Gail Jones – Dreams of Speaking. North Sydney, Vintage. 2006.
Gail Jones’ third novel Dreams of Speaking was long-listed for the Orange Prize. It was also short listed for the 2007 Miles Franklin Award in Australia. However, this seems to be one of those books that people either love or hate. A cursory glance over reviews shows that readers find it either sublime or awful.
This was one of the most delectable reads I have had in a long time. The language was haunting and its idioms and rhythms stayed with me between reading stints, almost as if my mind had taken the tincture of Jones’ prose. I wonder whether it is a ‘poetry-reader’s novel’ because, although there is a distinct narrative in Dreams of Speaking, it is interspersed with lyrical meditations on the nature of our experience of modernity (and hyper-modernity), that approximate haiku in their capacity to seemingly arrest time in their intense focus on details of the outer world.
The novel follows several months in the life of Alice Black, an Australian academic conducting research for project that was “presumptuously titled The Poetics of Modernity.” She leaves Perth for Paris, where she meets her estranged lover Stephen, presumably there on some other philosophy-related research. Stephen attempts to rekindle their relationship, but Alice, who seems almost obsessively concerned with her own aloneness, is having none of it. In her own mind she is not there to be with him but to “study the unremarked beauty of modern things, of telephones, aeroplanes, computer screens and electric lights, of television, cars and underground transportation.” Her project is to articulate the relationship between our mental life and these plastic and metal extrusions, the digital and human circuitry of our world.
Meanwhile, Alice forms an unlikely, serendipitous friendship with Mr Sakamoto, an older Japanese man who speaks impeccable, literary English and who is working on a biography of Alexander Bell, the inventor of the telephone. He is a survivor of the bombing of Nagasaki and embodies the trauma of a vaporised world, as well as a quiet optimism and determination to adapt and thrive. The two meet, appropriately, on a train, and commence a friendship that is at first tentative, but which deepens to the kind of shared mental life that characterises our most cherished connections.
The paradox of Alice’s project is explored on many levels, hinted at in the novel’s title. We dream alone, in the submarine spaces of our consciousness, yet the impulse to connect, to share a common language and cross the boundaries of our separateness – in short, to speak — is what binds us. This tension between the need for individuality and the need to belong, the need, in our crowded lives, for a space of our own, and the need for community, is the thread upon which Jones strings her narrative.
The novel opens with an image of an astronaut moving slowly in space, tied to the mother ship and hence, tenuously, to Earth, “smitten by world-historical symbolism and the gaze of too many invisible cameras.” Alice loads astronauts with a special, individual significance: “They belonged to moments of dismay and quiet estrangement. Alone in their silent worlds. Completely alone.” The astronaut becomes Alice’s avatar, as she, too, is only tenuously connected to her family, who are working class and uneasy about her academic interests. Her sister Norah is a painter, but her role in the narrative is almost as a living reproach, as it turns out that she survives a brutal cancer while Alice is away, and which she keeps secret from her bookish, abstracted sister. In Alice we see the irony of studying the modern methods of communication and connection – travel, telephones, email – and in the meantime sealing one’s self off from immediate, local concerns, in a way only made possible by contemporary, mediated life.
Dreams of Speaking is driven by ideas: connection and isolation and the ways in which our experiences of modern life are a series of apparent contradictions. We live in cities among proximate strangers; we experience unprecedented atomisation and speed, in societies held together by devices designed to connect and communicate across vast distances. Our lives are defined by communities that are themselves disparate, scattered, mediated by telephones, mobile phones, faxes, email. Families and friends become disembodied to each other, mere voices or images on a screen. Lives trace “lines of flight” and take off — Jones’ prose is lit up with references to vectors, flight, travel and time zones. As Alice comments as she lands in Perth, at the airport “everyone seemed to dial on a mobile phone as soon as they left the plane. Such frail cargo. There was an urgency in saying yes, we have arrived safely from the sky … from the other side of the planet.”
And this is the heart of Jones’ novel, that in the midst of this increasing sense of rupture and separation, there are surprising points of intersection and intimacy, brokered by the very technologies that serve to disperse and accelerate our lives. Alice and Mr Sakamoto, from different languages, histories, and eras, bond over the shared mass culture of Hollywood film. Similarly, Mr Sakamoto maintains a profoundly sustaining relationship with his Uncle Tadeo, almost exclusively by phone: “Their voices floated into each other, in a disincarnate embrace.”
In many ways, Jones’ novel is a paean to friendship and the solace we find in the space made between two selves who are able to offer each other both recognition and difference. Alice and Mr Sakamoto share conversations, dinners, walks, and a growing narrative of their shared sense of loss. In Mr Sakamoto’s case, it is the world of his childhood, so abruptly destroyed by the shocking arrival of the new in the form of the atomic bomb. Alice goes to visit Mr Sakamoto in Nagasaki in the later part of the narrative, but only arrives to find that he is ill and that she cannot see him. She visits instead the museum built in memory of the A-bomb and its victims. Jones takes a risk in using Nagasaki in her novel, as such devices from world history carry with them an impossible weight. But Jones’ narrative of Alice’s visit to the Nagasaki memorial is understated and subdued. Despite the sustaining nature of Alice and Mr Sakamoto’s friendship, Jones’ protagonist recognises the limits of even the most well-intentioned attempts to get inside the consciousness of another: “She was a stranger here, she knew nothing, she could only guess. She could not enter into Mr Sakamoto’s experience.” The lingering image of Nagasaki is of an “autograph of death”, “the shadow of a man and a ladder, imprinted by the blast on a wall.” This speechless hieroglyph is Jones’ closing remark on the human suffering unleashed by the A-bomb — a case of modern technology standing in contrast to the more benign inventions that are Alice’s concern.
Despite this horror, Jones ends her story on a positive note. The elegiac tone of the novel remains, but Alice comes to an accommodation with both her separateness, and her responsibility to others as the price of community. She moves out of her atomised privacy into a recognition that it is the search for connection, for “speaking”, that haunts us. In a closing scene, the photographs and knick-knacks on her parents’ mantelpiece trigger her realisation that it is affinity, rather than complete mutual comprehension, that we have to settle for: “The immediacy of these things, these family things, these ordinary things knotted into the crisscross of four disparate souls, seized Alice with a force she was not prepared for.” It is this mixture of the intimate and the remote that Jones grapples with.
A Japanese aesthetic infuses this novel as it moves from epiphany to epiphany in prose that is like a continuous reverie, a narrative haiku. Jones’ prose is weightless and while I was reading Dreams of Speaking I felt suspended in a world of minutely observed things, each luminous in their private existence. A kind of clarity lights up this book – ordinary moments come into focus, and one feels gratitude. It is difficult to sustain a narrative in this style, but I enjoyed it. The novel suggests that the animating spirit of modern life is the persistence of unmodern things that we find sustaining – rain, sky, friendship, children, family, love.