Review: Peter Pierceon James Bradley

The catastrophe business: Clade by James Bradley

James Bradley’s published career began in 1994 with what is so far his only volume of verse, Paper Nautilus. By then he was inclining to abandon his career in the law rather than combining it with another as a writer, as such disparate Australian literary figures as James Lionel Michael, ‘Banjo’ Paterson, John Jefferson Bray, Nicholas Hasluck, Ian Callinan and Richard Beasley, among other men, had done before him. In 1996, Bradley edited Blur: Stories by Young Australian Writers. His first novel, Wrack, appeared in 1997, the year in which he turned thirty. He was hailed as one of the Best Young Australian Novelists by the Sydney Morning Herald; he would be so recognised again three years later. In between, his second novel – and perhaps his most ambitious and accomplished – The Deep Field (1999) was published. It won the Age Fiction Book of the Year. Already Bradley had displayed that temporal and spatial restlessness in his choice of fictional subjects – moving back centuries into the past and as far into the future; traversing this planet and others – that has marked his career.

Seven years passed before his third novel, The Resurrectionist (2006), a nightmarish tale of body snatching in London in the 1820s, of disinterment and reburial, that shifts to colonial New South Wales. It has been almost another decade before the appearance of Bradley’s fourth novel, Clade. In between these books was another edited collection, The Penguin Book of the Ocean (2010), and two more curious ventures that showed Bradley’s daring and his capacity to surprise not only in his choices of material, but in how he placed the works. Published as an e-book in 2012, The Element of Need: Murder and Mystery in Adelaide, traced ‘the psychic landscape of this most haunted of cities’, which was also to say the one in which he had grown up. In the same year, Beauty’s Sister was published as a Penguin Special. Taking us ‘into the woods’, Bradley retold the Grimm Brothers fairy tale of the prisoner in a tower, Rapunzel, whose hair was ‘that impossibly long skein of gold’. His treatment of the familiar events is demystifying but respectful of the power to enchant and distress that the story retains.

The narrator’s voice has a measured confidence: ‘I was only four when I discovered I had a sister.’ The storyteller, Juniper, follows her mother into the forest. Her father is away being a woodcutter. From ‘the dark shape of the tower through the trees ahead’, Juniper hears a singing voice and then she sees the singer’s face. At once she discerns the resemblance to her mother. This is explained when the feared old woman, Jinka, comes out of her hut telling how she cursed the girl’s father for stealing the herb rapunzel from her garden. (The import of this herb was debated by Alison Lurie and Marina Warner in the New York Review of Books in 2008.) The punishment is that Juniper’s sister will be surrendered to Jinka, of whom the narrator observes that ‘much of what she knew was simply women’s lore: the knowledge of berries and plants, the making of medicines’. She is similarly matter-of-fact about the disruptive agent of the story: ‘I have heard people call him a prince, but he was no prince.’ Nor will Juniper select from among ‘the many versions of what happened next’.

Bradley is attuned both to the cultural permutations of fairy tales’ meanings and to their more recent psychological dismantling – think of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s brilliant feminist reading of the story of Sleeping Beauty in The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). Perhaps, as Juniper says, the versions of what happened to Rapunzel and the prince ‘are all true’. The blinded man’s sight may or may not have returned; he and Rapunzel may or may not have married. After all, ‘they are gone now, both of them, passed away with the wind and the years.’

That, of course, was the fate of the artefact that was central to Bradley’s first novel, Wrack: the Portuguese caravel, supposedly wrecked on the east coast of Australia early in the sixteenth century, perhaps sighted by the shipwrecked crew of the English vessel Berkeley in 1794, ‘one hundred leagues south of Port Jackson’. In the present, the ship is the object of the increasingly frantic search under shifting sands by the archaeologist, David Norfolk.

