MAY 19, 2016
IN FIONA MCFARLANE’S debut novel, The Night Guest, an elderly lady, living alone on the Australian coast, senses that a tiger has entered her living room in the night. Ruth is frightened by this impossible intruder — there are no tigers in Australia — but at the same time thrilled by what she takes to be a harbinger of “consequence” soon to reenter her life. The tiger reminds her of her childhood with her missionary parents in Fiji, where she felt herself to be “part of a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God,” and where she lived a “strangely urgent life.” As a girl, reading letters from her Sydney cousins, Ruth pitied their “ordinary lives,” but when she came of age and was sent back to Sydney, she made “a conscious effort to live an ordinary life, like those of the people she saw around her: people who grew up where they were born, among their own kind, and made their merry, sad way through a world they understood entirely.”
McFarlane’s second book, The High Places — a collection of short stories written by the author over a decade before, during, and after she composed The Night Guest — investigates this notion of the ordinary life in an understood world. McFarlane is particularly attentive to the encounters and visions that lift her characters, if only momentarily, out of their constrained regularity. McFarlane’s people are not high-placed — geographically (Australia is the flattest continent), materially, or socially — but many of them look upward. They neatly plot their social ascents, crane their child necks to spot Americans, tell tall tales, climb plastic Christmas trees, and strive to elevate themselves above the contemporary mundane by fashioning themselves as people in a Victorian movie. In the collection’s final and title story, “The High Places,” a sheep farmer hears a radio preacher declaring that “God is in the high places.” The farmer, who has recently slaughtered his sheep to spare them starvation on his desiccated land, reflects that:
the whole plane on which his sheep had died and his wife had grown old had once been an inland sea. It had filled and sunk over millennia and was a long way from any mountain […] It angered him to think God listened harder to people standing on a hill; that those people might be given rain and healthy sons and living sheep. Even so, it seemed right that there might be particular places in which conversation with God would be more effective. He didn’t think his wife, with her bedtime prayers, had found such a place.
Although not a believer, he is desperate and sets out to find higher ground in the hopes of being heard by God. Strung through McFarlane’s collection is this question of how people, compressed and isolated in the here and now, can make contact with something beyond. That something is sometimes usual enough: in “Rose Bay,” it is an American ballerina’s performance that moves a Sydney secretary to question whether her highest desire is indeed “to be quiet, and private, and not to upset anybody.” In other stories, great, impenetrable mysteries scud across the landscape of a life. In “The High Places,” a “golden-green” cloud that yields no rain but rather burns like a “diseased flame” makes it appear as if “the sky behind the cloud were no longer there, and nothing had replaced it.” This terrifying vision is a revelation that fails to reveal.
The stories in The High Places vary tremendously in style and tone. “Art Appreciation,” about a young insurance man carefully calculating and self-consciously constructing his vision of the dignified life, is an astute, closely observed narrative untouched by the magical. Other stories in the collection, like “Buttony,” about a pedagogically pointless but seemingly harmless school game that escalates into a Lord of the Flies–type frenzy, read like parables, without a before or after, and crying out, a bit too loudly in the case of “Buttony,” for interpretation. “The Movie People,” which shares with “Buttony” a concern for the sinister potential of groups, reads like a nasty joke or a comic nightmare. McFarlane imagines what would happen if townspeople, bereft by the departure of a film crew, were to follow through on their wish to live forever in the heightened world of the movies. They inhabit the movie’s characters and recreate its Victorian setting with such rigor that romantic alliances determined in casting threaten pre-movie marriages and Chinese people in the town are “encouraged to stay off the main street.” Still other stories in the collection, closer to the register of The Night Guest, are told in the enigmatic voice of childhood. In “Those Americans Falling from the Sky,” a woman remembers her World War II girlhood in rural Australia when the American military was practicing parachute jumps. The adult narrator’s language and associative logic is unsettlingly close to that of her child self. For her, the impression and the event, the incidental and the central, are still one substance, unspun by the centrifuge of adulthood. Consequently, she speaks with a lyricism that stands out in McFarlane’s collection: her recollection of war maneuvers is of “silk folding onto the warm yellow grass, like our mother pouring thick cake batter into a tin.” “Those Americans Falling from the Sky” is reminiscent of “Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield, McFarlane’s fellow Australasian. Both stories pulse with the bafflement, loneliness, fear, and imaginative lushness of childhood.
