Time is fluid in Stephanie Bishop’s new novel Man Out of Time, an intimate portrait of a family breaking down. The narration is split between the points of view of Stella, her mother Frances, and her father Leon. Bishop captures the fluctuations of her characters’ consciousnesses so closely that the reader experiences narrative time in loops and layers as memories are uncovered and reintegrated into her characters’ thoughts. Leon is the man ‘out of time’ as he tries to salvage the family unit; his own perception of time is distorted by mental illness; and he ultimately runs out of time to save his own life.
The novel opens as Leon makes his way through an unnamed city in the early hours of the morning, checking into a hotel and going to the seaside. He takes a walk and sees a woman ‘rise from the ocean’. Leon photographs this woman and what we take to be that photograph is reproduced on the page. (Bishop has recently said that she discovered a set of photographs that belonged to her father after his death as she was writing Man Out of Time. It was an uncanny incident in that it echoed an event in the manuscript in progress.) The photographs are mostly of buildings or landscapes; one is of a bird in flight; another is of an open window with a torn curtain. People are often eerily absent and the outlines of those who appear are blurred.
A photograph, writes Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, is documentary in its effect; it is ‘indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself.’ And there is no doubt that these photographs are deployed in some way to authenticate Leon’s experience. But the effect of these photographs also brings into play Susan Sontag’s observation that photographs are ‘inexhaustible invitations to deduction’. The images are inscrutable and lacking in context; if they authenticate anything, it is Leon’s unsoundness of mind.
The trip described in the opening pages took place in the days just before Leon’s death. The narrative then moves to Stella, as she receives news of her father’s disappearance, first from her mother, followed by a visit from the police. From this point, the novel dives into the family’s past, into accounts of Stella’s childhood and Leon’s increasingly erratic behaviour following the death of his brother in an apparent suicide.
Leon enjoys a close relationship with his daughter. He believes they are able to share thoughts without speaking and he takes her on late night jaunts in the car, pressing ‘the horn over and over like newlyweds driving off from the reception party’. It is Leon who satiates Stella’s voracious curiosity, answers her endless questions and instils in her an appreciation of literature. He tells the older Stella, an aspiring novelist, that he will ‘always be at the centre of everything’ she writes. Insofar as Man Out of Time is concerned, Leon’s observation proves prescient.
Frances, by contrast, is the more stable, if more distant parent. She reminded me of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s depiction of his mother in Boyhood Island: ‘if there was someone there, at the bottom of the well that is my childhood, it was her’. But it is his father, an angry, manipulative bully who dominates the six My Struggle novels. This paradox is also at play in Man Out of Time, in that the novel is about the enmeshed relationship between Stella and Leon to which Frances serves as a counterpoint.
Bishop’s command of the free indirect style is masterful. Man Out of Time is focalised through three distinct perspectives but it is not determined by them; we slip into their thoughts and become familiar with their voices, but it is Bishop who steers the narrative. When Leon and Frances fight about Leon forgetting to buy Stella a birthday gift, Bishop writes,
The argument that followed was inevitable. It was not about the gift, but that was the only thing they could bring themselves to talk about, a cause to latch onto in order to expel something else.
When Stella is a girl, Bishop captures the world’s beguiling strangeness to her: she presses her head to a tree and hears ‘liquid bubbling inside’. At one point she dissects a frog, wanting to know ‘what made its body move and breathe.’ Stella is impressionable and sensitive and so particularly responsive to her father’s affection: ‘she would like to marry her father, she thought that perhaps this was what she was meant to do, because she loved him.’
Frances too is characterised with skill. At a certain point, Frances realises that Leon’s illness is causing their relationship to break down. When he returns from his period of detainment in a mental hospital, she tells Leon she loves him, but knows she is saying those words ‘not as an affirmation, but to see what it felt like to say these words after all this time.’ Frances abides in this loveless union and is, like Stella, swept along in the tide of Leon’s illness. Without making any conscious choice, Frances assumes the role of carer to her husband, until she ultimately realises ‘she could not, after all, go down with him’ and the marriage dissolves. This is a novel about a family, but it is the family that acts on its characters, rather than the characters acting from within it.
Stella’s birth hovers ‘close by’ – a traumatic event that Frances recalls vividly. Bishop’s description will resonate with many mothers:
at the last moment she felt her deep inner organs unfasten. She didn’t know what was coming out of her, but did not think it was the child.
The birth, like many of her experiences in this novel, happens to her. In fact, all three characters at certain points experience a similar type of powerlessness. In Leon’s case, he narrates, for example, the disorientating experience of being rendered unconscious for electroconvulsive therapy. His account of this involuntary treatment suggests a self yielding to a larger force. It echoes too, Stella’s inability to resist the overwhelming influence of her parents.
Stella asks Frances to ‘play the game of Stella being born’ in which Frances ‘imitated the siren between making groaning sounds’ and after the birth Stella ‘lay mewling in the bed, all newly born, again.’ It’s an incident that tells us about the difference between Frances and Leon as parents. When Stella enacts her own birth, Frances is able to put the trauma of that birth aside, and play along with her young daughter’s fantasy. By contrast, the majority of Leon’s interactions with Stella are for the benefit of his own ego; indeed he tells Stella that her mother is ‘jealous’ of the understanding they share.
Witnessing a car accident in which a woman is critically injured sends Leon into psychosis; from there the narrative commences a brilliant divergence into second person. It’s a difficult technical transition that might easily disorient the reader:
His glasses were greasy with fingerprints and the room appeared foggy because of this. He took the glasses off and rubbed the lenses with the hem of his shirt, but this only spread the grease further.
Leon? Frances said. I asked you a question.