Evident in Wrack is how assiduously, and with what pleasure and sense of importance to his fictional creations, Bradley conducts his research. Here it is into Renaissance map-making – those true and hypothetical depictions of, for instance, ‘a vast land mass lying to the southeast of Java and south of Timor’. This is from the map of Java le Grande, the Dauphin Map, begun c.1536 (the book prints reproductions). In The Resurrectionist, Bradley draws on the story of the notorious Irish pair, William Burke and William Hare, who murdered sixteen people in Edinburgh in 1828 and sold the cadavers for dissection by the famous surgeon Dr Robert Knox in his anatomy lessons for medical students. Palaeontology, methods of photography, fossils (‘not just … the extinct ammonites, but … their cousins, the nautili, and the other cephalopods. Octopi and squid and cuttlefish’) and the ‘bewildering array of more than 1500 galaxies at the uttermost edge of the observable universe’ exercise Bradley in The Deep Field. The animating topics of Clade, which he has described as a ‘geological fiction’, are climate change theory and predictions, and the science of possible interstellar communication.

Back on the Australian coast, in Wrack, David Norfolk and his digging team do not find what had been glimpsed by naval surgeon Townsend in 1794, ‘a ship, much damaged by the elements and the passage of time, but a ship nonetheless … one of some antiquity’; they discover the remains of a body, clad in an Australian army uniform. Bradley puts a mystery story into play, one whose origins may lie half a century ago, during the Second World War, as well as the historical investigation into the provenance of the ship that has been lost, found, and is now lost again. These two lines of inquiry, skilfully interwoven, lead to Kurt Seligmann, old and dying in a shack near the excavation site, and to the discovery of ‘the record of two expeditions’ in archives in the former Portuguese enclave of Goa. Less assured is the reappearance in Norfolk’s life of a former love interest, the Indian-born lawyer and doctor, Claire Sen, whose ‘undemanding presence’ after the (never explained) death of another lover, gives Norfolk ‘room to unfold the battered vessels of his heart’. There is sex, too: ‘the tidal motion of their bodies, circadian, gravitational’.

Testing the limits of what this novel can contain, and not without some padding out of historical background, Bradley also offers vivid vignettes of the fall of Singapore to the Japanese; another love affair – from that time – between Kurt and Veronica, an opera singer with a ‘deep, throaty laugh’, who ‘[tear] at each other in a darkened stairway’; a bleak episode of scholarly rivalry and cruelty, and a disquieting but convincing surprise ending to the business of the Portuguese ship.

In Wrack, Bradley’s ambitions were clear, but control was not always maintained over the modes of fiction that he engaged. By contrast, the even more various and daring components of his next novel, The Deep Field, were harnessed with an impressive confidence and dash. Adroitly managed too was that love of science fiction that had possessed Bradley since childhood (‘I read nothing else until I was seventeen’). Now he would take readers centuries into a human future of his imagining.

David, brother of the photographer Anna Frazier, has disappeared during anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong. Back in Sydney, while doing a study of fossilised shells, Anna meets the blind palaeontologist, Seth La Marque, and his sister Rachel, who is a solicitor working for the homeless. In the Prologue of The Deep Field, Anna’s daughter is examining a book of her mother’s photographs of shells, which is dated 2031, ‘a time which seems impossibly long ago: another age, another world’. It is back to that distant world that we are taken, to learn of ‘the tumult of [Anna’s] life and times’, especially of ‘that terrible year when the world watched India and Pakistan go to war’. Bradley briskly disposes of 28 million dead in New Delhi, 15 million in Islamabad, and 100 million subsequently. This is also the year of the narrator’s birth, far in the past. For, as she tells us, ‘already I have lived more than four times the Biblical three score and ten’.

