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

1 November 2015

Carol Jenkins
Lisa Gorton | Photo by Nicholas Walton-Healey

I think making comparisons between Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses and other writers is somewhat distracting of the novel’s achievement. If there was another novelist who came to mind during my reading of this novel it was actually Virginia Woolf, though this was in a distant modernist way, and echoed my reading of To the Lighthouse of almost thirty years ago. (As I write, my partner Tracy Ryan, calls out from her study and reads a piece to me saying Lisa Gorton herself draws this link to Woolf – which I didn’t know when I read the book and thought it.) No, what came to mind was actually the ‘tension’ between ‘technical drawing’, representational painting and a late expressionism. My markers were visual, which might be assumed, with Anna running a gallery and the subtext of the novel being representations of the actual world as aesthetic, and how much they don’t translate. Scott’s drawing of Kit is wrong and he knows it, and so does Kit, but in telling a lie about her it also tells her a lie she needs to hear. In that liminal dubious way he interacts with her, giving a snowball effect (in a hot climate) to rumours of impropriety with the teenager Hugh he’d also sketched in school uniform, board shorts, and various states of ‘naturalism’; though the subjects were dressed, in the sketches the capturing of skin, hair and flesh is more exposing than the naked body – juxtapose to the ‘life drawing’ classes and the indifference of the model, and Kit’s fascination with the colour of her breasts). Patrick’s being something of a forger who taints the family name in odd and abstracted ways is also a disclaimer that affects the way the reader interprets and absorbs the visual in the book.

Though possession of place may seem stable, and there is only one specific reference in the book to the land being stolen (from Indigenous people), the fact of a distorted seeing gives a sense that all is in fact far less stable than it seems. Things are described with clarity – description of place is anchored in known coordinates that remain firm through memory (Anna’s; Treen’s by implication) and the here-and-now (Kit’s encounter with place configured through absence and expectation, and Anna’s re-encountering and finding things more like they were than she was ready for) – and yet are often deceptively ambiguous. The house is stability, but the kitchen has been modernised in a dysfunctional way, and the neighbour (Carol’s husband) is eyeing the property off for development (Anna resents the strip of land not having been sold off to fund her art education in London). The coordinates of the plane, of the cube, of the cuboid, of the parallelogramic qualities of rooms and the plasticity of the house itself, the block it sits in, the sea and paddocks that surround it, the lines of connection that are beaches and roads and railway lines, are offset by the uncertainty – the history of a place and its lives that can’t be finished (Audrey haunting the children’s presence in the house with her unfinished or even unstarted writings, as much as Patrick’s ghost riffling imaginations and acting as sentinel to the real history of the house). In the ‘close-up’ descriptions, I am interested in repetitions of the generic ‘tea-tree’ (always a local name for another species, in this case I am assuming a coastal melaleuca), the ubiquitous dune/s which operate/s disturbingly as a singular notion of separation from a sea that is not always seen but is always heard.

Space is inside and outside, and you fill your spaces. Interiors are as important as exteriors, and it is within that the unsettled look for grip – in an object (the black painted table of mourning, or the four-poster bed) but all objects are strangely alienating as well. In terms of pioneering mythology, this work serves as an example of the grotesque, and maybe the ‘weird melancholy’ located in Adam Lindsay Gordon’s work, and the painting that led Marcus Clarke to name this characteristic in the first place. What I am interested in is space, which is clearly a major ‘theme of the work’, not only how it is used and how it is conveyed or how it is described, but rather in how it is configured and the politics of this. To portray space requires multiple coordinates always active, and Gorton takes us across the plane of the page, following a pencil stroke that will not render what we are seeing, or think we are seeing. The angel painted from the ‘realistic’ feather of a chicken. People seeing our mothers in us when they have never seen the father.

Ancestry is a spatial act of association and the desire for a place in a scheme of assurance – against the state, against other families, against history itself – the tracked and pursued line of inheritance assures us there’s substance to the foundations. The Ozymandias Sea House reassures by its past but is also equally assured of its (failed) future. New houses are begun, as much in the utility and middle-class comforts of Anna’s city dwelling as in the (inevitably) tacky residential development Treen will become one with, in her becoming town, community, place. This Deleuze and Guattarian becoming echoes throughout the book, as much as the rhizomes of art position cartographically – and for me, all maps are untruths. Anna fears Kit has fallen victim to Scott; Peter wants Kit to be inspected by a doctor, though he knows her not at all; and Kit asserts her independence and resists the twisting of what happened. But she has the evidence of encounter. The drawing – the lake, eye that the sea is not, knows; but the ‘white long-legged bird’ (again, without species identification – a generic entity of transfiguration that’s nonetheless anchored in place) is witness (stilled, figurative, ontological sign) to an inner turmoil.

So space is witness in this work, and not just a geometry. It is a witnessing through configuration. It is a spatial metaphysics in which the low-key plotting – city/country, life/death, suspicion/reality – unfolds in a simulacrum of real time. No more could happen in this novel than happens – no more should. It is enough. It is enough because the body and place, the body and space (that it occupies, where it is, how it is seen), are in constant dialogue, providing a tangential series of plot points in which a wonderful curve of connection and disconnection, encounter and refusal is constructed. Constructed. It’s a three-dimensional configuration and I could draw a bubble chart showing where events lead to subtexts that branch and branch again. The more specific an observation, the more close-up, the less precise it becomes, the more open to expressionist interpretation, even abstraction:

Now seeing them turn their backs, she felt herself to be nowhere. Her hand on the arm of her chair, that freckle on the back of it: she remembered primary school, holding her two hands up to her face. That freckle had meant her right hand. This body, her own, but she was not here: not her, was in the room, with them. Something had happened: somebody had died. (p. 62)

And I offer, as further evidence, that this book of space and place is actually about a tangent to ‘reality’ (to actuality) with this:

She said: ‘We’re never anywhere. One is a dream or the other. This is real and then I go home and you’re nowhere. You’re saying it’s simple but that’s what we haven’t been’ (p. 75)

This comment of Anna’s to Peter ripples through Kit’s less sophisticated and formative senses of self in her grandparents’ house, in her interactions with others in the small town. An act of defiance such as buying a packet of cigarettes, with its visual health warning, and her thoughts of her own body as Patrick is dying and her consciousness of this, is a case of ‘this is real and then I go home’. All but her mother and the unseen father – Matt (with his grasping father) – are unreal to her, and she questions the very reality of her mother because it’s the only way of defining herself (or, maybe, through not-being-Miranda!). This, if you like, is her first step to her mother’s London; it is an awareness that the certainty of catching public transport to school, of looking at photos on her phone, are as certain and uncertain as the ghost of the murdered girl. It is notable how self-tormenting this book is in its understated, steadily paced way.

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