In “Man and Bird,” a rural Protestant minister is “visited by visions of Heaven so magnificent, so vivid, that the world around him seemed almost to no longer exist.” At first, he feels himself to have been “born into entirely the wrong tradition to take advantage of [his vision] […] in his sermons, he skirted its great thicket and made instead for the Protestant grove in which he’d been trained.” Like her minister, McFarlane toggles back and forth in The High Places between the Protestant grove of the circumscribed life and the surrounding great thicket — inhospitable, and resistant to explanation. In The High Places, stories about ordinary lives and those teeming with mystery sit side by side rather than integrated into a coherent worldview. This proximity of the stiflingly normal and the bewilderingly magical, of the regular and the revelation, however incomplete, produces a feeling of apprehension, sometimes laced with claustrophobia, and at other times with longing. Like the emotions they evoke, these stories — taken individually or together — are more compelling and unsettling than they are satisfying.
McFarlane, who was raised in Sydney and educated in England and the United States, has written a collection that, following in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor, produces a composite but by no means exhaustive portrait of a place and a people. Her Australians tend to be placid and remote — from others and often from themselves — adept at minimizing their desires, and sometimes poignantly, even frighteningly conformist. McFarlane is at her most delightful when sketching her incidental characters: “He was the kind of boy who might go from door to door asking if he could clean people’s gutters or mow their lawns, and when they said no he would thank them and walk away with his hands in his pockets.” Or, Father Anthony is “one of those beaming, healthful men who truly believe drinking a hot liquid in insufferable heat will cool you down.”
The collection’s stories cover a period from the present stretching back to World War II, which marked Australia’s shift from the British to the American sphere of influence. McFarlane is much more interested in Australia’s relationship to the idea of the United States than she is in British colonization. While Australia’s prewar history, including that of its Aboriginal people, is all but entirely absent from The High Places, the ancient and extra-historical sometimes rip through composed surfaces of modern life, like old volcanoes jutting up through a serene sea.
In “Mycenae,” two middle-aged couples, one Australian and one American, who met in England during graduate school, reunite for vacation in Greece. The Australian wife, Janet, is both fascinated and intimidated by her richer, more self-assured friends, whom she senses, by “the fact of their being American, [to be] placed […] at the center of the world.” Near the end of a not very restful vacation — spent anxiously noticing the social differences between Janet and her friends, trying to shield her husband from feeling insecure around his American counterpart with the more illustrious academic career, and performing what she considers suitable pleasure at reunion and travel — something happens to release Janet. At Mycenae, she discovers that the barren sun-baked hill before her “had nothing at all to do with human life. All of Greece seemed that way: as if some other species — the gods — had lived here carelessly then abandoned it. And she could only crawl about on it, take some photographs, go home.”
This tourist encounter with the inhuman echoes Mrs. Moore’s encounter with the Marabar Caves in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. They are “unspeakable,” for “they bear no relation to anything dreamt or seen.” So resistant are the caves to the human, that “even Buddha, who must have passed this way down to the Bo Tree of Gya, shunned a renunciation more complete than his own, and has left no legend of struggle or victory in the Marabar.” These inhospitable caves “undermine [Mrs. Moore’s] hold on life” murmuring to her that “‘everything exists nothing has value,’” and “suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor talkative little Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from ‘Let there be Light’ to ‘It is finished’ only amounted to ‘boum.’” In the cave, she loses her sense of order and meaning, and with it, her desire to act in the world and interact with people.
In McFarlane’s story, by contrast, Mycenae almost prompts upheaval, but not quite. Observing Eric in the burial ground of ancient kings, Janet thinks he resembles “a god, really — remote and ineffectual” so when he collapses in the heat, it appears for a moment, that this American colossus has joined his predecessors. Yet in a bathetic twist, Eric wakes up “halfway back to Athens, in the back of the van with spit dried at the corners of his mouth.” The joke, it seems, is on the American, but it is also on Janet for her foolish worship of him. While the Marabar caves transform Mrs. Moore, casting her outside the human community, Janet’s adventure does not really change her. The release Mycenae offers her from social anxiety returns her to the familiar havens of marriage and home. Her story concludes with the image of the lights in her house back in Sydney switched on by a timer meant to ward off strangers. If Mycenae has a nihilistic blow to deliver, Janet dodges it. One of McFarlane’s subjects is how people manage to disallow consequence.
