Review: Thuy Onon Claire Thomas

The Cold Bubble of Culture

One summer evening, as fires rage elsewhere in the country, three women at different stages of life are sequestered in the plush chill of the Melbourne Theatre Company watching Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. At its most literal level, Claire Thomas’ second novel, The Performance, is indeed about the theatrics on stage and the resonance of this drama for each woman watching it – but it extends its reach to the role the three women play in their respective lives. The Performance is a book all about surface and what lies underneath the polish and professionalism of women living and working in the twenty-first-century.

As the oh so ironically titled Happy Days begins, the garrulous and hapless Winnie is buried to her waist in a hill in the middle of nowhere. We’re not told why or when exactly she’s been entombed thus or what prevents her partner, Willie, from coming to her rescue, despite his being nearby. Winnie is stuck in the unforgiving earth and exposed to the searing sun, with a bag of random items to keep her amused. Every time she tries to sleep a bell rings out and wakes her. What’s the point of Winnie? What is she meant to symbolise, wonders a passing couple. Beckett refuses flip answers. The play, like this novel, is a search for meaning and all the characters are similarly afflicted with doubt about how to make their way in the world.

Thomas organises her sophomore novel so that the reader is granted access to the thrumming thoughts of Margot, Ivy and Summer as they half-watch, half-fidget their way through the two-act show. Why, of all the plays Thomas could have picked as a backdrop, did she choose Happy Days? Perhaps its bleakness and Winnie’s faux-jolly acceptance of her strange circumstances serves as a poignant and damning indictment of the levels of suffering required as part of the human condition. Winnie’s obsessive fossicking in her bag of tricks is a way of ignoring the larger, more pressing concerns around her, of distracting herself, even if it turns out to be a futile measure. For even as she is entrapped in the earthen mound, she continues to chatter and to remember happier times, in order to keep sadness and depression, or even death, in abeyance. Is she to be seen as a model of stoicism or a figure to be pitied? Or both?

The narrative is relayed in an omniscient third-person, giving us access to the knotty ruminations of the three women. The action, such as it is, takes place on the one night of the performance – but Thomas bypasses the limitations of such a compressed time frame by allowing her characters to dip in and out of the past. They are distracted by their own thoughts and memories even as they try to figure out Winnie’s absurd predicament, which though extreme, echoes their own lives.

There’s Professor Margot Pierce, a septuagenarian literature professor, moneyed enough to be a subscriber to the state’s flagship theatre (‘She has an expensive, unobstructed view of the stage’). Obviously a member of the AB demographic, Margot’s the type of white, upper middle-class theatre-goer that luxury car companies court. It’s no surprise to learn that she drives an Audi. (She’d thought her car windows were dirty but it was smoke haze that turned them opaque.)

Ivy Parker, in her early 40s, is similarly privileged. In fact, she’s a philanthropist, having inherited a sizeable fortune from her parents’ friends with which she makes regular donations to causes including children’s health, and Indigenous rights as well as visual art and theatre. (She knows though, that she ought to invest in more environmental projects: ‘Nothing else matters if the earth is dead.’) As it happens, the Parker Foundation’s latest grant is to the MTC for an expansion of their female directors’ program. Ivy’s a valued benefactor and like Margot, a VIP who will be sipping champagne during interval.

Also in this ‘cold bubble of culture’ is Summer, in her early 20s, employed as an usher at the theatre. A drama student in her final year of study, she finds the casual job helpful in terms of inspiration fodder to her acting ambitions.

At first The Performance seems to set up a dialectic of oppositions: the heat outside (40 degrees even at night), the zealous air conditioning within; the happenings on and off stage; the vulnerabilities of the women and the tough exteriors they proffer for public consumption. But these are false dichotomies. Thomas is concerned with the porosity of categories and the foolhardiness of judging on appearances alone. She plays with the conflation of real and artificial, with a seepage of boundaries between city and country, safety and danger, comedy and tragedy.

Margot may appear imperious and intimidating, with her decades of academia and grants, but she’s reluctantly facing early retirement from her beloved career and can barely sleep sober. Even more concerning, she’s hiding a number of bruises, sites of violence enacted upon her by her mentally-stricken husband. Shame has forbidden her to inform anyone of the cause of her injuries.

