Thursday, March 22, 2012

Death, Sleep and the Traveler by John Hawkes

Death, Sleep and the Traveler is a bit of a rarity when it comes to John Hawkes’s fiction: the plot can be understood at the first reading. That’s not to say I know what the book is about: it is as allusive and dense as ever; it’s just that it isn’t veiled in narrative mystery like everything else of his that I’ve tackled so far. Frederick Busch says of him: “Hawkes is our dark dreaming map-maker. What is underneath is his province... He is the necessary haunting of our house.” That seems to get to the heart of this troublesome writer. He is hard work, for sure, and at times I despair of finding a light to guide me through his opacity, but he does write of troubled times and troubled people and troubled mores, and that’s what writers need to do, isn’t it?

But here, at least, Hawkes’s themes are up-front. Indeed, they are in the title. Allert, the main character, is Dutch. He is on a cruise. His dreams are of life and death, increasingly intermingled. There is death surrounding him, but not his own. Here we are, then: the Flying Dutchman made flesh, and Allert is our helpless wanderer through the tribulations of life. He is sent on the cruise – alone – by his wife following the death from a heart attack of the third partner in the couple’s highly sexualised ménage à trois, Peter. On the cruise, however, Allert meets and becomes involved with the mysterious and libidinous Ariane. Once again, he becomes a participant in a ménage à trois, Ariane’s affections being simultaneously sought and won by both Allert and the ship’s wireless operator. But once again, however, death interferes with this traveller’s peregrinations.

And that, in broad terms, is the plot. So what does it tell us? Sex, in this novel, is an ambiguous act. It is at once intimate and public, erotic and mechanical, romantic and pornographic. It is as though the act itself is some sort of mutation, capable of beauty but leaving behind it – perhaps even creating – some residual malformation, some necromantic juju which begins to attack the soul. Life, death, consciousness, sex, contentment, oblivion, they begin to meld and become indistinguishible one from the other. It’s a dark view of love, it must be said, but you don’t come to John Hawkes for lightness.

In the end, it all begins to take us into gnostic territory: life is something to be endured, an ambiguous state in which nothing is as it seems and even the transitoriness of the sexual act isn’t truly transitory because all of this is part of the eternity of existence, the gnostic life-as-hell. Allert even tells us at one point that myth – the original historical repository of all that is human – can “only be experienced in coma”. If, as I believe, myth is the original mimetic reflection of our humanity, then this statement can almost be read as a negation of life itself. While the context of the passage in the novel – Allert and Peter are discussing psychiatric interventions which are so extreme they take the patient to the point of death itself – is significant, even suggesting, perhaps, a partial inversion of meaning, it presents, for me, an uncomfortably morbid view of life. Interestingly in a later interview, Hawkes agrees that he is in accord with his character’s sentiment, going on to suggest that “myth is precisely that traumatic, that powerful, that real, that devastating”.

Well, if you like your worldview this dark then John Hawkes is the man for you. Me, I like to hold on to the vaguest notion of hope. I’m that romantic.

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