Man Out of Time
One of Stephanie Bishop’s major preoccupations in her previous novel, 2015’s award-winning The Other Side of the World, is parenthood: the vulnerability it causes and the shifts it brings to identity and one’s deepest longings. One of the two protagonists, depressed Charlotte, thinks of motherhood: “It should be a joy. I should know how to make it a joy. Today, though, the repulsion overwhelms – this need to be alone, away from the children.” The Other Side of the World is a linear narrative but full of emotional shifts heightened by the swings of Charlotte’s mental health and her husband Henry’s nostalgia for a sense of belonging. It’s anchored by Bishop’s exceptional recording of the details of domestic life, and their significance. Her stunning writing and the way she blends the concrete and the ethereal made this earlier novel complex yet accessible.
Bishop’s ambitious new novel, Man Out of Time, also focuses on mental health and parenthood, but this time includes its counterpoint, filialness. It’s also a more fractured and challenging work. Rather than a couple, here Bishop examines a triangle made up of father Leon, mother Frances and daughter Stella. In an exquisite set piece that opens the novel, it’s 2001 and Leon goes missing in a “city on the coast where no one knew him” with clear intent: “… he could file for prescription painkillers under a series of different names … There could be no error this time, no failing …” Is Leon successful in his plans? We aren’t told yet – another clever way Bishop grounds the story and provides it with an underpinning structure.
A police officer soon appears on the doorstep of Leon’s adult daughter, Stella, who’s living in a foreign country and working at a Greenpeace call centre. She can’t bring herself to answer his questions there and then but agrees to write something. This precipitates the story moving back to the day of Stella’s ninth birthday – the beginning of Leon’s debilitating mental collapse – interwoven with the present-day mystery of Leon’s disappearance.
There are no other characters of note and anything beyond their inner worlds is immaterial, so we know almost nothing about their work or friends, or the city or country where they live. As Leon’s illness progresses, the three form an intense family love triangle beset with betrayals. Leon, in the hospital: “… you miss your daughter more than you thought possible. You are sure, too, that you can feel her needing you. It is a mother’s instinct, passed over into a man’s body … You are sure that you can feel your daughter’s loneliness ripping in your blood.” The father-daughter bond is “… the first and irreplaceable romance of a daughter’s life, and the culminating romance of a man’s, one that overlaps too easily with the love he should feel for the child’s mother.” Where exactly does adoration become transgression? Leon’s love for Stella is passionate but ultimately useless and, worse, endangering.
Man Out of Time is written with a shifting point of view and sometimes the interiority Bishop conjures within the minds of the child Stella and of Leon, particularly, is on the verge of overwhelming. His psychotic episodes are treated the same as the rest of the narrative, obscuring the line between realism and Leon’s other mental realm, and there are floating sections in second person indicative of his dissociated state. Bishop never allows it to spin out of control. Leon takes photographs and some of these are included, as are sketches of his experience as he conceptualises it. Bishop’s unerring sense of grounding saves the story from being entirely metaphysical.
The character of Frances is also important here. She lacks Leon and Stella’s passion and abstraction and she’s the one left to cope with Stella’s rebellion as a teenager and to watch for signs of Leon’s deterioration when he returns home between hospitalisations. On Leon’s first discharge, Frances is given pamphlets designed to explain his condition. She throws them away. “… she would not reduce her husband to a checklist, or delimit his character to a set of symptoms, or attempt to separate him from the things he claimed to be experiencing …” Love, it seems, requires an acceptance that the concept of reality is a blurry one. Frances realises in time that this strategy does not serve any of them.
In the end, though, this is Stella’s story. As a young girl, she adored her father and imagined growing up to marry him. Her mother’s practical love lacks the drama of her father’s, and Stella’s young life has been defined by his illness and his absences. Leon’s father, it’s suggested, committed suicide, as did Leon’s brother. What, then, is Stella’s legacy? Now that he is missing, how much is he her responsibility?
The world of Man Out of Time is bleak and unremitting with the exception of a short uplifting epilogue, the only false note in the novel. For the rest, Bishop effortlessly captures emotional pain as a visceral thing, something that is – again, the leaky demarcation between the concrete and abstract – as real as an undiagnosed illness. In an especially moving analogy, Bishop compares the dead with tweets, which reside “… in the ether, which is where souls are also said to dwell …”. There are many other heart-rending moments, as Stella tries to process the impact of her father’s life upon her own, but none are trite or sentimental.
Stella grows up to become a writer who finds tenses and the idea of causality at the heart of both storytelling and living. Bishop writes: “… the novel is a thing that dallies in both truth and falsity … giving wayward experience the causative structure that one craves, precisely because this feature is generally absent in day to day life.” It’s a startling admission in a novel that delves into Stella’s childhood in an apparent attempt to unpick what has brought Leon to this climactic point. In this, as in the rest of Man Out of Time, it reveals Bishop to be an astonishing talent who can tell a deeply moving story as well as look beneath it to deeper truths. LS
Hachette, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "Stephanie Bishop, Man Out of Time". Subscribe here.