Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2021

A Second Life, by Stephen Wright (2017 co-winner of Seizure Viva La Novella Prize)

A Second Life is a pleasurably baffling book.  Winner of the 2017 Viva La Novella Prize, it seems to be many things: a meditation on death and memory; a cry of anguish about misogyny and male violence towards women; and a quest for justice when there isn’t any to be had.  But it’s not a book with an easy plot or even an obvious cast of characters, and there’s a warning early in the book that lets the reader know that confusion lies ahead:

…language is a sleight of hand that both reveals and hides the existence of the unspeakable; that reminds us there are things about ourselves we can never know, that knowing is endless and uncageable, and to understand each other is an approximation of a dream.  (p.23)

I’ve read it twice, and there are still aspects of it that I don’t understand.

This is the blurb from Seizure’s website:

In a tiny book-lined office backing onto a supermarket in a small town in northern New South Wales, a woman named Acker sits smoking a cigarette and listening to the music of Philip Glass. Others come to her with their stories of violence and pain and through her writing she attempts to salvage what they have lost. A Second Life immerses the reader in a world that is both familiar and forbidding. It unfolds with horror and beauty to reveal a complicated and unforgettable portrait of a woman who moves through this world carrying secret histories, different ways of seeing, and many stories.

With a narrative voice that is at once eerily beautiful and slightly wild, and a premise that is surreal and ambitious, A Second Life stood out to me immediately. It’s an exploration of the self and life and death, all of which comprise the psychological fabric of the main character, who occupies many selves and sometimes none at all.

Wright plays with the conventions of the detective story.  Acker seems to be some kind of private investigator, with a seedy office tacked onto the read of the Emporium in the village street.  She’s not Australian, she only visited it once, but is now stuck here, and she thinks that’s because of the light and because of the history of murder and the addiction to brutality and exploitation.  Women who have suffered at the hands of men come to her with their choking griefs.  

In crime fiction it is often the villages and small towns that hide a sinister sub-structure of violence and transgression, ringing the cities like refugee camps and harbouring an endless proliferation of terrorists, serial killers, cults, sexual predators and people smugglers.  Those who fictionally murder often have no motive except to rejoice in their demonic cleverness.  But this is the common daily crime: a man kills a woman, or a man kills her children, or a man kills a woman and her children.  Or a man kills a woman and her children and then himself.

The dark and bloody tales of crime fiction, Acker thinks, are just descriptions of the ways we prefer to hide the truth or leave cryptic stupid clues about violence. (p.11)

An unnamed woman comes to Acker, and she listens, and hears the bones of the too-familiar story…

…all the repetitive tropes of misogynist violence: that to be is to own, that punishment is justice, and if punishment is justice, murder is transcendent justice, the sacrifice of martyrs.

The stalking.  The threats.  The ongoing terror.  How the cops did nothing. And the courts said, The Father.  The final text message. Her panicked rush through the suburbs with a yawning chasm tearing open her heart.  Flinging open the screen door.  Blind in the gloom after the summer street.  Then the children’s bodies, broken, blood like a plant’s shadow.  How she noticed everything and can’t forget.  Every detail.  (p.13)

She tells the woman to come back in the morning.  And then the novella morphs into something unexpected.

From the description of Acker’s dingy office, we learn that she dismembers and then reconstructs books revealing their bizarre and occasionally subversive natures. We learn that she is a writer herself, and that her books were on restricted access in university libraries.  And (easy to miss, as I did the first time I read this strange book) we also learn that she must be dead because she came through the Round Window just as Death once came through it in an episode of Play School that coincided with her cancer diagnosis.  She is a ghost who sees other ghosts, the multiple selves that we present to the world, the unknowable others that we are or might have been.

Each living soul waiting at her door appears with a host of invisible others in train, dumb spectres, trying to find ways to speak, to invent versions of language, each of them obscured, eroded and entombed by others.  (p.22)

I had the pleasure of chatting with Joe from Rough Ghosts via Zoom yesterday, and tried to explain to him some of the fascination of this book.  This excerpt is for him:

To write is to read.  To write is to find the way in.  The difference between writing what is true and what is false lies in never pretending that you are writing of others, of some separately existing alternate world….

Gerald Murnane is insistent on this too.  He doesn’t write about characters, he refers to them as image-persons; and in A Million Windows, he is quite combative about the undiscerning reader who believes that a work of fiction contains little more than reports of so-called characters, of what these characters do and say and think, and of the scenery, so to call it, in the background. (See my review for more about this).

…Acker creates in her writing her own awareness, a knowledge of herself that is contiguous with the surface of the world.  She uses her writing for herself to remember her self.  She causes her  self to fold back on itself, pli selon pli [Fr: fold according to fold].  Whatever I write writes me.  I am reading this with you, she wants to say to her reader, discovering what I am writing.  We do this to each other, with each other.  There isn’t any other way it can work.  If you think that you can read a book, without the book reading you, I don’t know what to say to you. (p.27)

Note that here this is the author directly addressing us, his readers.

So, Acker wanders about, nodding to the Auntie in the café, buying a grevillea at the market from the Beautiful Girl who reads her books, and this is where, from a reference to a book called My Mother: Demonology we learn that Wright is channelling the US author Kathy Acker (1947-1997).  An author who, Goodreads tells me wrote…

…fluidly, operating in the borderlands and junkyards of human experience. Her work is experimental, playful, and provocative, engagingly alienating, narratively non sequitur.

Ah. I’ve never read Kathy Acker, but now (I think) I get it!

Author: Stephen Wright
Title: A Second Life
Cover art by Sam Paine
Publisher: Seizure by Xoum, 2017
ISBN: 9781925589047
Source: Personal library, purchased from Seizure Online,  $6.99


Responses

  1. Ah, fascinating! I suspected from the start of your review that Acker was based on Kathy Acker, who I read back in the 1980s. She was touted as the female Burroughs and her work was certainly violent and transgressive. I revisited her recently and was tempted to go back to her seminal works. What an intriguing book this sounds – I may have to track it down.

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  2. Interesting sounding book. Sounds all too much for my duller brain cells. You do find interesting books😁

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  3. I am intrigued. Thank you for tempting me yet again :-)

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    • Have you read Acker? It would be really good to see a review from someone who has.

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      • I’ve not read any Acker yet. But I want to after reading the comments on your post. I think I’d like to read some Acker before I read ‘A Second Life’ (I’ve just bought a copy).

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        • Excellent, it will be fun to see what you think of it (and hopefully make more sense of it than me).

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  4. Thanks for the quote, Lisa. This books sounds a little like the book I’m reading except that in my case the author is directly dismantling a reader’s expectations and leaving some of the most basic, even undesirable elements of story telling. Which I think is the point but I have already decided he is getting the kind of anti-review he deserves—which will probably be just what he wants!

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    • Some books are definitely intended as a test for the reader, you can almost hear the author thinking, ha! they’ll only understand this bit if they’ve read #InsertObscureAuthor’sMostObscureBook.

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