Review of Paul David Adkin’s When Sirens Call. Melbourne, Australia: Threekookaburras, 2014.
When Sirens Call finds its center of gravity in the romantically charged meeting between Belinda Babchek and Robert Aimard on a Greek island, but this is not your dime store romance novel. Paul Adkin tackles something much more ambitious, something that picks up on the modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, using the framework of odyssey and romance to explore the nuances of intersubjective separation and contact.
True to the expectation created by the setting, Adkin’s descriptions are finely crafted, from the Greek island scenery to the stream-of-consciousness flow of associations within the young Aussie traveler and photographic artist, Belinda, and the English ex-pat writer and island hotelier, Robert. Indeed, the travelogesque descriptions often clothe the philosophical points of the novel. Belinda notices early on, for example, before leaving Madrid, that “the megalopolis … seen from without, seems nobler,” while seen from within it is “chaos … vulgar, bitter, sharp, filthy” (37). This, in a way, encapsulates the novel’s whole point about human identity and the world we live in. The island scenery, the “tiny fishing trawler … the setting sun … gleaming yachts” (130) that form the outer shell of our protagonists’ experience, are beautiful and real, but equally real are the messy subjective interiors struggling anxiously, hopelessly, “absurdly” as both our protagonists like to say, to define a self and a place in the world. The same doubleness reads as a critique of the “romance” genre into which the novel might faux fit, a genre that typically achieves an outer shell of dreamy idealism, even in tragedy, but does so only by obfuscating the messy interior of bodily functions and psychological disturbances. Adkin doesn’t spare us the messy interior, but rather lifts the veil on the genre itself. The romantic island “paradise,” as Aimard suggests, is a poor cover for a “wasteland” within (186).
The two principal characters do not meet until the second half of the novel, and this may make for a slow start for some readers. The first half, with little or no plot, develops subjective and intersubjective spaces, building up a sense of human identity and a modernist force field of themes – alienation, dislocation, loss of meaning, the individual adrift. Separately, we bob along the interior currents of Robert and Belinda, following their inner lives as they daily reconstruct an identity built upon fears, hopes, lost loves and missed connections, percepts in the immediate environment, nuggets of philosophy and social criticism, literary and archetypal allusions that float in and out of their minds. Each character marks out an identity by a mental repetition of fence posts – cultural, historical, personal, and archetypal reference points that stabilize the frame. But the real pressure points are the points of intersubjective contact – the string of ghosts, shadows, substitute antecedents for the missing him or her, the compulsive desire for, and destabilizing fear of, human contact. The “traps” and “tricks” of Belinda’s photography, of Robert’s novels, might be seen in this light as the traps and tricks we register in all our past relationships and with which we inexorably color our future relationships in advance.
Despite differences in age and background, Robert and Belinda share much when it comes to the struggles of identity construction and sense of loss and emptiness in their lives. Indeed, as we oscillate between their streams of consciousness before the meeting, one wishes that Adkin had done more to differentiate the two, had given a more unique prosody and rhythm to each of these interior monologues, had more sharply distinguished the laws of physics governing these respective psyches. But these are the flaws of highly ambitious writing, and it is difficult not to appreciate what Adkin has accomplished as we stumble into and explore the interior landscapes he has given us.
Once the two meet, this modernist base, this malaise of intersubjectivity, is coupled to a plot with an arc, a tension, a sense of anticipation that pulls the reader into the story by the buttonhole. The plot does not have the intricacy and complexity of a classic Dickens plot, but comes rather in the mold of a D. H. Lawrence plot, where the objective sequence is simple but the subjective dynamics foster ample suspense and expectancy to drive the reader forward.
We do get our plot resolution in the end, and I for one like the novel best when the plot becomes superimposed upon the subjective arena at its base, but this is finally not a novel about plot. It is a novel about subjective spaces, lonely spaces, and moments of separation and contact. Like Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, it is a novel not exhausted by the plot, but rather a novel one can return to over and over, expecting with each reading the discovery of new layers of flora and fauna in those fluid spaces between the archetypal and the everyday, where “fishermen’s beards become philosophers’ beards” (21), where all lines converge toward Greece, the cradle of our collective unconscious.
…and swiftly I drag my carcass to a (real) bookshop…
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Hi Gary. Thank you for your interesting and sharp analysis. For a work like “When Sirens Call”, which has pretensions of being literature, an intelligent analysis is its greatest possible accolade. Your ideas are very stimulating for the author and I’ve been running over a dialogue with you in my head as I gasp through febrile deliriums on my sickbed. Now that I’m a bit better and sitting up I thought I might try and collect some of my responses together for you.
