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Thrice hitched to allegory

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox cover
The Wonder Lover
by Malcolm Knox
Allen & Unwin
352pp
$32.99 AU
Published May, 2015
ISBN 9781760112509

While the bigamy plot was all the rage in the Victorian age – from sensational thrillers like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret or Wilkie Collins’s Man and Wife, to canonical classics like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair – apart from Alice McDermott’s curious meta-fictional debut novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter or Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife, bigamy has been more the province of memoir than fiction in recent years. The cover of Australian author Malcolm Knox’s new novel The Wonder Lover features three pairs of wedding-ringed hands caressing a shadow – and the novel takes up the topic of bigamy with enthusiasm.

Knox is one of Australia’s most prolific and versatile writers. In addition to being a sports writer, literary editor and Walkley-winning investigative journalist, he has written sixteen books of non-fiction as well as five acclaimed novels. His new novel, The Wonder Lover, represents a significant departure, even as it extends the concerns of his earlier work with Australian masculinity, society and the secret history of class.

His earlier novels were grounded in acutely observed, social-realist milieus, stretching from Sydney’s wealthy Northern Beaches to its seedy Western Suburbs porn shops. All – apart from the stylistically more daring The Life, sections of which were written in the protagonist, DK’s schizoid vernacular stream of consciousness – were narrated with the cool, wry, forensic detachment that marks his journalism. The Wonder Lover, however, is an intriguing allegory about love, truth and identity that pushes conventional ideas of fictional narrative and realism to their limits, raising troubling, pertinent questions about fiction itself.

This shift from realism is especially interesting in view of Knox’s 2001 jeremiad ‘Stories in the Wrong Tense’, about Australian historical fiction, in which he wrote:

Every time I hear a novelist telling us how relevant these obscure or historical or allegorical places are to our daily lives, I want to scream: ‘So why don’t you just write about our daily lives?’

The Wonder Lover begins in a familiar fashion:

When we were very young, our father sat on the end of the bed to unload his sack of stories.

John Wonder, the lover of the title, is indeed a wonder lover, or at least a lover of wonders. Obsessed since an early age by ‘trivial pursuits’, he is the world’s greatest trivia expert, with his own record in the Guinness Book of Records (of whose founder he was once a protégé). He is the ‘Authenticator-in-Chief’ for The Last Word, a mysteriously funded website, which aims to be a Borgesian ‘Encyclopaedia of Everything, of all human knowledge’.

But he is hardly a wonder lover, in the other sense. He exuded ‘to most women’s senses an inoculation against sexual appeal…’ Despite this, and despite being professionally ‘married to truth’, he ends up married to three women, spending a week with each every month, somehow managing a life – or lives – of unremitting routine, ‘with little time for anything but the logistics’. He not only manages three wives, but

three dentists, three doctors, three, accountants … three conveyancing and probate solicitors … three lawnmowing men, three local butchers and bakers, three car mechanics, three home handymen, three plumbers, three electricians, three separate collections of parent-teacher evenings.

Wonder is colourless and featureless, with

no outstanding peculiarity of voice or appearance, no distinguishing timbre or taste … a golden mean of averageness, he was, to the untrained eye, immaculately bland …

He has a ‘phantomness [of] no lack … no deprivation’. He even lacks any scent. This unsettling detail, recalling the scentless Grenouille, the murderous, unloved protagonist of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, is an early indication of the significant departure Knox is about to make, beyond magic realism into allegory.

Reflecting his calls for a greater sense of national literary pride and a firmer sense of Australianness in the national literary discourse, Knox’s previous novels – particularly his first three, Summerland (2000), A Private Man (2004) and Jamaica (2008) – offered a real and visceral sense of place.

The Wonder Lover is less certainly placed: the closest locator is an otherwise anonymous town dubbed ‘F⎯’, where most of the action takes place and where Wonder meets what the novel terms his ‘apocalypse’.

The sense of the word apocalypse in The Wonder Lover is very different to the common English mistranslation, offering revelation, disclosure and understanding, rather than simply a destructive ending. Wonder’s apocalypse comes, like that of so many tragic anti-heroes, by way of folly. He desires to

measure or authenticate what was said, by the poets and religionists, the most important ingredients in the sexual sphere … by the time he had sired his last child, our father harboured a secret wish: to find, and authenticate, the world’s most beautiful woman.

