on The Pages, a novel by Murray Bail (Other Press)
Murray Bail’s beguiling fourth novel, The Pages, begins with Erica Hazelhurst, a 46-year old professor of philosophy, and Sophie Perloff, a 43-year old psychiatrist, driving from Sydney to a remote sheep farm in New South Wales. Erica has been hired to evaluate the philosophical work of the late Wesley Antill who thirty years previously had left his brother and sister to manage the farm while he roamed through Europe to meditate and surmise. Ultimately, he returned to a shack on the farm where he strove to conceive a “theory of the emotions.”
There’s a picaresque vibe in The Pages, a seemingly open-ended, fanciful consideration of big ideas, systems, places and events – cast upon a sardonic undercurrent of doubt that such considerations yield usable knowledge, models of behavior, or confidence and relief. If this sounds like a lot to tackle in a novel, you’re right. But Bail lures the reader into the murk through piercing wit, comic verve, and energetic pacing.
The novel is founded both on oppositions and about the humorous, hapless, cramping unease of living with contrary, competing values and desires. Bail’s third novel, the award-winning Eucalyptus, celebrated the power of story-telling over fact-knowing, suggesting that our most satisfying explanations of life are intuitive and spontaneous -- and necessary. In The Pages, the postmodern collapse of explanatory narratives is underway. Its philosophers and shrinks are hypersensitive to every puzzling blip of mood or circumstance in their tentative lives. Words puzzle them. In the outback, Erica “could see how everything already existed without description. As, well, she was never comfortable with the way words were attached to a given subject – such as a tree, or the heat, let alone feelings. Though Erica knew Sophie would object.”
Readers of my reviews know that I don’t traffick in plot-dumps. But I don’t want to risk making The Pages sound like a literary device to play with cultural abstractions. It’s a fine story of telling actions precisely fitted into the narrative. Erica and Sophie meet Wesley’s brother and sister, Lindsey and Roger (“ ‘Silence runs in the family,’ was Lindsey’s explanation”), Erica sorts through the scattered insights of Wesley’s writings (is he a profound thinker or a maundering scribbler?), Erica and Sophie run afoul of each other, Erica gets lost on the property. Meanwhile, Wesley’s odd but affecting story unfolds, and the narrative shifts to the first-person, his uncertain voice.
But the engine of this novel is the narrator, a sometimes caustic but always discerning third-person, shadowing Erica and equipped with her critical perceptiveness:
“To think that a few days in such a place of unimaginable stillness could produce disorder, uncertainty, impatience, difficulties with herself and those around her. Erica did not usually exhibit signs of restlessness, and she knew it.
If philosophy had any use it would calm her down. It had on other occasions. She would go back to the Greeks, possibly the Germans. Her toe-in-the-water theories on Time were not applicable here.
She would have a shower.”
Erica is the sort of person who worries “that most people she met soon became of little interest to her.” But Bail makes us take a great interest in the reserved, mannerly and methodical Erica (and the impatient, nervous, sexy Sophie). One of Erica’s early self-queries is: “Can a woman be strong and clear without turning hard?” A hundred pages later she says to Sophie, “ ‘I intervene in my mind – and too early … I can’t seem to help it. In reducing the argument, I reduce the person. I can hear myself becoming sharp.’” The profession’s dilemma: How to be analytical and fully empathic at the same time.
Here is the narrator channeling Wesley Anthill:
“Each and every perhaps and possibly, on the one hand this, on the other that, yes but, along with the ifs, the maybes, the not necessarilies, while producing an appearance of tolerance and abstraction, which made him attractive in the eyes of others, had spread and undermined the haphazard foundations of Wesley Antill’s own opinions. Hang on, let me think. (He began talking to himself.) Lack of precision – that is, how to be yourself, as much as possible -- tightened its grip; uncertainty was OK, confusion not.”
The narrator’s satiric treatment of both philosophy and psychoanalysis (“the endless sentence”) leaves the characters and the reader staring at the issue of “how to be yourself” without an intervening, explanatory narrative. The fun is in listening to the collapse of meaning-scaffolds even as the entertaining observations pile up. But what takes meaning’s place?
As Wesley travels through Europe (in one strangely lovely segment, he works as a hospital orderly), he wonders about the optimal conditions for thought. The narrator says:
“So much of talking was for the sake of talking, just because somebody else happened to be talking, of obeying some necessary instinct to fill in the gap, to add to what already has been said, or wanting to toss in a joke or related anecdote to bring the house down (since only an infinitesimal amount of what is said is memorable).”
But after all, much of what the narrator has to say to us is just that – talking, an anecdote, a quip. And I love it. Meaning, then, is replaced by the feel for life as it is actually experienced, and this is the artistic juice of the narrator. Taking a bite out of psychoanalysts, he says, “An overlay of voices and other distractions has separated city dwellers from their natural selves, in turn aggravating all manner of obstructions, confusions, the specifically named phobias, which cry out for treatment.” The Pages strips down those voices. Wesley loves philosophy because it exists “in the realm of being precise about imprecision.” Since that aptly describes Murray Bail’s project in The Pages as well, the reader draws closer to the eccentric Wesley.
The novel ends with brief excerpts from Wesley’s so-called manuscript. He writes, “Love is a recognition of unbalanced affinities.” In a sense, the subtle but emerging mission of The Pages is to illuminate this prickly apothegm – while honoring the difficulties and errors of its characters. It’s a brilliant performance.
* * *
[Published August 1, 2010. 196 pages, $14.95 paperback original. Murray Bail’s third novel, Eucalyptus (1998), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and is available in paperback from Picador.]