One day I’ll die from someone not returning an email. I’m still waiting to hear from the novelist Gail Jones, whom I emailed a week or so ago. I was asked by a small press publication to come up with an established Australian author to profile for the next issue, and I thought of her. I suppose we could say that all Australian writers are individual or unique in their own way; of course they are. But there is a voice, or style that tends to give what we call Australian fiction its identity. We can say there’s a certain laconicism, a stripped-back, unpretentious approach in Australian writing that we see in writers like Tim Winton or Tom Keneally.
Gail Jones is what happens when an Australian writer goes the other way, eschewing the blokey meanderings of her peers in favour of a poised, earnest engagement with – what should I call this? The world of Blanchot, Barthes and Baudrillard: the world of interpretation, critical theory. It feels very 90s to me, but perhaps that’s because I met her in the late 90s, as an undergrad whose heart was set on fire by the French philosophy I was only glossing. I suppose it’s an academic style, self-reflexive, deliberate, clever. It’s a feminine style, a lonely style. She’s the Australian heir to Marguerite Duras and Agnes Varda. I recently showed a friend, an art historian, an excerpt from her second novel, Fetish Lives. My friend sighed: ‘This is so effortful!’ Yes, precisely the point, probably. Gail Jones would find the comment very interesting. ‘I find this very interesting’ was a phrase that was (and might still be) her catchall, her verbal tic.
Jeez, why do I talk as if I knew her? Verbal tics, indeed. I know next to nothing about her! I was once one of her students, taking a number of the literature subjects that she taught. Her areas were modernism and postmodernism, certain areas of cinema. I remember the words ‘hypnogogic’ and ‘paradigmatic’ getting thrown around. I remember ‘epistemophilia’ being scrawled across the whiteboard. ‘Do you know this word?’ she inquired, turning to face the lecture theatre.
There’s probably no way to write this without sounding weird, so I’ll just continue, ignoring the urge to insert disclaimers. A number of female Arts students had little Gail crushes, which, now that I’m teaching at University, I see there is no way she couldn’t have known about. We enrolled in an unnecessary amount of subjects on postmodern writing – which was very much her bag. I have a bad feeling I might have written on Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in two totally different units. Mutatis mutandis. There are really huge gaps in my knowledge of English literature as a consequence of this imbalance. It’s my entire fault, of course. No one told me I couldn’t be supplementing my Winterson and Morrison with Chaucer and Spenser on my own clock. No one told us to follow this lecturer around! So why did we?
I might be wrong, but it seems to me that we were uniformly young women. This is not to say that Gail wouldn’t have been attractive to our male peers, but the boys I knew didn’t tend to be effusive. Ask me to picture a young man from 1998 and I see a chalky guy with a closed mouth, dark hair on face and dirty socks on feet – without shoes, listening to blistering techno on a discman in the shadows of a train platform. This kind of person who would tape the windows of their parents’ house in black plastic and trip balls deep in the northern suburbs for 5 consecutive days. Ok, that’s not an aggregate; I’m totally talking about an actual person. Hi, Vervy!
Where was I? Gail was beautiful, no doubt about that, a simple, slim and pale beauty: a piston, a pansy, a rose. She had a particular stance, legs wide apart in a V that seemed incongruous expressed by her small, feminine frame. The stance suggested a cockiness that probably snake-charmed the lot of us. At the same time I’m sure most who meet her would describe her as unassuming. For all the physical attractions, I think the actual attraction at that time was to do with the energy we sensed about her. Thrilling at listening to our own local genius, we struggled to put our response to her into words. She was brilliant! She delivered impeccable interpretations! She was quiet and unimaginably erudite! She wore mesh tops that were slightly out of fashion! She had a word for everything! She was elfin, magic! We thought these things but never said them. We would only sigh, gathering for a cigarette next to the peacocks. ‘Ah, Gail!’ we’d say. Or, for brevity, simply, ‘Gail!’ We delighted in our silliness, as clever girls at that age can tend to. In the same way, there was a not-small degree of pleasure in the public implying of ambiguity in sexual orientation, which only straight girls really bother with.