The burden of prophecy in the novel concerns events nearer to our own time – the flooding of the Three Gorges in China, a space probe to Mars on the Prometheus (its name a hostage to fortune), how hopes for democracy in Hong Kong are violently quelled when ‘the PLA came rolling in from the mainland’, and the increasingly authoritarian rule in Australia where the Minister for Public Order introduces a Suspected Terrorist Offender law. Sydney houses a cardboard city of derelicts, ‘dislocated, unemployed, hungry … the hollow-eyed, scabrous junkies and the pale, fading crack-heads’. This is a vision that merely intensifies what is already apparent, or latent, in the present. Bradley also throws in an 8.4 earthquake in Tokyo, a consequent Wall Street collapse, and a pandemic:

It should have come as no surprise. For more than a decade, as the planet warmed, this most ancient of travellers had been spreading north and south, recolonising territories lost over the century before.

Anticipated here are several of the catastrophes of Clade.

The Deep Field is also akin to Wrack as – if not exactly a detective story – then it is one that involves urgent searching and yearning for the truth. In this case, Anna’s visit to Hong Kong finally delivers news of how her brother met his end. This subtle, melancholy and intricate novel has an epilogue in which, not for the last time in Bradley’s work, the writing of David Malouf – in a mood of muted epiphany – seems to be a significant influence. On Mars, the Prometheus expedition finds ‘an ancient shell from a vanished sea’. Then there is this reflection:

They call them the Deep Field. Those scattered particles in the sky through which we see beyond the stars that surround us … Against this vastness of time and space, these lives of ours seem no more than flickers, firefly traces in the night of forever.

Before he ventured again into worlds beyond ours, Bradley would go grimly underground in his third novel, The Resurrectionist. Its epigraph is from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

Bradley’s title refers not only to such body snatchers as the Lucan, Caley and Walker of his novel – the resurrection men – but also to the dangerous temptation of belief that a new life, shucking off the old and all its guilty associations, might be possible in a place as far from England as New South Wales. (After all, this worked for Charles Dickens’s characters Micawber and Magwitch, if not for Dickens’s own sons.) The opening line of the novel, addressing its initial business, is striking and horrible: ‘In their sacks they ride as if in their mother’s womb.’ Gabriel Swift is the student and apprentice of the anatomist Edwin Poll, with whom he boards. Dissecting ‘all manner of creatures’, Poll is ‘seeking to divine that which binds their being to the cage of their flesh’. That is, he is after their souls. Meanwhile, young Swift makes an infernal bargain with Lucan that leads him into a descent into despair, destitution and – as it will appear for a time – death.

Bradley gives us a tour of a cabinet of horrors of pre-Victorian England. There are nocturnal visits to rob graveyards, deliquescent corpses, murder, a child savaged to death by a dog, carousing in gin palaces, glimpses into the working life of prostitutes, opium addiction, artists starving in garrets. Many of the scenes are illuminated by torch or gaslight. Finally, though, there is darkness. Swift is buried beneath a pile of corpses.

Then, in the second part of the novel, ‘The Kingdom of Birds’, we are transported (as many others were) to New South Wales. Nearly a decade has passed. This supposedly new world is notable not for stygian gloom, but ‘the annihilating light, the shrieking parrots in the trees’. Swift has been resurrected as a painter of ‘birds … only birds’. He calls himself Thomas May after a London artist friend. Several famous Australian historical fictions are ghostly presences – Thomas Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), in particular for the convict artist Thomas Ewers, and the early, Van Diemen’s Land portion of Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976). A friendly nemesis turns up and recognises Swift, even though ‘this man is not the man I thought I knew’. As Smith’s old and newer identities dissolve, perhaps to reform, it seems again to be Malouf who echoes in the novel’s final words: ‘All at once I do begin to weep, and I think I understand what it is to be remade. So many lives, so light.’