She is embodied in the enigmatic, perplexing, frustrating Cicada Economopoulos, whose ‘face had the lines of Attic aristocracy, from the wellsprings of classicism: what Plato might called the ideal form of the female face’. Wonder encounters her when he visits her small hometown to annually verify the longevity of the world’s oldest woman, 125-year-old Dorothy Ellen O’Oagh, who is barely conscious, much less alive, sleeping ‘the sleep of the all-but-dead’.

Wonder also has the secondary task of authenticating ‘the longest temporary restraining order in human history’, served on Cicada’s father, Menis Economopoulos, as a result of Mrs O’Oagh outliving the contract signed by Menis’s own father some 40 years before to purchase her mansion on her death. Menis is ‘a man sliced, diced, seasoned, salted and steeped in second-generation disappointment’. He has been under house arrest for over fifteen years for desiring Mrs O’Oagh’s demise – which is, ironically, also desired by her. Every year, she hopes Wonder is ‘an extinguishing and merciful God’ who will put her out of her misery.

Cicada Economopoulos – this ‘epic beauty, this Michelangelo’s model, this porn star, this pageant queen, this Miss Universe’ – is no Platonic ideal. She is constantly

swearing and rolling her eyes and playing drinking games and telling stories about cocks she had sucked that she couldn’t get into her mouth because they were the size of Coke cans, telling stories about giving boys a ‘passata smile’ during her period, telling stories about having run out of men to fuck in town so she had to prey on travelling salesmen to avoid repeating herself.

Wonder and Cicada embark on a strange, co-dependent, sado-masochistic affair, a kind of annual competition they hold in the shabby bar of the local Holiday Inn: ‘she wanted to win, forcing him to admit he wanted to sleep with her … he wanted to win, by continuing to deny it’. Despite the paltry ‘philosophical enrichment of being so close to perfection’, their relationship results in the unravelling of Wonder’s finely balanced deceptions, an unhinging of his sanity and a final, disastrous – and, for want of a better (but nonetheless deliciously ironic) word, hysterical – seizure that reveals all of his lies and delusions. Finally he is rendered hopelessly, helplessly vegetative, his secret lives exposed as each of his wives encounters the others at the hospital to which he’s admitted.

Cicada’s conspicuously unusual name brings to mind Plato’s Phaedrus, which was inspired by Socrates hearing a chorus of cicadas. Its dialogue on eros considers not only sexual desire and love, but theia mania: a madness sent from the gods that offers as many blessings as curses, inspiring art, poetry and love, and which is presented as a counterpoint or complement to reason, understanding and self-control: becoming inspired and consumed by a new idea to the point of madness. And what is a maddening passion like Wonder’s for Cicada but being in love with the idea of someone, or the idea of love itself?

In the Phaedrus, Socrates could be describing John Wonder’s secretive ways, his self-abnegation with Cicada, and his ultimate apocalypse:

he is suspiciously guarded in all ways against everybody … when he is in his cups and indulges in wearisome and unrestrained freedom of speech becoming not only unendurable but disgusting … he ought never to have accepted a lover who was necessarily without reason, but rather a reasonable non-lover; for otherwise he would have to surrender himself to one who was faithless, irritable, jealous, and disagreeable, harmful to his property, harmful to his physical condition, and most harmful by far to the cultivation of his soul, than which there neither is nor ever will be anything of higher importance in truth either in heaven or on earth.

Just as Summerland directly evoked Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, The Wonder Lover, in its concerns and style, recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s influential short story ‘Wakefield’ (1837). In it, a middle-aged, middle-class man, (‘let us call him Wakefield’), ‘absent[s] himself for a long time, from his wife,’ returning after

his death was reckoned certain, his estate settled, his name dismissed from memory, and his wife, long, long ago, resigned to her autumnal widowhood – he entered the door one evening, quietly, as from a day’s absence, and became a loving spouse till death.

