Paper Nautilus: A trilogy by Michael Jackson (Otago University Press, 2019), 272pp., $35
‘I create so I can leave some trace of my existence.’ So wrote master watercolourist Xu Min. I open this review with a quotation from one of the author’s exemplars, since Michael Jackson argues that we are indistinct in ourselves, and more or less created from interactions with our ‘significant others’.
For an author with an avowedly nebulous sense of self, Michael Jackson has produced an impressively concrete body of work. An internationally renowned anthropologist, he has published more than thirty volumes of poetry, ethnography, fiction and memoir. With The Paper Nautilus he has wavered and created a threefold hybrid. The nautilus—paper-thin egg-case of the pelagic octopus—might represent the fragile self or the book covers themselves, inviting the question of whether the life or the pages can safeguard all they are asked to contain. The book, as Jackson writes, ‘begins discursively with … loosely connected essays and gradually morphs into a memoir of a marriage and a friendship, only to be reinvented as a work of fiction’ (p.12).
The essays—the first part of the trilogy—represent some seriously hefty spadework and precede the much more flowing memoir and its redemptive fictional reworking. Did the author fear that the memoir, or the fiction, wouldn’t say enough on their own? To read the opening essays is to penetrate a thicket, with seldom an obvious segue from one essay to the next. And yet the theme is consistent: something is off and keeps making life difficult. ‘My theme is loss,’ Jackson writes: ‘… an inchoate sense of loss … accompanied me for as long as I could remember … whose source I had never fully fathomed’ (p.15).
He is ‘drawn to two literary genres, the picaresque and the frame narrative’. I checked with the dictionary that my idea of ‘picaresque’ is on track, thinking Don Quixote: ‘of a type of fiction in which the hero, a rogue, goes through a series of episodic adventures’. Frame narrative? Tales from the One Thousand and One Nights is the example Jackson gives, of ‘stories set inside one another like matryoshka dolls’, and connected ‘not by logic but by adventitious associations’.
Fair warning then, that this is a serendipitous journey, shaped as much by what occurs to the author in the moment as by any standard narrative plan. It’s discursive, in both senses of the word, while the sheer number of references adds to the thicket effect. Cendrars, Hamsun, Miller and Nin, Aaron Friesen and D.H. Lawrence all are cited within two pages around the question of which path or impulse to follow (say, how to write a book; how to live a life), and Jackson quotes Anaïs Nin on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer: ‘there is no question of will, but only an obedience to flow’. As the biographical section of the book will demonstrate, though, obedience to flow can be tough on a young person, and at odds with the inner drive or outer injunction to make evidence of success.
It doesn’t take long to remember that the author’s intensity itself yields up what there is to love about Jackson’s work. I edited The Accidental Anthropologist for Longacre Press and, published in ebook form at Rosa Mira Books, his NZ road trip nostalgia-narrative, Road Markings. The reader must apply herself, and that brings its own rewards, when a probing enquiry about how we make sense of life is answered with a nail-on-the-head moment.
By and large the essays concern the efforts towards ‘creative reparation’ for ‘devastating losses’, whether by some bereft soul inscribing ‘the complete Shema Israel’ on two grains of wheat (p.16) or the author crafting a long poem in the bleak winter following the death of his wife (p.37).
However, the line between essay and memoir is blurred: Jackson includes four essays centred on his encounters with poet manqué Aaron Friesen who has been sideswiped by a couple of strokes and, like the author, is an expat New Zealander living in the States. Their exchanges reiterate Jackson’s problematic loyalty towards male mentor figures who show great promise but squander it. Failing to find enough virtue in Friesen’s collected poetry to push for its posthumous publication (as beseeched by the poet’s widow), the author goes on to nurse considerable shame for the omission. Jackson admires those talented friends who defy the path of convention, but laments their failure to live up to their promise. The author is equally gifted and capable but dogged, like these (tor)mentors, by whispers and tendrils of failure. By the shadow, we might say.
Entering the memoir section, ‘Significant Others’, we learn of early love affairs, then of the bright and vivid Emma, whom he married, who might have been the love of Jackson’s life and who died young. She appears against the backdrop of the author’s friendship with the scholastically brilliant but darkly derailed and often curmudgeonly Leon. Emma can’t understand her husband’s obsession with such a misanthrope, but Jackson is drawn back to him time and again, from loyalty, pity and the plaguing sense of identification with Leon as an expression of his own unlived life.
