Whatever Could Have Happened? John Hughes’ No One
by George Kouvaros
Published April, 2019
‘The novella has a fundamental relation to secrecy’, write Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. ‘Not with a secret matter or object to be discovered, but with the form of the secret, which remains impenetrable.’ A little later in A Thousand Plateaus, they clarify what they mean by linking ‘the form of the secret’ to a moment of perceptual disturbance: ‘You enter a room and perceive something as already there, as just having happened, even though it has not yet been done. Or you know what is in the process of happening is happening for the last time, it’s already over with.’ From this scenario, it’s easy to extrapolate that, for Deleuze and Guattari, the novella is principled on a particular experience of time, one that is marked by a feeling of belatedness – of finding ourselves in the position of having to ask, ‘What happened? Whatever could have happened?’
This is how the story in John Hughes’ novella No One begins:
For a long time I used to drive around the city late at night, but why I found myself in the ghost hours of that Monday morning nineteen years ago on Lawson Street I can no longer recall. Nothing remains for me but the sound—a dull thud, like a roo hitting the side of a car—and the dreamlike slowness of my realisation. I had almost driven past Redfern Park before I pulled over to the kerb to collect my thoughts. The park was empty except for a couple of men sleeping rough between the roots of a large fig. I drove a little further on so as not to disturb them. It must have been a dog, I thought. What else would have been on the road at that time of night?
In No One we commence the story in the same position as the narrator struggling to make sense of an event that has just happened. But what exactly? When he stops the car to inspect for signs of damage, the narrator identifies a large dimple on the passenger side that may or may not have been there already. Retracing the path of his vehicle, he discovers a stain on the road that may or may not be dried blood. Returning to his car, he experiences the powerful sensation of being watched by someone whose scrutiny holds him to account. In these opening pages, then, the author is doing three things that will define the unfolding of the story.
First, establishing a sense of belatedness, of arriving after something has occurred; second, shrouding this event in a fundamental uncertainty; third, underlining the narrator’s determination to pursue this uncertainty to the end, in other words, his refusal to allow it to be covered over by the passing of time. The reasons for this, we will come to discover, lie in the way the sound of the dull thud that the narrator hears during his late night drive through the streets of Redfern is the echo of a series of other events, equally mysterious, that define the narrator’s history, one that is marked by the lingering effects of trauma.
Inaccessibility and persistent return. In the vast literature on the topic, these two features serve as the hallmarks of traumatic experience. On the one hand, the inability to grasp the significance of a particular event – Why it has occurred? When it has occurred? To whom is it occurring? – and, on the other, a feeling of repetition, of being propelled forward into a past whose significance cannot be mastered. In No One, this understanding of trauma is used to create a pathology around the central character’s behavior (the vertiginous circularity of his movements) as well as to underpin a broader reflection on how certain events central to our sense of the past are experienced or grasped too late.
A good example of this begins with a description of the narrator lying on his bed. He is listening to the sound of two women talking on the radio. They are talking in a language that he can almost understand. As he listens, the cadences and intonations of their voices trigger his childhood memories of the morning, many years earlier, when he boarded the boat that was to take him away from his parent’s homeland in Iraq:
I saw myself in the early-morning mist on the street outside our home. I saw again the two grey dogs whose sleep I barely disturbed, snoring gently . . . I saw myself waiting by the ferry wharf with a line of people carrying suitcases just like us. I saw the great planks of hardwood at my feet, the tar in the joins and grain, the gunmetal water, the anchor chains flecked with weed, the bows of the boat higher than my father’s head, the seagulls scavenging at our feet and screeching loudly, the rising sun obscured by cloud, and my mother covered by a dark cape, holding me by the hand and tottering like a tightrope walker, it seemed to me, as we made our way up the gangway and onto the boat that I had no idea would take me away forever.
The gently snoring dogs, the hardwood planks, the tar in the joins and grains, the anchor chains flecked with weed. This paratactic arrangement of details creates a vivid picture of the scene on the dock. But in the manner in which it is brought forth by the strange familiarity of the women’s voices it also suggests a past that has splintered into a thousand tiny pieces, a past that reaches out to us unbidden.
The most affecting image of this unconscious operation involves the narrator’s memory of the music released by the pianola rolls kept by his foster brother. He recalls watching in fascination as the keys of the pianola would go up and down, as if ‘a ghost was sitting at the piano playing’. He attaches this memory to the sadness that he senses in his foster mother. A little later, he uses this memory to describe the mysterious forces guiding his own nocturnal wanderings through the streets of Sydney. ‘It often felt to me,’ he observes, ‘that my walking was a kind of tracking, in ever-increasing circles, invisible grooves I’d already pressed, like the perforations on those pianola rolls, releasing as I walked that endless inaudible music I longed to call the past.’
