Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Caroline's Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

At first glance Caroline's Bikini appears to be the fabled Adultery-in-Hampstead novel; the literary unicorn that provides a caricature of English middle-class fiction. It features Evan, a young London professional, who becomes infatuated with Caroline, the wife in a couple who give him lodgings in their attic flat in a wealthy district of London. Except, rather than setting out the expected love triangle drama of that fabled novel, this is about what happens when Evan insists that his copywriter friend Emily produce a novel as a record of his love and how she then struggles with the task when, in their many conferences in various artisan gin bars, there isn't much to report given that Evan never reveals his feelings to Caroline and, but for the physical effects of his lovelorn pining, life carries on more or less as normal. The major part of the novel is Emily's record of her attempt to record.

So it threatens to be about adultery in Hampstead only without adultery or Hampstead (the flat is in Richmond). One reader renamed the novel Waiting for Caroline because nothing happens more than twice over its 330 pages, while another reader in the same place says it feels less like a novel than "literary criticism of a piece of text" due to the second element that de-horns the unicorn: the author's introduction and the multiple appendices providing background to the characters and theoretical underpinnings of the book. Emily herself thinks the novel could be part of the tradition of courtly love poetry exemplified by Dante and Petrarch in which the work stands in for the love object; a form the introduction says "many regard as the largest kind of love story of all": the one that is unrequited. The link to Dante is clear, as the record of his love for Beatrice (a love returned only platonically) in the Vita Nuova is a combination of narrative, poetry and commentary on the poetry. 

Still, it's a disconcerting claim given that the comedic lightness of Emily's reporting is familiar from the tradition of metropolitan English fiction and has little in common with what Charles Singleton called the "sober and solemn and reasoned prose" of the Vita Nuova. Another difference is that Caroline remains alive during the novel's duration, which means, unlike Dante's and Petrarch's, Evan's love is never under the shadow of impossibility, so his feelings provoke impatient questioning from both Emily and the reader as he procrastinates and prevaricates in developing his story, which in turn emphasises two more major differences: that there is no lyric content to contrast with the narrative and commentary, and that the conditions of Evan's love are entirely secular.

One Dante scholar has argued that a central purpose of Dante's opposition of narration and lyric is to create a tension between the physical and metaphysical elements of the story, which meant contaminating timelessness with time. Emily's interminable detailing of gin bars and the various brands and flavours could stand in for the lyric dimension, except this also emphasises the quotidian absurdity of modern life, which is also the ground of modern fiction. It can place love such as Evan's only within recognisable social or psychological conditions, and those conditions within a generic format, which can only render Evan's love as deluded and futile, so lyricism could just as easily be attributed to the theoretical commentary, which at least offers some gravity to Evan's abjection.

So what about the secular conditions? Unrequited love is an experience, like grief, that sets the sufferer aside to contemplate their fate, which exposes them to an awareness of a larger process at work that isn't a staple of modern fiction, or at least a need for a larger process, and Evan does express the belief that fate led him to Caroline's door. It is a process that Dante in his love for Beatrice recognises as a sign of God's presence on earth. So while "the most secret chambers" of his heart trembled in Beatrice's presence just as Evan's does in Caroline's, it is because he senses that he is in the presence of "a miracle manifest in reality", that she is a midpoint between heaven and earth; a combination of pure intellect of God and the brute matter of bodies, a belief that emerged from Plato's account in the Timaeus of the harmony of the universe in which human nature in its best states – moral, philosophical, artistic – is said to be a microcosm of that harmony; an account that is more or less unintelligible to us. Perhaps then, rather than absurdity being the ground of the modern novel, it is the modern novel's inevitable product because eternity is never allowed to contaminate its narrative, though it does haunt each one. Evan's story concludes with an absurd act that is in keeping with the requirements of time.

At first glance then, Caroline's Bikini is a send up of the Adultery-in-Hampstead novel AND of the solemnity of the tradition to which it appeals, yet it is precisely in this distance and originality that it maintains the latter tradition. The ostensible story of unrequited love disguises the unrequited status of the novel itself; its existence standing in for a formal tradition that can never happen in the conditions in which the modern novel exists. Caroline's Bikini is thereby two novels: the novel we're reading with Emily's and Evan's gin bar conclaves and Kirsty Gunn's theological apologia in the form of metafictional appendices, and the impossible novel that Evan is unable to report. The one we're reading acts as a midpoint between the grounded material of Emily's report and our faith, however residual, in the metaphysical power of that ghost novel floating free in a realm of unintelligible harmony.


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