Landfall 225 (May 2013)
Never Get Taken to the Second Location
The Second Location. Stories by Bronwyn Lloyd. ISBN 978-1-877441-45-5. Auckland: Titus Books, 2011. RRP $NZ 30.00.
Bronwyn Lloyd: The Second Location (2011)
One of the points of genesis for this book of short stories, Bronwyn Lloyd’s first published collection (though she’s written numerous catalogue essays and contributed chapters to various Art History publications) was the Rita Angus Symposium at Te Papa in September 2008.
It was one of those rare occasions when one can almost feel a paradigm shift occurring. On the one side, there was an Academic establishment view which privileges analysis of surface forms and effects over the Original Sin of biographical research (the so-called “intentional fallacy” attributing agency and motivation to artists), on the other, a form of imaginative projection, fleshed out by careful contextual and archival research, which tries to reconstruct the inner world of a painter.
Bronwyn’s paper on the strange symbolic world inhabited by Rita Angus and her lover Douglas Lilburn, as revealed in the thirty years of letters she wrote him (bequeathed by him before his death to the Turnbull Library), seemed to move and fascinate the symposium audience. It definitely enraged some of the Art Historians. This was black magic! Worse: this was double heresy: Narrative and Symbolism in painting!
For a fuller account of the dispute that ensued, you can go to the blogpost I wrote about it at the time [http://mairangibay.blogspot.co.nz/2008/09/rita-angus-symposium.html]; for further information about the precise nature of Bronwyn’s claims about the folie à deux imaginative constructs built up by Rita and Douglas in the late 1940s, you can look at the online version of her PhD thesis Daemons & Dream Children: The Secret Lives of Rita Angus’s Symbolic Portraits (University of Auckland, 2010) [http://ritaland.blogspot.co.nz/].
This book of short stories, then, is more than it seems. While the foreword to her book admits that “the collection shows how the investigation of another person’s life has repercussions in your own,” the precise interplay of Bronwyn’s stories and the “creative research” required of anyone attempting to reconstruct the inner workings of another, dead person’s life, will not really become clear until one realises the extent of the identification.
The collection was, in fact, she tells me, at one time intended to alternate non-fictional chapters from the thesis with the stories, text fragments – even one poem and one short play – which she had composed over the course of writing it.
That would have been a much longer book: a book rather like Christa Wolf’s classic Cassandra, perhaps – where four lectures about the mythological implications of this character from Greek Legend are capped with a short novella.
While it’s possible to regret some of the cross-relations and complexities that could have been built up in such a book, it would almost certainly have been a far less readable and accessible text. And I think that the essence of Bronwyn’s work is precisely that: by focussing on the human dimensions of these very complex characters, Rita and Douglas, the degree to which they constructed themselves in a private world of literary and historical references (however garbled these sometimes were), she shows us the inevitable leakage between art and life.
Bronwyn’s break-up, divorce, difficult family relationships past and present are all on display in The Second Location. They have to be. As she herself has said to me, one can’t strip bare other people’s lives without being willing to do it to oneself. The distance and objectivity demanded of the critic or the historian is, finally, an illusion: we look for lessons in other people’s lives because we feel so direly in need of them ourselves.
In our turn, we must in our turn become exemplary: Look how that turned out, says Bronwyn’s books (at least by implication). She recreates the lessons experience has taught her: the perplexities and inconclusive endings that are often all we have to show for years of our lives.
The title for Bronwyn’s book comes from an old Oprah Winfrey Show episode about abduction: “Never get taken to the second location,” was the lesson that Oprah dinned into her audience’s head, as the tragic litany of interviews went on. Sage advice. But how do you prevent yourself ending up in that “second location” – the slippery pit in Silence of the Lambs, the plastic cocoon of Dexter’s basement?
However desirable it might be simply to get away, run clear, avoid entanglements, a “second location” lies in wait for most of us, at least. Those of us who’ve been through heartbreak, job loss, bankruptcy, relationship break-ups, that is … Are you one of us? Or do you still reside squarely in that illusory world of the first location, out in the light with nothing to hide?
My eldest brother, when he first read Bronwyn’s book, was amused by the portraits it painted of various members of our family. “But you must never do that to me,” he added in a fervent postscript. I guess that it is a little painful to catch aspects of oneself in print – and the exhortation to write one’s own story in revenge is not always a particularly practical one.
I think the thing to remember about a collection of this type, then, is that every aspect of it is dangerous. A friend of mine who co-edited a collection of Australian women’s poetry, told me that there was really only one subject for most of the writers who contributed work: their mothers. The book in fact ended up being titled Motherlode.
If you write down what you think about your mother, chances are she’ll never speak to you again. Sometimes it has to be done anyway. In Sylvia Plath’s case it seems to have been her father (not to mention that father-projection with a “Meinkampf look / And a love of the rack and the screw”: her husband Ted Hughes) who got most of the flack. But maybe that was the problem all along: the appalling difficulties she had with her beyond-domineering mother could never quite find expression in that saccharine series of family missives called Letters Home.
Bronwyn’s own mother’s experience of having an illegitimate child, subsequently offered for adoption, in the New Zealand of the late 1950s, is contrasted with Rita’s and her own miscarriages in the complex, interwoven story “The Shared Lunch.” Does the material become less painful through the alternating of paragraphs, the formal patterning of the piece? Probably not. But there is a sense in which it does make the events more manipulable, controllable. By writing them down, one can in some sense defuse them: temporarily, at least.
A similar distancing technique is applied in the story/poem “The Dismemberment of Austin Brown,” where a stylish red coat symbolises all that goes wrong with her parents’ relationship over the years. The children’s picturebook style in which the story is told seems somehow, again, if not to cauterise the wound, at any rate to aggravate it less.
There’s a lot of rage in this book. There’s also a lot of love. The one, I now firmly believe, could not exist without the other.
It’s dangerous to rock our complacent academic establishment by suggesting new ways of reading our artistic heritage. It sets up seismic shock waves through our idées reçues – damping things down again at once is all that many of us can think of at such times. What Bronwyn’s Second Location reveals is that probing your own life in similar ways is every bit as perilous. Can it be equally rewarding too? It’s a matter of opinion.
For myself, I believe this paradigm shift is here to stay. Any return to what Lincoln called “the dogmas of the quiet past” is doomed to failure. For better or worse, we must learn once again to life down in what Yeats called “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”
You’ll gather that this review, too, has been written in the spirit of the new paradigm. Bronwyn Lloyd is my wife; I’m in the book, along with various members of my family. I can’t really, then, write a falsely objective assessment of it as a text. Instead, I would say that it appears to have struck many chords with many readers. The fictional shaping of real events is a genre as old as writing itself – perhaps we’ve forgotten, in our over-specialised present, just how powerful and effective it can be.