The first scene in Clade is in Antarctica. It is the summer solstice, ‘the first intimation of the year’s long retreat into the dark’. Adam is a scientist and, in particular, a climate-change researcher. The urgency of this activity is underscored, not for the last time, in a novel that will let us consume our fill of human-assisted natural catastrophes: ‘Each week there seemed to be new evidence that the process was hastening, moving beyond his control.’ The Arctic permafrost is melting. There are floods in the United States and India; forest fires in Indonesia, Brazil and Malaysia. This is a creeping disaster measurable by something as mundane as power cuts. And there are ‘just too many people’. We are spared a nuclear war in this novel, but instead have a didactic warning of problems that have already been observed, even if action on them is hesitant. The casualties are bad enough. Because of changes in the South Asian monsoon, ‘Crops failed, leading to food shortages and starvation, then more than a million died in the floods and another hundred million were left homeless’.

In an interview Bradley declared: ‘I was very definite about not wanting to write an apocalyptic story’. He added: ‘To write about the world ending is easy – it leaves the writer with nothing to imagine’. Clade will not be an account of a blasted landscape traversed by hunters and their prey, as in the brilliant Margaret Atwood dystopian trilogy that ended with Maddadam (2013). It opens with another Adam waiting in trepidation for news as to whether his partner’s latest attempt to become pregnant through IVF has succeeded. She is Ellie, an artist and photographer, who may remind us of Anna in The Deep Field, although her current project concerns ‘Alzheimer’s and the erasure of the past’. Evidently there is still hope for and the possibility of new human generations. A child will be born, called Summer, and a grandson, Noah.

Which brings us to the deliberately unexplained title of the novel. From the Ancient Greek word for ‘branch’, the term was coined by Julian Huxley in 1957. One definition has it as

a group consisting of an ancestor and all its descendants, a single ‘branch’ in the ‘tree of life’. The ancestor may be an individual, a population or a species (extinct or extant).

Bradley has it this way: ‘It’s a biological term for a group of organisms believed to comprise all the evolutionary descendants of a common ancestor.’

While three generations of one family are at the core of Clade, Bradley moves us forward in time, sideways in place, again in the manner of The Deep Field. The book advances in short sections, discrete in themselves, but integrated into the wider structure. Relationships are explained in their turn. Disclosures are phased. Maddie, the second ex-wife of Ellie’s late father, Tom, has lost her own child, Declan. Summer visits her with her mother, Ellie, long separated from Adam. In the next part, ‘Boiling the Frog’, Bradley cuts to England where Adam is attending a conference mildly titled ‘Adaptation Strategies’, despite the increasing dread that its participants feel. A monster tropical hurricane is on the way – ‘there is something fecund and foul in the air’. Despite that, Adam heads off to Norfolk in a car that drives itself (oh brave new world, that has such vehicles in it). He has been tipped off that Summer, lost for years to her family, is there. With a droll nod to John Wyndham, he is driven past ‘genetically engineered trees’, popularly called ‘triffids’.

Adam meets Summer and his autistic grandson, Noah. In the most shocking set-piece of the novel, the flood that the hurricane has engendered arrives (this Noah also survives): ‘it is as if the water is pouring towards them in a sloping wall, a liquid hill that moves faster than any of them could run.’ Adam is able to bring his grandson back to Australia. Summer disappears. Ellie is also in touch with Noah, a child who has ‘his lens on’ and is ‘absorbed in exploring one of the virtual worlds he spends hours in every day’. At the same time, she has met Amir, a refugee or illegal, a doctor from Bangladesh. Now – in what he hopes is rural seclusion and safety – he is ‘The Keeper of Bees’. His preoccupation is with ACCD – Accelerated Colony Collapse Disorder. Ellie decides to make bees the centrepiece of her next project. Meanwhile, according to Adam (who is soon enough proved right) ‘something would trigger a similar collapse in the human population, causing it to crash’.

The next section of Clade, ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ (the title of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel), begins on 25 September 2057. The author of these ‘lifelogs’ is sixteen-year-old Li Lijuan, who left Shanghai at two and now lives in Sydney. While her mother goes back to China to tend to a sick sister, Li minds Noah. No trouble: ‘he just reads and hangs out in Universe or one of the other virches’ (Bradley’s neologisms, as instanced here, are restrained and persuasive). The plague is Acute Viral Respiratory Syndrome and its spread worldwide leads to the collapse of social and political order.