When I bump into friends from that time, the occasional mention of Gail will bid the same cries of helpless pleasure. ‘Ah, Gail!’ I have met people that studied there after I left and mention of Gail also brings about the same response. Not similar, but the same. ‘Gail!’ the young woman will inevitably say, closing her eyes and churching her hands. What kind of pleasure is this? I think the exact repetition of the Gail Jones sigh, across a decade, between people that didn’t know each other, is instructive. The necessary embodiment and performance of this disciples’ dialect –all of two words for its vocabulary – suggest we were simply interpolated into a Gail crush system. Our reactions, our words, our following her around, were less the result of individual motivation and more the system of desire that we as young women found ourselves placed within.
We were there to learn, but more than this we were there to fall in love with an idea of learning, an idea of ourselves. Perhaps Gail represented a fantasy of complete knowledge, which though it seems crazy now, as a young-young woman, well, this kind of completion is just the ultimate, the nuts. Omniscience seemed to be the superior partner to omnipotence. I’ve used this quote before, and boy does it haunt me. Recall ruined Myrtle in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night: ‘When I was seventeen, I could do anything.’ At seventeen I believed I could know everything. (Secretly, this has never totally disappeared. And many things I do suffer for this conviction.) Somebody coming along, at that liminal age, manifesting all the qualities you inwardly yen for yourself, well, it strikes the first match, doesn’t it? So I think part of the Gail Jones sigh was about a projection into the future – the unlikely but still, here was she, a working-class girl from Harvey! – the dimly possible projection of the ideal, all-knowing, self-assured future self.
She also gave a language and a history to feminine darkness; this too did not dampen attractions. But perhaps it made the men in our midst less likely to pursue her. It was not simply that she ‘gave voice’ to feminine subjectivity, but that by doing so she demonstrated her facility for naming by performing the ultimate – naming the unnameable. I wonder if we felt we had finally been read properly, through a sophisticated vocabulary for otherness, the dark world of bodies.
My best friend, also majoring in English, didn’t buy any of it. She was a year older than me, in second year when I began, and provided a sneering balance to this romantic idealisation of our postmodern teacher. My friend loved Brett Easton Ellis, Martin Amis, Nabakov and genre fiction. She was a much more serious feminist than me, but wasn’t particularly troubled by the dead white males that hung around the canon. I remember her pissing herself over The House of Breathing and Fetish Lives with her older brother, the prose so overcooked they gagged and spat as they read:
What is it, to read? They are paper wings you fly on. They are spaces of mysterious black on white rarefaction … Interiority itself is traduced and shanghaied. Think of it: how strange! What a peculiar absorption.
(‘Eleanor Reads Emma,’ Fetish Lives, 44)
I feel terrible representing this judgement, but the reaction depicts my divided loyalty. Do I go in for story? Or authorial flare? Do I like lucid metanarrative? Do I like a goddam joke once in a while?
Some important things about Gail Jones’ novels. They have no humour. They assume more than a passing acquaintance with critical theory. They’re a little presumptuous, a little purple.
But are these valid criticisms? Do we complain that Adorno doesn’t have enough funnies? The novels are serious, beautiful examinations of the strange worlds we inhabit. What seems verbose to some has always felt, perhaps a little counter-intuitively, to me to be quite honest and straightforward. How else but through fractured poetics to explain the predicaments of modernity?
There had to be in the world of mechanical efficiency some mystery of transaction, the summoning of remote meanings, an extra dimension – supernatural, sure. There had to be a lost sublimity, of something once strange, now familiar, tame.
The lights switched off and passengers seemed instantly to sleep. They had become sluggish, bored. Now they met the extra night with their eyes closed, their heads thrown back, their mouths slackly agape like codfish … in their steel and aluminium tube everyone was insensible. It was as if the plane was governed by alien air or some creaturely intention. A posthumous blue washed over bodies, faces.
