The Forked Garden Path: Jonathan Dunk Reviews ‘A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories’ by Elizabeth Harrower

A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Harrower Text Publishing 2016
Elizabeth HarrowThis new collection of Elizabeth Harrower’s short fiction furrows a subject matter, and an affective topography, familiar from her novels. Namely, acts and structures of cruelty, subjection, and predation occluded by the contexts of relationships. Throughout these fictions Harrower wields free indirect discourse with masterful subtlety; she illustrates with surgical precision and wry disingenuity the internal fictions by which both the master and slave of the social bond – in Hegel’s perennial formulation – justify or conceal the cruelties they suffer or inflict, or both. This relational landscape is nightmarishly claustrophobic, and through its labyrinths the ugliness of the brittle human subject is inescapably intimate.

Harrower’s recurrent question is how far resignation to another’s narrative can alienate you from the shape of your own life: how easy it is to love what tortures us. Where some might find its treatment in her celebrated novel bleak, airless, and altogether dark, these short stories concern transitions, the forks and bridges and lacunae that emerge in all narratives; moments that offer freedom to the oppressed, and self-awareness to the oppressor. Moments that offer truth, or seem to.

In ‘The Fun of the Fair’, published in The Australian in 2015, the collection’s opening gesture, a mistreated child watches a pair of circus performers shamble through demonstrations of romance. She hears them speak the word ‘love’, and from the indifference of their performance abruptly realises the extent of her deprivations. More importantly however, she grasps the freedom of her solitude, obscured by a cocoon of obligations. This is a crucial, reflexive moment in Harrower’s work.

‘Alice’, a brief kind of narratival res gestae was published in the New Yorker last year as one of the opening salvos in Text Publishing’s Harrower Renaissance. It evinces many of the author’s gifts. The basic anti-essentialist scene underwriting all her relationships is effortlessly sketched: “Mother and child were unsatisfied. They looked at each other.” From their bleak beginnings Harrower’s characters weave circle-dances around the wound. Concealing, but emphasizing their concealment with tourniquets of screen memories described in sentences like cobwebs, elegantly fragile. This, from ‘The Beautiful Climate’: “Something about her situation made her feel not only, passively, abused, but actively, surprisingly, guilty.” Here the situational truth vibrates its burden from strand to strand of thought, performing a dispersal and diminution of revolt. The vast inequities countenanced by the bourgeois mind are everywhere on display in Harrower’s world; Alice’s father is described as a man of whom “ no one could remember his voice the day after he died”.

All these psychic bones form a morbid tableau, but Harrower never – or almost never – concedes her belief in the beauty of earthly happening, or her sense of the intricacy, dignity and pathos of even the most ruinous lives. The philosophic result resembles what Thomas Mann called the ‘blithe skepticism’ of Freudian analysis. Developing a theme, the evasion she describes shares many symptoms with the consuming passion for self-ignorance that Adam Phillips considers Freud’s subject. The return of familial wounds, and these ‘psychoanalytic’ or psycho-performative aspects of Harrower’s language substantiate readings of her fictions as rehearsals of trauma. However, reductive armchair psychologizing which positions analysis as a solution or key to the quandaries of the text, of the kind, say, risked by James Wood in his retrospective for The New Yorker, mistakes the fiercely intellectual – almost scholarly – rigor with which the author engages inhumanity. After all, within the half-world of bourgeois life it is deflected aggression, forms of cruelty and manipulation often sublimated into language, that frequently manifests the problem of evil.

