Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reading group: The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd

Warning: spoilers (in abundance).

This is a book about which we had to agree to differ.

Set in 1936 and the opening years of the twentieth century, and told in three sections, it concerns the approach of 32-year-old Los Angeles architect Kay Fischer by a stranger claiming to be her father, and the subsequent revelation of a love story taking place in Manila against the aftermath of the little-known American-Philippine war.

I don't normally reiterate in detail the plots of the novels we have discussed, but have found it necessary in writing about this one to look back in detail at the precise plot details of the first section, and to outline them here.

The first section is told in the first-person narrative voice of Kay, relating how in 1936 Los Angeles she is stalked and then approached by the scruffy, somewhat 'craven' and Latinate-looking Carriscant (though oddly he does have moments of seeming more prepossessing), not only claiming to be her father but saying that he needs her help. Kay has indeed been brought up by a stepfather, Rudolph Fischer, the second husband of her mother Annaliese, but her biological father was an Englishman, missionary Hugh Paget, who died in a fire in New Guinea when she was a baby. She dismisses the stranger and his claim, although, without mentioning anything of the matter to her mother, she quizzes her about her real father. Her mother repeats the familiar story, mentioning details, when quizzed, about Hugh's English family (all now dead). However, Kay notes from the photo of Hugh as a young man which her mother now shows her for the first time ever, that Hugh has fair hair unlike her own, and when she asks her mother at what time of day she was born, her mother repeats the time that Carriscant quoted in a bid to prove he was her father. Carriscant writes and asks Kay to contact him at his address, a cheap boarding house, saying that they 'must talk properly' and that 'there is so much to say'. She meets him, but he turns out to be not yet prepared to talk in the way promised - on the contrary he is considerably taciturn - and she experiences a reluctance to push him for information. He does however interrupt her small talk to tell her that he needs her help in tracking down a policeman called Paton Bobby, though he is mysterious about why. With the help of her ex-husband (their marriage failed after their baby was stillborn, but they still fraternise), Kay uncovers Paton Bobby’s whereabouts and then accompanies Carriscant on the train journey to Paton Bobby's home in Santa Fe. She is still in the dark as to the purpose, and even about Carriscant himself (he signed his letter to her 'Dr' but has cryptically mentioned that he's a cook, elaborating no further): ‘As far as this quest was concerned,' she narrates, 'he was reluctant to tell me anything’, and once again she makes the decision not to ask any further: ‘I did not want to give him the satisfaction of practising his maddening obliquity on me any more’. When they arrive, the reunion between the two men is puzzlingly emotionally charged, and a change comes over Carriscant: having complained of feeling sick with anxiety before the meeting, he becomes suddenly forceful. Angry at being kept in the dark, Kay now demands an explanation, but Carriscant still refuses to give her one yet. She retreats to the taxi, from where she witnesses a leavetaking in which Paton Bobby seems to have been crying.

Back in the car Carriscant shows her a photo of a public prizegiving, cut from a ten-year-old Portuguese newspaper he says he happened to find. He points to a woman in the picture and tells Kay now that this was his reason for seeking out Paton Bobby: he wanted Paton Bobby to confirm that the woman in the picture is the woman Carriscant suspects it is, and whom Carriscant had previously thought might be dead. (Paton Bobby has indeed confirmed this). Carriscant now asks Kay to accompany him to Lisbon to find the woman, though he has not explained even who the woman is, leave alone why he needs to find her (and Kay hasn't asked). Kay refuses, still rejecting the notion that he could be her father. However, she takes her mother to spy on him emerging from his boarding house (without explaining why), and witnesses such an exaggerated and inappropriate lack of interest from her mother in Carriscant himself, or in why they are spying on him, that she decides her mother does in fact recognise him, and she becomes convinced, for the moment, that he must be her father. By the time Carriscant next approaches her, however, with the results of a library search he has conducted into the likely circumstances and whereabouts of the woman in the picture (though his interest in the woman is still not revealed), Kay is unconvinced again and has had enough of him. He urges her further to go with him to Lisbon, and asks her to pay for the trip, and she basically sends him packing. Finally, however, after the house she has just designed and built has been sneakily demolished by a rival, she agrees to go with Carriscant to Lisbon. It is on this journey that Carriscant at last tells her his story, a story which Kay then retells for the reader 'allow[ing] myself some of the licence of the writer of fiction [and] embellish[ing] with information I obtained later and with facts gleaned from my own researches', and which forms the next, and the main, section of the novel.

