This is an edited version of the launch speech for Avi Duckor-Jones’ Swim, a winner of the 2018 Seizure Viva la Novella competition.
I admit I was not familiar with Avi Duckor-Jones or his work before the Viva la Novella competition results were announced, which is not surprising in some ways – I’m not a voracious consumer of contemporary short fiction – but it is surprising in another way, since I do watch a lot of reality television. For those not in the know, I should perhaps reveal something about Avi’s past, lest speculation and rumour mar the atmosphere of this event – Avi Duckor-Jones is not merely a talented author, he is also a winning contestant of Survivor NZ, putting him on equal footing with our own ‘swimming survivor’, Shane Gould.
Like so many writers, I turned to this paltry profession precisely because I couldn’t handle the other, more demanding dimensions of life. As a demographic, writers struggle with what others regard as ‘reality’, and we are thereby driven to provide our own fictional supplements to the oppressive regimes of the real. For this reason, I’m generally disinclined towards anyone with a talent for fiction who is also a winner in other, realer ways. If a man is tall, handsome, and a deft hand at reality television – I ask what business he has wading into the nervous territory of writers, who have only their power to generate alternative realities to tranquilise their abnormal eccentricities. It just doesn’t seem fair that someone might occupy both terrains so comfortably. Despite wanting to find some flaw with which to dismiss Avi and his book, there’s simply no denying the man or his writing. And when I ask Avi to sign my copy of Swim tonight, I hope he’ll do so as both its author and winner of Survivor NZ, the latter of which will no doubt be of interest to my friends and family.
It was a relief to find Avi described as an antipodean writer on the back of this novella, because having read his book I couldn’t help but see Swim as a part of a profoundly Australian precedent of obsessing with the theme of water. In recent years, many of my favourite Australian works have been shaped by seas, streams, lakes, rivers and their symbolic powers. From Alexis Wright’s two great novels, The Swan Book and Carpentaria, Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats, Jesse Blackadder’s Chasing the Light, Kate Middleton’s Ephemeral Waters, Zacharey Jane’s The Lifeboat, Beverly Farmer’s This Water: Five Tales, and everything Tim Winton has ever written.
In literary time scale, Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda only recently demonstrated that serious swimmers are fair game for fiction. In the opening pages of that novel an Olympic Swimmer in crisis stands on the shores of Glasgow and dives into the waves that are ‘cold, cold, cold’. The breath is stolen from the swimmer, muscles that haven’t moved in years begin to sing. ‘I am in water,’ the narrator tells us, ‘it is bending for me, shifting for me. It is welcoming me. I am swimming. I belong here.’
Like the narrator of Barracuda, the narrator of Avi’s Swim, Jacob Donnelly, is more at home in the water than on the land. Both Jacob and the narrator of Barracuda are drawn to the temporal wholeness that submersion offers. And who can blame them? The desire to return to our original amphibian state, to plunge under the hermetic seal of the water and be suspended, is a tempting means of escaping, for a time, the hell of other people; and to begin again, to return to a womb-like continuity with the natural world around us. There our shame, if not quite hidden, is at least obscured – all orifices are enveloped, and we are free from the world of words. Jacob Donnelly dives beneath the surface, his pulse beats in his temples. It is black under here, he says, but for the ‘fireflies of light casting out from my fingertips as they move. Nothing can touch me.’ It is no longer cold, he has come to an utterly empty space. The movement of the sea rocks him gently and he exhales, sinking deeper down and staying suspended.
My favourite New Zealand filmmaker, Miro Bilbrough, has a scene in her last film, Being Venice in which her titular heroine, whose family life is as troubled and broken as Jacob’s, dives into the calm forgiving waters of the sea in an attempt to find that same silent stillness. She surges down and smashes her head directly into an outcrop of rock hidden under the dark water. When she awakes she is in a hospital bed, and her father, an anxious eccentric played by Garry McDonald, says to her, ‘That bloody rock! It almost killed my daughter!’ Venice begins to sob, and says to her father, ‘I loved that rock, at least it was something solid.’ I thought of that scene many times reading Jacob Francis Donnelly’s struggle with the world above and below the water. In a sense both characters face the one dilemma. No matter how seductive the pull of the waves, no matter how soothing they are for a time, how much they teach us and erase our sorrows and how boldly we master our capacity to move through the water’s flashing expanse – sooner or later, if we wish to go on living, we have to return to land. As Jacob puts it in a late chapter, ‘The sea, eventually, wants us out.’
It might be too much to suggest that we are particularly prone to silencing our anxieties of self-consciousness in the antipodean climbs, because our origins provide us without an alternative redemptive narrative, although there is some hint of this wounded absence in Avi’s Swim. In an early chapter Jacob recalls a conversation at a bar in the U.S with a woman who, having NZ pointed out for her on a map, says that it looks to her like a ‘Band-Aid on the bottom of the Earth that could be ripped off at any moment.’
Unlike Tsiolkas’s forceful social soap opera of class, sexuality and capitalism, Avi’s Swim is a lithe and rich narrative written with a poet’s eye for detail that gives it both an intimacy and a resonance that feels almost saturating. There is a drenched texture to the writing, it teems with life above and below the waters. When Jacob comes home to the sick Estella, his mother, he is tasked with restoring the dilapidated shack that his father built by the sea. He goes out one morning to see the state of it – the tall grass is smattered with dandelions, and the tide has left a thin film of water across the mudflats below, pockmarked with scrub and tussock grasses. A grey heron picks its way across the wet sand as if walking through syrup. From these flats Jacob’s mother gathers mud for a face mask, worn until it dries on her face and she begins to look like a crumbling sculpture of herself. Jacob reaches the top of the hill and recognises every tree like an old acquaintance, the Siamese punga fern, the fallen rimu, the hollow beech and the flaky manuka. He recalls helping his mother duck under the rimu, overtaken with vines. ‘Epiphytes,’ she had said to him, ‘All things growing atop one another. It’s hard to tell whether they are killing each other or living in symbiotic union.’ Maybe a bit of both, Jacob decides.
I’ll spare you all my Freudian readings of Jacobs troubled relationship with his mother, and refrain from expounding my long-winded post-colonial understandings of the symbolic meaning of the landscape in this book, and end by saying simply that this is the perfect novella – a compelling, intimate story brought to life by the lithe and mesmerising prose of a born story-teller.