Three novelists pushing the bloat out

Clear by Carys Davies; Parasol against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi; The Children’s Back by Helen Garner

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The art of omission seems to be unfashionable in fiction these days. Word-bloat and page-plumping are the literary crises of our age. It’s not hard to see where this might come from. First, there is the same misguided view of value for money that leads to swollen typefaces and longer page counts to make books thicker than ever.

Second, there appears to be a decreasing appetite among editors and publishers for stretching readers, for risking the casual browser bailing early because they don’t immediately “get” the book. Yet the benefits of allowing the readers to do some of the thinking for themselves are obvious: a reader who is a participant rather than simply a bystander will be more engaged with the work. So this month’s column offers some novels that still dare to leave the reader’s hand unheld — without, it must be accepted, universal success.

Carys Davies
(Granta, £12.99)

Welsh writer Carys Davies’s third novel Clear follows her previous books West and The Mission House into travel quests and into the minds of ungovernable men. She has always been attracted to loners and explorers: West followed a settler across the American midwest (“I have to go. I have to go and see. That’s all I can tell you”), while The Mission House followed a convalescing English librarian into contemporary India.

This time we are closer to home geographically, but there are two men on a journey, not one. It is 1843, and the setting is a remote Scottish island solely occupied by the ageing Ivar, who has lived there all his life. He does not know that the island’s population is about to double with the arrival of John Ferguson, who on the first page is delivered to the island by rocking boat and then picks his way over the rocks “like a tall, slightly undernourished wading bird”, “silently talking to his absent wife”. His task — this is the era of the Scottish Clearances, where landowners determined that the islands would be better used as homes not for people but for sheep — is to confront Ivar and send him back to the mainland.

Ferguson is in transit in more ways than one: he’s one of the hundreds of clergymen who rebelled against the Scottish Church in that year’s Great Disruption, and he’s in need of funds to help the new Free Church. So it suits him to be paid by the mile to visit Ivar’s island, even if his patron isn’t confident of his ability. (“Although he is a churchman,” wrote his brother-in-law in support, “I can vouch for his ability to make himself generally useful.”)

Carys Davies

They were right to worry: quickly Ferguson comes a cropper and falls down a cliff, where he miraculously survives and is rescued by Ivar, who takes him in. This is a handy set-up to be sure, but the magic is in Davies’s handling of her material. She packs a huge amount in — all the background and story so far have come in 40 pages — and never says more than is needed. This is apt, given that Ivar and Ferguson have no common language, so their route to understanding must come through words they can agree on.

Davies tells the story through a combination of internal and external voice, with both men getting their time on the page. The language barrier means there is little dialogue but the story never feels static, precisely because the gap between the men is one the reader has to bridge. If the quarrels that erupt between them — as when Ferguson learns that Ivar has taken his photograph of his wife Mary — seem trivial, that all adds to their humanity as characters.

Meanwhile, their narrative is interrupted by Mary’s own story, which provides an external focus and balance. But as Mary makes her journey to meet her husband again, it doesn’t distract the reader but rather adds to the tension as an ending both surprising and inevitable looms. To deliver an epic story in miniature like this — in fewer than 150 pages — is an exceptional achievement.

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi is a prodigy: at the age of 39 she is already two decades and eight novels into her writing career. That she hasn’t yet broken through to mainstream success is probably due to the pursuit of her idiosyncratic vision, which sees another eyebrow-raising iteration in her new novel Parasol against the Axe. If you think the title is intriguing but doesn’t make much sense, you’re halfway to the full experience. Beyond the barest outline, this is a book so chaotic and multifaceted that it’s impossible even to approach a reasonable summary.

So here is that barest outline: we’re in modern day Prague, a city the central character Hero Tojosoa is visiting with a pre-wedding party. She brings a novel called Paradoxical Undressing, recommended to her by her son, but every time she (or anyone else) starts reading the book, it turns out to be a different story.

Oh, and the novel is narrated by the city of Prague itself. “Isn’t it all right for a city to pull a leg or two?” it asks us. Indeed it is, and play is what it’s all about. Characters appear without warning and swim along with Hero and us for a time before disappearing.

Parasol against the Axe
Helen Oyeyemi
(Faber, £16.99)

The changing opening chapter of Paradoxical Undressing is presented in full several times: once about a bookshop that accepts only exchanges, not money; once about a judge who looks like “a lesser-known member of the Rat Pack”; once — most substantially and pleasingly — about a “taxi dancer” (don’t ask) named Leah Loew; and so on.

Alongside all this there are subplots with another character, Dorothea Gilmartin, who is at the same time a separate person and also a pseudonym used by Hero, and a mole, and a “not-golem”, and literary-cultural references galore from D.H. Lawrence and Patrick White to Italo Calvino and Suzanne Vega.

It gallops along with tremendous energy, but what makes it hard to assimilate is the coming and going of so many characters delivered with the Nabokovian flair of Oyeyemi’s style. “Taken unawares, she stepped onto a bridge lined with statues that curved her sense of the sky above her and the water beneath her in such delicate increments that upon reaching its midpoint she seemed to be either approaching a position behind herself or coming from somewhere she’d never been.”

Oyeyemi has both put everything in and left everything out: to add the connective tissue to bring the stories properly together would require a book three times the length. The best thing about Parasol against the Axe is that anything goes; the worst thing is that anything goes.

It is to be celebrated that publishers have continued to let Oyeyemi write as she wishes to, and nobody has said to her, “How about a nice historical crime series instead?” — but here is where the practice of not joining the dots for the reader can go too far: or not far enough.

Helen Garner

A more perfectly balanced example comes from Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach. Garner is a big name in her native Australia, with novels, stories, essay collections and even three volumes of her diaries in print. Yet she has been published only sporadically here, and this 1984 novel is, surprisingly, only now appearing in the UK and the US.

The Children’s Bach
Helen Garner
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99)

On reading it, the surprise only deepens: this is the perfect example of a novel that omits, but provides enough rich detail to make the reader’s work pay off. It’s a family story, about the seemingly golden couple Dexter and Athena, around whom other characters orbit. We have their two sons, one with a developmental disability; Dexter’s college friend Elizabeth and her young sister Vicki; Elizabeth’s feckless sometime partner Philip and his daughter Poppy; and sundry others.

The novel follows a timeline, and has at least one dramatic conclusion, but not a traditional linear plot. Instead, the narrative swoops and settles on different characters, hopping from one to another, sometimes in the same paragraph. Reading it is like watching a home video from the period, seeing just the moments people thought worth capturing.

The story itself features parties, conversations, seductions and disappointments, all captured in succinct, bright prose. One character mocks another as having “a voice like somebody falling off a mountain”. Athena is hard-hearted about her disabled son Billy: “Don’t get romantic,” she tells Vicki. “There’s nobody in there.”

An older woman, used to not being listened to, “had slid away into the habit of monologue, a stream of mild words which concealed the bulk of thought and knowledge as babbling water hides submerged boulders”. One scene at a dinner, featuring multiple characters, is a tour de force of control and variety as the viewpoint shifts from one to another.

Control, indeed, is what a book like this is all about. Late in the novel, musician Philip is advising a young songwriter: “You have to steer a line between what you understand and what you don’t. […] Don’t explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.”

This approach, lest we were in any doubt, is endorsed by a facsimile of a Post-It note in Garner’s hand that is reproduced on the endpaper of The Children’s Bach, presumably a memorandum to herself mid-composition. “Good stuff here but compress,” it reads. And compress, and compress, and compress she did, and the book — and the reader — is better off for it.

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