Yet all is not lost. In the following section, the time is already ‘since the pandemic’. Bradley’s next and unnamed narrator is in the business of ‘sims, or echoes. Virtual recreations of the dead assembled from photos or videos.’ As he concedes,

they’re not the person of course, even if it’s often difficult to tell the difference. Instead they’re programmed with as much information about the originals as we can get. At their core is a cloned, virtual Artificial Intelligence.

Bradley has given us another ‘resurrectionist’, whose work is disturbing in ways unlike those of Lucan and his nineteenth-century crew.

The title of the next part of the novel is a frequency, ‘1420 MHZ’. Calmly, Bradley introduces a wonder. Noah is an astronomer, with real rather than imagined worlds now in his sights. The project is ‘to reach for signals from alien cultures’. At last, and all at once, an ‘anomalous intermittent radio source [is] detected in Sagittarius’. He recognises the signal as ‘language’ and muses on its ambiguous meanings: ‘Perhaps human beings arrived too late or too early and the heyday of galactic civilisation had already passed, or lay billions of years in the future.’ Yet the grandeur of the astronomer’s vantage (and by analogy the author’s) is insisted upon:

From here it has been possible to observe hundreds of millions of galaxies, and not just plot their positions but map their structure and movement, the eddying of galactic clusters and superclusters through the fabric of the universe.

If this sounds like a benediction for human kind, the novel ends with another, a last note in the optative mood. One of the survivors, the young woman Izzie, after pondering the loss of ‘all those millions of lives’, still thinks of ‘a future that may be wonderful or terrible or a thousand things in between … It is always a beginning.’

Each of Bradley’s novels is a successive enrichment of the themes that engross him. The whole of his work (surely far from completed) is greater than the sum of its often dazzling, often mordant parts. He is a humanist whose imagination is most excited by the non-human world – of photographs, fossils, rotting ship’s timbers, radio signals from outer space. An earnest and often didactic environmentalist, he writes nonetheless with a nonchalant brio not of how the world might be saved, but of how it is already falling apart, even if catastrophes are his business rather than apocalypse.

One of the strangest aspects of his fiction is the thinness of the social world that it depicts. Conversations and other routine human engagements are sparingly depicted, while Bradley’s handling of sex is no more assured in Clade than it was in his first novel. There are lost children and disintegrating families, but most prominent are solitaries – a girl immured in a tower, a blind scientist in the stacks of a museum, an autistic astronomer, photographers self-destructively dedicated to their art, and especially to the subjects that it consumes. Yet the body of work that Bradley has steadily composed (essentially, it sometimes feels, to his own satisfaction) is infused with intelligence, canny research, narrative craft and an unexpected, if melancholy optimism. In Australia, there is no one like him in the imagining of the imminent end time of the way we live now.

Works Cited

Caroline Baum, ‘James Bradley’s Clade finds glimmer of hope in extreme future,’ Sydney Morning Herald (31 January 2015).
James Bradley, Paper Nautilus (Five Islands Press, 1994).
⎯ (editor), Blur: Stories by Young Australian Writers (Random House, 1996).
Wrack (Vintage, 1997).
The Deep Field (Sceptre, 1999).
The Resurrectionist (Penguin, 2006).
⎯ (editor), The Penguin Book of the Ocean (Penguin, 2010).
The Element of Need: Murder and Mystery in Adelaide (Penguin, 2012).
Beauty’s Sister (Penguin, 2012).
Alison Lurie, ‘The Girl in the Tower,’ New York Review of Books (1 May 2008).
Marina Warner and Alison Lurie, ‘Rapunzel, Parsley and Pregnancy,’ New York Review of Books (17 July 2008).