Book of the Week: The innumerable pourings of gins and the tiny rituals of swizzle sticks

Vincent O’Sullivan admires Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn, who continues to write and shape novels like no other New Zealand author.

A few years ago Witi Ihimaera gave the New Zealand Book Council Lecture, which he called “Where is New Zealand Literature Heading?” He ticked us off, in his engagingly vague way, for writing fiction that seemed, by his standards, short on ambition, too modestly achieved. Where, he asked, is the challenging work that he hoped to find? The kind that takes risks? The answer was not as hard to come by as he thought. It was in the library, actually, shelved under G. I know a busy writer is always pressed for time to read, but it was only three years since Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music had won Book of the Year at the NZ Book Awards with its impressive and technically adroit narrative, a work attempting something very different from any other New Zealand writer. As had her outstanding novella Rain, decades before, and The Boy and the Sea after that. The award had been a courageous decision by the judges.

Here was a narrative written with remarkable deftness, drenched in Scottish history, exploring the emotional reach of bagpipe music. From a local point of view, an unlikely story indeed. Those facts in themselves made it a deeply unexpected work, an excursion drawing it much further to its European literary whakapapa than we were used to, or, if Witi has his way, we should even attempt. Its architecture, to call it that, was daring in a way few other novels seemed to be. This was contemporary writing, as the Modernists had it in mind almost a century ago. This was still making it new. As the critic Gabriel Josipovici asked of its uniqueness, “Why is it that in the English-speaking world it is nearly always women writers – Virginia Woolf, Ivy Compton Burnett, Muriel Spark, Rosalind Belben, and now Kirsty Gunn – who understand, as composers have always understood, that we human beings are not solitary individuals facing the world but form part of a larger music, which may be intuited but not be fully grasped?”

The more than 350 pages of what one traditionally expects from fiction, a “story” in this instance that was a celebration of music, grained through with an account of incest as free from censure as I’ve come by, are then followed by almost 100 pages of notes, provided, one comes to realise, by the narrative’s central character, with her reams of Scottish awareness and musical depth. Details run to the dimensions and structure of a house, for example, to descanting on literary theory, to offering a slew of the things that rub along together in any one mind, background and associations that don’t find their place in what we usually mean by a story, but are inevitably related to it, once we are told.

Remember how TS Eliot’s footnotes to The Waste Land were so much part of the poem’s initial notoriety, variously argued as necessary, or additional, or both, but certainly rather more than what poetry readers usually bargained for. Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music provoked questions that were not so dissimilar – how did all this addenda relate to what we may have thought was “the novel”? Was it necessary, or could one take it or leave it? Some readers felt a certain assault, others an excitement that a novel was delivering a finely constructed story, yet so much more as well – a story told in a way that cut through expectations. Even that word “told” would need to be glossed rather differently. You had to re-jig what you were willing to allow as ‘fiction’, to redefine the line between a story and what makes a story possible. You might even have to accept how telling is not only a weave of character and setting and authorly intent, and whatever else we might reach for in our schoolroom grab-bag, but the whole warp and angling of language, the breaking out from what novels are assumed to do. Such break-outs occur when a novel is truly new.

Gunn declared where she stood as a writer when, in the London Review of Books, she aired her reluctance to be tethered to a fiction “set up with narratological priorities”. She prefers writing whose fidelity is to where language leads, rather than to what “story” dictates. That still rather rigid notion of fiction reflecting life – Stendhal’s “mirror carried along a highway”, which by far the greater part of fiction still descends from – is not what interests her. What does is the field of fiction being more like a network of trip-wires, resonances, words leading to other words, trajectories and connections that are “real” because they occur in the language that embodies them, and because that too is how language plays out between minds. As much with Gunn as with Mansfield, if we are asked what one of her stories is about at least part of our answer must be, “about how it is told”. As in this new novel, where two friends meet to elaborate “an account” that is still being planned even as it ends.

The structure of Gunn’s new novel Caroline’s Bikini isn’t unlike the arrangement and disposing of bodies and paraphernalia around a suburban pool party: a circular game that can’t help but tingle with romance of a kind. And in no time, with its silky and comic take on the threads of courtly love tracing through to the cosy, intelligent, socially favoured but emotionally tangled postal codes of present day London, we are quickly up against the stallings and repetitions and excruciating delays, as the story so wanting be told is half-told, mistold, even untold. And beyond Emily the narrator and her task as the chosen teller – the “amanuensis” as she sees herself – there are scores of pages of “Additional Material”, the sort of thing any single event or emotion might anticipate, or carry in its wake, that load of accumulated “relevancies” the reader may choose to let into the story. Or may not.

I remember the first time I read Emma, finding it hard to believe that so many cups of tea could be drunk in one novel, even by ladies who didn’t need to work for a living. It took me years to realise how much of the real action in Jane Austen, its complexity and unravelling, can go on to the stirring of a teaspoon, the timely raising of a teapot. I thought of that – how could one not – as I read now of the innumerable pourings of gins, the tiny rituals of swizzle sticks. “Some Further Material” will even list for you the almost 20 West London pubs where they are mixed, and the dozen brand names poured, set out like cast lists in a programme, along with notes on narrative choices, the hosting of what an author has in her head, and thinks you too, as the reader, might be the better for knowing.

The pages of Caroline’s Bikini are steeped in varieties of middle-class privilege, wisps of the past, enticements from the future, which you may or may not take seriously, as you also take on board just how many ways there may be to describe what you are reading, with those literary bouncers, “intertextuality” and “post” this and that, casting a cool eye as you enter or leave. For there is so much going on, subtly, elusively. There is the stirring of what became of medieval and Renaissance Romance, taken seriously even as it is artfully sent up. There is the refusal to go along with what conventional fiction craves to pack in under “plot”, yet there is the concession too that try as you might, you can’t quite escape it, the way “true love” will spring at you as surely as at the end of a Mills and Boon.

This is fiction very much of its time, of its place, set among those who can afford to be at home in better suburbs, people who talk intelligently of their lives and intentions, but who “muddle by” – a phrase no one is likely to use – with the intractable human confusions that words, in fiction or out of it, enmesh one in. It is serious writing, in that sense of bringing so much to bear on what is being attended to this very moment. But to talk of it in those terms may make “the fiction” seem so much more solemn than it is. Gunn is a witty writer, and as alert as any I can think of to what a concern with “style” carries with it. One sees why, if you want to place a writer in a tradition (itself a fictive enough game ), then hers has to be the one a critic like Josipovici sets her in, with her understanding of how “debt” implies preserving, yet “done in a different way”.

The end of the love story that starts and restarts and can’t quite believe in its own conclusion, and for all its play with Petrarch and the rest, is unexpected, funny, literally taking itself in, as one genre digests another, lovestruck merging with slapstick. As David, whose obsession flavours every downed and relished gin, might have said to the narrator in his jokey way, drawing on his store of faded Americanisms, “Have I just said a mouthful!”

There’s a wry diversion, of sorts, in turning from Gunn’s third book from Faber in six years, to check with my favourite jumbo book of serio-comic academic prose. In The Cambridge History of New Zealand Literature, edited three years ago by Mark Williams, Kirsty Gunn fails to make the text or the index so much as once. The sections that might have touched on her spike with inadequate reading and parochial verve. I’m back, not with Witi Ihimaera’s guess at what New Zealand writing might advisedly do, but with the more pressing query of what some of it looks like now, supposing one looked. With what “writing” may get up to, when it is not conscripted to nation-defining missions.


Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn (Faber & Faber, $32.99) is available at Unity Books.

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