Like Wonder, we don’t really get to know him. Of Wakefield, like Wonder, ‘we are free to shape out our own idea, and call it by his name… had his acquaintances been asked, who was the man… surest to perform nothing to-day which should be remembered on the morrow, they would have thought of Wakefield.’ Like much of Knox’s oeuvre, ‘Wakefield’ is concerned with the restrictions and oppressions of society’s expectations, and like The Wonder Lover, it’s preoccupied with dreams and ghosts: Wakefield, preposterously, lives across the street from his wife ‘to haunt around his house, without once crossing the threshold’, just to see how she copes with her widowhood.

The Wonder Lover has realistic and allegorical elements. Its geographical vagueness is contrasted with precise, almost incredible figures and references to real people, such as Guinness co-founder Norris McWhirter, and the sly nod to ‘the American housewife who passed herself off as a Middle Eastern virgin writing a bestselling memoir about witnessing an honour killing’ – a reference to Norma Khouri, whose fabrications were exposed by Knox himself. It is a noteworthy contradiction of Knox’s earlier assertion (and his previous work) that ‘evocation of place is essential to good writing’.

One might argue all fiction is allegorical. As Camilla Nelson has pointed out, realism is

a slippery term because it presents itself as transparent, as if the realist novel could provide a window to the world, when (like all forms of writing) novelistic reality is patterned in a way that the real world is not.

As Mark Twain noted, ‘truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities, truth isn’t’.

Similarly, there are real-life precedents for some of the novel’s events. The seemingly outlandish Economopoulos arbitrage case, in which Mrs O’Oagh (a name, unlike Cicada’s, I could find nowhere else but the novel) outlives Menis Economopoulos’s father, is based on that of the world’s oldest verified human, the French supercentenarian Jeanne Calment, who, having signed a similar contingency contract at the age of 90, outlived the hapless contractor by two years (although his widow was much more gracious than Economopoulos, and was never under house arrest).

The Wonder women’s final bedside encounter recalls the story of 59-year-old English car salesman Melvyn Reed. In 2005, Reed was confronted by three wives who met for the first time when their designated visiting times ‘got out of sync’. ‘Recovering from a triple bypass, as his heart was on the mend,’ reported the Daily Mail, ‘three others were broken.’ The ‘portly, bespectacled’ businessman – later wanted on fraud and bankruptcy charges – ‘seemed nice enough, an ordinary bloke in his Fifties, balding and with a paunch’, reported a neighbour of his second wife to the Daily Telegraph. ‘Not three wives material, that’s for sure.’

But these implausible – albeit actual – events aren’t dependent on believability. Just as Hawthorne’s story makes one wonder how Wakefield does support himself for twenty-odd years, or isn’t discovered by his neighbours, or acquaintances, or wife – or even why she’d take him back after such a ‘joke’, questions of plausibility continually arise throughout The Wonder Lover.

How does Wonder manage to see each wife every three weeks and maintain offices in three different places without raising any suspicion? How does he evade women who are so accomplished? His first wife, Sandy, is a brilliant medical researcher, specialising in paediatric oncology. His second, Paulina, is a fiery and independent ‘north South American’ journalist, who becomes an acclaimed novelist. His third, Kim, of Thai and Chinese descent, is an escaped sex slave who not only pursues her former captors and clients, but becomes a police sexual violence counsellor with a doctorate in her subject.

Apart from one wan request by Kim to spend more time with her and her children, none of Wonder’s wives or children ever question the extent of his travels or his secretive ways. Sandy and Paulina are both focused on their careers, and are strangely incurious about what he does when he is not with them. They do

not ask him to choose, even though they did not know what it was, other than his work, that he was choosing over them. That was the measure of their love.

Paulina, the journalist, somehow ‘never asks him a single question about his parents or his past’. When a Hyundai disappears from Wonder’s first family after he gives it to his third family, instead of saying that it has been stolen, he says he has sold it. After purchasing a more suitable car for them, he transports it back to his first family, incurring greater cost than the purchase of the car. The explanations, enough to raise suspicions in any reasonable person, are laughed off as a family joke.

But given the real life antecedents to these families, perhaps this is not so incredible. And despite (or perhaps because of) its characters’ lack of curiosity, The Wonder Lover constantly forces us, suspended between disbelief and implausibility, to keep questioning our own ideas of love, family, truth, beauty – and, in a way many novels do not, narrative itself.

