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The Drug of Otherness: The Returns by Philip Salom

The Returns
by Philip Salom
Transit Lounge
324pp
29.99 AU
Published July, 2019
ISBN 9781925760262

Philip Salom’s fourth novel The Returns is the story of two middle-aged characters: Elizabeth and Trevor. Elizabeth is an editor whose in-house career stalled when she had the temerity to suggest a manuscript by a famous author might require substantial revision. Now she muddles along as a freelancer. Trevor was an aspiring artist, but has come to spend most of his time idling behind the counter of his sleepy North Melbourne bookshop. They meet one day when Elizabeth nearly faints out the front of Trevor’s shop and he comes to her aid. She subsequently asks him to place a notice in his window advertising the spare room she is hoping to rent out. Trevor’s marriage is ending — not acrimoniously, things just seem to have run their course — so he applies to become Elizabeth’s lodger, lured by the opportunity this affords to convert the disused shed in her backyard into a studio and rekindle his artistic practice.

The Returns is a novel about a certain kind of reckoning that occurs in mid-life. Neither Elizabeth nor Trevor experience anything so vulgar as a ‘crisis’, but they are living lives of diminished expectations and mundane responsibilities. The platonic friendship that develops between them, which Salom depicts with characteristic warmth and good humour, becomes an anchoring relationship, as they are compelled to confront various unresolved issues from their pasts.

Middle-age is not exactly a subject to stir the blood and The Returns is not packed with dramatic incident. It is, however, a buoyant and often amusing novel animated by playful dialogue, sharp observations and wry jokes. It also advances some quite specific ideas about the symbiotic relation between life and art, which it organises around the themes of recognition and recurrence. Elizabeth’s profession and Trevor’s creative aspirations provide Salom with plenty of opportunities to riff on related topics. Characters are moved to reflect on definitions of poetry, the institutionalisation of creative practices, the popular fascination with the works of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the travails of freelancing, and the internal dynamics of the local literary scene (methinks I recognise the intended targets of some of the satirical gibes). But the droll tone of such reflections does not obscure the novel’s more serious purpose. The Returns portrays the acts of creating and engaging with art and literature as distinct modes of understanding. They are presented as processes that are analogous to, and perhaps even synonymous with, the paradox of selfhood, which decrees that we must live in a state of felt incompletion, constantly plunging into an uncertain future, striving towards some form of renewal or escape, but without ever really escaping ourselves, doomed as we are to drag around increasingly cumbersome sacks of old grievances and regrets.

Early in The Returns, as she is labouring over an unpromising manuscript, Elizabeth muses that characters in literature are very often schemata. Salom’s fiction bears this out. He draws his characters generously and sympathetically, he is always alert to their complexities and idiosyncrasies, but he clearly has a bit of a thing for duos, an eye for the parallels and counterpoints that are apt to be generated by this most elementary of dramatic structures.

Elizabeth and Trevor are understood to exist in overt symbolic relation to each other. Like Big and Little — the memorable comic double-act from Salom’s previous novel, the deservedly praised Waiting (2016) — they are physically mismatched: Trevor is a large man with a gleaming bald head; Elizabeth has the slight frame of a ballerina. And like Waiting’s other paired protagonists — the landscape designer Angus (who has an ‘outside mind’) and the academic Jasmin (who has an ‘inside mind’) — they represent different ways of thinking: Elizabeth’s intellect tends to be rational and focussed, while Trevor’s artistic consciousness inclines toward ‘abundance and eclecticism and a kind of demented largesse’. They are also bestowed with contrasting afflictions. Elizabeth has a rare neurological condition called prosopagnosia, which renders her unable to identify faces. Trevor walks with a conspicuous limp, the legacy of a terrible car crash several decades earlier, his mangled leg an outward manifestation of the gnawing guilt he still feels about that night.

Beyond these relatively straightforward structuring oppositions, Salom is interested in the peculiar nature of his characters’ psychic wounds. These gradually become apparent as the novel reveals the details of their fractured family histories. Elizabeth’s personal baggage is largely an unwanted bequest from her elderly yet demanding mother, who is fading away in her Ballarat home, having enjoyed a long life of promiscuity and irresponsibility. Elizabeth’s formative years coincided with the period when her mother — a ‘spiritual tramp’ who has lately come full circle and reverted to the Catholicism of her childhood — was immersed in a dope-smoking hippie culture that eventually led her to join an isolated community of sannyasin under the auspices of the Rajneesh movement. There she proceeded to neglect her vulnerable teenaged daughter, while she embraced the commune’s orgiastic lifestyle. As Elizabeth dryly observes — having considered the distinction between a ‘sect’ and a ‘cult’ and decided that the commune in which she was raised was probably both — the sannyasin ‘talked mysticism but practised non-stop fucking’.

Trevor’s experience of parental rejection was a little more commonplace. His father walked out on him and his mother, disappearing so completely that he was eventually declared legally dead. This distant event provides the novel with its pivotal moment — the most conspicuous of its many ‘returns’ — when Trevor’s father reappears about halfway through the book, hoping to reconnect with his son.