(Dream of Speaking, 18-19)
The first plane scene from Dreams of Speaking is a good example of the watchfulness of Jones’ protagonists. They’re voyeurs, flaneurs. I’ve never put my finger on what makes me uncomfortable about these protagonists. While it’s certainly not their watchfulness per se, I think the trouble does stem from something that feels like superiority. Other people are ugly, slack. Love interests are annoying, imperfect. There’s something very judgemental in the narration – an unimpeachable quality that grates after a while (or immediately, as with my friend and her brother).
Yes, the protagonists are too good. That’s fine to say, isn’t it? Our most loved novels brought us gloriously fucked-up protagonists: Emma Bovary, Raskolnikov, Quentin Compson. Not windsurfing, world-beating academics that ponder the telephone in Paris on writing grants.
I was once in love with a painter. Actually, when we were lovers he wasn’t a painter yet. And actually, I didn’t really know I loved him until near the end. On holiday in London we spotted some guy who seemed wildly drunk, one of those crazed types out the front of a Sainsburys. It was July in Islington, a heatwave day – the kind of day when crowds gather for no reason other than to escape unairconditioned buildings. The man wore a football jersey, stained in blood. And the blood was fresh, dripping from a deep crack on his head. The crowd stared in that crowd-staring way: the bystander effect. So did I. The man was shouting, bleeding, when the soon-to-be painter/lover next to me walked nonchalantly into the square in front of Sainsburys and put his arm around the bleeding man. He spoke to him and opened his bottle of water, inviting the man to drink. They sat together. Hospital was discussed; an Oyster card was insistently donated. I truly fell in love with the painter when I saw him holding the bleeding face of the stranger.
Dreams of Speaking is fundamentally different from the rest of Jones’ fiction – moving across the West’s bicameral division of culture, from visual to auditory. Years ago I would have found this exciting – I had once believed I had struck upon an untapped area of our cultural landscape, true source of modernity’s ecstatic connection. Put simply, the thought was: sight isolates, sound incorporates. I used to go in for Attalì, believing that for too long Western culture (and the study of which) had been concerned with the visual at the cost of the auditory. I went on to study orality in twentieth centry poetry, somewhat improbably linking with a study of the radio. Jones’ novel is a study of the telephone. Both are absorbed by the idea of voice, transmitted from a distance. The idea seemed a powerful one to me once. Reading the novel I tested whether it still mattered.
Perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that it didn’t. Dreams of Speaking transmits this strong signal: only the novel is the magical medium.
Recalling my old studies, I’m reminded of the self I have never really shaken. I’m still the girl who misspells the names of theorists. Only the other day I misused the word ‘surmise.’ Despite everything I feel semi-literate most of the time. But, you know, I misspelt ‘Bhabha’ once in a proposal because I had always taken those bloody modernist and postmodern subjects – Gail’s subjects.
One of the great unanswered emails reads like this: ‘Dear Gail, I would like to write an essay about desire. More specifically, the desire to be desired. Could you direct me to any readings? Best, Lucky’
You see, as I now see, that it was of course my desire to be desired. But I was interested, genuinely interested, in what to make of this particularly reflexive, enfolding desire. And while I probably desired to be desired physically – because why the fuck wouldn’t I – the really powerful desire at that time was to be desired intellectually. I wanted to belong to a community of thinkers, and if it was not possible for Perth to muster such a group, then I desired to at least to belong to a community of one more than me. More than equals I desired to be desired by a mentor, to have recognised the brilliance I believed I had somewhere in me, buried by circumstance, contained in thuggish self-doubt.
The second reason Dreams of Speaking is different from the rest, and the only reason this book is special (for me), is the insertion of real-life – refracted, sure, fictionalised, but perhaps closest in feeling to some vague idea of Gail Jones, growing up in WA, a brilliant class-traitor, the ultimate rebel against the blokey masters of Australian literature.