This is underscored by the stories Wonder tells his children of impersonators and frauds: James Miranda Barry, Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Louis de Rougement, Grey Owl and Arthur Ortons. The increasingly lurid stories with which Cicada tortures him, such as ‘picking up an amputee and letting him fuck her with his stump, or picking up an ancient cancer sufferer from a nursing home and letting him fondle her breasts’, also test the boundaries of the plausible.

The stretching of the boundaries of fictional narrative and plausibility in The Wonder Lover is marked by the curious narrative voice, a Greek chorus of his children, a boy and girl to each wife, three Adams and three Evies.

The narrative voice is by turns questioning and knowing:

it has taken us time to work out why, but work it out we have … we are his children, and we know everything about him. He was our father and he knew everything about us.

The children assert: ‘Now we are not so young, we are inclined to look at it his way’. But how can they know their still, silent, scentless, absent father’s secrets or state of mind? How can they know the obsessive thoughts that strike him, alone and fully clothed in his hotel room after another perverse encounter with Cicada? How can they know about his energetic, ‘boundary-pushing’ sexual relations with his wives? What child would discuss how his or her parents make love in the manner described in the book, using the words copulate, fuck and screw, and envisioning their father hauling their mother up and turning her over ‘like a sheep’ in the kitchen?

More pertinently, how can they speak collectively, especially when ‘pee wee Evie, Evie the third, Evie III, daughter of Kim’ is described as having severe intellectual disabilities and Evie I ‘suffered the most’ when she found out she had ‘another sister – two sisters – both called Evie?’ How plausible is it that the middle Adam and Evie, brought up in a country where Spanish is likely their mother tongue, and never having visited Wonder’s anglophone home country, could speak English with such facility, when their mother is unable to distinguish between ‘because’ and ‘that’s why‘?

While the first-person plural (we) offers a reflective sense of shared experience, and is often used to give a voice to the victims of trauma, such as the Japanese mail order brides of Julie Otsuka’s novel The Buddha in the Attic (2011) or the nameless people who helped modernise Denmark in Carsten Jensen’s We, The Drowned (2006), it also threatens to de-individualise and stereotype them in the very ways such narratives often seek to repudiate, even allowing for the ironic possibilities of emphasising such de-individualisation, as in Yevegny Zamyatin’s We (1924) or Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1959).

Knox addresses this gap between the narration’s blithe tone and its traumatic connotations somewhat late in The Wonder Lover, when he reveals the lives that the children have lived, unseen by their formerly absent, now vegetative father:

We have been in the shadows, undifferentiated. We were just a mass to you, Dad, weren’t we? We were just ‘the children’. Just Adam and Evie.

For much of the novel, refracted through Wonder’s solipsism, all of the characters, including Wonder and the paradoxical Cicada, seem similarly allegorical Right up until Wonder’s exposure, no woman apart from Cicada is more than a trope. His first two wives are

a Hegelian pair: Sandy was the thesis, the pure opening statement, and Paulina was the antithesis, the questioning of all he had stood for, the accountability.

Kim is the ‘synthesis: a reconciliation of his opposites’. Each of them is ‘as much an avatar of a human type‘:

the woman with glasses, the dark-skinned woman, the scarred woman. The first love, the soul mate, the redeemer.

Cicada’s mother has been ‘whited-out’:

erased by disappointment … it was years since our father had seen Helenna Economopoulos, and he only had Menis’s word for it that she was still alive.

Mrs O’Oagh, virtually comatose, is commented on and attacked just for continuing to exist:

accidental death was an ordinary thing; accidental life [like] Mrs O’Oagh’s’ – or Wonder’s – was a rarity, but did it leave any less devastation?

Lennard J. Davis argued in Resisting Novels (1987):

novels that try and point out the made up quality of their central character are, at best, intellectually interesting but somehow not really novelistic and, at worst, tedious and unreadable.

This intelligent and ambitious novel is never that. But the narrative becomes more affecting, warmer and much funnier after Wonder recedes further into a vegetative state, and the women in his life – his wives and ‘lover’ – come to the fore, first discovering each other and his deception, then discussing his fate.