Married for 40 years to John, a former eye surgeon, Margot is at that stage in their relationship where she’s infuriated by the entire process of something as mundane as the routine of his teeth brushing (oh how she sneers at the amount of toothpaste he uses, the state of its bristles, even the velocity and duration between spits). It’s John’s mental deterioration, however, his memory loss, mood swings and in particular, sporadic aggression, that particularly troubles her: ‘The doctors say the violence is an anomaly. The doctors say Margot needs to monitor it and manage it. The doctors say avoidance and escape are her best strategies.’ Though it is never explicitly spelt out, it seems that John is living with a degenerative illness and aside from having to deal with the daily, domestic repercussions of this illness, Margot is determined that her husband’s loss of wholeness will not touch upon her own sovereign state. She already frets about her age affecting her capacity to continue lecturing. She still has cultural and institutional power and has no desire to relinquish it to her male peers or to grasping younger academics. There’s an archness to her, an asperity and a stubbornness with which she refuses to be patronised by Sudoku puzzles or the cryptic crossword because ‘lifting a pen towards one of those activities announces you as a gullible geriatric.’

While Margot is approaching the end of her career, young Summer is just at the start of hers. Although it seems like she’s perfected the transition to adulthood with nary a bump, accumulating the requisite accoutrements of partner and job, she’s riddled with anxiety. There’s insecurity about her chosen path for one: she loves being on stage but cannot quell the doubt that acting is a vacuous profession. Summer also tries hard to be virtuous but struggles mightily with the details. She’s vegetarian but not vegan; left-leaning, but perhaps not far enough along the political line. She signs petitions about Aboriginal rights, sexual assault justice and refugee policy but worries this is self-consoling armchair activism rather than anything that will make a difference. There’s also the mystery of one-half of her parentage that causes her disquiet. Unlike her mum’s fair skin, Summer’s ‘attracts the threat of racism’ and prompts queries of whether she’s been adopted. There’s a possible Indigenous lineage, but her mother refuses to confirm or deny Summer’s suspicions about the identity of her father.

I found Ivy, the middle character, nestled as she is between the more complex Margot and Summer, to be a bit of a disappointment in terms of characterisation. Thomas does a disservice to her by giving her a fairly anodyne role in the book. Ivy’s character doesn’t seem to extend to much beyond being a wealthy, upper middle-class mother of a toddler, whom she dotes upon as an ‘adult impersonator, baby animal, comedy embodied’. There is however, a loss that she’s trying to come to terms with, and failing to do so. ‘The sorrow does not feel many years ago. It hasn’t matured or lost intensity’ and she finds herself in tears when she dwells upon the thought, wishing she were ‘more evolved, more aware and in control of the tenuous boundary between what is concealed and what is not.’

Though Ivy came from hardship in her youth (this is mentioned in passing, rather than explored in any detail), her smarts enabled her to overcome her disadvantage and rather conveniently, she inherits a vast sum of money as an adult orphan (very ‘nineteenth-century novel’, as Margot later points out.) Any feeling of guilt at such an inheritance is assuaged by donations to worthy causes. She shares Margot’s class privilege as an adult and except for the trauma of loss that weighs down her heart, her trajectory from woebegone struggle town to scholarship winner, glowing academic alumna and dispenser of munificence seems impossibly smooth. Like Summer she too is liberal-minded, enlightened and a justice seeker for those less fortunate, but unlike the usher-student, Ivy has the means to salve her social conscience.

Overall, Thomas’ writing is a pleasure to read: spry, confident and coolly intelligent.

Beckett’s play is used as a catalyst for recollection of events in the protagonists’ own lives. However, this device can be a little too heavily relied upon for progressing the narrative. For instance, when Winnie talks to Willie like a toddler whose gross motor skills are slow to progress, Ivy is reminded of her own 18-month son, Eddie, who was not an advance mover. Likewise, when Winnie mentions her first kiss in a tool shed, Summer remembers her workshop encounter with childhood friend, Mandy, when they were both preadolescents. It was only later that she realised their joyful experiments in hugging and kissing were her first tentative lesbian experience. And when Winnie adjusts her spectacles, Margot recalls the fussiness of her estranged son Adam, an optometrist who’d be excruciatingly pompous were he there to identify the make and model of the glasses and to assess whether or not the actress is miming optical impairment correctly. Just as the objects in Winnie’s bag serve as aides-memoire to her once happy life, her effusive chatting and shenanigans transport Margot, Ivy and Summer to specific incidents within their own lives. Of course Thomas is illustrating the truism of art reflecting life but the connective tissue of symbolic incidents between performance and reality does feel a little too easily matched up.