It is a story beginning in 1902 Manila, concerning the adulterous love affair between the brilliant young surgeon Carriscant, unhappily married to Annaliese, and Delphine, the beautiful young wife of the American Colonel Sieverance. Set as background against this story is a crime investigation overseen by the American policeman Paton Bobby: the murders of two members of the Colonel's regiment and a Filipino woman, in which the bodies are butchered and roughly sewn up again, one of them found with a surgical scalpel planted beside it.

Clare, Doug and Mark are William Boyd fans, and both Clare and Doug have tried previously and unsuccessfully to get us to read Boyd novels, and this time Clare was successful. Introducing this novel, she expressed admiration for the standard of its prose, for its enjoyability and its depiction of human behaviour under stress. She found particularly good Boyd's descriptions of scenery and weather, and his ability to conjure a strong and vivid sense of place.

Doug nodded, endorsing her, although he didn’t think it was one of Boyd's best novels, and he liked the first section concerning Kay better than the story set in the Philippines. Trevor said he enjoyed it too but on the contrary he was much keener on the Philippines story - which culminates in a dramatic Romeo-and-Juliet-type bid for elopement involving a medically-induced death-like trance, a bid foiled by Carriscant's arrest for the murders.

Jenny said that she enjoyed the book too, but she would have liked things to have been tied up at the end. In the short third and final section, the novel returns to 1936 and Lisbon. Kay and Carrisant have found the woman he was looking for, Delphine, and now know what happened to her after she fled to Vienna without Carriscant but pregnant with his baby. She lost the baby and was later twice married and widowed, her past buried and never known by either of her two later husbands. Now she is living with a son from her last marriage, who is caring for her as she is dying. Carriscant is happy now that he knows what happened to her, his quest fulfilled, but as the novel comes to a close, Kay muses that much remains unexplained. Who, for instance, framed Carriscant for the murders? Was it Paton Bobby? And why? And who did commit the murders? Was it, after all, Carriscant's anaesthetist, whom Paton Bobby originally suspected since he was from a rebel Filipino family (but who had died in the maiden flight of the aeroplane he had built)? Was it, as Carriscant now suggests, his butchering surgical rival, Cruz, looking for body parts to practise on? Or was it, as Kay thinks most likely, Sieverance, removing his accomplices in the military atrocities she has now read occurred on the island? Or, this reader even wonders, was it Paton Bobby, since when Kay asks Carriscant in the first section why they are looking for Paton Bobby and who he is, Carriscant replies, " 'I suppose you could say that I'm looking for a killer." '? And, it now turns out, after Delphine's escape and Carriscant's arrest and incarceration, her husband was found dead, shot in the head. Carriscant tells Kay that during the private audience he has now had with Delphine, she revealed to him that Sieverance had been shot accidentally when, brought back by Carriscant from her death-like trance, she had slipped back to her home for the play she had been writing. Surprising Sieverance there, she had been taken for a burglar and in the ensuing struggle the gun he had armed himself with had gone off. But Kay doesn't believe him: there are things about the circumstances that don't hold water (Sieverance was found dead in bed, for instance). Did Delphine deliberately go back to shoot her husband in his sleep? Or - more likely from his manner as Kay quizzes him - was it Carriscant who killed him just before he was arrested? Kay cannot know and she decides: 'What good would my detections do, my reasoned detections? What do we know of other people anyway, of the human heart's imaginings? ... I had my theories, my dark thoughts, my suspicions, my version of events as they had unfolded all those years ago in Manila. But what does it matter?', and the novel very much ends with a sense of all being thus right with the world.