The internal, however, is not unhistorical, nor as Jameson demonstrated so thoroughly, un-political. On the contrary, in Harrower’s vision plausibly deniable forms of psychic cruelty are the vice of privilege, a form of outsourced violence. Harrower’s fictions are intensely aware of the materiality of consciousness, and the political or economic forces which structure that materiality. Read with a Marxist hermeneutic to hand, her work forms an incisive sociology of what Engels called false consciousness. ‘The Cornucopia’ comprises an intricate study of the veils with which privilege legitimates itself. The story’s protagonist is Julia Holt, an exquisite North Shore sociopath, who recalls Robin Wright’s magnificent performance of Claire Underwood in House of Cards, Like the late capitalist dispensation itself, the beautiful Julia takes as much and gives as little as she can; and exerts a potent discursive force, a private kulturkampf, to occlude this state of affairs. Her strategies are intricate; the affective labour of her social matrix is striated and segmented between Grades I, II, and III ‘friends’, each category of subjugation allotted its distinct servitudes and privileges. The intelligentsia too, have their role in the system. Julia collects young “university men”, flattering these scholars with an illusion of sanctioned freedom, with seduction, or the idea of it, and in return they supply her with choice words and ‘wise sentences’ to repeat at dinner parties and meetings. At one such she crosses paths with the awkward altruist Zelda, who bemoans with some sincerity the fact that her impoverished maid must pay twice for a sewing machine what she would, being connected to the ‘company’. Throughout this section the word ‘company’ is situated with artful parataxis to conflate the social gathering with the corporation, and the interdependence of Julia’s labours with her husband Ralph’s emphatically situates the social circulation of cultural capital within market-structures. Zelda’s half-hearted protest is a faux pas; it threatens the equanimity of the evening: “though the sum of money involved was trivial, it was, nevertheless, money, and the whole story began to symbolise some problem, to involve principles”. Swiftly moving to restore order Julia subverts and polices critique, firstly with psychology: “I think your Molly should have her head examined,” and then with innuendo: “Really? Malnutrition?” the superstructure avails itself of all available ideological products to occlude and legitimate itself: to nullify critique. One thinks, recently, of News Corp’s shameful hounding of Duncan Storrar; as though an individual’s troubled past had any bearing on the merit of critique.

The oldest weapons of the narcissine system are objectification and reification. Within the compass of two pages the ‘friends’ with whom Julia ‘converses’ are compared to “a pup prancing up with a mouldy bone between its teeth”, and “a tiny pampered lapdog yapping fiendishly”. Her husband Ralph is described, when away from the office – his allotted function – as “like a horse in an aeroplane.” Julia resents evidence of “initiative or individual desire” among the girlfriends she has “acquired” like objets d’art. She is threatened by demonstrations of their alterity; their humanity. She is, at root, engaged in a conflict with the reality of other minds, of others, the Other. The implication, I’d argue, is that in Harrower’s vision the illusions of privilege sanction and prolong thought-structures that are in essence, madnesses: processes of cannibalism, that in consuming the other, can only, finally, rehearse the Ouroboros, consummate in self-devouring. This might be what Christ meant with the eye of the needle analogy, who also didn’t distinguish between sublimated and unsublimated violence.

In the Harrower structure, though, no one is quite damned without their consent. There is always an untrod garden path, an unopened door. In ‘Alice’, towards the end of her life the protagonist begins to exchange kindnesses with a girl, “one of the strangers”. At first she remains clothed in object: “no more pleasing than the chirp of a small canary”, gradually, however, the mortar of the prison-walls begins to crumble; to adapt Jessica Anderson’s conceit from Tirra Lirra by the River – a fruitful comparison with Harrower’s work – she hears the song of the other. My allusion to the garden path was a reference to Eliot’s Burnt Norton, but perhaps Harrower had similar thoughts; the girl visits Alice en route to her wedding:

“Alice sat down alone. And then, from the top of the garden path, someone was calling her name, and through the greenery and the late-summer flowers the girl came in her wedding dress and shimmering veil, like a bird or an angel, on her way to the church.”

The passage above traces the transformative, vivifying instant. Even more precisely, I’d locate the critical juncture in the simile ‘like a bird or an angel’, in which the objectivity of the other is sacralized, stood forth in the wonder of its singularity. This might be what Salinger was getting at in the conclusion of Franny and Zooey, the Fat Lady, the audience, the other, is “Christ himself”. More tenuously, this might be one of the implications of Benjamin’s coda in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, when he posits the texture of experienced history as a fluid, striated, and ghosted form of mitwelt, and each futurity as “the narrow door through which the Messiah might enter.” It is precisely in its unfamiliarity, then, and not in calculable forms of friend or lover, that the stranger becomes the image of God.

