The Collapse of Space: On Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses

By | 1 November 2015

Again, back to the visualisation of space. Full spaces are empty, narrow dining rooms are (too) full, the light in the painting changes and breaks out of its palette. One is dealing with the harsh, washing light: with the loss of focus and the new clarities. We read of shaded eyes; we read of the sea that ‘(o)nly the light has made it vast’ and of ‘painted over blankness’ (p. 114). The authorial voice travels with the indirect discours(ing) of the character – of Anna and here, Kit – they are so different, even at loggerheads (as Audrey and Anna are), but are so much and too much one and the same. Is this learnt behaviour, is this genetic, is this familial programming, is this all of the above and more? Is it the house? Is it the myth of colonial Australia imposing its schools of painting, its revisioning of the European under duress in a defamiliarising place (no matter how much developers ‘tame’ it)? If there is an ars poetica paragraph in the book, it is, for me, this one:

Dirty sand, a smell of oil and seaweed, everything crowded and vacant: this every loose-end hour. She had no place, did not exist in it. The shaver in her bag, the stuff on her face – and after that, what? Her despair extended to everything she looked at: useless, immense, a painted scene.

In her defiance, in her rite de passage, Kit must try to geolocate in order to keep a grip on the real. Yet she is in this strange (and I use the word selectively) familiarised place – she is an alien in the vaguely familiar, she is left with nothing out of a paradox. She wishes to grow into ‘woman’ yet clings to ‘girl’ – okay, we’d expect that. But what surprises is the annihilation of space as part of her existential teenage angst. What would be predictable becomes body-dysphoric. Body has no outline, no sketch, no place. Even a wrong (flattering?) sketch is better than none. The family comes together to fall apart. Send a text to London. Reach for the absent father? And the absent maternal grandfather – the failed and fallen forger and Jesuit priest. Anomalies. ‘The house will be yours one day,’ Patrick said.’ Hers? What can this mean? She will occupy a place she feels estranged from, frightened of, that is ‘violated’ by the Scott ‘encroachment’ in which ‘nothing’ happened? What is he doing there? (It reminds me of the Tom Waits song that has that wonderful refrain, ‘But what’s he building in there?’).

Patrick is the liminal male outside lines of inheritance: ‘Her grandfather stepped with a sleepwalker’s familiarity between the drawing room’s small tables.’ (p. 127). And that room is full of things: ‘Crochet antimacassars on the armchairs; tasselled Persian rugs the size of doormats: the room had a layered indoorness: it absorbed sound.’ Indeed, it absorbs history and consequence as well – it seeks to placate but bothers and leaves discomfort. Houses do – they collect. Yet Kit finds her liberations outdoors; Anna finds hers ‘closed in’ – her prejudices, fears and ways of seeing (the curatorial space of the gallery – right down to ‘capturing’ a Rover Thomas for her rich father-in-law … exported to London as part of the sell-out that’s also the foundations of the house – theft and forgery). We read: ‘Closed in her car, she felt recovered enough to call out … ‘ Her past, the spectre of Scott and his ‘failure’, his coming back from the world neglected and even abandoned, cast as (and becoming?) ‘incestuous’ within the town in a way that we don’t quite register with Treen, who has, strangely (again), undergone a similar-different journey.

Where do we go when we occupy someone else’s space? This stolen land? Even the hospital where Patrick is dying, where the whole family (sans Matt – the ‘other side’, and not of the blood), are closed in together in the unfortunate ‘family room’ – was once partly a house, a space taken over. The tensions rise. We read: ‘The hospital itself – it had been someone’s house once.’ (p. 179) Then Anna is back at her childhood house with its memories (her tutu performances, her ghost, the sea you can’t quite see), with its embodiment of her body (her betrayals, her lies, her decaying marriage). The body of the house is dying (‘Anna could still feel under her finger the crumbling wood, so eaten out it gave way like icing sugar.’ (p. 184) – Anna can’t force Treen to ‘draw’/sketch the same conclusion … there is a wilful painting of the now as death of the past) and Anna wishes to disconnect it from life support. Even good memories are tainted by the body of her life as is, the choices she made and the blames she apportioned. ‘Cautiously, like pressing a bruise, she tested what she felt, being back.’

But the house is not just Anna, neither is the place, and ‘(t)he house was keeping itself back from her.’ I found myself as a reader shifting between a female and male gendering of the house, and a neutral alternative. It is a prison of gender and outside gender at once. Like so much of this book, states of being and ideas of presence and (self-) identity are caught in stasis, a paradox and oxymoronic display of language and painting, of speech and internal monopoly, the indirect discourse of being. For me, the most frightening lines of the book, the sheer destructive exploitation of them, the rendering of place as object, the fetishised coup de grâce of self, come with Anna’s warped epiphany: ‘Following Treen down the hall she had found herself imagining the show she could put together, seeing the objects around her in the gallery’s clean clear light.’ The clearest lights are not the most truthful lights, any more than wrong sketches are actually wrong. There’s no quid pro quo of belonging, alienation, seeing and obfuscation. Anna needs to break the cycle of the house, of generations, of inheritance (although she is bypassed by the house going to Kit, she will still benefit, of course – restitution for the house not paying her back for inhabiting it!).

It seems appropriate that Anna has a further realisation about belonging and alienation in the dead space of a motel room, a motel built around a car park (car parks are spaces of ontological failure in the book – piazzas without community, overlays without the beauty of art – an art of the real that is confronting and deadly in its aesthetic implications): ‘So many other days have gone without a trace … I was right, she thought, all those years never to come back here. Here I can only ever be a child of the house.’ And Anna wants to be the child of no one – she longs for a control she can’t attain, for a partner who will support but not challenge her (the males in this book work intentionally as ciphers, and even Scott, who is shaded and textured, distresses gender embodiments), but she reaches an endgame in a motel room in her old town with a prospective partner who has essentially been neutralised by the imploding vastness of the space that emanates out of and around Sea House (though he has not been there).

Tracy has just emailed me a chunk of an article about The Life of Houses that ran in the Sydney Morning Herald on 18 April 2015. Jane Sullivan writes that Gorton’s ‘not so much interested in telling a straightforward story as in constructing spaces: houses, rooms, places where people search for a self that is not just based on how others see them, and where they shape their lives by a series of actions and reactions that turn out to have consequences. “I was wanting to work with a prose style that was very mixed up: memory and perception always jumping in and out of what you’d call action in a plot.”’

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