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

By | 1 November 2015

I’d agree with this, but would add that narrative is actually a series of spaces the reader negotiates along with character/s. In some senses, this is a meticulously constructed engagement with narratorial spaces. The house becomes the body becomes the story. Shelter is inseparable from movement: we move from shelter to shelter. We polysituate ourselves with each sheltering, each space of sleeping and contemplation of our situation and condition. Even when we have lost liberty and are forced into spaces of habitation, they become our points de repère. This is a novel about abandoned and lost points in life narratives, and points that are impending or latent (but always active in themselves). The story of Anna and Kit, mother and daughter, is one of reconciling these disparate elements in the spatial narrative: a reconciliation that is like forcing the same polarities of a magnet together. They repel for all the (material) properties, all the embodiedness they share. The constructed spaces collapse and make a vacuum, which is the result of all colonial enterprises. Figuratively speaking, I am reminded of the music of Einstürzende Neubauten (the name translates as ‘Collapsing New Buildings’) and their wry, beautiful, even strangely disturbing lyric from ‘The Garden’: ‘You will find me if you want me in the garden / unless it’s pouring down with rain’. I see Patrick looking into the house. I see Kit stepping out of the window of her mother’s childhood bedroom into the early morning light before the others are up. To encounter Patrick. To encounter the failure and energy of the past. Room by room.

Further, in another snippet of the Sydney Morning Herald article, Sullivan says that it was during Gorton’s time at studying Donne at Oxford that ‘her facination with rooms and spaces developed further: “I love the way Donne plays with space. He has people imagined in rooms set in the cosmos and then he flips them inside out.” Donne was writing at a time when the new cosmology was throwing everything into doubt: “We have these brief astounding lives and it’s so overwhelming we have to set up structures for ourselves. Rooms are a way to imagine emotional structures like habits.”‘ Yes, I can see this in The Life of Houses. But the rooms of this book are vulnerable and bothered even in their certainties. The new cosmology is also in the mobile phone and in the fetishisation of art, of God. The house is not the teleology you expect when you first encounter it. It is more blurred than the specificity of the writing admits. In the same way that the most acute descriptions entangle with the haunting generic, so the house is simultaneously vague and specific, realist and abstract – as are the lives that pass through its rooms. When Michael Dransfield wrote of his obsessively necessarily imagined ‘Courland Penders: going home’, ‘The gale outside anthems a dead family’, I find the anxieties that tread the halls of this novel. It is a work of archetypes shifting on their foundations, of the animus and the anima struggling to assert themselves with neither able to force itself into the space, into the coordinates of what constitutes ‘place’ and its collapse.

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