Review: James Leyon Michelle de Kretser

Fictive Selves: The Life to Come

Near the end of Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, an elderly woman named Christabel throws two novels she has been reading into the bin. One of them is by a writer named George Meshaw, whose work ‘concerned itself with the brutal and inadequate mechanism of the world. As if that were any kind of news!’ The other is by Pippa Reynolds, a contemporary version of the ‘silly lady novelist’ who once attracted the withering disapproval of George Eliot.

There is plenty of symbolism in Christabel’s liberating gesture. The two discarded authors are themselves characters in The Life to Come. Their contrasting literary sensibilities are established, with satirical intent, at the very beginning of the novel. In its short opening section, a young George Meshaw meets an even younger Pippa Reynolds when she enrols in a university course he teaches on ‘The Fictive Self’. She is ‘a Pass student whose effortful work George had pitied enough to bump up to a Credit’. Her essays are full of ‘passionate opinions, mangled argument, atrocities of usage and grammar’. Her reading is confined to books about women’s lives published in the last twenty years, and nothing in translation; her knowledge of history is negligible. When Pippa confesses that she wants to become a writer, George is quietly appalled. ‘I love English,’ she declares. ‘In that case, I suggest you learn to write it,’ he replies. Pippa interprets this as encouragement.

The ironic depiction of these rival authors is one of the threads that ties the novel together. De Kretser is too sharply observant a writer to reduce George and Pippa to mere caricatures, but they are nevertheless presented as recognisable types. Pippa wants to travel in order to gather experiences for her books, which she subsequently claims are written in a spirit of total ‘honesty’; George believes that ‘literature and the world [are] two different things’. He is the kind of serious author who disdains publicity and shuns social media; she carefully curates her online persona, styling herself as a supporter of other writers and all good causes.

Their parallel careers provide an arch and often very funny commentary on the absurd world of books and writing. Pippa – the only character to appear in each of the novel’s five sections – becomes a purveyor of what booksellers call ‘mid-list’ fiction, producing several novels that even she realises are not very good. Toward the end of The Life to Come, she finds success with a timely feminist novel called The Kitchen Diaries – ‘a really honest description of an adulterous affair set against a backdrop of corruption in the restaurant business’ – which she writes in three months. ‘I love it,’ gushes her agent. ‘It’s so brutal and sexy and unforgiving and raw. Sort of Cormac McCarthy and The Girl on the Train and just the right amount Kitchen Confidential … The timing’s perfect: we’ll be able to springboard off the domestic violence campaign.’ George retreats into the background of The Life to Come after his initial encounters with Pippa, reappearing only intermittently, but his books are alluded to throughout. We learn that he too becomes an acclaimed writer, though not exactly a popular one. It is implied that the airless and oppressive tenor of his work lives up to the unpromising title of his first novel: Necessary Suffering.

The act of binning their books simultaneously might thus be interpreted as the culmination of the novel’s mockery of the earnest and shallow world of Australian literature – a mockery that de Kretser extends to the nation’s literary academics, whose noses she tweaks repeatedly and with evident delight. But it is also a rejection of the idea of literature as consolation. Though Christabel is named after a Coleridge poem and inherits from her academic father a taste for Romantic poetry, she is a mere reader. Of the six characters whose perspectives the novel inhabits in turn, she is the only one not involved in some kind of professional literary activity. She lives alone. Bunty, her lifelong companion, has recently died. In her loneliness and grief, Christabel finds that literature compels her less and less. She turns away from the ‘hard truths’ contained in books, recoils from truths she now finds as painful as they are useless – truths ‘waiting like splinters in their pages … Little anticipations of life’s awfulness, they might have served as a defence against it but pierced instead with knowledge of damage, error, waste.’