Between these two figures the author is stretched: one seems to represent joie de vivre, a refusal to say no when life offers opportunity and the capacity to seize it, while the other personifies wasted opportunity. The latter is of particular interest: Leon takes up an academic scholarship at Oxford but plunges aside to live in Greece, where he looks set to take off as a brilliant artist, only to be dragged down-under (both meanings) again, by his deep-set pessimism and lack of confidence, which are born of his failure to be loved as a child.
Jackson, like Leon, is perpetually being dragged back to a state of grief, uncertainty and unworthiness—alongside a romantic idealism that both colours his relationships and spurs a relentless quest for the ideal. And while the author insists that he himself was loved as a child, one assumes that he, being human, was also unloved, or was not loved in ways that allowed for self-belief and certain expressions of courage. Indeed, Jackson says almost nothing about his childhood and family of origin, surely the matrix of all that follows.
Obsession is a theme. Obsession in love, or with the idea of love. Obsession with the seedy side of life and what it represents by virtue of being the opposite, or mirror image, of love and optimism. Citing the ‘one original discovery’ in his anthropological career (although I suspect understatement), Jackson declares ‘that myths and folktales are constructed chiastically. Each narrative is made up of two halves that are turned against each other, inverted and reversed like playing cards’(p. 154). In actual life, in 1982, Michael and Emma found themselves in Menton, Michael struggling to write under the Katherine Mansfield fellowship, and Emma falling ill (again). The author was ‘besieged by the idea that Emma sacrificed her life so that I might have mine’ (p. 154), and convinced that his ‘destiny lay in completing Emma’s and Leon’s unfinished lives’.
In the essay concerning The Book of Iris, Jackson has written:
How burdensome and pervasive is the search for truth—to connect the dots, identify a cause, place blame, deliver a judgment, or arrive at an explanation. It is the curse of our culture—this rabid quest for meaning at all costs, this desire to wrap things up and stow them away, safe and sound. (p. 54)
And yet, none of that deters the novelist in him, who does considerable tidying up between the middle biographical section of the book and the smooth-ish fictional finale. With the third part of the trilogy, the novella, as it might be called, we find a retelling of the author’s story, with variations that allow for a greater sense of ease and possibility. In reality, Jackson’s beloved Emma died slowly over many perplexing years—she was treated early on by the soon-to-be disgraced Milan Brych, and later chose to have no conventional interventions for advanced cancer—a saga that seems to have left the author riddled with unease and what-ifs quite besides his long and harrowing sorrow. But in the final fictive version of the story, ‘Harriet’ is killed in an instant when struck by a truck. As for protagonist Sam’s curmudgeonly fictional friend, artist Max turns up after Harriet’s death, thus without complicating the marital picture. And Max’s work is brought to retrospective exhibition (unlike the poetry of Aaron Friesen) by Harriet’s friend Rachel, who had a youthful affair with the much older Max. In the novel portion of the trilogy, the relevant pieces to the diorama of their lives are brought to a tidy close when Sam’s grief and romantic yearning are answered—in Rachel.
Do the three sections work together to make The Paper Nautilus a cohesive and satisfying whole? I’m not convinced, at least superficially. We tend to want one thing from a book: to be swept along by a fictional narrative; to be absorbed in memoir by a unique life-view; or to become engrossed in rumination over a series of essays or non-fictional discourse. In the case of Jackson’s trilogy, the opening section is disproportionately dense, while the memoir and the fictional finale seesaw uneasily together, with the reader too aware of where the original narrative has been altered in the author’s attempts to abbreviate or reshape the past. The author acknowledges the difficulty of the task: he notes that ‘Lorrie Moore fulminates against the narrator who revises life with kisses and mimicry and tidying up’ (p. 55)—even if this is the satisfying narrative arc that novelists are inclined to follow. Indeed, Jackson tries his hand at both. Held face to face, though, in this case the actual and the re-imagined make uneasy conversation.
There’s no question about the writing: sensitive and erudite. Jackson makes wide use of the English lexicon, ancient and modern. And parts of The Paper Nautilus surely earn a place in Aotearoa’s potent canon of bleakness: ‘He picks up a piece of dirty pumice. Nearby is the bloated carcase of a cow. A gloom descends. The darkness seeps into him. Wasn’t this the river that, fed by a deluge of volcanic mud, swept away the railway bridge at Tangiwai, causing the night train to plunge headlong into the void? He sees the wrecked trees’ (p. 193).
If re-read in the light of the essays, the memoir and novella would likely yield riches of comparison and cross-illumination. I didn’t go back and read them like that, and remain uneasy. I’ve returned to the essays, however, which reward slow and repeated reading. They are sometimes irritatingly chewy, like octopus perhaps, but then they can break open to reveal what might be pearls, or eggs, spilled from a paper casing.
PENELOPE TODD is a Dunedin author and editor.