Wild Gestures: Stories by Lucy Durneen, MidnightSun Publishing, 2017.
Lucy Durneen’s collection of short stories, Wild Gestures, sets out to challenge the reader both linguistically and conceptually. There are loose threads that link the narratives together, mostly surrounding the sense of infinite darkness in her world paradigm. Her themes revolve around lost opportunities and a Hardyesque sense of the inevitability of failure and betrayal. The protagonists are lost and seeking meaning in their lives through actions, relationships and control of the external world and each is doomed to failure.
The opening narrative, Time is a River without Banks, is a tumultuous story of a mother’s attempt to protect her child from all pain and the inevitable loss of life this induces. Excluded from the world, the mother loses all she seeks to cherish, until she finally loses her voice “the mother was reduced to a language of absence”. The gothic elements of the narrative reminded me strongly of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. The horror felt by the mother and her exclusion from reality (literally and figuratively blocking out doors and windows) has that juxtaposition of spiritual hyperbole only found in pure gothic narratives. The lack of control, or the wild gestures of the title, are haunting and reinforce the sense of impending doom present from the outset.
The imagery in the narratives are powerful and constantly reinforced. However, while, the metaphors and imagery work well, the similes often feel a little contrived. In Noli mi tangere, the protagonist considers the nature of love as a young girl. She opens with: “When he asked her to go down to the promenade she thought; so this is what it feels like. Love. It felt less incredible than she had imagined.” This feels honest and has the ambiguous questioning tone of a young girl but the additional sentence: “To be honest, if felt more like the start of Mono, or her period” feels forced – an extension that is unnecessary. The language of gothic is already rich and tending to the repetitious, so extending on an extension undermines the power of the complexity of the language used.
The rather graphic references to sex and sexuality in the narratives also tend to feel rather ugly and simultaneously slightly prudish: we are invited to disapprove as much as to feel the emptiness of the failed intimacy. In The Old Madness and the Sea, we are given the sub chapter opening: “Murray didn’t feel very much to blame, if he was honest. He felt sudden gusts of entitlement to infidelity. He was no more than an aimless moon orbiting within a bigger system that made cheating possible.” His lies compound as he sets out to claim a “veneer of authenticity” to his behaviour. For the reader, the negativity of the paradigm in which a man has such a sense of entitlement creates a sense of bathos: at such times the characters can move from gothic to the absurd. This fundamental nihilism undermines the nobility of the wild gestures themselves, which are essentially life affirming through the imperative to act and to claim rather than to accept and die without having at least tried to change or control the world.
Interestingly, it is the female lead who salvages some meaning from the relationship: one in which the man fails even to learn her name correctly. “I don’t know when we’re going to start being honest with each other, but I thought it might be handy if your wife comes looking for me.” Here, the woman implicitly has taken control of his nihilism and invested it with a purpose which betrays his own implicit cruelty. However, despite her challenge, the underlying nihilism is so ugly that it is hard to perceive strength in her actions or admire her determination to salvage meaning and so, the wild gesture is betrayed at every level.
In the same way that Plath’s The Bell Jar is highly seductive yet ultimately betraying of youth and hope, so too the nihilism coupled with the seductive qualities of the writing, invite destruction of hope and emotional growth through the vicarious experiences of the narratives. Yet in the very same short story, Durneen has a fascinating paragraph that is life-affirming, when she speaks of the Samoan perceptions of facial tattoos: “When Samoans tattoo their faces, he learned, they are recording marks in time…To illustrate yourself in this way could only be a beautiful thing, an art, not a monstrosity.” This critical difference also claims positivity for the wild gestures. They reflect, even if they do not carry, meaning. It is their repetition and our reflection on them that mark us out as very human, with all our frailties exposed yet celebrated.
The penultimate narrative, This is Eden, contains this powerful image: “A long laugh roars through the divorce party and what I am reminded of is a school of sharks…How appropriate this is for animals that have to keep moving or die.” Perhaps this is the key message of this challenging text: that life itself has intrinsic value, however horrendous or betraying the experience. The narrative finishes with the biblical image of the apple, “the juice… bitter and old… that feeling, young and sweet.” For Durneen, this is knowledge – a woman’s birthright through the actions of a mythical first woman. Knowledge is to be claimed: “I think of it now, and I bite and I bite and I bite.”
Is pain our raison d’être as women in the current political and social climate? I hope she’s wrong but until I’m sure, I’ll continue to make my own wild gestures and seek meaning in this crazy world.
Alison-Jane Hunter is an insatiable reader. Her book reviews have been published in the South Australian English Teachers’ Association journal, Opinion, and her theatre reviews, in FringeReview- Adelaide.