Yet there is a personal dimension to Christabel’s act of rejection that gives it its immediate significance and connects it to one of the central themes in The Life to Come. She has recognised a character in Pippa’s novel as a version of herself. Coming face to face with this unflattering and inaccurate portrayal, she realises that Pippa, her erstwhile friend and next-door neighbour, had been making false assumptions about her all along. She comes to understand that she feels hurt and humiliated not simply because her sustaining but platonic friendship with Bunty has been misrepresented as a lesbian relationship, but because Pippa’s novel is hard evidence of her inconsequentiality, a testament to the fundamental unimportance of her life to anyone but herself. She realises that she is ‘only a minor character on the margin of lives that mattered, and that it was impossible to feel sympathy for her’ ⎯ a line that unhappily evokes an existential maxim she had once heard from Bunty: ‘The only life in which you play a leading role is your own.’

Christabel’s humbling realisation is one of the moments when the expressive potential of the novel’s many dramatic ironies becomes apparent, not least because it occurs at the end of a long section that is written from her point of view. The elegiac closing pages of The Life to Come defy the notion that is is impossible to feel any sympathy for her. But the symbolism of Christabel discarding a literally fictive version of herself evokes the definitive conflict from which the novel derives much of its humour and pathos. De Kretser is interested in the extent to which her characters are enclosed in their private bubbles of perception, and she is adept at playing their conflicting perspectives against each other, exposing the often considerable gulf between their sense of themselves and how they appear to other people.

This is reflected in the compartmentalised structure of The Life to Come. It is set for the most part in Sydney, which is lovingly rendered in all its grime and verdancy, but there are also interludes in Paris and Sri Lanka. Each of the novel’s five distinct sections has a different character as its centre of consciousness, with the exception of the second section, which moves between the perspectives of an academic couple named Cassie and Ash.

The multiple perspectives and the opportunities they provide for cross-cultural observation are deployed most conspicuously in the service of a damning critique of Australian society ⎯ or at least certain aspects of it. The Sri Lankan-born Ash reflects that the nation’s colonial past has made Australians into ‘visionaries, adept at denial’. The Life to Come additionally charges that we are insular, entitled, coddled, condescending, anti-intellectual, money obsessed, morally vain, culturally vapid and historically naive.

These are all fair cops, as far as it goes. As general condemnations of Australian society, they are almost traditional. But de Kretser’s specific target is a certain kind of well-meaning but ultimately self-regarding progressivism. The Life to Come takes aim not at the overt racism of people like Pippa’s father, whose bigotry is of the ‘laid-back Australian kind’, but at the very people who pride themselves on not being racist. It teases out the subtle and insinuating manifestations of prejudice that result from the unthinking tendency to assume the naturalness of one’s own perspective. What the novel registers with particular clarity is the way in which this self-centredness works in concert with the need to think of oneself as a decent and blameless person, to demonstrate one’s essential goodness to the world.

The character who encapsulates the novel’s excoriating view of the fundamental innocence – or, less generously, ignorance – of white middle-class Australia is Cassie, who is a kind of wan version of Pippa (they are described at one point as being ‘like sisters’). Her depiction provides a fine example of de Kretser’s acidulous sense of irony. Cassie is presented as ‘a product of real Australia’. She is an ‘overgrown child whose emptiest make-believe had been labelled “creativity” by her parents’. She has ‘no idea how lucky she is’. She clings to ‘an idea of Australia as a place where kindness prevailed over expediency’. To Ash, who knows something of the horrific civil war that ravaged Sri Lanka for two and a half decades, Cassie has a face that denies ‘the existence of cruelty, the possibility of despair. Ash was conscious of a secret wish, so shameful he could hardly examine it even in private: that something would happen to wipe that expression from Cassie’s face for all time’. In the middle of a conversation about a local shopkeeper they call the ‘Ashfield Tamil’ – a man who was a civil servant before he was forced to flee Sri Lanka – the ‘postmodernly tutored’ Cassie chirrups: ‘Isn’t history just a set of competing stories?’ Ash’s response is suitably dry: ‘Not really.’