In the collection’s opening story, “Exotic Animal Medicine,” even manslaughter is eerily without consequence. On the night of her wedding, Sarah, a doctor for “exotic animals” is called to work because a cat, under her care, has taken a turn for the worse. On her way to the surgery, still somewhat drunk from her wedding celebration, she hits another car. Her new husband goes looking for help, while she waits with the elderly man whose legs are crushed and pinned inside his vehicle. When her husband returns, having failed to find anyone, his first impulse upon seeing the bloody man is to check Sarah for blood, and she, upon seeing him, thinks “my husband” and smiles. He asks her how the injured man is doing, and before answering him, she thinks of the many dying animals with which she has sat, as she has with this dying man, of the cat waiting for her at the surgery, and how she will have to tell his owners if he should die: “Each loss of which she had been the herald seemed to have led to this new immensity: Mr. Ronald, dead in a car.” Quickly, she makes a mental pivot away from immensity: “But they didn’t know Mr. Ronald. David had never even spoken to him. The two of them had been married that midday, with no rain. There were only two witnesses.” The two witnesses at their wedding are in parallel with herself and David, the only living witnesses to the accident. Sarah feels herself entitled to the predictable: a rainless wedding day is not meant to end in arrest. Her newly official bond with David sanctions their quick departure from the scene of the crime. McFarlane is not in the least bit sentimental about marriage and family, which she treats as sources of intimacy and ballast, but which, in her stories, also enable, even justify, indifference to people on the outside.
In another story about an accident, “Unnecessary Gifts,” a father, in the aftermath of his two young sons’ frightening but brief disappearance, tries to recreate in his mind his eight-year-old’s experience of the event. “I want to know what those hours were like for him. It’s not easy. There’s the police report, the security tapes, and Tony’s brother’s statement. These things help. But the difficulty lies in the task of remembering childhood, that busy time of waiting.” The story is an act of imaginative intimacy, an effort to bridge the inevitable gap between separate bodies. While the story ends with the narrator’s sons unscathed, the reader never learns what happened to another boy, who was with them. “Tony is not my son,” the narrator comments, and so what happens to Tony is irrelevant to his story. Perspective is everything: McFarlane locates her characters firmly in themselves and familial bonds serve to further trouble any notion of a universal human sympathy.
“Exotic Animal Medicine” opens The High Places with questions about whether or not there exists a unique species loyalty between people, and how we weigh human life against animal life. Mr. Ronald’s swift death allows Sarah to get to the clinic in time to save the cat, so that the story trades a human life for an animal one. To be sure, humans and animals are posed as different things by this story; Sarah — who understands the “machinery of a cat, its secret and moving pieces” — knows nothing about how to save Mr. Ronald. Yet, parenthetical interjections of the cat’s pain into the scene of Mr. Ronald bleeding out makes for an equivalence between human and animal suffering: “Sheba lay panting in the corner of his cage, overwhelmed by the pain on which he concentrated with a careful doling out of attention.” Here, McFarlane not only heeds the cat’s experience of pain but also grants the animal a conscious technique for managing it.
The relationship between man and beast is taken up again in the collection’s penultimate story, also its funniest and most sensually vibrant. “Good News for Modern Man” begins in the wake of a marine biologist’s own faith-annihilating “boum.” The news that there exists something beyond the human and its God is brought to him by a messenger fitting to epistemological crisis in the comic mode: a colossal squid. Left on a remote island outpost to guard and observe the squid that he and his research team have trapped in a cove, Bill abandons his faith, which he characterizes as knowledge of God, together with his dedication to building human knowledge. It is as if, without God to grant humanity dominion over the animals, humanity has no right to know them. This encounter with the mollusk transforms Bill, but unlike Mrs. Moore, he makes no nihilistic retreat from human intercourse and action. Without God, and encouraged by an untreated case of malaria, Bill conjures the ghost of Darwin to keep him company. They debate the relationship between man and squid: Darwin contends man is “the highest of the animals” and Bill problematizes “the concept of progress, the tricky politics of supposing one thing higher than another.”
Realizing that the squid had “nothing to do with me. I can’t eat or fuck her,” Bill makes it his mission to protect it from people, especially scientists, by freeing it from the cove. But caught as he is in the limitations of his personhood, Bill endows the squid with human qualities, naming her Mabel, and entering into a kind of imaginative intimacy with this creature. He constructs a familiar quest narrative in which he is the hero, Darwin his sidekick, and Mabel the damsel in distress whom he must free. However, even as he incorporates Mabel into his personal drama, he fervently maintains, “There must be some things in the world that no one sees and no one knows. Some monsters.”
The only disappointing thing about McFarlane’s supremely disquieting The Night Guest is that it concludes with an explanation of the novel’s slightly ambiguous happenings, reducing them to the familiar stuff of a news item, and Ruth’s tiger to a product of her medical condition. Happily, the short story seems to exert no such pressure toward resolution and demystification on McFarlane. We don’t find out what happens to Mabel, nor is the question resolved as to whether monsters will survive in this world.