Murray's Performance

Camouflage by Murray Bail

by Joel Turnipseed

Murray Bail is a patient writer, having published just four books of fiction at sixty, a mark almost to be aimed at for its deliberateness. Unfortunately, his fame here has taken an equal leisure. Twenty-seven years have passed since the publication of his most famous story, "The Drover's Wife," which has been widely-anthologized abroad and was included in his first Australian collection, Contemporary Portraits, also out in 1975. This lapse is lamentable, since Bail shines best in his short stories. Camouflage (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20) combines the contents of that original selection with some newer stories for debut in America.

"Launch," perhaps would have been the better word, since the collection opens with the parabolic tale of "Seduction of My Sister." Here a young man comes to the grim realization of his fate—as hopeless middleman between things and their possessors. But how it comes: in a succession of wild losses, none of whose value he esteems until everything is broken or gone, including his sister. These things land in the hands of the new neighbor Gordon Gill, a kid who knows how to coax without asking:

From the beginning, I began to see, I was doing all the work. To Gordon I suggested we change positions. Operating in darkness near our back door I could do my bit with my eyes shut, whereas on his side light was absolutely essential, he pointed out. "Without proper light I've no idea what's coming my way." I'm at the receiving end, let's not forget, he actually said. Besides, he pointed out, we have each attained a degree of efficiency in our respective roles. "Isn't that right?" he said to her, alongside.

And so go, over the roof in ever-hilarious, ante-raising amplitude, the things of his family's life: Caruso 78s, coins, a birdcage, stuffed fox, tennis racquet and toaster. The transition from the insidiousness of class in child's play, enacted in an inspired rebellion against the ennui of youth's afternoons, to the story's magic conclusion is nothing short of masterful. In the end, the young narrator's congenital lack of expectation is rendered in a beautiful, ecstatic moment of recognition—a spark of longing. It is a hushed surprise of quiet wonder that shouldn't, and can't, be spoiled.

If "Seduction of My Sister" rummages the garage and attic in a sustained arc of loss, Bail's first novel, Homesickness, travels the world looking for tropes to send home as postcards, and finds them in abundance on four continents: a Collection of Pygmies; Ramanujan's red-phone theorems and Wiener's calligraphic Taylor's series; Traveler's Geneologies; Corrugated Iron; a bathtub with drains at both ends, straddling the equator; Lenin's gold fillings. The premise is clear from the outset: examine a nation's pretensions by sending its denizens abroad. And yet, Bail's museums and vagrants, for all their cleverness and exuberant inventiveness, most frequently trip over themselves in a cheap joke, as in Bail's nod to Lautréamont's surrealism in the Museum Of Handicrafts, in which the broken remains of Empire lie in state in Kenya, most peculiarly:

They passed two objects which had been combined: an early Singer sewing machine and an umbrella. To save space the umbrella had been opened, revealing its construction, and placed on the machine, but someone without thinking or to demonstrate the jabbering needle, had got it tangled and mutilated something terrible.

This is just one in a long series of jokes, many of which are genuine used-bookstore groaners, such as Bail's pun on the exhibits of an Ecuadorian leg museum: "Civilization and its contents." Still, he gets in some great ones—as when he calls airplane voices "that Esperanto of steadiness which rises at the end"—and they are frequent enough to sustain the journey.

As for the characters in Homesickness, I kept trying to remember whether a doctor was among them, they seemed so frail with life. Too frequently are they mere occasions for brilliant observations and opinions: brief essays with cocks and cigarettes, passports and cuckolding wives and a lawn half a continent away, waiting to be mowed. Like the vatted brains in Bail's museum of genius, I wondered about his travelers: "If I hooked them up to a speaker, would they scream?" Detail is frequently the begetter of place and character—and delirious detail abounds in Homesickness—but somehow all this fails to live up to the kind of facticity that a Balzac or, more fantastically, Melville would have shored up into reality.

Failure, probably, is the wrong judgment, because Bail does succeed in his analogical imaginings, at giving substance to his story. Unquestionably, he can pack a lot of life, its shock and recognition, into the off-hand. Take this gem from world-traveler Borelli's uncle, remarked when the two pay tribute at Richard Burton's London tomb: "It's immovable yet it's a monument to a great traveler. That's the paradox; one that you won't forget."

Paradox. It's hard to see what else the hurtling mess of Homesickness could lead to. Like the succession of museums and continents, we never stay long enough in any one consciousness, or place, to let one imagining take hold; instead, a quick succession of minor masterpieces. Here is Bail's description of Borelli's uncle: "He was sixty-four, with his own teeth, was skinny, as sharp angled (in knees, elbows and nose) as the letters L and K: unfolding, he snapped and crackled like a carpenter's rule."

