Metafiction – some reflections on Chris McLeod’s Man of Water

The first Facebook page I ever checked out profiled a high-powered travelling salesman. On his travel map he’d pinned 130 cities, where one assumes he stayed in bland hotels while doing business. The best places I’ve ever travelled to lie outside urban space (but then I preferred drawing to colouring in from a very young age). Still, Facebook, as some of us learned from David Fincher’s film, The Social Network, was designed for users not unlike that salesman. In his 21st-century survival kit for going digital, Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (2010), Douglas Rushkoff says:

‘We look at developing the plots and characters for a game as the interesting part, and the programming as the rote task better offloaded to people somewhere else. We lose sight of the fact that the programming—the code itself—is the place from which the most significant innovations emerge (p. 131).’

Substitute ‘narrative’ for ‘game’, ‘rule-making (or -breaking)’ for ‘programming’, and ‘genre’ for ‘code’, and the above statement relates to the way most writers, whether pros or wannabes, approach crafting novels – an approach conditioned by notions of what the reader, hence the publisher, wants. But, like most consumers, most readers are programmed in varying degrees by mainstream media. So how might you review a book by an author who’s rewritten the rules? By erring on the conservative side, unless your opinion is influential. And then, even if your response is positive, it’ll be more subjective than usual, because you lack precedents by which to measure it. Years of reading critiques of fiction at all levels on writers’ websites has shown me that fear of appearing stupid or ignorant can tend to fuel stupidity. In which case, it would make sense for novelists craving success to flatter their readers’ intelligence: ensuring those readers always feel they know more or less what’s going on. At the safe end of the spectrum, this produces the genre novel: as predictable as a sensual massage with a happy ending. At the challenging end of the spectrum you find Sterne, Joyce, Stein, Woolf, Faulkner, Beckett, beats such as Burroughs, postmodernists such as Pynchon, and more – less relaxing, sure, but their work has outlived them (or most likely will) to inspire each new generation of writers.

Someone, I forget who, said the novel is about ‘the way we live now’. Surely that’s a worry if it’s true? I’d hope the novel might also remind us of what we’ve lost, conjure alternate presents, and explore possible futures, or at least interpret ‘the way we live now’ diversely enough to include outside or fringe or un-PC viewpoints.

The protagonist of Chris McLeod’s Man of Water (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005) doesn’t use email or a mobile phone, or play video games. Throughout the novel, which is set mostly around the year 2000 in coastal Western Australia, Watt spends lots of time alone listening to rain. But then, he’s an old-fashioned kind of writer – a middle-aged boomer, a breast man, who’s holed up in a beach house where he’s struggling to write a novel and/or doctoral thesis, while casually bonking a younger, wannabe writer who lives one street away. Insomniac, coffee-swilling and creatively blocked, he goes out for a walk between showers to find himself watching in shock as a man and his dog are washed over the spillway of a nearby weir.

Haunting is a subjective experience. A novel I read soon after, Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece, Heart of Darkness (1899), for all the horror of its authentic account of the crimes of imperialists, hasn’t left as deep an impression as the abyss of Watt’s passivity.

And OK, I’m aware that the above comparison isn’t fair. You can’t read a text as famous as Heart of Darkness and not know where it’s going (though it surprised me more than I’d dared hope). Nonetheless, its three-part structure conforms to certain narrative conventions (and it was written to fit the needs of Blackwood’s Magazine where it was first published, in monthly instalments).

My point is, while reading Man of Water I never knew where it was going. Questions accumulate while answers remain elusive. Will the drowned man (or his dog) be found, or did Watt hallucinate him? How will Claudia react when Watt abandons her (as he plans to)? Will Watt’s friends object to his having neglected to maintain their beach house? As the narrative flows back and forwards, shifting from Freudian theory and dreams to Watt’s personal past and oeuvre (categories which overlap each other and also the past and oeuvre of the author), ever more questions float to the surface. According to Turkey’s best-selling writer, Orhan Pamuk, in his series of lectures The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist (2010):

‘Wondering about which parts are based on real-life experience and which parts are imagined is but one of the pleasures we find in reading a novel. Another, related pleasure stems from reading what novelists say in their prefaces, on book jackets, in interviews, and in memoirs as they try to persuade us that their real-life experiences are products of their imagination or that their made-up narratives are true stories. Like many readers, I enjoy reading this “meta-literature,” which sometimes takes a theoretical, metaphysical, or poetic form (p. 36).’

