Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Michelle de Kretser's The lost dog


Lost was a little bit how the seven Minervans who met to discuss The lost dog felt when approaching a discussion of this novel. All agreed that de Kretser is a wonderful writer but there were mixed feelings about how successful this particular book is. Some felt it was slow to start, a few felt the middle was a little tortuous, while others loved it from go to whoa. In other words, we paralleled the mixed reactions of the critics.

The lost dog is framed by the story of one man, academic Tom Loxley, and his search for the dog he loses while staying in the country to finish his book on the writer Henry James. The story is divided into ten "chapters" titled by the days of the week over which the search is conducted. However, within this simple chronological construct is a complex amalgam of several pasts and the present, as Tom, our point of view in the novel, contemplates where he has come from, where he is now and, perhaps, where he is going. As we read, we start to believe the truth of the Henry James epigram which opens the novel, "The whole of anything can never be told".

De Kretser, we all agreed, can, in a few words, capture the essence of a thing. Take, for example, the different ways the young and the old experience time: "She [Iris] sculptured the past, according to whim, as a child plays with the future; each having an abundance of material". Or, the more banal, "On Saturday nights there was only TV on TV". But this ability can sometimes be counter-productive for de Kretser keeps such comments and observations coming with a frequency that can be mind-blowing. It is hard sometimes to stop and see the forest for the trees, as beautiful as the trees are.

Besides the wonderful language, a major strength of the novel is the characterisation. We felt her characters were well drawn particularly Tom, Nelly, Iris and the dreadful though to a degree understandable Audrey. (We decided not to show "the limits of our understanding" by refusing to "imagine" her properly!) These, and other, characters kept us going when the writing and layering of meaning upon meaning started to bog us down.

But what then, is the novel about and where does Henry James fit in? We have a plot concerning a lost dog - and another one concerning the disappearance of Nelly's husband. We have wonderful characters who fascinate and engage us. We have rich writing full of "aha" moments. The book covers a multitude of topics: literature/narrative versus art/image, west versus east, known versus unknown, not to mention aging, modernity, and migration. Overlaying all this is an ongoing discussion of the past, of history, and how it relates to the present and, perhaps, may inform the future. It is not a simple notion of past and history though that de Kretser explores. Rather it is the sense that we never can fully know what happened and that it may not even be necessary to know. And this is partly where James comes in. He is described by Tom as a novelist who aimed to "break with melodrama and romance and establish himself as the master of the new psychological novel" but who was not quite able to keep the mysterious, the supernatural, that is the unknown, out. For de Kretser this is no bad thing. Tom considers at the end "that knowledge, which had sheltered him round for so long, had been allowed to shrink to a constraint" and concludes that "what he wished ... was that he might yet be graced with courage and loving conduct in the face of everything that can never be known".

And so too, do we Minervans. After a lively and engaging discussion, we agreed that we did not fully know what the book is about but, like Tom, we can learn to "stroll around to the back of knowledge and look at it from the other side". We never know what we might find.

2 comments:

  1. Sue
    Beautifully summarised: what an interesting discussion we had! I was also intrigued by the role of art and the artist in the novel: Nelly's Nasties, and the fact that she makes art of the discarded debris of society. Tom does in fact get to understand Nelly through her art.
    I also liked that it was a bit of a mystery, or crime novel, and kept one reading with clues about what happened to nelly's ex-husband in parallel to the search for the missing dog.
    Lots of layers as you've said in this one, and worth the effort and some of the enigma to read.
    Kate

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  2. Thanks Kate. You did it! Great points - I knew I hadn't got them all - there was so much to this novel. As you say the art thing was big (beyond the art vs literature that I mentioned in the post). Tom's getting to know Nelly through her art and her art being made of discarded debris as you say, and then also that issue of her later art being photographs of her art. You could spend all your time just discussing the art motif/theme in the novel couldn't you?

    And yes, you've made a good point about the mystery/crime aspect - and the parallel with the search for the missing dog. I think this mystery features, a bit more dominantly, in The Hamilton case doesn't it?

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