Alice is one of the lucky ones, a sheep and not a goat. Returning to Julia, we note that her faith in her own exceptionality, her private religion of desert, is properly shaken only once. Through her ‘charitable’ engagements she comes into contact with Anne-Marie, the daughter of a broken home. Having hired her as a maid, Julia sets out to subject Anne-Marie, a beautiful and intelligent sixteen year old with eyes “like stars and flowers” to the logic of her symbolic economy; make her “give smile for conspiratorial smile.” Like a Men’s Rights activist commenting on youtube – and other agents of unexamined privilege – Julia interprets difference as aggression, and a condition of equity as one oppressive to her. She is troubled by the way Anne-Marie’s “wonderful eyes seemed to think at her, or about her, in some disconcerting way.” The disconcertion, of course, is thinking at all. Julia is hypnotized by the possibility of ruining the girl, of scarring another’s beauty. She explains all that she knows “of the curious customs and practices of a sexual nature that had ever been brought to her attention”, without deigning to mention contraception. The ‘explanation’ is an act of calculated brutalism worthy of de Sade, designed, as it does, to precipitate suicide. Naturally and infuriatingly, Julia’s subsequent life is untrammelled by remorse: “No one more remarkable than Julia ever appeared. No one took up the gauntlet she she had thrown in the face of the universe.”

From certain perspectives, this injustice is nightmarish. In Harrower’s work most abusers never receive their desert, they do not die by the sword. Unless, of course, the deeper and better, parabolic meaning of Christ’s utterance is that to take up the sword is itself a form of death. If we understand evil of this elemental kind to consist in essence of a failure of imagination, a habitually cultured inability to imagine the other’s suffering, or to justify that suffering, Levinas would say, then such a profound limitedness, such affective deprivation, might be understood as its own punishment. This is a logic Dostoevsky pursues throughout his work, and obsessively in Crime and Punishment, sin, the contagion and torsion thereof, is its own justice.

This is the conclusion puzzled over by Clelia, the protagonist of ‘It is Margaret’, published by the Australian Book Review in 2015. This story illustrates the division of property and keepsakes between Clelia and Theo, her sadistic stepfather, following the death of her mother, the titular character, whose life he plagued. With Margaret gone, Clelia realizes that the man has no more power over her, no hostage, nothing to threaten. She treats him neutral care and kindness, knowing fully that Theo and his ilk prey upon “such weak-mindedness, soft-heartedness, without understanding remotely the movements of thought and feeling from which they sprang.” Bemused, Theo finds himself more and more becoming the part he impersonated: a doddering, harmless old man. In the story’s climactic scene, leaving finally the house that has theatered his cruelties, he presses upon Clelia a series of studio portraits, taken when he was a young man. As Theo sits with his own images in his hand she realizes that any gesture of reprisal she might make would “insult the true tragedy” of human suffering which this man, and his ilk, have wrought.

Unsatisfying, but pathetically resonant. Thus far I’ve shuffled cards from Freudian and Marxist decks, with the occasional coat-card thrown by Christ. In the balance of Freudian and Christian ethics, Harrower’s moral economy is both accurate and tenable, I’d say. From the Marxist angle it meets the former criterion but not the latter; this is not a criticism however.

If ‘The Cornucopia’ performs the frenetic, self-justifying monologue of the abuser, and ‘It is Margaret’ analyses both positions in the dialectic from a third, intimate position, analogous to Clare’s in The Watch Tower, then the last story in this collection ‘A Few Days in the Country’, originally published by Overland in 1977, focuses directly upon the wounded mind suturing itself back together. Appropriately, Harrower’s free indirect discourse is highly impressionistic in this piece. Sophie – the Greek comes to mind – does not reflect on her past but sways to the beck of distant impulses. She does not contemplate her own end, but reacts, when “suicide thought of her”. Arduously, through the ‘dumb communion’ of animal life she locates the remnant fragments of her capacity to love. “Love.. that poor debased word. Poor love. Oh, poor love, she thought.” Meditating on the persistence of that love, how it, like sorrow, lingers in her affect-world, with the irreducible traces of the others, lovers cruel and kind, she stands neither at the beck of rigid conscience, nor trembling before abnegative suicide. Like poor love, she accepts herself as a space striated by both forces, and – the last lines in the collection – ‘She had learned’.

These epiphanies are divisive, perhaps not quite what they might seem. The texture of Harrower’s narrative voice is febrile, eloquently dubious. Whether they register authentic self-awarenesses, or merely another plane of self-deception is textually resolved; left open to the reader, who participates in their performance of meaning. Returning to our Marxist question, this structure might be considered a subtle equivalent of Brecht’s Episches Theater: Harrower pitilessly diagnoses the structures by which we license our suffering. The withheld catharsis is her final, secular gift to the independence of the reader’s ethic.

 – Jonathan Dunk

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Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review,Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories is available from https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/a-few-days-in-the-country

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