The Spaces Between, Russell Haley (Adastra Productions, 2012), 192 pp., $25.00.
‘Only connect…’, E.M. Forster wrote in the well-known epigraph to Howards End in 1910 as a dictum for a new century, but connectivity, seen historically, can be considered the one consistent human theme.
The lashed-together constructions of fronds and shells that made up the navigation stick-charts of early Polynesian voyagers were a precise metaphor that described and encompassed a world of tides, winds and isolated atolls. The Tabula Peutingeriana of the late Roman Empire was another: an intinerum, a graphically interlaced list of destinations, with place symbols and distances, arranged with a surprisingly similarity to Harry Beck’s famous London underground rail map of 1931.
Our knowledge of the world can be seen as a series of diagrams only some of which occupy physical space. Australian Aboriginal narratives, with their interwoven locks of route to hold and describe, are a fundamental example. Logic, the Greek system of abstract relations, is a spider-web of connected language statements and the dominant mode by which our world is perceived. Tim Berners-Lee’s link-based internet architecture is simply the most recent model.
From a mélange of sense impressions, humankind creates frameworks in a variety of media upon which to pin and structure experience. As its title would seem to indicate, Russell Haley’s new novel, The Spaces Between, is a device in written form with these tropes of connection at its core.
The novel’s protagonist, Jarvis Kraik, a temporary resident in a nursing and rehabilitative unit on the North Shore, is very literally ‘piecing it all together’ after an incident in Auckland’s Fort Street, which has left him with stomach wounds, head injuries and cognitive difficulties.
He has woken in a hospital room of astonishing mutability. While his bed might stay the same, his bed linen is apt to change colour unexpectedly: ‘from aubergine to eau-de-nil, without his having seen or felt anyone doing this.’ Furnishings alter: ‘as for the scotch chest, some days it stood against a wall to his left as he lay in bed … all made from kauri. In the morning it might declare itself to be a recycled rimu manrobe.’ Birds, a pied shag and a blackbird, perch upon his bed-end or study their own reflections in his mirror. Moira, a nurse-orderly, arrives. Routines of bedmaking are stable and mark his day.
It is also a novel of extraordinary jump-cuts, but they are not simple edits, for Kraik experiences them much as we do, as dislocations, as rents in the temporal and spatial fabric. Like Kraik, we too must assemble and link a story from the information at hand.
The Spaces Between is block-built from indications and hints that burgeon into narrative chunks but inevitably dissolve, before jumping to another block in the sequence: ‘Their shadows wavered uneasily on the block wall of the outer corridor. Another shadow joined them. An arm was extended and then everything turned to white’. As Haley’s title suggests, the story actually lies within these edit-cuts, exactly as a movie is constructed from leaps of discontinuity.
We have learned this mode of relation over the last century, ever since the first film experiments of Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Company gave us The Life of An American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery in 1903. Porter created a new means of apprehending time and space, and with so much of our lives now occupied by the medium, even our nocturnal dreaming has come to contain cuts, dissolves, fades and wipes, not to mention soundtrack music. Consciousness in the twenty-first century is surely structured not like a language, but like a movie.
Kraik’s private hospital is significantly named Whare Moemoea, House of Dreams. It is an apt naming of a place where objects and incidents have extraordinary mutability and resonances beyond the bare fact of their occurrence. It is the theatre of Kraik’s recovery.
This setting is also a pitch-perfect evocation of a contemporary New Zealand private medical environment: the rooms like motel units, the Maori names for wards, and the gardens of native plants between cinder-brick walls. Haley renders the physical evidence of a specious neo-nationalism with a near-Swiftian relish.
The Spaces Between is also detective story, that prime narrative metaphor of our times. There is the incident in Fort Street which results in Kraik’s stomach wounds, but it never resolves into surety. Were his wounds the result of an attack? Were they actually self-inflicted? Was it a random knifing? Everything seems possible, every interpretation plausible.
Then there is Kraik’s daughter and her relationship with the hospital psychologist, and all its surrogated erotic, near-incestuous undercurrents. There are the ‘therapeutic’ aims of Whare Moemoea itself and its cotton-wool confinement. How relevant is Kraik’s Australian history and the fragments of memory presented by his shuttering memory?
While the novel’s conclusion may present a resolution of sorts, reconciliation, and a celebration, it remains open-ended. The novel might close but it does not enclose. There is no sleuth to resolve but our own readerly connections of the given evidence. There also remains the possibility, more of a deduction than a surety, that Kraik might in fact be dead and the novel is an account of an afterlife.
The ‘roads of the dead’ are a common mythic trope in many cultures. Routes of clearly defined stations are found in the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead. More relevant to The Spaces Between is the post-mortem Maori journey which followed the western beaches of Northland up to Cape Reinga. In Maori legend, that journey was a series of processional locations. Carrying an emblem of its home, seaweed from the coast or bracken from the fernlands, a spirit reached the lone hill of Te Arai where this token was laid down. The summit of Taumataihaumu was next where the spirit turned to farewell the land. A decision to drink the water of the Waioraropo stream was a point of no return. Finally the roots of the pohutukawa, Akakitereinga, provided the entry of the spirit into the sea.
Kraik’s journey through the novel parallels this afterlife. There are tokens, his pens and notebooks – his very words, in fact – which accompany him when they are not lost in his bedclothes or removed by mysterious agency. Kraik’s past life is reviewed in shutter-shot fragments, and the places of it are ‘revisited’ in order to reveal or resolve. Finally, a sea is crossed to reach a climber-covered house on the tip of the Coromandel Peninsular, an attic bedroom filled with old and discarded objects, and a party where the guests include Kraik’s problematic daughter.
It is Haley’s first novel for a decade, and in an era of pervasive chick-lit, both high and low, and at a time when publishers are steering clear of the traditional high-culture novel, it is an aberration. It is written by a male, with a male protagonist, and while it is a New Zealand novel, inextricably interwoven with indigenous cultures, both pakeha and Maori, it isn’t the generic authorised fantasia on nationalistic themes which dominates the listings of contemporary New Zealand publishers and recent fiction prizes.
It is an obdurate work, simultaneously resisting interpretation while also encouraging it. It is possibly a necessary counter-balance to the vapid and clumsy posturing of a contemporary literature of national simplicity, where the standard version is everything and the vagrancy of the imagination has been subdued in favour of commercial products with predictable sentiments.
It is important to note, in this connection, that The Spaces Between is self-financed. Haley is the author of four well-received novels, and a number of collections of short-stories. His biography of Patrick Hanley was award-winning in 1989. The economically driven levelling of the New Zealand imagination could not be depicted in clearer terms.
The novel has undeniable faults but, in its curious dream-world, it is hard to pin them down with an emphatic judgement. Some of the subsidiary characters feel forced and flat, but this might be the intent. These characters could simply be counters in a symbol system created in the disordered mind of an ill or injured man, their significance unrelated to any accuracy of human depiction. Haley’s prose sometimes comes to moments of clanging falsity, but whether this is a judgement on contemporary New Zealand attitudes and idioms is something that must be decided by the re-reader.
It is a significant novel in many ways. Its stubborn revision and mapping of unfashionable concerns is admirable in a genre whose relevance to contemporary life is a debate that already seems done and dusted. The Spaces Between is either a rear-guard look at what we’ve lost, or a prescient signpost for future direction.
DAVID HERKT is an Auckland poet, writer and a TV director.