Lovesong – Andy doesn’t mind the backstreets of Paris, but he preferred the Stone CountryJune 26, 2011
Apologies for the delay. As Netty said, I’ve had some issues with my home computer. Even now that the computer’s fixed the problems continue – my post was completed last night, and I hit save… And when I returned to give it one final going over, my edits had been deleted and I was left with the couple of hundred words I’d started out with. So I gave up and drank beer instead.
The computer is only part of the reason for the delay. Alex Miller’s Lovesong, I’m afraid, just doesn’t fill me with the desire to wax lyrical. Nor does it fill me with loathing in the way Taleb’s Black Swan did. Lovesong is a good book – flawed, I feel, and not as good as Journey to the Stone Country – beautifully written, nicely constructed… And yet. It inhabits my literary landscape somewhere the positive side of “Meh”. If someone asked me if they should read Stone Country my response would be an unequivocal “Absolutely.” If someone asked me that about Lovesong I’d probably pull some weird sort of face and say, “Yeah nah, yeah, go for it. If you like.”
So yes, Lovesong is beautifully written and perfectly readable. It’s languorously paced, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing although I found myself wondering, sometimes, if Miller ever planned to do anything to ratchet up the tension and emotional investment of his readers. He does, but I’m not sure he does enough. Lovesong, obviously, is a love story, and there are elements to distinguish it from any other old love story, although there are perhaps too many elements that make it look a bit too much like any other old love story. I’m not sure, for example, that setting a love story in Paris (sigh) but then placing it specifically in a working-class suburb with a stinky abattoir down the street is quite enough to make it not a love story set in Paris.
That said, Miller’s evocation of working-class Paris is nicely handled. The last time I remember reading of this Paris was George Orwell, although I’m pretty sure memory fails me on that count. It is identifiably Paris, whether you’ve visited it in reality or not; but it’s also slightly alien, with its immigrant workers and their alliances and petty jealousies. And Miller does an excellent job of conjuring modern-day, inner-city Melbourne as well, with its changing streetscapes and its no-smoking-indoors cafes.
Miller uses Sabiha’s desire for a child to good effect in terms of building tension and driving the plot forward – once he gets there – but the domestic scenario itself isn’t terribly convincing. The couple’s love years later in Melbourne, barely glimpsed, is far more impressively portrayed than all those years in Paris. Perhaps this was partly Miller’s intention. Obviously there are unconscious strains in the relationship between John and Sabiha long before they come to the surface, the result of Sabiha’s desperation for a child (specifically a daughter) and John’s apparent lack of emotional engagement with the issue. I’m not sure Miller handles this terribly well. Is John a doofus? Apparently not, at least not when we see him in Melbourne. A doormat, as Netty suggests? Emotionally stunted? Perhaps there are elements of all three, and it is Sabiha’s betrayal that makes him the man we see in the Melbourne chapters. Yet John’s tolerance of the betrayal itself I’m not sure about either – is he really the kind of man who could accept this situation? Perhaps. Or, then again, perhaps I just don’t like books where people who love each other use the word “darling” all the time. Is that a Gen X thing? I don’t know. But “darling”? Fuck off.
I will also admit to a misreading, and a disappointment. Somehow, through the first half of the novel, I came to the mistaken understanding that John and Sabiha’s child, in Melbourne, was a boy. A quick check of the book’s first few pages reveals this, obviously, to be incorrect. Either I misread them or somehow I became confused. Bizarrely, though, I became convinced that Sabiha’s comeuppance would be that she would get her child – but it would be a boy. When I realised my mistake, I have to admit, I was a little let down. Yes, I know I’m strange.
Overall the Melbourne scenes are best, and the ones in which Miller shows a talent for humour I doubt he’s often noted for. I don’t remember Stone Country being especially funny, though again, memory may not serve. The scenes involving Ken’s daughter and her new boyfriend may be slightly slapstick, perhaps even a bit low-brow – but in the context that works perfectly. And Ken’s chats with John are very well constructed. His relationship with John, and with his daughter, are better handled than the relationships 20 years earlier in Paris. The only major weakness in the contemporary scenes comes, regrettably, at the very end. Ken’s insistence on dismissing John’s possible talents as a writer, and his chances of recording his own story, comes across as churlish and smarmy, given that he’s turning the story he’s been told into a book himself. If they’re meant to be ironic and unconsciously self-deprecating… They’re not. They’re meanspirited and, repeated on the book’s last page, left a bad taste in my literary mouth.
But. It’s rare for me to read a book, conscious of what I consider to be its shortcomings, and finish it having nevertheless enjoyed it. I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Lovesong – it’s rather better than a “meh” read, but not as much as I’d hoped – but it was enjoyable, and left me in no doubt as to Miller’s talents. Conditions of Faith and The Ancestor Game, I believe, are pretty impressive. I might read one of those next.