The Spouse has booked himself a balloon flight over the Hunter Valley for our forthcoming holiday. Not me, no thank you, not since I saw one of those things on fire one morning when I was on my way to work. There was a startling glimpse of naked flame through the trees, and then there it was: landed in one of the paddocks near the market gardens, its passengers at a respectful distance from the blazing silks. The operator at 000 thought I was ‘having her on’ when I rang to report it…
Still, ballooning is a captivating idea, and I was hooked as soon as I saw the cover of The Umbrella Club by David Brooks. Brooks is the author of The Fern Tattoo which I read when it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2008. It seems he has written another beguiling story in The Umbrella Club.
My first reaction to the puns in the opening paragraph was that UQP’s editors had overlooked a risible spelling mistake on the very first page, where (Private) Axel Glover (in the altogether) is holding ‘a copy of His Majesty’s Enlistment Regulations …discretely over his private parts.’ On reflection, perhaps because I could not believe that an unforgivable error of this magnitude could be made in a passage which must have been read and re-read countless times, I decided that this arresting image signals the ambiguity which characterises Brooks’ style. It was chosen, I thought, to make the reader ponder the meaning of that adjective ‘discrete’, to consider the placement of the Regulations, and to recognise that the sight of Glover in all his glory is one that the narrator cherishes. I still think this is a beaut argument for discrete rather than discreet, even though the homophone trips up the author/editor again on p183 where Edward waits ‘discretely‘ in the shadows and no PoMo mental gymnastics can rescue it.
Discrete or discreet, Axel is an exotic creation and from the outset we can see that Edward is captivated:
Dust-motes in the air about him, and the gently twirling smoke [of his half- smoked cigarette] gave him a kind of aura. He seemed, momentarily, blurred with light. (p3)
Like Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, Axel is a young god, charming, insouciant and seductive. He and Edward are both fatherless, and having somehow survived the horrors of the Great War with comparatively minor wounds, they have to ‘survive afterwards as well as during a thing like that’ (p7). But while Edward has his feet on the ground with some family responsibilities and a job (in publishing), Axel is of independent means and mien. Brooks’ careful choice of words delineate class distinctions of the kind that only the British take seriously: Edward’s family has a farm, not an Estate like Axel; and it’s managed by his sister Rachel, not an un-named employee. However, these differences in family background have an impact: Edward’s sister and his job make demands on him; Axel is free to follow his dreams.
As Brideshead Revisited’s Charles Ryder is to Sebastian Flyte, Edward is not just captivated by ‘Axel Glover’s Dream, his Idea, his Mission’ (p5) but by Axel himself and all that he represents.
I acquiesced. The thought of a day open in front of me, not having to go anywhere, with no urgent task needing to be done, had a strong appeal… his energy and focus seemed to have returned [and] something similar was happening to me, a surge of vitality, of impatience with where and what I was. The war…had created a different reality – a reality more intense than this one, a reality that had done something to this one – and although no sane person would want to go back there, there was a need, now, for something that this life could not seem to provide. (p28)
The Fern Tattoo had a convoluted story line that mirrored the subject’s confused and confusing search for identity, and The Umbrella Club is likewise not straightforward. Edward’s narrative, in itself not wholly reliable, is punctuated by the acquisition of scraps of information about Axel which disrupt chronology and contradict each other. People forget, they misremember, they ‘don’t know some basic facts in the first place [so they] don’t always know what [they’re] hearing’ (p179) and they lie for various reasons. This writing style brings with it some risks. The blind ballooning instructor seems like an odd digression, but the first moment to give me real pause came when Axel and Edward were under the tutelage of Frank O’Brien. As you would expect, they made their first flights with their instructor in command. The balloon basket is too small for more than two, so the friends’ first flight together is their first without O’Brien – and it’s a momentous occasion. Odd therefore that it happens twice:
On the third occasion Axel and I went up together while Frank watched us nervously from the ground. (p40)
But then on the very next page, it seems that after ‘several under his loose supervision’ (underlining mine) it is Edward and Axel’s first extended flight away from the farm which is their first flight together:
We had never before this, gone more than a mile or two, and then – the basket being of a dimension to small for three grown men – not together but each separately in Frank’s company. (p41)
I stopped reading to think. Is this a signal that the narrator is misleading us? Perhaps he has a faulty memory? Is he deliberately lying, tripped up by his own inconsistencies? Which retelling could be true? Would it not be premature for these two young men to make their first unsupervised flight on only a third ascent? Would it not be unwise for a first flight without their instructor to be an extended flight where he was unable to follow? Or, more banal, is this a careless mistake overlooked by Brook’s editor?
There’s a review in the Australian Book Review in which Stephen Muecke takes issue not with confusing elements such as this, but rather with Brooks’ apparent disregard for post-colonial scholarship. (The action takes place in New Albion (New Britain) and Port Morton (Port Moresby), colonial possessions of Germany, and by an accident of our own history of colonialisation, Australia).
