I get it: books don’t just happen. A novel is a collection of words actively written by a person, it is a writer’s deliberate construction of images and tales, places and emotions. Plot, world-building, style and characterisation are the results of thousands of decisions made by an author, decisions that are weighed up with an editor and often revised before being stilled in print.
I know this, but I don’t want to be reminded. I want the act of reading to take me to an exclusive truth the author has created; I want to be lulled and excited by thoughts that my brain hasn’t experienced before. I want to be able to fall into the book’s world without seeing the scaffolding – the discarded false starts, the second thoughts, the mutterings of the author’s voice. As a publisher, I understand that those things all happen; as a reader, I want them to be cleared away before I arrive; I want the world of the novel to be fresh and whole.
Carl Nixon has no such mercy. Right from the beginning he makes the acts of writing and of storytelling take centre stage, constantly pushing you out of the world of the novel he’s created and back into your own head, talking about how he came to write the book, what he’s chosen to include and exclude, how he thinks the writing is going, what he thinks you might be thinking.
It’s annoying; viscerally so. I often actually shouted at him, get out of the way of the book! The torture of it is that the central story he’s nominally telling is wonderfully dramatic; engaging and gracefully told with warm, complex characters. A man has returned to New Zealand from the Great War with a head wound, remembering nothing from before the explosion in the trenches. Gradually he is nursed back to health and a love story develops as he rebuilds his own identity. It is an extraordinary thought experiment, to try and write your way into the mind of an adult with only a few months’-worth of memories, and Nixon succeeds superbly. He paints a compelling portrait of a deeply wounded man and, in so doing, illustrates the fundamental importance of memory in the construction of personality, of humanity.
One of the basic ways in which the man reconstructs himself is through story – and this, I think, is Nixon’s main point. We are always telling stories, turning memories into narratives in our brains. The man’s tale is hedged about with other stories: his nurse Elizabeth Whitman tells her son – now missing a father – a series of tales about The Balloonist, a man who left his family in a hot air balloon for exotic, wild adventures (reminding me of the 2006 film The Fall). At one point, a character within one of those tales tells The Balloonist a story…and so on. The arcs of tale-telling spiral outwards as well: The Virgin and the Whalebegins with a note from Nixon claiming that the story of the man with no memory is true, and was told to him by the man’s son, who insisted that Nixon construct a fiction from it. Because this was at the beginning of the book, I believed it: I no longer do so.
Once Nixon makes you start looking for layers of story in The Virgin and the Whale, you can’t stop: on the back cover we have the publishers’ story about the book: “A touching, clever novel about stories, about using them to create your own identity, and about the way they can forge bonds of love.” And of course I have just added a stratum of my own in the form of this review.
It’s not the layering itself that I mind – inspired by the recent, excellent film, I have just re-read the wonderful Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, which also focuses on the power of story as a constructor of identity, also uses layers of storytelling to give itself weight and resonance. What irritated me about The Virgin and the Whale was the voice Nixon adopts when commenting on his own writing. On p. 13: “How to begin?…what inky scratchings will lead the argosy of dark shapes on their way, bobbing in military rows across the calm pale oceans bordered by these covers?” (I had to look up argosy: it means fleet, or opulent supply.)
Despite Nixon’s undoubted talent, I ultimately found The Virgin and the Whale frustrating. I am left with the irrational feeling that the chapters comprising Nixon’s worries about how the book is going have somehow cheated me out of chapters spent exploring the central love story. Because Nixon has drawn my reluctant attention to the book-making process, I end up telling myself the story that these imagined chapters do exist somehow, forlorn on the cutting-room floor.