Trevor and Doug said that they had no objection to this: that's exactly how life is, you often don't know the truth of situations. I think that's true, and I like fiction in which the mode of telling acknowledges this. But I said I didn't think that this was that sort of novel: it very much starts out in the mode of a traditional thriller. The whole of the first section is set up as a mystery hingeing on circumstantial details, facts and missing facts, thus setting up in the reader traditional expectations of solution. It was as if, for me, Boyd was self-consciously tacking a postmodern ending onto a traditional thriller in a way that failed. Doug and Trevor, however, roundly disagreed with me, and thought that, simply by virtue of this stratagem, it was that sort of novel.

There was a deeper, more thematic failure of resolution and focus, I found. The first section, with its whole chapters devoted to Kay's rather unusual relationship with her ex-husband (she seems to despise yet mother him and they continue to have sex occasionally), the details and history of her work and battles as an architect and her personal uncertainties and aspirations - with one whole, if short, chapter on a visit to her dead child's grave - makes you think that the novel is going to be about the impact of Carriscant's arrival on Kay and on the other parts of her life. However all of this is abruptly abandoned. Others - even those championing the novel - agreed with this. Ann said that she couldn't see why Boyd needed the first section. Why, indeed, did Carriscant need to seek Kay out to help him track down Delphine? Trevor and Doug said, because he needed her to pay for the trip. Trevor did comment musingly that just contacting Kay for money would make Carriscant a pretty dodgy character, and at this point the group seemed uncertain as to what precise attitude we were meant to take to Carriscant, since in the second section the third-person narrative takes his point of view and has the reader gunning for him as an up-and-coming modern surgeon with old-fashioned and vengeful rivals, and for him and Delphine; at the end of the novel, while having certain suspicions about him, Kay clearly comes down on the side of empathising and sympathising with him.  If we are not meant to share this empathy, but are meant to view Carriscant ironically, then the reader's emotional investment in his predicament in the second section is squandered. In fact, looking back now through the novel I find that when Carriscant first approaches Kay he says he needs her forgiveness (as well as her help), but there is little sense of this in the following proceedings, and it's significant that it had slipped us all by. For a lot of the novel I thought that maybe it would turn out that Kay was Delphine's child, which would make her resonantly relevant to the quest, but it turns out at the end of the novel of course that Delphine lost the baby she was carrying when she fled, and that Annaliese had been newly pregnant with Kay at the point that Carriscant was in the act of leaving her (and then was arrested and incarcerated for many years). Clare and Doug protested, defending the first section for its psychological interest, though John pointed out to Clare that in her brief introduction she had called that section a kind of preface, and had said that the story begins properly with the second section, which she conceded.

I felt reluctant to pour cold water on other people's pleasure in a book, but literary honesty compelled me to say that in fact I had found the whole thing preposterous. Most obviously, I found the Romeo-and-Juliet-type elopement plot preposterous. Doug and Trevor would later object that the pair had been driven to desperate measures: in 1903 it would have been quite impossible for an adulterous couple to end up together in the small community of a foreign colony, they would simply have to disappear. I don't disagree with that, but nevertheless doubt the likelihood of them resorting to bottles of blood to fake miscarriage and ice-chests for lowering the temperature of bodies to fake subsequent death (John pointed out that Carriscant wasn't even sure he would be able to revive Delphine!). But also, unlike Clare and Doug, I didn't find the first section in any way psychologically convincing. I found Kay's attitude to Carriscant confusing and lacking conviction: at one point she would seem to be about to accept that he could be her father, and the next she would be refusing to accept any such thing. I didn't feel that I was being presented with the psychological conflict which of course in theory Kay would be likely to experience; that just wasn't there in the book and so the changes came over as inconsistency. Clare objected that it was there in the book, and pointed to moments such as that where Kay speaks of the 'curiosity' about Carriscant which is driving her. 'By now,' Kay says at one point on catching sight of him, 'the familiar aggregate of emotions coagulated inside me ... a tacky mass of surprise, curiosity, fractiousness and fatigue.' But the point is, she needs to tell us that; her emotions aren't properly dramatised and are conveyed via a mechanical reasoning that to me reads suspiciously like the author trying to justify to himself the situation he's set up. Conversely, at times the whole thing slips into melodrama, such as the following, which takes place not long before the Lisbon trip: ' "You are are not my father," I shouted at him. "Hugh Paget was my father. How dare you -"  "No, I am, I am, Kay!" he shouted back. "I am!" '

