The real world catches up with us eventually. Here on the verandah we can no longer ignore the beak-clacking among the pelicans that has greeted Lloyd Jones’s novel Mr Pip. A fine book indeed but some among us are a little bemused at all the fuss. I note the thread of cynicism running through the comments. This is not directed at the book, of course, but at the media who do not seem capable of acknowledging locally written work unless it has an overseas imprimatur. The cultural cringe is alive and well.
What no one has tried to explain, however, is why this particular book merits the international accolades. One option is that it is simply streets ahead of any other novel published in recent years. But let’s assume for a moment that, good as it is, it is not quite as exceptional as all that. What other explanation could there be?
Well, it might be the brilliance of the writing but although Jones’s style is deceptively simple and the layers in the book grow increasingly complex as the story develops, the style, of itself, does not seem entirely mind-blowing. In fact, the one criticism that the pelicans I know seem to agree on is a certain unease about the voice of the narrator, especially in the early pages.
Another option is the subject matter – the exotic setting and the traditional away of life of a Western Pacific people. Again, though, this does not seem quite sufficient. Although Jones describes Bougainville with the travel writer’s eye for detail, the physical environment is almost incidental to the story. The same goes for the local culture. The ancient myths and traditions are there all right, along with the parrots and the coconut palms, but they are not fundamental to the conflict at the heart of the story.
This conflict is, rather, between the enigmatic Mr Watts and Dolores, who is the mother of the narrator, Matilda. Matilda herself is torn between these two opponents, thus forming one of those archetypal triangles that charge many of the classic stories, from Romeo and Juliet to Wuthering Heights, with so much energy. In a sense we can see the book as a battle for Matilda’s soul.
An obvious interpretation of this conflict is the tension between the Western values and the simplicity of life on Bougainville. This tension is mirrored in the plot of Great Expectations, the novel which Watts reads to the island children. Dickens’s Pip, torn between the simple rural life typified by Joe Gargery and the sophistication of London and the chilly Estella, is a reflection of Matilda that she is fully aware of.
Tempting as this interpretation is, though. I don’t think it is right. Dolores is no Joe and, as I have pointed out, the traditional values of Bougainville are not prominent in the struggle. Dolores’s view of the world is fundamentally and harshly religious. She thinks in terms of God and the Devil and she comes to equate the latter with Mr Watts. This is not then a clash of cultures but a clash of religions – on the one hand the judgemental, narrow-minded Christianity that the missionaries brought to the Pacific and, on the other, the liberating influences of a newer faith – Great Literature. Matilda is torn between the old faith and the new and, in the end, she goes through a symbolic conversion or baptism, swept away in a great flood that carries her into a new life.
Could this interpretation explain the phenomenal interest in Mr Pip? At first sight it seems a bit forced but then I remembered Jonathan Franzen’s essay, Why bother?, in which he describes sociologist Shirley Heath’s observations about the attitudes of readers who are passionate about good fiction. Such people draw from their reading what is tantamount to religious affirmation. To quote Franzen quoting Heath ‘This is… what readers are saying: reading fiction is like reading a particularly rich section of a religious text… Reading makes me a better person… [It] enables me to maintain a sense of something substantive – my ethical integrity, my intellectual integrity.’
Such statements would seem to be very close to the central themes of Jones’s novel. Perhaps the book touches something close to the heart of the modern reader (or perhaps overseas agents and publishers think it does). From the point of view of readers in England and America, there is further twist to the tale. At the climax of the novel the debate between Watts and Dolores is overwhelmed by a brutal, almost perfunctory violence that destroys them both, a violence that Dolores, unwittingly, has helped to bring about. This seems a remarkable analogue for the experience of a liberal minded reader in the Northern Hemisphere - the power of substantive fiction on the one hand, the puzzle of unreasoning religious fundamentalism on the other and the sudden terror that threatens to overwhelm them both.
Pelican Perfect, in other words. Although, of course, it is all much more complex than that, as good fiction should be.