Perhaps the easiest opening for a discussion would be your critical point regarding the construction of the protagonists: that I could have focused more strongly on “distinguishing the laws of physics governing these respective psyches”. I don’t want to try and defend myself, I’m sure you’re right, but I thought you might find it interesting to hear something of the process of creating those two characters.
My point of departure for the novel was a philosophical question: how can it be possible to move humanity away from the shallow waters of popular culture into the deeper ocean of what is sometimes called “high” culture? (Although I’m not really thinking of “high culture” as much as a highly developed, truly human culture as opposed to the national state civilisations of separation that we live in today.) And also, what are the dangers involved in this idea? Should such an elitist idea even be contemplated? But, despite all the dangers, wrapped up in this concept was another question I’ve been asking most of my adult life: why hasn’t human civilisation advanced in any notable way since the Greeks?
To make such a big and general theme workable as a novel I would have to write something epic or I would need to simplify the problem to the individual level. I already have the epic adventure of the Terra Australis Incognita so I decided on the latter. My original intention was therefore to have a very superficial young woman meet an older and deeper man, and that the setting be on a Greek island. I suppose I could have created a new Pygmalion, but I didn’t think the answer could be found through simple education, of the wise man teaching and refining the vulgar youth, this seemed like a far too simple answer to an analysis of the human condition and a far too dogmatic one. The movement from the shallow to the deep has to be one of gradual immersion into the more dangerous waters, in a way that one grows use to the cold waters that make us shiver at first until our bodies adapt to it, and it becomes pleasant. It is not a question of sink or swim but of finding the desire to overcome the fear of depth. One starts by learning to float, then dog paddling, then swimming, then diving. Yet, while I was thinking of all this another idea had been sparked by the Greek element, an idea of form … and this was probably the greatest impulse that pushed the novel into existence. It was an intuition I had for recreating Homer’s Odyssey via Joyce’s deconstruction of it in Ulysses. The form and often even the syntax of part one of the book (look at the opening sentence) shadows Joyce’s Ulysses. Things started as a kind of game: a game that would rescue the Odyssey from its imprisonment in Ireland and bring it back to Greece.
But then I had to get back to the characters: the shallow Belinda and the deep Robert – how was it possible that there could be any connection between them without one or both of them being annihilated in the condition of the other? Well, and now using the terms from your analysis, for intersubjectivity to occur between the shallow and the deep the shallow has to have a potential for depth and the deep a potential for superficiality.
Belinda’s cultural baggage is Hollywood films and pop songs, whilst Robert loves literature and classical music, but I didn’t think this was enough to bring them together in a meaningful way. Belinda needed a yearning for depth and Robert a craving for the ordinary. Only in this way would they ever be able to swim together (which they never do, of course, but that is the tragedy).
What I’m outlining here is a chronology of original intentions. I think finally Belinda, through her yearning and her fear of the depth she is searching for, became an even deeper character, from a literary point of view, than Robert. But Belinda is deep because she is complicated. Her depth is only problematic, nothing useful, and it manifests itself in madness.
There’s a classic text by E.R. Dodds called “The Greeks and the Irrational” (do you know it?). It examines Greek culture from the idea that Greek philosophy had an obsessive fear of their own culture’s tendencies towards the irrational. Likewise, in “When Sirens Call” the question can also be: is depth an expression of the irrational? And, hence, is it the road to madness and despair?
Finally, the novel has done nothing to resolve the questions that originally inspired it, but it does offer us a few insights. Belinda’s problem is not depth itself but her fear of her own yearning for depth and her irrational obsession that depth will annihilate her: that she is destined to drown in it. Robert’s depth on the other hand, or at least that which he aspires to, is the kind found in balance and in the harmony that classical art and philosophy were searching for. He is certainly not the most balanced personality, but it is the depth in himself that allows him to paddle comfortably in the shallows.
You rightly saw the importance of Romanticism in the novel and Germany is the bridge between Robert and Belinda. It’s Germany that stirs her soul back to her childhood piano lessons and reawakens the classical depth. But again, the epiphany she has at the Cologne Cathedral and her “re-encounter” with the Schumanns is dismissed as something dangerous. In any idea of a culture with depth, Germany is a warning: a romantic depth that drove a whole nation suicidal. It was essential that Belinda passed through Germany before reaching Greece. It is in Germany that the seed of the final tragedy is fertilised.
The tragedy of “When Sirens Call” is not Robert Aimard’s death but Belinda Babchek’s insanity.
And, yes, I think you’re right: I could have made this clearer if I’d taken more care with their subjective psyches. Perhaps I would have done if I’d kept to the idea of depth and shallowness as the main driving force of the narrative. However, as I wrote I became more and more immersed in the Odyssey idea and more and more focused on the yearning for going Home. “Home” was really my obsession when I was writing this, but to explain that I would need to write another essay.
Thanks again for your analysis, Gary.
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