The Virgin and the Whale, by Carl Nixon, (Vintage, 2013), 261 pp., $37.99
In Carl Nixon’s latest ‘novel’, The Virgin and the Whale, the stories within stories multiply like rabbits, and each one is a delight. This so-called novel has an unusual genesis. In his introduction, Nixon explains that an elderly gentleman (identified only as MN) contacted him after reading Rocking Horse Road to ask Nixon to craft his own family story into a novel. And it’s a belter of a story. Based in the city of Mansfield (a thinly-veiled Christchurch), it describes the relationship between a private nurse and her patient, a returned World War One soldier, who has lost all memory of his past following a near-fatal head injury.
Within this love story is a child’s adventure story that has among its cast of talking tigers, pirates and a balloonist, a virgin goddess and a whale, hence the novel’s title. The nurse at the centre of the love story invents the tale to ease her young son’s bewilderment after his father’s disappearance in the last days of the war. Within these two stories are many others, which cumulatively demonstrate the therapeutic value of story-telling for survivors of trauma.
According to Nixon, requests such as MN’s are a novelist’s occupational hazard, and at first he is reluctant to comply. We wonder if his introduction is part of the fiction: yet another story encircling the many others. But like all good novel readers, I obligingly suspend my disbelief and go along with Nixon’s explanation. After he agrees to tell his informant’s story in novel form, he tells the reader of his dilemma in finding a suitable narrative voice. We anticipate his solution to the problem, which comes in the form of a unique, consistent and compelling narrator.
I visualise this narrator as perhaps a contemporary of MN, a rather pedantic and elderly gentleman – perhaps a retired local historian or science teacher – who has taken on the challenge of writing a novel based on the real-life experiences of a family with whom he is closely acquainted. Seemingly armed with a thesaurus and a set of encyclopedia (he seems much too fastidious to google), he goes off on tangents on all manner of subjects – physics, weaponry, museum exhibits, and so on – and directly addresses the reader to bear with his digressions in a way that is endearing and entertaining. But his musings have a philosophical aspect too as they discuss, in a delightfully amateurish and insightful way, what happens when the links between memory, identity and personality are broken, and how a damaged human being might reinvent himself from scratch.
The narrator as a character within the plot also explains the unnecessary and clumsy construction of Mansfield, which is quite obviously Christchurch. After all, the inexperienced gentleman-narrator would be a model of discretion, and his ineffectual disguise fits with an imagined personality that demands a certain pompous delicacy when relating family secrets. While there is no explicit evidence in the text that this narrator-character exists, he jumps out at me all the same and I welcome him with open arms.
Part of the narrator’s discretion requires that the actual characters have pseudonyms, which wittily reveal something of their personalities. Indeed, it was one of MN’s criteria that the families at the centre of the story would not be recognisable. Paul Blackwell’s past is certainly a black well in which he sees nothing of his past, while Elizabeth’s surname refers to her wit and powers of imagination.
Elizabeth’s description of Paul when she first encounters him is of a primeval man. Confined to his room, partially naked, hunched before a roaring fire, and his hair and beard a tangled mess, he resembles a caveman unencumbered by the social mores and bourgeois manners of his former life. His primeval state is demonstrated when for no apparent reason he kills a fish, attacks the chauffeur and innocently exposes himself to his wife’s maid. By reverting to a primordial state with no memory of a civilized past, Paul Blackwell reinvents himself as Lucky Newman, a man whose luck in surviving his injuries extends to the erasure of his former life as an unhappy, friendless loner. Through this same ‘luck’ he is able to create himself anew unimpeded by his social status as a member of Christchurch’s wealthy elite, and free himself from marriage to a demanding and unsympathetic woman who is to him a complete stranger. Lucky’s caveman persona also wittily refers to Paul’s former obsession with fossils, and the name he takes clearly points to a completely new identity.
At the end of his introduction, Nixon expresses a hope that we, the readers, will be as captivated by MN’s story as he was when he first heard it. By page 40 I am as intrigued by the narrative voice Nixon has created almost as much as the unfolding stories. The voice is ironic, prosaic and poetic in just the right measures. The description of the Blackwell family home includes details of armchairs, umbrellas and walking sticks, as well as the family portraits in the entranceway that ‘have assembled to inspect each visitor, to give them their oily nod’. This mix of household practicalities with the poetic is a delightful example of the narrator’s style.
But – and it’s a big but – after forming an affectionate relationship with this dear old chap, we discover three-quarters of the way through the book that the narrator is in fact the author. Nixon bursts my bubble in just one paragraph when he refers to his relationship with his informant in the same narrative voice as the one he has invented to tell the story so far. There are indications that the narrator must be someone living in the present because he refers to recent events, but these few hints could have been eliminated because they are inconsistent with the narrator’s old-fashioned style and, worse, they disrupt the picture that the reader has formed of the narrator as an unidentified, omniscient character within this compelling family drama.
My relationship with the narrator was dashed and I found it hard to form a relationship with this unexpected one, the author. Traditionally, New Zealand literary criticism has taken a dim view of the case for the death of the author, and it might be professional suicide for a reviewer to agree with Barthes’s uncompromising proposition. But in this instance the author, if not killed off, should surely have sent himself on a long holiday and left the telling of these stories within stories to his carefully crafted and captivating narrator.
While there are neat endings to each story, there are also some frustrating loose ends. What happened to Elizabeth’s first husband, for instance? We are given to understand that he is an Englishman, but it is later revealed he was a New Zealander after all. Why then do we hear nothing of his fate or his family given that this is a family saga based on real events? This might be picky, but it doesn’t make sense that the virgin goddess of the title joins the balloonist and tiger on their quest as their German interpreter. If tigers can speak English and people can speak Tigerish, then surely the characters could also understand German. I can suspend my disbelief only so far, or is this a joke? The publicity material calls the book ‘touching and clever’. Maybe it’s just too clever and I don’t get it.
The story of The Virgin and the Whale is, however, a piece of real documented evidence. Among the papers that MN provided to Nixon was a rejected manuscript of a children’s book entitled The Virgin and the Whale. It is a touching addition to the whole saga that the story Elizabeth wrote for her son is finally published 44 years after her death and within the wider story of her surviving family.
But it seems that Nixon had too much material to draw on and he needed sound advice on what to use and what to discard. The multiple stories could have been told in a simplified way that would have allowed them to speak for themselves. Or they could have been related by my friend, the elderly family retainer, who feels obliged to leave out nothing. Either strategy would have worked brilliantly. The narrator Nixon creates is sympathetic and ironic but his detailed descriptions and waffly digressions, which are charmingly pedantic, are simply verbose in the hands of the author. His disclosure as the narrator spoilt the book for me. The short paragraph in which the narrative voice is identified could have been deleted without harming the novel in any way; in fact it would have enhanced it.
There is no doubt that Nixon is a skilled and imaginative story-teller. His 2007 novel Rocking Horse Road shows this. But even then the language his middle-aged narrator uses to recount his experiences as a 15-year-old is often frustratingly imprecise. Like The Virgin and the Whale, Rocking Horse Road would have benefited from good editing to address the problem of imprecision, as well as extra proofreading to fix the typos.
More broadly, my reading of The Virgin and the Whale made me question the role of the reviewer. Is this review an objective critique, or does it reveal more about my own (possibly unrealistic) expectations of fiction and narration? I urge you to read this entertaining novel and decide for yourself.
PATRICIA McLEAN is a freelance writer and editor based in Dunedin. Her PhD from Victoria University was on constructions of masculinity in the novels of Maurice Gee (www.waxeyewriting.com).