Beautiful Beast

Anna MacDonald reviews Josephine Rowe’s Here Until August

Josephine Rowe, Here Until August.
Black Inc., AUD $29.99.
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Catapult, USD $16.95.
Buy direct from the publisher.

There’s an early story of Josephine Rowe’s, ‘Tame’, in which children call foxes to the boundary fence of their property with whistles that mimic the cries of rabbits. At first the foxes are wary. But before long these once-wild animals are eating leftovers from the children’s hands, and eventually they’re coming to the fence, hungry, without being called. The children’s father, war-damaged, guilty, watches on. And even though he knows that “to tame something is to ruin it”, he doesn’t interfere. Instead, he anticipates a future well after the children have tired of feeding these foxes, after they’ve tired of their cubs. He looks forward to a time when the children are long gone and he’s left alone, still feeding foxes, “somehow making amends”.

Rowe has always been drawn to the boundary between the human and non-human animal worlds, and to the ways in which — for better or worse — that boundary might be crossed. This preoccupation inflects many of the stories gathered together in her previous collection, Tarcutta Wake (2012), as well as her novel A Loving, Faithful Animal (2016). But the stories in Rowe’s superb new book, Here Until August, take this concern further still. These stories are infused with an animal blood, one familiar with wildness. They mark out a visceral territory, often coloured by natural and other forms of violence, and I can’t help feeling that to write about them — to tame them via review — is to ruin them a little.

The stories in Here Until August suggest a rewilding of the unnaturally sterile human world. They illuminate the desire to control one’s nature and the brittle hubris that believes that nature to be tamed, “neatly flat-packed” for convenient storage. In ‘Anything Remarkable’, two women, newly married, drive through upstate New York. Along the way they compile “a list of fs that pluralise to vlife to lives, wolf to wolves, knife to knives — they all sound vital and gleaming.” Caught within this inventory is a wild language that speaks to the unpredictable vitality of communal life. A single wolf is less frightening — somehow less wild — than a pack. A single life is, in some respects at least, more easily contained than one that is shared. Every line of ‘Anything Remarkable’ is lit with the residual, electric tension of an argument that is yet to be resolved, tension that has yet to burn away. One woman, the narrator, attempts to make peace although her blood is prone to darken. Her wife, a former boxer, resists, perhaps because, for her, “[d]iscomfort of any kind — fear, pain, guilt, embarrassment — is an animal she keeps separate from herself. Something she can leave outside and neglect to feed.” But if there is a lesson to be gleaned from Rowe’s stories, it is that fear, pain, guilt, discomfort cannot be so easily separated from one’s self. These things are part of being human. One character, in ‘Horse Latitudes’, describes “[a]ll the terrible things the mind spits up when it’s given enough space.” Neglected, left outside and unfed, the hunger of emotional disquiet becomes more menacing. Regardless of how neatly you think you’ve packed it away, it will always spring up and out again.

It’s possible, even probable, that we have more to fear from parcelling up and packing away our guilt, pain, and embarrassment — from keeping separate our serial discomforts, our untame selves — than we do from a wolf, from a knife, or from a life lived in the open either singularly or in the plural. In ‘Post-Structuralism for Beginners’, Johanna experiences “a strange cocktail of dread and sexual guilt” when her husband, Aland, unpacks the VCR, calls her into the bedroom, and (when the children are out of the house) inserts “the tape”. Johanna and Aland made the video soon after they were married, when she was twenty-three, he almost twenty-six. Now, years later, during “The Seven-Month Winter of the Tape”, Johanna “wonders if she should feel flattered, relieved” that her husband is still aroused by the amateurish, not-quite-in-focus image of her younger self when he might instead have turned towards one of his “sooty eye[d]” undergraduates. “When”, she asks, “had macroeconomics students become so desirable, so female?” But Johanna is not relieved. Rather, she fantasises about “accidents she might orchestrate, catastrophes that could conceivably befall the tape. It could simply go missing. … The content could be buried irretrievably beneath layers of Winter Olympic curling highlights and sub-Saharan carnivore documentaries. Or she could just forget the subterfuge and gut the thing, crack it open and unravel its innards.” The videocassette, like all discomforts, is here rendered viscerally animal. Alone, Johanna watches the moving image,

trying to see beyond what the camera has recorded, what is imprinted there in the layers of emulsion. But even the things that have been captured in-frame are unreliable. Her body is not that body. … On tape, Aland still has the tiny asterisk of a scar on his cheek, from a cop’s signet ring. But the scar has long since faded, absorbed by the body. Even the camera is gone now, stolen during a road trip, and the film is deteriorating with each view. Remanence decay a process in which the magnetic particles gradually lose their charge, resulting in colours shifting towards weaker hues. (Comes the absurd thought: are we doing this to ourselves?)

To tame something is to ruin it, to sow the seed of slow decay. To flat-pack a life, to reduce it to a taped image — an image that is itself unreliable — is to weaken the electrical charge of that life, to mute its colour, as it was (or might have been) lived.

There is in this recurring idea that a life might be reduced by its representation a concomitant belief in the largeness of life, that sense of its inherent wildness. But alongside this wildness runs another, equally convincing thread: that human life — regardless of the often terrifying proliferation of choices, of events, of encounters either planned or imposed by happenstance, that life we ultimately live — is a small and fragile thing. Many of Rowe’s stories — in Here Until August and elsewhere — lament all the lives left unlived. In them, characters worry over the tyranny of variety, the bad faith concealed within the illusion of choice. They feel cowed by the forces, far beyond their control, which shape their days, their nights, and which often leave them struggling at “the deep end of life”.