De Kretser’s view of history is highly conscious of the twisted legacy of colonialism, and the tensions and misunderstandings that inevitably arise in interactions between different cultures. Her previous novel Questions of Travel (2012) was organised around the contrasting figures of the tourist and the asylum seeker, who were offered as representatives of two very different forms of displacement: one voluntary and entitled, the other compelled and supplicating. These historically determined positions are reconfigured in The Life to Come and played out in a variety of social contexts. In the long middle section of the novel, which is set in Paris, Pippa becomes the tourist. She breezes her way through one of the world’s great cultural and intellectual capitals with characteristic insouciance. The section is, however, told from the point of view of a translator named Céleste, who evokes Ash’s harsh judgement of Cassie’s innocence when she reflects that Australians venture abroad ‘like fortunate children’ who ‘expected to be loved’. Céleste’s interaction with Pippa provokes a similar response: ‘What makes you Australians think you can blunder about,’ she thinks in exasperation, ‘expecting people to be nice?’

This kind of objectification is what gives de Kretser’s satire its bite. But one of the most artful aspects of The Life to Come is the way in which its multiple perspectives, its subtle mirrorings and inversions, are used to complicate our understanding. De Kretser is shrewd enough to distribute conspicuous flaws among her principal characters, but she does not withhold sympathy. Each is granted his or her share of perspicacity and self-awareness – even Pippa, who sails through most of the novel apparently expecting people to take her at her own estimation, and who appears to everyone she meets to be a marvel of transparent shallowness and bulletproof self-confidence. When she takes centre stage in the penultimate section, she is revealed to be as doubting and insecure anyone. This is one of the chief structural ironies of The Life to Come. It invites us to know its characters intimately so that we might understand how they are alike in feeling themselves to be in some sense marginalised or alone. The plot of the Parisian section involves an affair that Céleste conducts with a married woman, which eventually leads to a minor public humiliation, a moment when she recognises her own insignificance in a way that anticipates Christabel’s realisation at the end of the novel. Near the end of the second section, Ash reflects that the background he shares with the Ashfield Tamil is an unbridgeable gulf separating the two of them from Cassie; yet a few pages later he worries that the real gulf is between him and the other two – in a moment of insecurity, he thinks that he lacks their ‘talent for existence’, that unlike him they ‘would always be identifiably themselves’.

De Kretser’s fiction is fascinated with the interaction between style and substance, with the competing yet ineluctable imperatives of narrative and image, and with the nature of the truths and falsehoods they express. She has long been a writer alert to the performative dimension of our identities and the kinds of paradoxes this creates. Clothes are an important motif throughout her work. The Sri Lankan anglophile Sam Obeysekere, from her early novel The Hamilton Case (2003), is a witty depiction of what Homi Bhabha called a ‘mimic man’: he imitates the manners of a colonising culture, to which he can never fully belong, in a way that comes to seem at once deferential and parodic. Nelly Zhang from The Lost Dog (2007) has Polish and English relatives, but chooses play up to her Asian ancestry, dressing flamboyantly as a ‘defensive flaunting of caricature’.

In The Life to Come, this awareness that we are all projecting fictive selves into the world – to a greater or lesser degree, consciously or unconsciously – comes to focus most intently upon Pippa. This is not only because she is the novel’s lynchpin, the character to whom all the others stand in relation; it is also because the disjunction between her private insecurity and the confident self she projects is the most striking. For all her affected cosmopolitanism, Pippa is in fact a small-town girl whose real name is Narelle. Her particular sense of social marginalisation derives from the fact that she has married into a wealthy Sydney family – her sisters-in-law are ‘girls with ponies in their pasts’. The depiction of her husband’s family adds the troublesome notion of class to the novel’s gamey stew of naivety, self-centredness, loneliness and cross-cultural misunderstanding. Pippa’s redoubtable mother-in-law Eva proves to be the novel’s most memorable minor character, inspiring de Kretser’s prose to an archness of tone that might have been the envy of her literary hero Shirley Hazzard:

Eva was the kind of woman who could carry off a fine knit. She referred to herself as a ‘citizen of conscience’ and was in favour of sculpture in malls. Twice a week she attended mass in a hat. Unbelievably, she had a tame priest, a Jesuit who could be found murmuring with her on a couch.

