Books

Michelle de Kretser
The Life to Come

Pippa used to be Narelle when she lived up north with her mum. She changed her name the day she turned 18 because she was convinced that no one named Narelle could ever win the Booker. And Pippa desperately wanted to win the Booker. She still does. For as long as she can remember she has wanted to be a writer – a successful writer.

What is the secret to self-authorship? Must we always cut ourselves off from the past in order to transform the future? In her mordantly funny new novel, her fifth, which also happens to be engrossing and emotionally powerful, Michelle de Kretser dramatises the manifold relationship between narrative and identity, between the stories we tell about ourselves and who we really are.

There are five long chapters in The Life to Come, each from the point of view of a different character, but all are densely interconnected. In Sydney, there’s the phlegmatic but brilliant George, the novelist last seen in de Kretser’s novella Springtime. In Paris, there’s the French-Australian translator Céleste, introverted and self-doubting and on with a married woman. There’s Sri Lankan-born Ash, now leading the peripatetic life of an academic who’s made it. And there’s Christabel, an older woman struggling to cope with the death of the friend with whom she spent her life.

And then there’s Pippa, the one who knows them all and stands at the centre of this large but marvellously concentrated novel, the bogan who reinvents herself as a bookish bleeding heart. She has all the qualities that a great writer needs, except talent. Not that she lets this get her down. Isn’t there, she asks, a place in the world for art that is not quite a masterpiece? Isn’t there something noble in a near miss, something important about failure?

Pippa – with her Moleskine notebook, her cant about ethical meats, her love of food porn and her vapid deployment of likes, shares and retweets – is an easy butt for satire, and de Kretser coldly exhibits Pippa’s every hypocrisy and self-deception. But there’s affection, too, even admiration, in this portrait of an ambitious young hack. Pippa is perceptive, she has guts and energy, and she radiates a fascination that survives the author’s ridicule. Even her compulsion to advertise her goodness is more than vanity. Yes, her kindness and compassion
are tied up with her ego, but they are real.

Pippa charms almost everyone, and is so full of heart she can seem almost to deserve the success she so desperately craves. Maybe that’s why the omniscient narrator occasionally intrudes to tell us what she – in the most secret part of her soul – is really like: “There was a whisper in Pippa’s brain, like a subdued, left-hand accompaniment to her thoughts, and this whisper was of the opinion that Rashida should be grateful that white people overlooked the double handicap of her religion and her race.” She is always on the side of the underdog and the oppressed, but is disconcerted when the underdog fails to respect her allotted rank.

Pippa and her mates blather on about food and coffee and the life to come, the heaven of a future that will surely be theirs. In many ways, Pippa is representative of a particularly Australian attitude. She has turned her back on a shameful past and thinks only of her eternally bright future, and yet the past continues to influence and shape her thinking, whether she realises it or not.

She is the child of those beautiful youths whom Patrick White describes in his essay “The Prodigal Son”: cruelly optimistic, staring at life through blind, blue eyes. Late in her Paris sojourn, Pippa confesses to Céleste that French museums depress her. “What am I meant to feel looking at all that stuff? Paris is so crushing.” She breaks a sprig from a hedge and begins driving her thumbnail into each leaf. “I’ll be glad to get back to Sydney,” she announces. “Everything hasn’t already been done there.”

The casually destroyed sprig is a masterstroke. Pippa picks up new friends easily. She wins them with her warm forthright manner, and then drops them when they cease to complement the image of herself she wants to project. For the vulnerable and the lonely, such as Christabel and Céleste, both yearning for intimacy, this negligence can be crushing.

There is no sense of sprawl or bagginess here, despite the presentment of so many diverse lives, all given a historically detailed background. Digression piles on digression and minor characters multiply, but always with absolute clarity of purpose.

Everything is done with such concision and control. De Kretser can suggest complex psychologies and patterns of thought in only a brief line or two of dialogue or in a few indicative details. Even where stereotypes are relied on – a chauvinistic Parisian or a woman from Byron Bay with an interest in aura cleansing – there is always specificity, something that exceeds the type.

Yes, de Kretser attacks the materialism and triviality, the closeted racism and obliviousness of Australians, but always through the depiction of sympathetic human beings.

The Life to Come is a remarkable achievement. De Kretser won the Miles Franklin Award for her previous full-length novel – Questions of Travel – and she deserves to win it again for this one. It’s a book of myriad miniature overlapping stories, shot through with subtle leitmotifs, which brilliantly captures the expectant thrum of a world where the future is always about to happen.

It is by turns wise and abrasive, witty and poignant. The final chapter, in particular, is an extraordinary evocation of how joy and melancholy mingle in the wakeful anguish of the soul. The Life to Come not only shows us a large cast of characters struggling to make sense of life, and imagining a better one just around the corner, but it also offers a powerful critique of a nation that cannot stop dreaming, which is radiant and careless, asleep in the very midst of the ruins of a world immemorial.  JR

Allen & Unwin, 384pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 7, 2017 as "Michelle de Kretser, The Life to Come". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JR

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