The echo of the dull thud of an object hitting the passenger side of a moving vehicle; the sound of voices speaking a language that one can almost understand; the ghostly music emerging from the pianola: in each of these passages Hughes asks us to consider the return of the past as an auditory event, as something heard rather than witnessed. The difference is crucial. It enables the writing to establish a zone of experience that straddles the border between inner and outer worlds, a zone of experience in which judgement falters. In his writings on the operations of sound in cinema, Michel Chion famously labels a sound whose source is deliberately concealed or held back as an ‘acousmatic’ sound. It is as if these sounds ‘were wandering along the surface [of the screen], at once inside and outside, seeking a place to settle’.
Right from its opening moments, No One envelopes the narrator’s experience of both the present and the past in just such an experience of auditory turmoil. Even when he gazes at the one photograph that he has retained of his parents he is drawn as much to what he can hear as what he can see in the image. ‘Whenever I look at [the photograph]’, he muses ‘I feel as if I’m listening to something that was never meant to have a sound. We want to tell you what it was like, my parents seem to say from the photograph. We will have to speak in a forgotten language. As if they already knew that memory was no use to me.’
The capacity of the past to return in a manner that unravels our place in the present links No One to the work of perhaps the greatest living novella writer, Patrick Modiano. Between Modiano’s elliptical stories about the Occupation years in France and the story told in No One it’s possible to weave a range of connections. But as I was reading Hughes’ book the passage that came to mind is found in Pedigree, a slim autobiographical text that covers the first twenty-one years of Modiano’s life. To say that it covers these years is to give the text a comprehensiveness that it deliberately abjures. ‘Apart from my brother, Rudy, his death, I do not believe that anything I will relate here truly matters to me’, Modiano confesses at one point. ‘I’m writing these pages the way one compiles a report or résumé, as documentation and to have done with a life that was not my own.’
The incident from this unowned life that came to mind took place one afternoon in 1950 when the young author, who would have been five at the time, was let out of school. ‘There was no one waiting for me,’ Modiano recalls. ‘I tried to go home on my own, but as I crossed the street I was knocked down by a van. The driver brought me back to the nuns, who placed an ether-soaked pad over my face to put me to sleep. Since then, I’ve been quite sensitive to the smell of ether. Overly sensitive. Ether has the curious ability to remind me of pain, then immediately erase it. Memory and amnesia.’ Nothing more is said about this event. The résumé continues. But to anyone familiar with Modiano’s obsessive return to the darker aspects of France’s wartime history it’s clear that these two forces, memory and amnesia, operate as watchwords, encapsulating his entire corpus.
No One is governed by these same interconnected forces. On the one hand, an agonized confrontation with amnesia and the inevitable disappearance of people, places and histories and, on the other, an investment in those inescapable traces that bind us to the past. In both Modiano’s writings and in Hughes’ book the interactions of these two forces goes beyond the actions of individual characters to encompass large-scale historical and political currents that define the present moment. This is to say that in No One the echoes and traces that drive the narrator’s quest to find out who or what he collided with on the fateful evening have as much to do with the legacy of Australia’s colonial history and treatment of the original owners of the land as they do with the events that define his own traumatic history.
The danger of this sort of empathetic identification lies in appropriating another’s history and suffering, of internalising something to which we can make no claim. The element that allows the writing to skirt this danger is its constant acknowledgement of what cannot be known or spoken about the histories in question – its willingness to allow the other to resist the narratives that have been built around her or his actions.
Reflecting on the affective power of William Dawes’ diary of his time in the colony of Sydney, the narrator muses: ‘It’s the silence that tells the story, and all that’s recorded is there merely to throw light on that silence.’ ‘If the notebooks taught me anything’, he goes on to add, ‘it’s that most of what’s important in a story is outside saying’. No doubt this is true. But what No One evidences is that a story can be told by other means, and that the question of how we narrate the traumas of the past need not be reduced to a choice between silence or speech. Abjuring both of these positions, it embodies another form of storytelling that draws on the communicative potential of whispers and the intimations of sounds that inhabit our unconscious lives like strangers buried deep within.
I grew up with a language in my head that was really just like music, that even now runs like an underground stream beneath the words I use. And maybe I’ve been trying my whole life to make the semantic language more closely approximate the musical. Or maybe it’s just that this dark language takes me back to the origin of language itself, of being there with my mother.
This is the narrator talking about how his past inhabits his present as an unclaimed music. But I’m foolish enough to believe that this might also be the writer asking us to read his extraordinary book with both our eyes and ears wide open.
Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (New York: Continuum, 2004).
Patrick Modiano, Pedigree, trans. Mark Polizzotti (London: Maclehose Press, 2015).