Brilliant language and keen observations leading to—what exactly? The expected result: museum fry. It has been said of Bail that, "for him, realism in fiction fails to record the subtleties of reality." I don't know whether this counts as praise, since in this he is just one more inheritor of an old problem in the novel, one whose difficulty has only become more urgent as we have invited the intense consciousness of dreams (or, alternatively, the most skeptical of our philosophic doubts) into our most everyday art, a trouble earlier diagnosed by Mary McCarthy: "We know the real world exists, but we can no longer imagine it." One wishes that Bail's travelers had his patience, and moved at a pace that was pedestrian in the best sense: peripatetic, wandering, observant at the pace of two friends on a stroll. Instead, we end the novel as they do-disoriented and exhausted.

Oddly and by contrast, Bail succeeds wildly at capturing both the strangeness of the world and the vitality of its characters in the brief Borgesian elaborations of "Huebler," the most fun of the stories in Camouflage. Determined to help Douglas Huebler, a photographer, in his ambitious task of photographing the existence of everyone alive, the narrator offers help in identifying the first twenty-three, as defined by such recherché (and McSweeney's-anticipating) qualities as:

1. At least one person who always has the last word.

7. At least one person who thinks words are as concrete as objects.

17. At least one person whose existence was foreordained.

22. At least one person whose unique sexual capacities have no outlet.

If it seems unlikely that a short story should contain more real characters and more deeply-felt moments than an entire novel, consider this brilliant moment of Suggested Person Number 2, Rivera, who is "one person who would rather be almost anyone else," a moment during which the overbearing architect finally sees his son:

It was his face. He saw his faults duplicated, smoothly growing. It was what other people must have seen. They were conspicuous: obviously father, son. For Rivera it was an intrusion; he felt like suddenly hitting his son hard across the face. He wanted to; strange, weak man. He went sullen and fiddled with a spoon.

If he could sever, disassociate. That became his immediate, hopeless wish. To be someone-almost anyone-else. Then all the signs displayed in the young face opposite could not point to him.

All twenty-three of Bail's people approximate this quality of genius. The short tale of Karl Schultz—one who will outlive art—is a parable worthy of Kafka. Another of the lives pays silent tribute to Bernhard and Wittgenstein ("Concrete."). And finally, the Twenty-Third person, "for whom reality is richer than the artist's fantasies." Huebler?

There's an uneasiness about Huebler's undertaking that spans all of Bail's works: the means of Huebler's art. For a writer so intensely visual, Bail has an angry obsession with photography. The most loathsome of Homesickness' characters is the obliquely anagrammatic Kaddok, who wears his camera like a weapon, and who is so bumblingly inane he manages to trip over the equator while setting up a shot. Bail can be acidly observant when he is railing against Daguerre's heresy, as in this scene at the Tate: "Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, Abstract Expressionism and Tourism are all related. I doubt now whether one can do without the other." In another scene Bail states, "Oh and Commercialism, never one to be left out: two multinationals, Kodak and the Kraft Corporation, had joined forces to sponsor a European food photographic competition, 'Say Cheese!"

Elsewhere, Bail states categorically, "Photography: Melancholia." The origin of this complaint can only be guessed: a deep inner anguish over f-stops and emulsions; the artist's revulsion at the banal machinery of vision and its reproductive processes—a kind of unrelenting paean to Walter Benjamin, sung for future graduate students.

If the failure of character can be considered the chief fault of Homesickness, Bail's second novel opens with promise enough in compensation. Holden's Performance is the coming-of-age story of Holden Shadbolt and the city Adelaide. It says something about Bail, however, that it's uncertain which of these two develops more, or demands more sympathy. Holden endures a broad succession of manipulators, all preceded, following the death of his father, by two startling entrances into his life: a photographic memory and a would-be stepfather, the unscrupulous and storytelling Corporal Frank McBee.

Unfortunately, Holden soon turns out as unaffecting as Kaddok's Pentax. Still, we are treated to Bail's gift of Adelaide by his presence, from the early backstory of his father's work on its trams—

...encouraged by the puritanical streets, the brown trams always went forward in straight lines, scattering traffic and pedestrians like minor objections or side-issues, and somehow this suggested the overwhelming logic of plain thinking. There always seemed to be a tram opening up a clear path to the distant goal of Truth.

—to the city's post-tram disorder; the insatiable thirsts of McBee in his successes; and Holden, at book's end, standing watch over the peroxide paranoia of the State:

Standing on special running-boards... Shadbolt became a reincarnation of his father working his way along the outside of trams. His position though was more unpredictable. There were no regular stops. The aim was to escort the Head of Government in profile in a steady sliding motion, the way a coin is passed before a sceptical crowd, yet rapid enough to foil a sniper on a rooftop aiming to intersect his hairline sights.

Here and throughout, Bail shows gifts of description that stand equal to that of Bellow or Delillo, but not quite with the humanity of the former or the sustained pitch in tuning an idea to its story of the latter. In the end, Holden's Performance feels like one of the sexier sport cars being sold by McBee: you suspect something's going to go mysteriously wrong, no one will know how to fix it, and a thing of beauty will sit on the blocks awaiting a die-hard enthusiast with the patience to master it.