It makes me wonder if this intellectually fascinating novel might have been more emotionally involving if, rather than their being posed as the allegorical scaffold to Wonder’s life, the narrative had been centred around the Wonder women instead, giving them more agency than simply being, as Cicada realises, wives:

to be dependent … tied to a man when you didn’t have to be … these beautiful women, these wives, these sufferers from an imprisonment and the perfidy that went with … marriage.

Yet as his wives come to know each other and reconcile their lives with Wonder and the lives he has secretly led with the others, they are united by a new agency, discussing and deciding his fate round his hospital bed, even as they go their separate ways. The mannered, detached narrative voice loses its affectations and becomes more affectionate, hurt, forgiving, angry, complicated, contradictory, independent and revealing of the children’s hitherto unnoticed lives.

But as Wonder – or the children, speculating on his behalf – acknowledges, his sporadic, infrequent efforts at maintaining family life go

unappreciated … to be appreciated was to be understood, and to be understood was to unthinkable.

Like fables or parables in which a moral is expected, what lesson might this very modern allegory offer – apart from the exhausting dangers of trigamy or the futility of duplicity? Cicada – of all people, that wise fool, the promiscuous counterpoint to the bigamist Wonder – offers her own analysis:

‘My friend,’ Cicada had said to John, ‘you keep missing the point. You can’t measure beauty or love like they’re quantities. It’s what they make a man do. How large is beauty? What a man will do for it. How great is love? Love can only be measured by what a man will do for it.’ What a man will do for beauty. That is its power. What he never understood, and Cicada did: power. Love is power.

As Sandy – ‘the love of his life, the partner he had never left, the first one, the defining one’ – says of Wonder, the unloved unlover: ‘It’s not love. It’s cowardice.’

Leaving us with such resonant, unresolvable, originally-posed questions in such a marked departure from his previous work, Knox – who once asserted that ‘when we’re talking about fiction, “original” is a more useful word than “literary”’ – offers what Marjorie Garber called the hallmarks of ‘fictional truth’: vernacular, literary and philosophical allusion, reminders of narrative unreliability, relevance to the present — and most of all, not just the absence of answers or determinate meanings or resolution, but a tendency to outwit or confound such expectations, asking us in a witty, compelling and surprising way to ask such difficult questions of ourselves.

References

Tadeusz Borowski This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Viking Penguin, 1967 [1959]).
Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (William Tinsley, 1862).
Wilkie Collins, Man and Wife (F. S. Ellis, 1870).
Daily Telegraph, ‘Bigamist’s secret life fell apart the day his three wives came to visit,’ 11 August 2005, accessed 15 May 2015.
Daily Mail, ‘Wives Uncover Trigamist’s Secret,’ 11 August 2005, accessed 15 May 2015.
Lennard J. Davis, Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction (Methuen, 1987).
Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1915).
Marjorie Garber, The Use and Abuse of Literature (Anchor, 2012).
Reginald Hackforth, Plato’s Phaedrus (Cambridge University Press, 1972).
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Wakefield (from Twice-Told Tales, American Stationers Co, 1837).
Carsten Jensen, We, The Drowned (Vi, de druknede, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010 [2006]).
Malcolm Knox, Summerland (Random House Australia, 2000).
Malcolm Knox, A Private Man (Vintage Australia, 2004).
Malcolm Knox, Jamaica (Allen and Unwin, 2007).
Malcolm Knox, The Life (Allen and Unwin, 2011).
Malcolm Knox, ‘Stories in the wrong tense,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 2001, accessed 18 May 2015.
Malcolm Knox, ‘Fiction as reality check,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 January 2006, accessed 16 May 2015.
Alice McDermott, A Bigamist’s Daughter (Random House, 1981).
Camilla Nelson, ‘Faking it: History and Creative Writing,’ TEXT, Vol 11, No 2, October 2007, accessed 10 May 2015.
New York Times, ‘A 120-Year Lease on Life Outlasts Apartment Heir,’ 20 December 1995, accessed 14 May 2015.
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf, 2011).
Anita Shreve, The Pilot’s Wife (Little, Brown, 1998).
Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Hamish Hamilton, 1985).
William Makepiece Thackeray, Vanity Fair (Bradbury & Evans, 1848).
Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (American Publishing Company, 1897).
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (Penguin Classics, 1993 [1988]).