You placed the glasses carefully on the table then put your hand to your face, drew it down over your eyes and nose, across your mouth.
The gesture here of cleaning and taking off his glasses provides continuity for the transition from third person to second person. The use of second person expresses the splitting of Leon’s psyche. Once he is committed to a hospital, the voice also heightens the sense of his powerlessness:
You have noticed… how, every now and then, the second hand catches on the numeral III, where, for some while, it just trembles, refusing to go on.
Leon also hears voices, in particular a figure he refers to as ‘the judge’, an entity that seems to have fused with the authority who committed him to a mental institution against his will. In NSW, one of the mechanisms by which a mentally ill person may be involuntarily detained is by order of a magistrate. The judge returns to him from time to time, as Leon slips into psychosis. At one point Leon,
was shoving the judge back into the flames the way you might shove a large bag of clothes into the chute of a charity bin, pushing one lump then another and another.
Leon never overcomes his illness and the treatment doesn’t appear to deliver any long-term benefit.
Family, attachment and mental illness are enduring themes for Bishop. Her last novel The Other Side of The World was a critical and commercial success. Her protagonist Charlotte experienced a deep depression following the birth of her children and though her relationship with them was ambivalent, her love was palpable. She leaves her children and ‘she wants them in a way she has never wanted them before, her body aching with a kind of adolescent love, a pained adolescent craving.’ By capturing this tension between her love for her children and the desire to be separate from them, Bishop transformed Charlotte’s depression. Moreover, Charlotte’s circumstances unfolded into larger concerns about the structural impediments to a woman pursuing a fulfilling career and caring for children.
Man Out of Time is a more challenging novel than The Other Side of the World. Bishop ventures into difficult territory as her narrative inhabits Leon’s madness and narrates the body and death. Indeed Man Out of Time is an abject work, following Julia Kristeva:
It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.
Bishop narrates, rather than merely adverts to, suicide attempts by Leon on three occasions and Leon feels it to be ‘almost a relief’ to think about his own death. He is obsessed with functions of the body:
Something in your head was bothering you – you stuck the tip of your little finger in your ear and scratched around, the ear had been humming and itching for days and when the finger came out it was covered in dark, sticky wax.
He’s also preoccupied with the bodies of strangers, watching a woman and wondering whether ‘the skinny part of the G-string that went up her arse crack came away smelling of shit’. Kristeva writes that the abject is that which does not allow detachment or autonomy, that it has ‘only one quality of the object – that of being opposed to I.’ What is abject about Leon and his mental illness is that no distance or perspective can be gained on it – not by Leon, nor by his family. Moreover, the way Bishop represents his illness here, with its intensity and claustrophobia, makes it difficult for the reader to impose meaning on it. Leon’s illness consumes him; its consequences consume Bishop’s characters.
Certain behaviours exhibited by Leon are frightening. Several years after Leon is released from hospital and Frances finally leaves him, Leon commits a serious transgression against his daughter. It occurs when Stella is a teenager, while she is taking a bath and Leon offers to wash her back for her, telling her, ‘Your mother likes it when I wash her back’. At this point, Leon does not appear to be in the fit of a psychosis, though his thinking is plainly disordered. The behaviour borders on criminal; it’s certainly abuse. Stella can never really comprehend the nature of this incident, later being ‘too uncertain of the difference between what did happen and what she was simply afraid of’ and though Leon seems palpably aware that he has done ‘something terrible’, he is unable to untangle the event from his own state of mind. Stella’s immediate reaction is a pain in her abdomen, a pain she later reflects, ‘was real, just not where she said it was. It was in her heart.’ After her father’s death, Stella is treated in hospital for a heart condition, although is told by a doctor at a later point that ‘nothing for certain is wrong’. Stella’s response to trauma is embodied and beyond language.
The treatment of this incident left me uneasy. The explanation within the novel seems to be that the behaviour is symptomatic of Leon’s mental illness, that the boundaries in his head between true and false, right and wrong have dissolved. Until that point, however, Leon’s psychosis does not have a criminal or sexual element. Yet, since Stella never confronts him about the incident, we’re left with no other explanation. Not all people who suffer from psychotic episodes are dangerous, and the conflation of Leon’s mental illness and this transgression risks reducing his character to a stereotype, rather than providing us with insight into his behaviour.
As the novel moves to a close Stella starts to look outwards and reflect on the nature of narrative, on the way a life is mediated as it is represented. She recalls for example, the way in which the life of Robin Williams was continued in the form of his daughter’s tweets communicating her grief about his loss. Stella too, continues to detect Leon’s presence in her consciousness, certainly there are echoes of his behaviour in hers.
It becomes clear that Bishop is acutely aware of the difficulties of representing certain categories of experience, such as psychosis, even as she attempts to do so. There is also a metafictional moment, as Stella reflects on the way a child’s version of a parent can become distorted. Bishop writes,
And almost without fail there is a criminal version, a damning version, at least in parts – a version that could be used to accuse, one saved up over the decades, increasing in potency.
The implication is that Stella has chosen to represent the ‘damning version’ of Leon rather than the redeeming one. It’s a curious observation since, although Stella recounts Leon’s behaviour, she steadfastly refuses to judge him for it.
In the final chapter we learn that Stella herself is married. There are hints she may be pregnant. In these moments, Bishop pushes Stella towards joy, towards the pleasures of ‘feeling the breeze stirring the leaves above as if the wind were coming from within the tree itself’ and ‘the child hearing her mother’s voice calling, the sing-song voice drifting over the garden’. It is telling that it is not writing that provides Stella the outlet she needs, but life itself.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Fontana (1984).
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Boyhood Island.
Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, 1982.
Susan Sontag, On Photography, Doubleday.