And then there is Eucalyptus—a forest of language in which readers can become joyfully lost. Bail's only necessary novel, Eucalyptus is a wonder. It relates the story of Ellen, and her life in an encyclopedic landscape of eucalypts carefully cultivated by her father Holland on his outback ranch. The plants are stubbornly singular, thriving in strange soil, cultivated by intelligence and passion—and thus Eucalyptus is also the story of stories. Bail's ability to weave story within story, metaphor within metaphor, is displayed here with a mastery hinted at in his previous novels, but they contained nothing like this:

What is frail falls away; stories that take root become like things, misshapen things with an illogical core, which pass through many hands without wearing out or falling to pieces, remaining in essence the same, adjusting here and there at the edges, nothing more, as families or forests reproduce ever changing appearances of themselves; the geology of fable. In Alexandria, eucalypts were grown in front of houses to ward off evil spirits, including fatal diseases.

Eucalyptus takes firm root in its premise: the man who can successfully name each species of E. on Holland's ranch can take possession of it through marriage to Ellen, who is herself more beautiful than any other woman in the outback. After many failures, a man of significant promise arrives, Mr. Cave. Whether he is a better suitor for Ellen or her father is a question from the start, however, as we guess from his first visit:

Mr. Cave shifted in his seat. "Mind you, (studying eucalypts has) given me a life of sorts." He began nodding. "Everything is a comparison," he said for no apparent reason. Ellen had been standing by the window. It was odd how two men repeatedly put down blocks of matter and left it at that. In tone and steadiness they were tarpaulined trucks with heavy loads, now and then changing down a gear, rather than light and sprightly birds, hopping from one bit of colour to another.

As Mr. Cave walks the paddocks with Holland, he takes no notice of Ellen. His platonic interest points up, in his ways as well as name, a paradox in life and stories: how should it be that our attentions to the straightforward, the logical, the catalogued taxonomies—ideal structures placed on the world to give it light—should so devastatingly leave dark shadows within us? As he steadfastly, but with an equally leisured confidence, marches with Ellen's father through the stark light of the paddocks, he is not stippled by even a leaf of doubt. And so we, as well as Ellen, begin to despair as Cave trots off his task: E. signata, E. maidenii, E. nubilis...

But Ellen stumbles upon another man, unannounced to her father, and her discovery of him is a puzzle to the very end, one which delights from its inception. He was lying in the bush, unshaven, disheveled, obviously worn—

Concerning the bodies of men, the visible areas: they have the scars. Men tend to accumulate them, almost as women wear jewelry. To carry a scar is to carry a story. The very suggestion can extend a person. Beneath every scar, then—a story, unfortunately.

The man, unnamed throughout, proceeds to weave his sad art—his stories—into the paddocks of eucalyptus and into Ellen's life. And this is the task of the nameless storyteller: to name each eucalypt without uttering its nomenclature, to tell its story directly in the language of our lives—not in the parallel figuring of Mr. Cave, whose Latinate naming is at best the seed for metaphor. Ellen's engagement with the stranger's stories, despite their crookedness, their oblique falsehoods seeding a straighter truth, culminates in a fugue of desperation whose glorious resolution is Bail's greatest accomplishment.

Camouflage closes with the title story, in which the forty-year-old piano tuner Eric Banerjee discovers in painting indiscernible patterns on a desert Aerodrome during World War II, an unexpected joy in abandonment to large forces: the burning presence of the unpainted hangar, the loudmouthed freedom of Americans, and the great undertow of fate sweeping against personal agency in time of war. In what may be the most straightforward and quiet of his stories, Bail creates a living doubt:

Any sign of life was at mid-distance; and all so quiet it was as if he was going deaf.

Not that he wanted disturbance, disruption, surprise and so on. A certain order was necessary in his line of work. These thoughts he kept to himself. Yet increasingly he felt a dissatisfaction, as though he had all along been avoiding something which was actually closer to the true surface of life.

The twenty pages of "Camouflage" feel riskier in what they leave behind than the hundreds of pages of novelistic gambles Bail packed into Homesickness and Holden's Performance, and they pay off more handsomely. I felt as aware in this story's aftermath of the up-and-down nature of Bail's work—now its vertiginous heights, then its uncertain plummets—as Banerjee felt when surveying his own humble art during the flight that ends his story, and Bail's collection:

Everything was clearer, yet not really. Plane's shadow: fleeting, religious. In the silence he was aware of his heart-beats, as if he hadn't noticed them before.

Now the earth in all its hardness and boulder unevenness came forward in a rush.

Briefly he wondered whether he—his life—could have turned out differently. Its many parts appeared to converge, in visibility later described as "near perfect".

In his insistent vision, his increasing power to turn the scattered encyclopedia of everyday mundanities into metaphor and story, Murray Bail's work at its best does seem to be a convergence: the shaping of a vision that is turning out "near perfect" fiction.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003