Where in the whirl

By Vahni Capildeo

More, by Austin Clarke
Thomas Allen, ISBN 978-0-88762-353-0, 300 pp

Have you been drawn to Austin Clarke’s new novel, More, in the hope of being caught up in action? The jacket flap promises action aplenty: “At the news of her son’s involvement in gang crime, Idora Morrison collapses in her rented basement apartment.” True, Idora “inhabits a vortex of memory, pain, and disappointment”: but the verbs, the “doing words” which that authorised reviewer gives her, are “struggled,” “abandoned,” “survive,” and the scene in which the doing gets done is “a big North American city.”

For decades, Clarke has re-spelled reality in the pursuit of what Tennesse Williams called fiction’s transformations of truth. Amurca is consistently populated by Amurcans, and where do we live out our days, if not in this whirl? As for Canada, “Canada was not talked about: it existed only in apples. It was a blur on our consciousness,” says the boy who a generation ago narrated Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, Clarke’s quasi-memoir of life in — no, not Barbados — Bimshire. Caution: More may be labelled an Austin Clarke “novel.” If so, this is a novel in which the texture of the style, the feeling-of-thinking, outdoes any plot. The whirl is not enough.

Hold that thought of the word/whirl and step back a moment. Is it legitimate to ask what constitutes “action” in the (dread word) “postcolonial” novel? At a recent lecture in the north of England, on queer femininity and masochism, the lecturer pushed the value of a positive passivity, a stubbornness or there-ness. Why accept (she asked) terms of existence that falsify you? A wardrobe hung with inappropriate, constrictive, clownish, treacherous threads . . . These themes are relevant to Clarke’s More (though the lecturer did not mention his novel), not merely because his Idora’s primary social relationship (disappearing son and absent man notwithstanding) is with the almost-but-not-quite-a-lesbian white Josephine.

Not-doing becomes a form of doing. Idora retreats to her bed from Thursday night to Sunday morning, rising again to go to church, give testimony, go home, and on the way home encounter everyone else (the neighbours, the authorities) attending to the corpse of her son who has been shot. To say this much gives little away. The boy dies, and is killed, multiple times in the book, most often by his mother, in word or thought though not in deed.

On the Wednesday night before the novel begins, the dual impulse (to love, to annihilate) is evident in Idora’s double shout of “You!”, only the second “You” managing tenderness. She is satisfied with the shout going unanswered, having spoken to the idea of her son (actually absent) behind the closed bedroom door. This son, BJ, who has found himself new associates and renamed himself Rashan Rashanan, is beyond her understanding and control. Her attitude is recurrently dramatised, from as early as page 25:

“But sometimes I feel I could kill you!” she says in her mind, to the empty basement apartment, one cold morning as she kneels on the floor covered by a floral linoleum carpet. “Just to look at the way you look!”

By page 242, not long before the “real” death, Idora commits what she herself calls “matricide”:

And she throws them on the cold linoleum floor — the teddy bears, the animals, the figure of BJ and the three clay sculptures of the Cuban women, sparsely dressed in clothes that stick to their bodies, as if they have just come out of the sea. She stomps on them. On all of them, these figures which she used to call “my family.”

(She then restores them to their proper place).

This is not quoted as a way of judging the central character or interrogating how “the mother-son relation” is figured in Caribbean diaspora literature. Clarke, in interviews, has said that he meant the youth to remain a shadowy figure. These passages are emblematic of the novel’s world, where relations are driven by power and resentment. Love and curiosity find little quarter.

Idora’s attraction to Josephine is not lessened by the white Canadian’s persistent exoticisation of her black friend and the joys of immigrant foods (an angrier way for the narrative to frame the still apparently compulsory mention of Caribbean taste/smell otherness). A distancing occurs only when Josephine, “living inside” her white cop boyfriend Brandon’s words “as if his words were her words,” confides a troubling story to Idora. Brandon enjoys brutalising black kids, anally raping them with his night stick. It is clear to the reader that one of these boys will be, or has been, Idora’s son. Josephine’s story is a turnoff for Idora, largely, it seems, because Idora, living inside her own words, lacks empathy for anyone else’s story. Just three pages later Idora is wishing for ownership of the right to inflict pain, imagining thrashing her son with the more culturally appropriate tamarind stick.

More, making the reader live inside its words, risks overstating its genuine and important case. Sentences beginning with “and” string together lists of the daily randomness that impacts upon the central character. Refrains such as “in the darkness” are repeated in little clusters. Many pages later, the little clusters come up again. And again. The church bells that reverberate throughout the pages are likened to bullets which are likened to fireworks. The percussive sound of Idora’s red high heels are likened to bullets. Idora ignores the telephone that rings nineteen times. She keeps re-living the nineteen rings and how she ignored them. Nineteen happens to be the number of times that John Coltrane sings the refrain in “A Love Supreme”, something of a theme song for Idora and, separately, her son.

Something has gone wrong with the possibility of love in a time and place of violence. Yes. One could say that the novel harnesses its poetic techniques to teach the reader this. But is the answer almost to bully the reader into a better way of seeing, thinking, and feeling? The reiterations enact the stressful, thwarted dynamics that the “postcolonial” condition enforces on the would-be loving. To enact these over three hundred pages does not just make the reader know inwardly and keenly a set of cruel realities. It is more like punishing the reader for previously having been a superficial fool who might have coasted past a life such as Idora’s, overlooking her as the woman who lives in the basement or the woman who runs, inappropriately dressed, for the bus.