There’s innovation, however, in the way the interval is presented in The Performance. This section is written as though it were a play script. Instead of internalised thoughts, the characters are now given stage directions and direct speech. During intermission before act two, the three women meet, only to realise that Ivy was once a star student of Margot’s and Summer had attended one of her guest lectures. Aside from illustrating the coincidental and serendipitous nature of life in their chance meeting, this interval allows us to learn more about each character’s background and it’s a relief, from a narrative point of view, to be able to hear them speak aloud to one another, when before they were isolated and wholly absorbed. In the intermission, their thought bubbles are allowed to burst into speech.

With this second book, Thomas has narrowed her focus in terms of setting. Her debut novel, Fugitive Blue (2008) long-listed for the Miles Franklin and winner of the 2009 Dobbie Literary Award, played with another artform. That book was about the provenance of an imaginary European painting under painstaking restoration and the concomitant dissolution of a relationship of the conservator. Set in Melbourne and various other places, including Paris in the 1870s, Venice in the 1770s and early Renaissance Italy, its roaming, historical ambit through time and space stands in stark contrast to the physical limitations of the three women here in contemporary time, fretting in a claustrophobic arena for a few hours. Both books however, do celebrate art and its power to provoke intense feelings. Indeed, Thomas’ protagonist in Fugitive Blue falls in love with her work while restoring an ultramarine painting that depicts angels in flight. Both novels also share a quiet intensity; Thomas is not one for big proclamatory gestures. The story of the painting and the story of Beckett’s Winnie frame her books respectively but it’s really the minute interactions between humans that are her real and abiding literary interest.

The Performance touches on many themes in the lives of women: sexual awakenings, the long haul of marriage, filial disdain and estrangement, SIDS, early parenting, maternal ambivalence, and career development. But the author also pulls back from micro-analysing the preoccupations of her three characters and of Winnie to take in the wider picture of a world in crisis. From the outset, the novel sets up a precarious sense of security; hermetically sealed as they are in the cavernous space in the heart of Melbourne’s central business district, the audience is ‘buffered from the threat of the distant, unpredictable flames.’ Indeed, ‘the false cold of the theatre makes it hard to imagine the heavy wind outside in the real world, the ash air pressing onto the city from the nearby hills where bushfires are taking hold.’

Summer is particularly anxious about the effects of climate change, of ‘its creeping heat, its melting ice, its consuming waters and fire’ and of ’terrifying seams that shift at a glacial pace and then suddenly rip apart.’ She is frantic about her partner, April, whose parents live within the fire-struck bush zone. They are staying to defend their home rather than evacuate and April is on her way to help them. Summer may be encased within the safe cocoon of the theatre space but the possibility of April caught in the maw of the fire miles away has already inflamed her imagination.

The increasing decay and degradation of the earth is also a theme of Happy Days. We should remember that Winnie has no relief from the ever-burning sun; there’s no shade, no trees and even the parasol she unfurls at one point ignites, leaving her once again without protection from the unkind elements. By the second act, her mound is a pile of rubbish and she’s buried up to her head. The contents of her bag are strewn around her like litter, ‘like a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the poor head the last living thing on the well-dead earth’. The director of the production we are told, is an ‘eco-feminist activist’ whose vision of Beckett has been informed by such sensibilities. She would surely agree with Ivy’s musing that ‘We humans, all of us, are stuck on a dead planet with extremes that are more extreme. We humans, all of us, have to distract ourselves with denial and busy business.’

All of which takes us back to the play, back to the three women distracting themselves with make-believe on stage. We know that their respite will only be temporary. That in a few hours each woman will have to put her mask back on to face the world again, to attend to her own ‘busy business’. Margot’s face to the crowd will be strong and resolute, even as she tries to figure out how explain the bruising on her skin; Summer will once again assume the shiny confidence of a young adult making her mark in the fragile world while she frets about its ravages and her own responsibilities to arrest its decline. And Ivy, the golden one armed with her bag of coins to distribute to the worthy will never forget, or may never be allowed to forget, her humble beginnings. She’ll clutch onto her toddler ever so tightly and wonder what could have been before his arrival.

They will continue on with their own performances.