McLeod gives Watt an oeuvre more or less identical to his own, even reproducing a slightly edited story from Homing (FACP, 1990), McLeod’s first published collection. Watt shares McLeod’s year and place of birth and basic CV (according to various dedications and book jacket biog. details). Either McLeod doesn’t care if we confuse him with Watt (the selfish, unfit, unreliable, indecisive deserter of his first wife, their five-year-old son, and his own mother, whose slackness as a social worker once caused by default a little girl’s murder), or he wants us to think he doesn’t care if we confuse Watt with him. This incitement, or at least room, for us to assume that the author is telling his truth certainly raises the stakes when we read such pretension-busting statements as:

‘He had once been on a panel at some literary event where a fellow panellist had insisted on talking about what she described as the Kristevan construct of a feminist aesthetic of desire, or some such nonsense. He had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. She had nice tits though (pp. 19–20).’

Without knowing McLeod, I can imagine him chuckling at the thought of the sort of reader who’d take offence at Watt’s irreverence. McLeod’s alter ego (if that’s what Watt is) has more time for Freudian nonsense: ‘… if you follow psychoanalytic orthodoxy, he thinks, you are bound to come to the proposition that an author’s characters are all self-projections (p. 29).’ And, perhaps more tellingly, ‘Freud instructs: creative writing is wish-fulfilment in disguise, no more than a correction of unsatisfying reality … characters may be understood as the author’s doubles, projections of fantasies and ideals (p. 45).’ Would McLeod secretly like to be a bad guy, a user of women, unburdened by pressures to fulfil personal or professional responsibilities?

Which brings me to another of Pamuk’s observations (concluding a chapter titled ‘Mr. Pamuk, Did All This Really Happen To You?’):

‘Now, I should mention that this great joy of writing and reading novels is obstructed or bypassed by two kinds of readers:

1. Completely naïve readers, who always read a text as an autobiography or as a sort of disguised chronicle of lived experience, no matter how many times you warn them that they are reading a novel.

2. Completely sentimental-reflective readers, who think that all texts are constructs and fictions anyway, no matter how many times you warn them that they are reading your most candid autobiography.

I must warn you to keep away from such people, because they are immune to the joys of reading novels (pp. 54–5).’

Other joys to be found in reading McLeod include his always honed and lyrical yet never contrived-sounding prose. According to a more popular, more prolific Oz novelist, Debra Adelaide, writing with her uni tutor hat on for the SMH’s Spectrum, ‘[Adverbs] provoke the Dalek in me. Total extermination is recommended.’ Is that attitude symptomatic of too long spent marking too many half-arsed assignments? (If so, I can sympathise. A fellow student once dubbed me ‘the adverb nazi’, offended by my underlining of all the adverbs that padded, without adding value to, their work.) Apparently (!) unconcerned with fads, McLeod knows how to make each adverb count. In the following sentence, they finetune the image while also keeping a rhythm: ‘The lawn of the adjoining duplex is neatly, reprovingly mowed, its perimeter marked by six Cocos palms, regimentally spaced and aligned (p. 180).’ The reader’s knowledge that Watt has failed to fulfil his own lawn-mowing obligations only adds poignancy to this crisp description.

Man of Water is a novel about an author trying to write a novel. So it shouldn’t surprise the reader that resolution isn’t found in the plot (a kettle of red herrings as rich in irony as in evasions of all kinds). The resolution, such as it is, comes through the writing – as undisguised wish-fulfilment on the one hand and something darkly soulful on the other. How did McLeod arrive at this ending when Watt had several to contemplate? We can never know, and yet:

‘Maybe, Watt thinks, he should try to plot it out a bit more, write towards a known point. But that’s not the way he works, that’s not the way he has ever worked. The story will find its own path if he allows it to happen.

‘He just has to trust the process (p. 97).’

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