These backstories evoke a familiar but credible psychologism. Like the poet said: they fuck you up, your mum and dad. But Salom doesn’t overplay the psychodrama. Compared to his earlier novel Toccata and Rain (2004), which featured a character with two completely separate lives, lived under different names on opposite sides of the country, who erects towering phallic sculptures made from metal and broken crockery in his friend’s backyard, The Returns has dialled down the neo-Freudian overtones. All things considered, Elizabeth and Trevor seem reasonably level-headed. The soapy quality of the prodigal-father twist is the book’s only real concession to the outsized gestures of novelistic plotting. For the most part, The Returns is content to sustain itself as a scene-level work that plays to Salom’s strengths, combining his knack for bantering dialogue with a ruminative dimension that teases out the philosophical implications of his premises.

The symbolism of Elizabeth’s unusual condition is central to the novel’s concerns. As she notes at one point, there is a sense in which her face-blindness renders everyone equal: it strips away the characteristic that is most immediately distinctive about a person. In raising the question of what exactly we are recognising when we think we recognise someone, The Returns directs our attention to the superficial aspect of this apparent distinctiveness, the possibility of an underlying commonality, and the grounds on which we might legitimately claim familiarity and understanding. It is significant on this point that Elizabeth is able to identify Trevor by his limp: his woundedness is visible and thus — to her at least — his salient feature. Her reliance on such visual clues, she comes to realise, reinforces the basic existential problem of other people. Her condition objectifies them, sharpening the line between their individuality, their private experiences, and her own. Whereas she ‘knows herself as an inner voice’, she knows others ‘overwhelmingly as physical beings’.

At the same time as the novel gestures towards this elementary conundrum, it considers the mercurial nature of our inner being. If we are in some sense constituted by inherited associations, fateful events and ineluctable psychological burdens, then problems of identity and agency arise. The kind of renewal sought by Elizabeth and Trevor, the freedom they seek from the oppressive burdens of their personal histories, would seem to require not just some form of resignation or reconciliation, but the assertion of control over their own destinies — something that ultimately demands a willful effacing, a refusal to recognise, an estrangement from the past that is also of necessity an estrangement from oneself. Salom encapsulates this idea in a moment of realisation that comes to Trevor at the crucial point in the novel when his father returns:

How much of a person is a child, and how much is a set of puzzles? Trevor is closing in on 50 years old. He feels it like accessing another world. Like recalling dreams, some people remember each moment in high resolution while others live and die as if very little is clear.

How absurd, too, that he is living in a house with a woman who, if he were to stand still in front of her and remain silent, would not recognise him. Making him a ghost. Father. Son. Artist who stopped being. Now his blank father stands in front of him.

The world has other kinds of prosopagnosia.

No, Trevor has no love left for this old man. It isn’t biology, it’s choice. He will not recognise him.

It is in this context that the novel’s preoccupation with art and literature begins to take on its particular significance. Threaded through The Returns is a series of reflections on the ways in which these creative spaces work upon us, how we work with them and within them, how they communicate, and how they come to affect and influence us. Elizabeth’s editing compels her to face her past when she is commissioned to work with a bumptious young author who has written a book on the subject of cults. But in a more general sense she finds that the act of engaging with someone else’s writing takes her out of herself, divides her perspective in a way that opens up the possibility of discovery. Working on a manuscript ‘fills her with a double version of the present tense. Sometimes she feels double as a consciousness, as if her dreams live on during the day.’ She later reflects that ‘editing is not about making, but it is about finding. It’s not unusual for writers to make but not find.’

Trevor presents a variation on this idea. He rejects conventional ideas about the meaning and value of art, coming to understand its significance as neither expressive nor conceptual. Instead, he finds a potentially transformative power in the act of surrender to the formal rigours of creation: ‘you work with your art to discover its trust,’ he thinks, ‘because the practice itself morphs into results, and torments even. Intensities. Heat. These things change you. The practice will make you an offer. You take its white drug of Otherness.’ He returns to this idea near the end of the novel, deciding that as a painter he ‘wants to repeat, and repeat not the past but the medium, because he knows the difference between repeating into oblivion and turning repetition into ritual.’

Behind this creative philosophy it is perhaps possible to detect an allegiance to a certain brand of humanism — one that defines itself by its open-ended commitment to self-realisation, its principled resistance to the foreclosing logic of intentions and outcomes. Trevor returns to painting because ‘he just wants the push and pull without any demand to conceptualise it, unlike artistic practice within universities’ (Salom — a recovering academic — never misses a chance to have a dig at the higher education system). This potentially anti-intellectual position is counterposed with Elizabeth’s professional ability to discover order and meaning ex post facto — not everyone can be an artist, and she accepts that she is ‘a better finder than maker’. Yet the novel proposes a common factor in art’s strange ability to induce a ghostly or dreamlike state in creator and audience alike, ultimately suggesting that there is something mysterious and wonderful about its transformative and communicative powers.

