eucalyptus was the big hit: an international bestseller and critical favorite, it came perilously close to being adapted into a film starring Russell Crowe. A dreamlike fairy tale, it is Bail’s most approachable book, but its surface conventionality is deceptive. The connection between Bail’s fiction and Italo Calvino’s may in truth be more one of incidental kinship than actual influence, but Eucalyptus reminds me of certain Calvino works in the way its metaphysical and metafictional concerns are embedded deep within the story. This is a book that can be read superficially as a modern fairy tale or an offbeat love story, but it is also an interrogation of storytelling, proclaiming story’s necessity while simultaneously exploring its artificiality, or rather artfulness.
The Pages, Bail’s new novel, currently available in Australia and forthcoming from Vintage in the U.S. in 2009, has affinities with his earlier work but is also a singular, idiosyncratic piece in its own right. The story concerns Wesley Antill, scion of a well-off pastoral family, who forsakes farming for philosophy, spending the final 14 years of his life holed up in a woolshed on the family sheep station writing his magnum opus. Wesley’s siblings, Roger and Lindsey, prove almost preternaturally accommodating, allowing their brother the mental and physical space his putative genius requires while declining to make demands on him vis-à-vis the running of the farm.
Antill is an outsider, a non-academic autodidact who neither publishes nor discusses his philosophy. When Antill dies, a Sydney philosopher named Erica Hazlehurst is dispatched to the farm by her university to evaluate Antill’s work. Is it coherent, significant, publishable? Erica is accompanied by her friend Sophie Perloff, a psychoanalyst. The relationship between the two women and their often conflicting methodologies, as well as their interaction with Roger and Lindsey, forms the novel’s spine. This narrative is intertwined with a kind of intellectual bildungsroman detailing Wesley’s rebellion against his family and his travels through Europe in search of a foundation for his philosophy.
It is difficult to get a firm grip on The Pages. Having read it several times, and being familiar with Bail’s ways, I feel that this difficulty is partly by design. Even more so than his early work, The Pages is elusive, ambiguous. For example: How seriously are we meant to take Wesley Antill? How substantial is his philosophy? Does the answer to either of these questions matter? Bail’s fiction consistently raises questions of this kind; the reader is rarely sure what she is “supposed” to think. This is of course one of the attractions of the fiercely individual artist—the last thing anyone needs is more join-the-dots, reader-flattering fiction.
Yet The Pages does at times have a tendency toward the obvious, most notably in the friendship between Erica and Sophie, which constitutes a symbolic binary so simplistic that it is difficult to take seriously. Erica is the “sharp,” reserved, systematic one; she is a philosopher, but she also represents (wait for it) philosophy itself. Sophie is the soft, emotional, “feminine” one; she is, of course, psychoanalysis, personifying “the rush towards the subjective” that Bail sees as endemic in modern Western society.
Oddly, this groan-inducing symbolism provides a foundation for a more complex interplay between various forms of solipsism and objectivity. A familiar Bail trope is language’s incapacity of to sufficiently capture reality, the way in which words construct an intellectual or cultural reality but remain separate from actual objective reality. Wandering around the Antill property, Erica “could see how everything already existed without description.” Yet names, classification, words, are vitally important to human existence, even in seemingly trivial ways. For instance, Wesley at one point inquires into the possibility of changing his name, feeling that “Antill” is too “light” a name for a philosopher. Wesley is ostensibly a searcher for foundational truths, but he is still trapped, and complicit, in the constructed reality of language and its implications.
A story too is a kind of constructed reality, recognition of which constitutes a fatal objection to naïve realism: it simply isn’t real enough. In fact, it’s not even close. Is realism a symptom of solipsism? The social phenomenon Bail identifies as the “looseness and ease of ‘I’” has its literary analogue in the trend toward first person confessional narratives. As Bail writes in Eucalyptus, “A kind of applied psychology has taken over storytelling, coating it and obscuring the core.” Contrast the creative writing adage “write what you know” with Bail’s youthful dictum, “Invent . . . ; less ‘reportage.’” In art, as in life, the danger is not so much lack of objectivity—which is inevitable anyway—but the refusal to acknowledge that lack. Antill ultimately seems to realize this, rejecting grand, “objective” system building in favor of philosophy as a mode of being: contemplation of “life as a series of . . . sobering alterations.”
For all its teasing complexity, The Pages is probably the least of Bail’s novels to date. Certainly it is the least witty, which is a shame given that Bail’s are some of the wittiest novels going. The structure is haphazard and the ideas, while often stimulating and enigmatic in the usual Bail manner, are just as often labored or simply confusing. Yet The Pages is for the most part an intensely enjoyable novel that somehow manages to be simultaneously charming and infuriating; dense, but also light and playful. It is another example of Murray Bail’s singular talent, and I recommend it without hesitation.
Tim Howard is a freelance writer from Melbourne, Australia.
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