Finuala Dowling is one of the more interesting writers working within the white community in South Africa at the moment, largely because she is working for her own amusement rather than seeking to fulfil the expectations of a market in return for cash. Therefore it is possible to read her work without devoting too much time to identifying the familiar political buttons being pressed by the writer so as to manipulate the reader, and which are so irritating when one reads, say, Deon Meyer.
But since she is serving herself rather than market, it is natural that she should draw on her own life. Although Dowling’s life has been interesting enough to be worth writing about, it also leads to a certain repetitious self-consciousness — even self-indulgence — in her works. Also, where she is making use of painful memories, there is a certain manifest difficulty in what she is producing, a degree of blockage and distance between the creative writing and the material being utilised. This blockage is probably not artistic but is likely to be produced by Dowling’s own sense of hurt and loss.
This was already present in Home-Making For the Down-At-Heart, where she was writing about the dementia and death of her mother. She had already written most of a volume of poems about this, and the novel seemed to be a way of addressing the issue in a sustained way. The poems were usually short vignettes depicting her mother’s bizarre behaviour or utterances. The novel was a sustained depiction of decline and death (seen from the perspective of a person who had her own problems with coming to terms with daily life.)
However, both of these volumes managed to evade the essential horror of the issue by exploiting the dark, ironic humour which could be derived from living with someone who has lost touch with reality. As a result, although Dowling was managing to make the painful episodes of her life appear entertaining for the reader (and not so painful as to be difficult to read, which would have been commercial suicide) it’s a moot point whether the end product was therapeutic. Perhaps art shouldn’t be therapeutic.
So is this true of her most recent book, The Fetch?
Well, the work is interesting because it is an attempt to break out of the Hout Bay Bohemian-suburban environment which is the setting for her earlier novels. Instead it is set in Slangkop, an imaginary village across False Bay from Hout Bay, making it the mirror-image of her hometown. Daringly, in a sense, there is a tough, no-nonsense, elderly black person who acts as foil to the central character, a naïf librarian who stumbles into the inner circle of both the village’s only aesthete and the village’s only hippie.
But these characters are distinctly stereotypical and their interactions are not coherently motivated; nobody seems to have any real desire to do anything other than fulfil their role as defined by their status in the book. They bounce between each other like billiard-balls, remaining completely unaffected by being bounced (as when the hippie is obliged to adopt an abandoned baby). It is not really possible to engage with these characters as people; the problem isn’t so much that Dowling is trying to appeal to her audience, as that she needs these characters to provide a background for the central feature of the story which is the relationship between the librarian and the aesthete. Therefore, although the characters are supposed to be human, they are actually mechanical dolls.
The trouble with Slangkop itself is that it is not a realised place. There are occasional references to location and to events, but it is not a community; there is none of the subtle interaction between people which exists in small towns. Everybody is isolated, but this is not social commentary, it is rather a lack of development. Again, a place was needed to provide a background for the relationship between the central character and the aesthete, but it is not described in a way which would make the reader want to visit it, let alone believe that it exists.
The narrative is a series of vignettes, often stylised (as with the lone baboon which has lost its troop, which is obviously a metaphor for the doomed male homosexual character). The book is similarly fragmented into episodes which appear arranged to show the innocence of the central character and the way in which harsh reality crushes it. She does not understand the world, but the more she tries to engage with it by falling in love with the aesthete and then becoming his dogsbody, the more she is setting herself up to show that the world is not prepared to conform to her expectations.
This is a fair enough point. Of course, it is a very old story, the story of the romantic young person who imposes her own values on the world and thus manages to kid herself that she has attained her goal, when she is simply living in a fantasy. The person who tries to risk all for love — and it is always tempting to give in to the deliriums of desire — is going to be disappointed in the object of the love, because nobody is as perfect as a fantasy partner. The more the lover gives to the object of desire, the more the lover surrenders, the greater the eventual disaster is likely to be when reality breaks in. It is well resolved in the book; the aesthete is (of course) bisexual and runs off with a beautiful boy, and the beautiful boy is (of course) a psychopathic manipulator who steals all the aesthete’s money. It is a familiar white middle-class Cape Town story, and the bulk of it is the story of Dowling’s own disastrous marriage.
And then what? Dowling makes the librarian a rather hapless figure (actually everybody in the book is rather hapless, but she stands out in this respect), easily threatened by dangerous urban women her age in expensive outfits which they are more willing to take off than she is. This is slightly Jamesian (and in a way perhaps Dowling is trying to be a bit Michiel Heyns). For a contrast to this we therefore need a corrupt but fascinating central character, which it seems likely that the aesthete is meant to be. But in the book, he isn’t; unlike the corrupt milieu figures in Heyns’ Invisible Furies, Dowling’s aesthete isn’t sufficiently strongly constructed to bear the weight of being a tragic hero.
It seems likely that he is loosely modelled on some of the figures at the English Department at UCT where Dowling studied, some of whom tried to fulfil the role of being life-artists and big frogs in tiny artistic ponds. Slangkop, however, cannot provide a background like this because nobody there cares about aesthetics or life-artists, and the aesthete is thus suspended in a void; only his parties and his journalism exist to impress anybody (and what pitiful accomplishments these are, getting an article published somewhere or getting some pretty people to come and drink your whisky). Nothing that happens seems unusual or interesting enough to justify making this person the centre of attention. Therefore his fall, and his subsequent death from AIDS, appear both inevitable and insignificant; since the central character is no longer in love with him and nobody cares about him, and nothing he has done suggests that the planet is losing a giant talent or intellect, however much compassion Dowling pours into the last part of the text it still amounts to very little impact.
Again, perhaps this is part of the problem. Dowling seems, on one hand, to be offering a kind of tribute to her ex-husband. On the other hand, her ex-husband was himself a master of illusion, creating the impression of being a giant talent on the basis of very little accomplishment, so this is a fair representation. But it’s in a sense sad and squalid, and it’s never quite clear in the text whether the aesthete is indeed a no-talent, delusional loser, or whether he is indeed a great talent gone to seed and ultimately to waste.
Perhaps, then, Dowling is torn between the artistic need of the text and the truth of the material which she is dealing with. But still more important is the problem that she is dealing with her own sense of pain and loss, making it difficult for her to engage with anything; on one hand the other characters in the work are foils for the aesthete and the librarian, yet on the other hand if the aesthete and the librarian’s interaction is made too powerful then this opens all the wounds of her marriage. Thus if the book had been more of a success as a narrative, it might also have been horribly painful for its author — and maybe she wasn’t ready, or even able, to go there.
Maybe the moral of the story is that Dowling made a mistake in trying to do this in the first place. It’s an honourable failure; the book is reasonably well-constructed and written with Dowling’s customary skill and there is a lot of potential there, even if it has its trivial and manipulative side. But it does seem to be a failure, and the failure does seem to arise from trying to exorcise a ghost who simply won’t go away however much Dowling tries to drive him out.