The book’s title is explicitly drawn into closeness with Idora’s consciousness. “She wanted more from life: not much; just her due.” Cue a fantasy of a small, safe house and manageable son. Religion, she sometimes but not always realises, has not comforted: “And if there was some gift, some relief, that she had not been aware of, she knew that she wanted more.” The book gives her, and us, “more,” rather as a capricious god would: more of all sorts of things, not necessarily desired or predictable. Clarke’s aesthetic may look literary and Modernist, placing a world of thought within a limited time frame. The epigraphs are from Walcott, Norman Manley, and Césaire. But the hidden epigraph, as it were, could be from Malcolm X, who in his Autobiography speaks of how simplistic it is to think of crimes committed by criminal youths: for nothing less than an entire individual and community life can rightly be brought to bear in a true comprehension of acts wrongly reported as though isolated and occurring according to type.

But what is it like to read this book? Are readers asking the right questions if they approach desiring pleasure, or enlightenment, or empathy with individual characters? Can the reviewer try to experience, as much on its own terms as possible, the novel’s whirl/world?

The first words of More are “Coming out of the dream” — an intentional irony, for this is the commencement of a sentence that, running on until page 4, involves the reader in a curiously insistent patterning of images and syntax that drums on and strokes the mind until the reader becomes the book, never accepting an identification with the flawed main character, but irretrievably pressed into the swirl of her consciousness. Living in Idora’s head, the reader sinks into passivity. Does it matter whether she shows maternal neglect, or a symptom of a destructive “postcolonial” condition? Does it matter if this is a novel about people, or an allegorical morality play, in which the characters are propelled around, constantly bearing symbolic weight, whether they are being described by the insistently image-ridden prose or are themselves attempting to exercise agency? The melding of reader and character is more complete, as Idora is not even named for many pages. She does not pronounce her name until page 252; then the first syllable is heard, an “I” like an “eye” — not narcissistic, not Rastafarian, but that window to the soul, or trolleyed-around camera.

One has to step back to be struck by the strangeness of what Eye-dora actually does. This includes dressing up like a “Muslim” in order to stalk her son BJ and find out what he is up to. She prefers to ignore such clues as she does glean about the danger in which BJ/Rashan Rashanan lives. The closest mother-son interaction portrayed is in the episode where Idora coaches him in how to defraud the supermarket where she works as a cashier. The reader, immersed in the Idora-styled prose, bizarrely shares a little of her disappointment when her coward son abandons the filled trolley and runs off.

The novel forces the reader to inhabit the various stuffs of false consciousness, almost with a “see how you like it” “heh-heh-heh” humour more despairing than anything in the homegrown ironist V.S. Naipaul. Idora’s church is “bringing Christ to the working-class” but she confuses resignation with revelation when she takes to her bed: “She knew she was bound to suffer through all this time, in sackcloth and ashes demanded by her religion, and her sense of Christian retribution.” BJ/Rashan Rashanan “is confusing defiance for destiny” in how he accesses a version of Islam. The novel is self-hating about any art of images or shadows. Baldly stating Idora’s mind, it makes her absurd: “She had always wanted to wear white. There was no other colour suitable; or symbolic enough.” There is a rose garden above her basement flat, to which Idora either does (pages 49–50) or does not (page 33) have an illicitly copied key. It remains unclear whether this is the result of poor editing or revision, or whether in a sense it does not matter which is the reality or which the dream: to possess, or not possess, the key to a limited paradise.

The book builds to a non-epiphany, where the testimony Idora gives in church is as pointlessly charismatic as the crowd-moving speeches of Ellison’s Invisible Man. She is interrupted by the ghost, or a vision, of her son, which the reader later guesses may have occurred at the moment that the boy was murdered. Idora involuntarily calls out his Muslim name, is faintly annoyed to have her preaching so interrupted, but is praised for speaking in tongues.

When Idora wants her dead son to have a funeral like a “Civil Rights demonstration,” involving all the underprivileged and dodgy types around whom she drifted without making much contact, is this a revolutionary consciousness, and if so where does it come from? To this reviewer, it is less convincing than the detail with which the prose shortly before had dwelt on the thin-silk-and-swelling-flesh eroticism of the sanctioned-so-long-as-unconsummated lust between Idora and her Pastor, the implied social critique shadowed by the words’ pornographic self-regard.

If anyone cares to look, if somebody does not want to see . . . the reader is the recipient of constant verbal nudges to wake up, get up, and do. But with what idea of being is the reader left? With what feeling is the reader left? There are things to think about, the novel insists. But this reader, at least, experienced such a sense of crushing frustration (induced as much by the sentence structure as by the story) that she felt that in a world that turns people to Idoras, no revolution is possible, other than perhaps turning the gun on oneself instead of on one’s children.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2009

Vahni Capildeo was born in Trinidad. She went to Britain in 1991, and completed a DPhil in Old Norse at Oxford in 2000. Her poetry includes No Traveller Returns (2003) and Person Animal Figure (2005).