Last Day in the Dynamite Factory
In a brief essay on Franz Kafka published in 1951, the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges mounted a characteristically perverse argument. He wrote that “each new writer creates his precursors”. But what sounds insane at first reading is eminently sensible on a second. Borges means that whenever a new work of literature appears, it modifies our sense of the works that preceded it. Earlier writers who once seemed very different may suddenly be yoked together in the lights of an emerging figure; a line of literary descent inconceivable beforehand snaps into place. After each new book of note, fresh constellations of affiliation glow.
This is true of people, too. In the opening section of Last Day in the Dynamite Factory a middle-aged architect named Chris discovers that the uncle who adopted him as a baby is in fact his biological father. The revelation that his beloved Uncle Ben had many years before fallen in love with his sister-in-law has the effect of a stick of gelignite placed at the base of Chris’s family tree. What follows is an account of a man driven to reconstitute every aspect of his life – every relationship, past and present – in order to make his former existence align with this breaking news.
This intriguing idea belongs to Annah Faulkner, whose debut fiction The Beloved won the 2011 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an emerging author and went on to be shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin. That novel’s concern with family relations (particularly those between parents and children), the calling of art versus the dictates of bourgeois life, and the revelation of those secrets we invariably gather are all revisited here in her second novel; indeed “Bertie” Lightfoot, polio-suffering child artist at the heart of The Beloved, returns, albeit as a Queensland-based interior designer, battered yet unbowed by a sometimes tragic life. Chris himself was a minor character in the earlier story.
But this time sons and fathers are at the heart of the matter. Ben and his wife, Jo, raised Chris as one of their own, called him son but never permitted him to call them Mum and Dad in return. They always claimed that Chris’s mother, Alice, met a man in Melbourne in the late-1940s, became pregnant, and defied the mores of the day to have the child even after being abandoned by the mystery bloke. Then she was killed in a road accident when Chris was only months old.
After Aunt Jo’s death, Chris happens across lines in one of her journals that call this narrative into question. The personal unravelling that follows is surprising only in its intensity. Chris has always been a stolid, decent, measured bloke: his job as a conservation architect is concerned with returning buildings to their original state, a false retrospective purification for which he has true talent.
Acute psychic disrepair is a state much loved by authors – it is the characterological equivalent of a three-ring circus – and Faulkner is no different. She revels in describing the sociopathic fugue-state of a man for whom very firm footing has been removed. The tone she employs to do so is suitably ragged, manic, at times drolly self-aware, at others wholly uncorseted from everyday norms of thought and behaviour:
He dries his face and hangs the towel on the rail, then snatches the ends of it and pulls. When nothing happens he braces his foot against the wall and wrenches back with every ounce of strength. The sound of screws tearing from the timber is music. He kicks the wall and the house shudders.
The chapters that follow mix deep memory with current disarray. We learn about Chris’s early life – most significantly a cousin (half-brother!) named Liam who died in a pointless beach accident when both were boys – about the family’s years in Papua New Guinea where Chris met the two women who would change his life, and about a period of young adulthood spent in London, when certain events crystallised his current professional and domestic situation.
Faulkner is careful to lavish plenty of warmth, homespun wisdom, even humour on the narrative to leaven the darkness that falls upon Chris, and this is to the great advantage of the story as a whole. And yet the care taken to achieve balance also produces less satisfactory effects. This is one of those novels where solid craftsmanship is used in lieu of some wilder talent. The tongue and groove of character and plot and thematic architecture is seamless, but the very tidiness of the undertaking removes the need for the reader to roll up their own sleeves.
So it is that the true story of Ben’s relationship with Chris’s mother is given in moderate doses, split over chapters and embedded in extended dialogue exchange. And so it is that the events that marked that first relationship – passion, infidelity, pregnancy, separation, secrecy – are parcelled out among subsequent generations in the narrative equivalent of a strong rhyme overused. The ways in which the nature of Chris’s work becomes entangled with his domestic circumstance is perfectly designed for reading group notes but has none of the texture and burr, the incorrigible incongruity of reality.
Within its more modest parameters, though, there remains plenty to admire. Faulkner’s depiction of Chris’s long life with wife Diane is a masterclass in low-level marital dissatisfaction. She solves the equation of stability over passion with delicacy, tact and immense generosity – just as she has a hard eye for those moments when men get up on their hindquarters and start bellowing moral certitudes. That we are all sinners is an obvious message; that it is only from an acknowledgment of this fact that we might finally enter into proper relations with our parents and children, our friends and lovers, is something more fraught and complex, a demolition job that re-creates the past and future both. As Chris eventually realises:
If he wants a relationship of any consequence with Ben he must ... build something new. The kind of reconciliation urged by Diane – caulk the cracks, tape the mouths, guard the silence – is not possible. Truth is out and everything has changed. He must change with it. AF
Picador, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2015 as "Last Day in the Dynamite Factory, Annah Faulkner ". Subscribe here.