Re-enchantment with Realist Fiction – a response to Jon Bauer’s Rocks in the Belly

Is it just me, or does anyone else think it’s contradictory that we expect fiction on the page, stage or screen – through which we seek to escape the pain and tedium of existing – to simulate life as we know it (if without the boring bits)? At the risk of sounding jaded, for some months (or even years) I’d been finding much new realist fiction so dreary that I couldn’t wait to escape back into my own humble existence. Was this a symptom of loss of innocence or marginal living (which alienates me)? Or, I wondered, are too many dud books flooding the market these days?

Suspension of disbelief, for readers of realism, relies on more than just authorial craft. Each reader’s unique construct of ‘real’ plays a part. Reality is as relative as truth is. And so if at times I fail to feel fear when others do (e.g. when lost or while exploring high rock ledges), that’s just what I’m used to. For instance, living close to a main road with no pedestrian crossing nearby mightn’t excuse jaywalking, but to me it’s timesaving. To others it’s a vice.

Not long ago, as my partner and I were returning from a late moonlit stroll, I stepped off the kerb a little too close to a bend in the road. By the time the headlights registered, the driver had been forced to slow. Even so, the ensuing long, loud horn blast struck me as over-reactive – the rest of the road was empty; why wouldn’t I be laid-back? – and as I stepped onto the far kerb I turned to give the wanker the finger… but seeing the blue-and-white chequered band on the side of the vehicle, I didn’t. Oops. I’d pissed a policeman off. He’d stopped and now sat watching me. I waited for him to wind down his window so I could read his face and respond. Later, I thought I should have felt fear if only because he could have booked me. But as we eyed each other I just composed a polite apology, adrenaline wiring my body as it used to in acting class when I had to become someone I wasn’t. And as I stood there preparing to improvise, the cop car took off.

My partner came rushing over. ‘He’s probably going to turn around,’ he said, sounding more alarmed than I felt. But adrenaline seeks release through fight or flight and so, in case he was right, we sprinted like two delinquent kids across the dark park to the gap-toothed fence and entered my flat via the back way. Some people meet police with submissiveness (a style that once spared my partner a ticket). I’d rather see them as equals. Others just can’t resist flirting with the power principle.

The narrator of Jon Bauer’s stunning first novel, Rocks in the Belly (Scribe, 2010), has more than one encounter with cops. Two alternating voices tell the story, a boy’s and a man’s – the same character on either side of a 20-year gap. In an early brush with the law (as a consequence of breaking it), the eight year old is so lost in acting out a detective fantasy that he’s oblivious to the depth of the shit he’s in, saying once sprung, ‘Beat it, cop. I’m on a case.’ What’s most telling (and troubling), here, is his dissociation from fear. At 28, he’s guilty of a more serious offence when the law calls. He’s also more in touch with his feelings, though he’s tried not to be. Yet despite his palpable, visceral fear, he puts on an impressive act: he’s cordial, diverting, deftly dissembling, duly regretful, while thinking the cops are just public servants and he should get them to mow the lawn. And then, as they’re on the verge of leaving, he pushes his luck with one – the female. This is a character who never knows when enough is enough – as if because in childhood he never got enough nor was enough. His mother saved too much of her love for fostering the children of others.

Prior to reading this book, I’d become disillusioned with recent Oz fiction – a notable exception being Tim Winton’s Breath (2008) – and found myself turning more often to time-tested novels by dead authors, or at least those whose heydays predate the digital age. Likewise uninspired by most local lit crit (and aware enough of its politics to distrust its objectivity), I’d been listening to Radio National’s Book Show to hear how today’s authors sound – perhaps unfair to those more at home on the page than on the air. Yet that’s how I learned about Jon Bauer, who spoke with a rare quality of emotional honesty, which I therefore dared hope I’d find in spades in his novel (from which he read and which sounded compelling – not always the case with otherwise perfectly interesting Book Show guests). And Rocks in the Belly, while flawed like its hero, never let me down. This debut novel more than does justice to Bauer’s humungous, towering talent. If his abundant linguistic high jinks did at times distract me, I still revelled in his knack for showing emotions through actions – as when, with chilling smugness, the mother shuts the freezer lid on her real son, who later, burning with jealousy, thrusts his hand in the fire. Or, playing with his Transformer, a toy that converts from robot (Robert, the foster boy) to monster (himself), he fries the robot’s face, and the monster too gets damaged – prefiguring the novel’s central tragedy.

But poignant employment of symbols alone wouldn’t have made me turn pages. The question was less ‘What happens next?’ than ‘How far will this man/boy dare to go?’ When had I last felt so thrilled by genuinely character-driven fiction? I forget – but I know it should feel as unpredictable as Rocks in the Belly.

During my mid twenties I trained in the Method with an actor who used to say, ‘We are not copying life – we are creating life.’ Impulse was God. We used to do an exercise, ‘Sensory’ or ‘Sense Memory’, in which we’d focus on the feel of silk, the taste of a lemon etc. ‘Do it as if for the first time,’ our NY-trained teacher Candido would say. ‘If I was an alien how would I respond to make-up?’ I imagine he’d have made a great writing teacher. Even if he hadn’t told me (adding that we were alike), I always knew I lacked acting talent. Yet I’d never felt more alive than in that church hall where we trained. ‘I will personalise everything that happens to me on this stage!’ said Candy. ‘You’ve got to expose yourself as an actor. That’s all you’ve got.’ In life though, most people, writers included, do the opposite. Don’t take anything for granted, Candy taught us. Bauer knows not to. Film has changed the way we read: authors can skip details, trusting readers to fill in the gaps. Yet Bauer reinvents what we think of as familiar. By taking nothing for granted, he ensures that I don’t either.

In that scene where the cops question the adult narrator about an offence, neither he nor we know whether they know he’s wreaked a worse crime in the meantime. The suspense of waiting to see whether they’ll charge him for the former is compounded by the presence of evidence of the latter all around them. Will they notice before they go? The scene combines several far-fetched elements. Credibility gets stretched. That it doesn’t break is a testament to the realism of Bauer’s details. He keeps the reader plugged in to the sensory level; lets us identify. And yet his best, most emotive writing transcends his tight realist craft: ‘Just what she’d always wanted, some pit of need to throw herself into.’ Deep hurt revealed by sarcasm. Or, for a tender tone: ‘Everything held together only by the faint beating of our hearts.’

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