I said that as a result I found it preposterous that Kay should keep on meeting Carriscant when he is refusing to tell her anything, and complying with his requests for help (especially when at one point at the start he has said that he only wanted to talk to her, nothing more!), indeed even embarking on and paying for the trip to Lisbon without knowing the purpose. I found it ridiculous that, given that she does thus do so, and given her professed curiosity, she should at the same time feel reluctance to question him and accept his lack of willingness to talk. Ultimately, I also find it preposterous that Carriscant doesn't tell her anything until they are on the trip. Right at the end it becomes clear that the newspaper photograph was sent to Carriscant by Delphine herself when she knew she was dying, c/o the Milan hospital where Carriscant had worked. In fact, of course, he created an elaborate fabrication involving the now clearly faked need to have Paton Bobby's confirmation of the woman's identity, and trumped-up library searches. There was even convoluted discussion about the people present in the photo, and workings out of the implications of their likely situations. In fact, I didn't bother to follow these calculations: it was hard to apply one's interest when what one didn't even know the significance of the woman (for the same reason, I didn't find Kay's interest in them convincing), and one wonders if this prompting of reader inattentiveness allows the author to get away with the inconsistency. Kay, in any case, doesn't remark on the inconsistencies and fabrications now emerged, but merely asks Carriscant mildly why he didn't tell her that the photo had come directly from Delphine. He replies, ' "I thought it seemed more dramatic, more of a challenge the way I told it. Would enthuse you more" ', which smacks to me of an authorial bid to do the same, ie artificially setting up a sense of mystery merely for its own sake. If, on the contrary, this is meant to be a postmodern joke, then having worked to invest my attention in the plot details, I don't find that it works.

I also was sorry to say that I didn't find the book well written on the level of prose. I agree that Boyd is very good at describing place and weather, but for me this did not compensate for other difficulties. I found many sentences clumsy and careless. This sentence, for instance, contains a rudimentary error of repetition: 'It was little more than a smoke-darkened room with a long zinc-topped bar ... with a shelf above ranged with small dumpy barrels, with spigots attached...' (my italics), and there are several sentences throughout bearing this infelicity in sentence construction, leading to repetitive convoluted clauses. I laughed out loud at the following, in which we are told of the incompetence of Carriscant's surgical rival in removing tumours from tongues: 'Manila was full of mumbling semi-mutes with needlessly stumpy tongues as a consequence of Cruz's heavy-handed speediness' - not, I think, in a way the author intended. I also found the narrative voice of the first section uncertain and unconvincing. Kay's first-person narrative is by no means an interior monologue: she addresses the reader as an objective stranger to whom she needs to give an account of her history and the circumstances of her life, yet we are also party to the details of her sexual encounters in a way that would be more appropriate to an internal monologue. Others in the group however had no problem with this. I also found the prose pompous, as exemplified in the reference to Carriscant's 'obliquity' above. John agreed with me on all of these counts, and in fact he had been so put off by the novel that he had only skimmed it.

We discussed the title, The Blue Afternoon, about which some people were a little puzzled. As Clare and others pointed out, there are many references to blue throughout the book. The 'blue afternoon' is the afternoon on which Carriscant and Delphine first consummate their relationship, an afternoon of rain and sun when the light seems to turns blue (a phenomenon which is indeed beautifully conjured, and, by - for once - recreating Carriscant's transcendent emotional experience, primes one not to view him ironically). However, no one really knew what the significance of the blueness was, and I felt that, like the apparently postmodern ending, it was an attempt at a metaphorical mode that sat at odds with the thriller and adventure-story aspects of the novel.

