I’m addicted to heroin and pacing the streets of Wollongong. I can’t get anything right. I can’t even rob my own grandmother without fucking it up. That’s the thing with good books, the protagonist might be unlikeable, the action absurd and self-defeating, but they take us in. We imagine ourselves into characters and worlds that are utterly foreign, sometimes beguiling and frustrating. I’m currently re-reading Christine Howe’s Song in the Dark and it’s set in the Illawarra, where I live. I love this immediacy: I know the world I’m imagining. Still, I’m grateful every time I put the book down. It’s a top read, don’t get me wrong. But Howe writes about addiction without glamour, and when Paul’s jonesing for a hit on Crown Street, I feel like I’m there with him—eyeing off the ATM at the bottom of the mall, the woman in heels clipping up to it, punching in her PIN. She’s got all that money she doesn’t need. Seriously, what’s she going to do with it? Pay rent?
Howe’s writing is tight. Her imagery is inventive and as I read this thin book, I’m aware that brevity is by no means a reflection of effort. This work has been sanded by hand. Take, for example, a passage towards the end, when Paul returns to Wollongong:
‘Another wave swells beneath him and he feels his feet leave the sand, his head bobbing safely out in the air. When he opens his eyes again, there they are: hundreds, thousands of tiny creatures, glowing. He can feel them now, in the soupy thickness of the water. The sky arches overhead, heavy and quiet, and his breathing slows, steadies. Bursts of light flicker from his elbows, his hands, his knees. He lifts a handful of water and lets it slip through his fingers…’
Every word has purpose here. Howe writes about catharsis but she lets the action and detail show it. She’s never heavy-handed, and this gives the reader a bigger stake in the story. All of this is especially important when you’ve got a book about drugs because it’s so easy to get didactic—and readers hate to be treated like idiots.
But Howe’s book hits on something I’ve been thinking about lately: is the point of writing to illuminate the human condition or provide entertainment? Do we read for understanding or escape?
I know they’re not mutually exclusive. A few years ago I had a newborn, and there I was, overwhelmed in equal turns by the mound of washing and the yellow picket fence in front of my house. In that half-slept haze, I watched all five seasons of The Wire from my slow-rocking wooden chair. The point being—inner city Baltimore was both a welcome escape and a place where humans couldn’t get much more human.
But Howe’s book necessarily fails as escapism. There’s nothing fun about being a heroin addict, at least not the way she writes it. There are moments of relief, but the book starts too late into the addiction for there to be much exhilaration. And this challenge—writing the horrible beautifully—is at the crux of my question. One of Howe’s techniques is to use multiple flashbacks and I find it disorienting. She’s making a great point—time is jittery—but it’s a fine line: how far can you push your reader?
The other books wrestling for my attention are James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Robert McKee’s Story. I must admit, as a novelist, I feel uncomfortable admitting to McKee’s treatise on scriptwriting—as though I’ve been caught in the bar of a cruise ship, pashing a well-known womaniser. It’s not fair, thinking about scriptwriting has inspired me, especially the chapters on antagonism, but there’s something so limiting in writing for the screen, in relinquishing the power of close-in perspective. And yet, we’re in a world where film is booming and publishing is moaning. Is the screen gaining this foothold because it does the work of imagining the story? Are we too time-poor to do our own imagining now? Or are we afraid of inhabiting other people’s heads?
My commitment to the novel stems from the way readers can directly access other consciousnesses. Wood discusses this at length in How Fiction Works, and it makes me think back to Howe’s book. Paul’s story is told in third person—and there is a momentary pause inflicted by the pronoun ‘he’. But Howe draws us in with the present tense, adding urgency to the arc’s momentum. The result is that I identify with Paul, I feel like I’m inside his head. I might be gripped by The Wire but I don’t feel implicated when [spoiler] Bodie and Poot murder Wallace. Yet, after reading Song in the Dark I feel a twinge of discomfort every time I pass the ATM at the bottom of Wollongong mall—not because I’m the kind of person with a picket fence, afraid of being mugged, but because someone might recognise me from the CCTV footage.
Shady Cosgrove has just released the literary thriller What the Ground Can’t Hold (Picador, 2013). Set in the Andes, it follows a group of people trapped together, all of whom have connections to Argentina’s Dirty War. Shady is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Wollongong.
11 Feb 14 at 22:21
‘Song in the Dark’ is definitely a book that stays with you. Sometimes loving someone can be the hardest job you can do and no matter how they stuff up you have to keep loving them. Sometimes you’re the only one who can. Wonderful write up Shady, I definitely am now buzzing with nerves around the ATM in Wollongong mall… Howe’s writing is seamless and potent.