This fiction sits strangely with all the post-imperial labour that has been carried out for independence or development, or on Orientalism and other post-colonial intellectual projects. No redemption of that history, or of present regional cultural relations, is attempted, as if British-New Guinea engagements were really something different and more enlightening. (ABR, October 2009, p50)
Well, Muecke is a Professor of Writing at UNSW so he presumably knows what he is talking about, but I think it is a pity he chose to criticise the book for what this book is not, rather than what it is, an entertaining, imaginative and thought-provoking work of fiction. His sardonic tone and patronising conclusion make the review look more like an academic spat to me. (Brooks is an academic too). The grudging commentary doesn’t even quote the text accurately, and in his critique Muecke has failed either to notice or to acknowledge a crucial observation about Axel’s desire to pilot the Nisha over the ‘brooding jungle of New Albion’s terra incognita’ (p59);
The thought that he could go somewhere where nobody had ever been – where there was nobody, according to Harry, was tempting beyond measure. And not, as it would be with most others, because he could leave his mark upon one of the last blank spaces on earth. Not with Axel. With Axel it was quite the opposite. I think Axel longed for a place where he might leave almost no mark at all. (p62)
In the context of the scene where Axel and Edward were blown off course as they crossed the English Channel, and so found themselves above a blighted postwar French landscape that bore an eerie resemblance to the ‘Piccadilly‘ and ‘Regent Street’ trenches of their war, this naive desire to waft in nothingness above a place where no battle for territory has ever been fought is existential. Without giving away the plot any more than the blurb does, the story becomes yet more intriguing when Edward travels to New Albion in search of his missing friend, for it seems that Axel has been appropriated rather than anything else more hostile to indigenous custom. Scholars of postcolonialism may well argue that the ensuing search is an intrusion in itself, but Brooks acknowledges this, while elsewhere asserting the resilience of local adherence to customary beliefs.
People stood stock still in their gardens, others ran to their huts in fear or to get others to watch this strange thing in the sky; cries of alarm came up; and while one part of me was jubilant to be airborne and at last away, another amused at their antics, and another suddenly very apprehensive again at what unknowns the Mura was slowly but inevitably carrying me towards, still another was ashamed, embarrassed for the fear – the fear, and something else, which I still can’t quite put a name to – that I was thrusting on people who had not in any way asked for it, let alone been warned or asked permission, a bizarre creature in the sky, an unthinking arrogant transgression which they did not need to see, did not need to encounter. (p213)
Like Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, Brooks peoples his story with colonial ‘types’ and their observations about the indigenes are confronting. In general these characters are convincing rather than caricatures, and and the misanthropic Stein in particular is a marvellous invention. I find Brooks’ refusal to condemn all aspects of the impact of European intrusion interesting rather than a failure to seek redemption: colonialism is too complex a matter to be dealt with in a book like this but I liked the inclusion of an effect that illustrates that complexity: the coming of Europeans has brought leprosy to New Albion, but has also constrained the spread of the ‘laughing disease’ which is thought to be transmitted by cannibalism.
Brooks captures the reticence and Oxford English of his British milieu well, so well that lapses really jar. Edward, speaking in his usual detached manner, would never in his offhand description of Harry Allender, have used the American past tense ‘gotten‘ which has so regrettably crept into Australian written English in the past few years. Such an ugly word! No wonder the Brits never used it, and especially not in an effusive expression such as ‘gotten along remarkably’. (p58) Surely a diffident Edward would instead have said ‘we got on rather well‘?
In the same paragraph, there’s an error of a different kind: the plural of stone (the old pre-metric unit of measurement for mass, equal to 14 pounds and still widely used for body weight in the UK, Australia and probably elsewhere) should be ‘stone’ without a plural ‘s’. Later on I was jolted by the awkward construction ‘by the time any of the rest of us got our glass to our mouth‘ (p176) . This confusion of plural possessive pronouns with singular nouns looks to me like an ‘English as a Second Language’ mistake: a native speaker of English would know instinctively that it should read ‘got glass to mouth’ without any pronouns, or preferably, ‘put glass to mouth’. ‘Hijinx’ instead of ‘high jinks’ on p211 took me aback as well but I know I’ll have to get used to indiscretions of this kind; we’re going to see more strange spelling, faulty grammar and idiom as generational change occurs within the publishing industry.
These are minor quibbles in a very fine book. I like this author so much I will happily proof-read his next book for him before it goes to press. Ambiguities and an elusive truth in this novel would make it an excellent choice for sophisticated book groups. I won’t be surprised if The Umbrella Club makes its way onto a shortlist or two.
Author: David Brooks
Title: The Umbrella Club
Publisher; UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2009
Source: Readings $32.95