There are few better examples of de Kretser’s satirical ruthlessness than the way in which she is not content simply have some fun mocking Eva’s arrogance and imperiousness, but uses her to subvert Pippa’s sincere yet shallow sense of her own virtue. Like Pippa, Eva likes to make a show of supporting all good causes. She wears tribal ornaments that proclaim ‘her solidarity with the wretched of the earth’. She cultivates ‘ethnically diverse’ friends because it casts her in a flattering light. But she also has a trump card: she is an immigrant from Eastern Europe, who as a child survived the horrors of the second world war – something she does not let Pippa forget. ‘I am one kind of Australian,’ she tells her, ‘and you are another.’ It is only when Pippa observes Eva that comes to understand ‘the glamour of oppression. Eva would always be that small girl on whom suffering had conferred distinction. Now she thirsted for it in its pure form, wrapped in a free-floating, decorative orientalism unhampered by history and geography alike.’

Eva reflects Pippa’s belief in her own goodness back at her in a recognisable but grotesque form. As Céleste intuits, Pippa is someone who ‘would always need to demonstrate her solidarity with the oppressed ⎯ Indigenous people or battery hens, it scarcely mattered’. Her political views are thus  irreproachable:

When it came to domestic violence or gay marriage or climate change, Pippa knew, unequivocally, that she was on the right side. That was the side of people who drank fair trade coffee and attended vigils for murdered asylum seekers and had rescue pets and shopped at farmers’ markets and said No to plastic bags. It was not the side of Pippa’s father, who blamed feminism for the breakdown of his marriage, and believed that Australia was for Australians, by which he meant people who looked like him.

The dynamic of The Life to Come is such that when one character comes face to face with another character who appears to be outrageously self-centred, the instinct to judge them negatively tends to work in two directions. Eva’s obvious self-regard sparks something like the opposite in her daughter-in-law. Pippa comes to understand, somewhat dimly, that the imperative to display her virtue lays bare its shallowness, reveals it to be free-floating and decorative, unhampered by history or geography. The unsettling idea that shadows this knowledge is that her need to be recognised as virtuous is in fact concealing unworthy sentiments, that beneath her fictive self is a less flattering but true self, a self that she cannot curate because it is inherited ⎯ an idea that creeps into her consciousness when she encounters a Muslim character named Rashida, one of Eva’s carefully cultivated ethnic friends. Puzzlingly, Rashida seems unconcerned with Pippa’s opinion of her. She wears her identity lightly, makes little effort to conform to her assigned social role:

Right there was the problem with Rashida: that unshakeable assurance. There was a whisper in Pippa’s brain, like a subdued, left-hand accompaniment to her thoughts, and this whisper was of the opinion that Rashida should be grateful that white people overlooked the double handicap of her religion and her race. The whisper said that Rashida should be a little bit sort of humble. It lived in a folded, reptilian corner of Pippa’s brain, and she was scarcely aware of its existence. She was always for the underdog and would leap to protect. What caused turmoil were underdogs who failed to respect their allotted rank. Then the whisper thundered like an ancestor roaring out of a muffled past.

The Life to Come is an excellent demonstration of what Christabel thinks of at one point as ‘the power and strangeness of novels: at once removed from and more vivid than life’. De Kretser is an ironist without peer in contemporary Australian writing. Her instincts are subversive, her scalpel well-honed. She exposes her characters’ vanities, only to turn our sense of their thoughtlessness and self-regard inside-out so that we might sympathise with their loneliness. Her powers of social observation are as acute as her awareness of the fictions we live by. The Life to Come namechecks – with a characteristically ironic flourish – Patrick White and Christina Stead (‘safely great … safely dead’), and includes a tribute to the ‘fearless’ Shirley Hazzard. De Kretser belongs in that estimable company. She is every bit their equal as a stylist, and in her willingness to apply the acid.