Trevor said that the trouble was that it seemed that Boyd was considered a bit of a commercial novelist, and I didn't like commercial novels and was judging him by different criteria. I said that I understood that, on the contrary, Boyd was considered literary, and Clare then read out from the biography in her copy a list of the prestigious literary awards he has won.

Clare said that she had really enjoyed finding out about architecture and the making of early planes (chapters which I found research-heavy and tedious, the latter smacking of Boys'-Own adventure), and several people said they were fascinated to learn of the American-Philippine war, of which they hadn't previously known. (An old bone of contention in the group is whether one goes to fiction for factual information, which I certainly don't, but I didn't pursue this.)

Then people, chiefly Jenny and Ann, pondered other unresolved issues in the book. What about the elaborate lies that it turns out Kay's mother has told her, even showing her a photograph of the non-existent Hugh Paget! And why did she need to do that last, when she had told her that all the other photos were lost in the fire (ie couldn't all of them have been lost in the fire?) And who is the man in the photo? Why did she need to construct such an elaborate lie at all? And what would this would do to Kay's feelings about her mother and her own lied-to past? In fact, Kay considers none of the above questions; she simply sweeps it all aside as if solving a crossword puzzle, and as if no emotions whatever need be involved. What about the fact that, right at the end, Carriscant reveals that he is now running a restaurant in the Philippines, and is married with a family? How does this figure with his journey to Los Angeles and then Lisbon? And how does that fit with his down-and-out air, and the fact that Kay notices when she first meets him that there is grime under his fingernails? Come to think, this last doesn't fit with the personal habits of an ex-surgeon, either (especially one who in the past championed antisepsis!). The thought occurs: was Carriscant just a lying rogue, were the somewhat far-fetched events in 1902 just another elaborate lie? Had Kay just been taken for a ride? She does say that as they are leaving Lisbon
I was full of doubts, of conflicting versions and explanations of this strange and complex story I had been told. But at least I knew there had been a man called Salvador Carriscant and he had been in love with a woman called Delphine Sieverance. That much I could confirm, having witnessed it with my own eyes.
Is it another postmodern joke, wickedly and deliberately squandering the reader's investment in a tall tale? If so, the joke was certainly lost on us all: for one thing, as I say, having found it necessary to look in detail at the first section in order to examine how its elements are unresolved or contradicted, I discovered that some of those details had passed me by, and I, and I think others, didn't at first see some of the contradictions.

There is in fact a prologue to the whole book, in which Kay remembers sitting on another 'blue afternoon' with Carriscant mid-Atlantic, in which she unequivocally refers to him as her father and in which she narrates that Carriscant illustrated to her then the ease of cutting flesh with a scalpel by tricking her into cutting his arm with her eyes closed. (This seems heavily symbolic, but I'm not sure, in view of the uncertainties, of what. Is it meant to signify the ease of tricking people into significant action or investment, as he has tricked her, and as the author has tricked the reader? Do the closed eyes signify her gullibility in the face of a big con trick?). Ann wondered if, in view of all the other mysteries, it was another mystery of circumstance (deliberate or otherwise), as she had been left with the impression that in the scene Kay was a child. Had Kay in fact been with Carriscant when she was a child? In fact, this was a misimpression: the scene takes place on the boat to or from Lisbon, but I feel Ann's mistake was understandable and a function of the prose. In this piece, which we come to at the outset, trying to get our bearings about the situation, there's no hint of Kay's age at the time, or of the oddity of the relationship between the two characters, and indeed it has the quality of a long-ago memory. I see this as a narrative shortcoming, which indeed I also see replicated at the start of Boyd's better-known novel Brazzeville Beach, where, in spite of the carefully enumerated details of the beach and the political situation, we go for several pages without knowing who our first-person narrator is.

Finally Jenny said, And what about the fact that the down-at-heel Carriscant had been heir to a landowning fortune, which would have come to him when his mother died?

'Another unsolved mystery!' she said, ending the discussion.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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