At times, The Returns seems to flirt with a more or less traditional justification for reading literature — namely, that the virtue of this activity lies in its capacity to admit us into other realities, other perspectives, other potentialities. But it does so in full awareness that this justification rests on a fundamentally uncertain proposition. The paradoxical experience of ‘recognition’ that a novel or poem can sometimes generate, whereby difference is suddenly grasped as a manifestation of sameness, can always be dismissed as a mere projection or delusion or mystification, if one is so inclined. Salom thus reaches for a suitably ambivalent analogy. ‘Poetry is a trip, not a problem,’ Trevor argues, having overheard an earnest student at a party declare that a poem is best understood as a ‘problem to be solved’. He goes on — somewhat drunkenly, but not entirely facetiously — to develop the metaphor of intoxication he proposed earlier in the novel:

Poetry is a drug. All good books are drugs. Books are controlled hallucinations … Reading is the hallucination, but the book is the drug. It just works differently for different people. Some get high, some take the whole dose and nothing happens.

Elizabeth echoes this sentiment in the novel’s closing pages, albeit with a somewhat different inflection that stresses the imponderable nature of the experiences of reading and imaginative identification:

… writing has a personality, a being. What makes it mysterious is … this being recurs in the reader. A sensibility that sits right with me yet isn’t me. The characters think and talk in me …

Trevor immediately undercuts this pronouncement with a typical bit of Salomesque raillery: ‘You make it sound like some internal parasite.’ But it is tempting to see in this fascination with doubleness the outlines of a clear thesis. The novel makes a point of acknowledging the formal characteristics and limitations of the visual and narrative arts, which are flawed mechanisms of understanding, each in its own way. A painting, notes Elizabeth, presents us with a surface in which everything can be seen at once; the image or pattern is static, divorced from the inexorable movement of time. A narrative moves us through time, but it too misrepresents reality by making things seem more linear and orderly than they really are. ‘Stories are always going somewhere,’ Elizabeth reflects, ‘and the fact is, we aren’t … we are fragmented, changing, returning, repeating.’ And yet The Returns positions art and literature as credible alternatives to other potential paths to comprehension and self-realisation. The drug of otherness might not always work, but it is clearly preferable to the trashy self-help books Trevor sells to the aimless customers who wander into his shop in search of something — anything — that will relieve them of their existential cluelessness: such books, he scoffs, are little more than ‘placebos’. And it is certainly treated with more respect than the spiritual quest undertaken by Elizabeth’s mother — which involved, among other things, a good deal of literal drug-taking — a quest that the novel characterises as a manifestation of incorrigible selfishness. The hippie residents of the Rajneesh commune ‘were not stupid or damaged’, recalls Elizabeth; ‘they were Narcissists’.

The Returns forges its aesthetic principles and an empowering psychology in opposition to the flaky faux-spiritualism of the sannyasin. Though Elizabeth literally has trouble seeing, she is metaphorically clear-sighted in an important respect. The lesson she draws from her unusual upbringing is not simply that one should be wary of the self-serving worldliness that lurks behind promises of transcendence, but that an apparently liberating absence of constraint is apt to mutate into its antithesis. ‘What beings in freedom,’ she realises, ‘ends in force.’

The novel’s view of art turns this metaphysical principle inside-out. It suggests that art begins in worldliness, begins with the palpability of the medium and the discipline of working with its potentialities, which in turn generates that strange double-consciousness with its intimate and transforming intensities. In this sense, though it describes these experiences as mysterious and ghostly and intoxicating, The Returns is firm in its repudiation of any sentimental or romantic notions of creativity. It dismisses out of hand the idea that the source of art can be located in some inspired form of madness or suffering. Its attitude is sober and practical. The choice it presents is between an anguished return of the repressed that would leave us at the mercy of past events and the ritualised repetitions of art — an open-ended surrender to process that bestows a power of recognition and a paradoxical agency, an ability to recognise life as a constant cycle of beginning again. Near the very end of The Returns, Trevor scrubs his canvasses clean and paints them white for this very reason. ‘Nothing is ever finished,’ he thinks, ‘it starts and starts again and in between it is scraped off.’

The Returns is not sententious about any of this, though it does sail close to the wind at times. It is a novel that seeks to enact its own thesis, its vitality arising from the push and pull of its ideas. It also displays a willingness to ironise its own concepts, poke fun at itself as a ropey mashup of Nietzsche and Freud. ‘The return of the repressed is true,’ Trevor scrawls on a chalkboard out the front of his bookshop, displaying some of that demented largesse: ‘Recurrence is true. It is all true.’ One can perhaps take as an indication of the confidence with which Salom handles his psychological themes and the ease with which he has woven them into his narrative that he almost gets away with a culminating speech from Trevor that begins: ‘I have learnt something important.’

Salom has enjoyed a long career as a poet and novelist, stretching back to the 1980s, and The Returns is the work of an author who is comfortable in his proficiency, sure of his ability to lure the reader with his relaxed tone and cheeky humour (though it must be said that the novel does confirm sod’s law, which states that if you write a book about an editor it will inevitably contain a number of dodgy sentences and stray bits of punctuation). Elizabeth is right, of course: writing does have a personality. The Returns has it in spades. Like its admired predecessor Waiting, it recommends itself as a garrulous, smart and (somewhat incongruously given its subject matter) likeable book — which might sound like faint praise, but it really isn’t.