In ‘Chavez’, the longest story in this collection and the one in central position, a grieving woman lives a provisional existence in an American city far from her French home. Séverine leaves her sublet apartment as infrequently as possible: “I am an imposter here”, she says, “hiding behind a stranger’s furniture. … I simply arrived in this city and… curled into the smallest space I could find”. Despite herself, Séverine befriends a neighbour, Maria, and agrees to care for her dog, Chavez, while Maria is away. Chavez is a “beautiful beast”. Among many other things, he represents for Séverine that somehow consoling “natural violence” which is central to so much of Rowe’s work. With the turn of the season (terrestrial as well as spiritual) from winter toward spring, Séverine introduces potted plants to her adopted apartment: “Chavez ruins the ones he does not care for. Or perhaps he ruins the ones he cares for too much — this issue of translation persists.” There is, in this story, a shift in Rowe’s representation of a shared human-animal life, one that does not necessarily result in ruin. Unlike the foxes who come to the fence to be fed or, as in another story, ‘The Once-Drowned Man’, the “goldfish you win at the fair… [which] always seem to stay runted”, Chavez, a “wolf-dog”, has retained his intimate connection to the wild and his being remains, in some vital sense, untranslatable. It is this connection as much as anything else, this re-wilding in company with Chavez, which begins to restore Séverine.

And yet Chavez is only one of the wild forces that shape Séverine’s life. Others, more human, increasingly horrifying, do damage where a wolf-dog would console and speak truth to the lie of certain varieties of ‘civilisation’. Forced to leave her apartment to buy food, Séverine reflects on, and seeks to counter, the distress of supermarket shopping: “The enemy is choice, or rather the appearance of choice — so it is a matter of restricting the influence of the appearance of choice. Simply, I will buy for myself only what is located between the entrance, the pet-food aisle, and the checkout.” Elsewhere, Séverine considers the disquiet caused by the speed of a contemporary, tech-driven life:

There is a part of the self which is not yet caught up to the aeroplane age, part of the self which must journey as if by sea, while the rest of the body and brain and — soul? Fine, okay, I will say ‘soul’ — might move at whatever absurd speeds we demand of them, at 500 knots amid prepackaged meals and magazine advertisements for singing toothbrushes. Or perhaps it is precisely the soul that is so slow, that travels at such a lag?

Technology — aeroplanes, microwaved meals, singing toothbrushes — forces us to live at wildly unnatural speeds, in wildly unnatural ways. But it also enables Séverine to work far from home, in isolation. And it allows her to roam the internet, watching videos of terror hostages, some of whom, still alive, have begun a slow return to the elements: “their skin, along with their expressions, has taken on some elemental likeness — stone, or earth, or closely grained wood — as if to chameleon to their particular surrounds, or to separate themselves completely from undependable flesh and blood”. In distress, humans adapt to their environments. They seek strength from natural forces more powerful than flesh and blood, more reliable than the body: stone, earth, wood, and elsewhere water. In ‘Real Life’, a woman keeps a “thumbprint-sized piece of scallop shell” in her coat pocket and, over autumn into winter, wears it down until it is “fingernail-smooth”. “How many years of ocean, of tumbling waves would that have taken?”, she wonders. “I felt mighty as the sea, having worn it down like that with only my nervous energy.”

But there is, ultimately, another wildness that conquers the human-non-human divide. It is a wildness that shapes the lives of both Séverine and Chavez, as well as all the other characters that populate Rowe’s cosmic universe. It is a volatile, uncontrollable force that makes all of our lives fragile, unpredictable, and, also, beautiful. Séverine has learned the hard way that “[d]isaster does not care to seek us out; it simply is, and we are, and we meet along some terrible axis we are too small and too stupid to understand”. So she “hold[s] to Chavez [and waits] for whatever underlying forces to shift again, or cease shifting”. Like Séverine, who has left home to grieve in a strange place, in ‘A Small Cleared Space’, Naoishe travels to an isolated cabin to be alone after disaster. To get to the cabin, she must cross a frozen lake, even though she is uncertain if the ice will hold her weight. “But”, she reflects, “there was something satisfying, even comforting in the magnitude of surrounds, the physical apartness. It seemed important to feel small”. And again elsewhere, the once-drowned man remembers being taken to the circus as a child:

The trapeze woman’s smile had grown savage as she’s twirled — was twirled — faster and faster, unfurling her willowing sleeves and letting sequins rain down like sparks. The sequins had seemed to spill straight from her veins, biblical, falling into our hands, into our… hair, glinting onto the parched pine boards beneath our feet. There must have been no net. For the sake of seventy-five people in a small village I promise you’ll never hear about, there was no net, and the trapeze woman had smiled in spite of us, or because of us, or to damn us all to eternity exactly where we stood.

Of course, there is no net. Our bodies are small and unreliable. They are fragile. If they fall, they also break. And because of this our blood can darken with a natural — or other — violence. We are made savage by fear, but also, and in other ways, by the unnaturally sterile world of our own making. With aeroplanes and singing toothbrushes we have sought to forget this, as the narrator of ‘Real Life’ describes it: our homes, like swallows’, are “built with pellets of mud and grass and shit and fur — that’s what’s holding everything together. That’s what’s holding everything together.” We like to believe that we’re holding everything together, so we delegate a frailty we should own. We watch a woman twirl without a net and gasp at her staged wildness when, as the once-drowned man says: “Nature shouldn’t be like that, nature shouldn’t have spectators”.

What would happen if we were to accept that there is no net, that we are small, and the forces which hold the world together, in which we struggle to make our home, are great? Here Until August suggests so many ways of thinking through this question. Although her characters are often out of place, where the ground shifts wildly beneath their feet, in this beautiful beast of a collection, Rowe writes from a position of clear, if quiet, assurance. Yes, we are small. But it’s because we are small that the ice — with its “unlikely architecture” — can bear our weight.