The eminent American literary critic Edmund Wilson made a telling, if rather axiomatic observation that “No two people read the same book”. Pamela Heller-Stern’s novel “Who’s Knocking on my Door” is likely to provoke powerfully ambivalent responses from readers, on account of its contentious and discomfiting primary theme, Death, and also its wayward, unfamiliar and fragmented style which eschews conventional syntax, grammar and punctuation. Likewise, the tenor and tone of the novel and the cool, dispassionate narration (mostly in the third person by an unnamed, genderless and omniscient narrator) appears transgressively outmoded and distancing. The device of an uninvolved narrator is a risky one, since a number of very private details need to be presented as if they were within the range of the narrator’s experience. It is a measure of Heller-Stern’s skill as a novelist that one never questions the authenticity of the storytelling. She masters an effortless prose and writes with immense assurance, switching between first and third person narration, alternating passages of dense metaphorical and literary prose with demotic vernacular, everyday observations and dialogue. Her especial forte, like Christopher Isherwood or Saul Bellow, is social observation, closely written descriptions of characters, the actualities of lived lives, and vivid, memorable characterization, including interior characterization. A particular blend of detachment and specificity marks this type of fiction writer – Chekhov might not be far off the comparative mark. In this respect the novel is very much a psychological novel dealing with personality development and presents a sequence of coming- of- age stories. The characters are engaging, eminently real in their desires, contradictions, vulnerability and blind spots (Arthur Miller asserted that the writer’s job is to ‘tear away the veils of denial’). It is unlikely Heller-Stern’s readers will ask themselves: “do I believe this?” This is surely the mark of a gifted storyteller and entertainer.
In the introduction to the 1995 reissue of his infamous novel Crash, J.G. Ballard discusses ‘the balance between fiction and reality’. “We live,” he writes, “in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality”. I recall the modernist American poet Marianne Moore’s injunction for poets to create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” and her description of poets as ‘literalists of the imagination”.
This is something Heller-Stern does very well indeed; she has a poet’s ability to seize on the perfect image or metaphor to describe and define her characters and to drive her narrative. She is able to convey great emotion indirectly, through precise descriptions of particular settings, objects and events. Often what is unsaid has the most profound impact on the reader. While death is the primary theme of the novel, what is conspicuously absent is grieving, mourning or a sense of loss. The novel has dazzling descriptions of gardens, parks, landmark buildings like the Mount Nelson hotel, scenic descriptions of Cape Town and its social institutions and especially vivid descriptions of a panoply of characters: rogues, charlatans, philanderers, oddballs and those on the periphery of society including flower sellers, servants, neighbours and small town characters. Not infrequently her novel has the veracity of memoir, autobiography or the roman a clef. Acclaimed biographer Lyndall Gordon’s memoirs “Shared Lives” and “Divided Lives” sprung to mind whilst reading Heller-Stern’s novel, in particular her vivid descriptions of Cape Town’s southern suburbs at midcentury and her splendid characterization of a small set of privileged South Africans caught up in a quest for self-realization, personal and professional fulfillment. The first section of the novel reads like a roman a clef in its portrayal of the character Stanley, his incarceration as a prisoner of war in North Africa and Italy during WW2 and his eventual escape; the core of the story is presented as a memoir and narrated in the first person. Likewise the concluding story which details the life of a troubled character named Belinda also reads like a roman a clef, perhaps a fictionalized autobiographical story.
This is a daring postmodern portmanteau novel with a fourfold narrative structure which has the appeal and swift pace of short stories; it comprises four discrete and ostensibly unrelated episodes, or stories set in the recent past, from the 1940’s onwards. The novel explores Death (as an archetypal and inevitable phenomenon) and human mortality with an unflinching and brutal honesty. An archetype in psychology and literary criticism has come to mean a mythical, universal figure or idea that repeats itself throughout history and across cultures, such as the questing hero or ill-fated lovers. The themes and subthemes of the novel are the matters of grand and timeless fiction: self determination, providence, fate, chance, sexuality, the individual compromised by conformity to society, family and social expectations, social hemorrhaging and the atomization of contemporary society. It is essentially a relationship novel exploring the lives and interrelationships of various characters, a second world war survivor and POW escapee named Stanley; five siblings from South Africa; an American actress Romy challenged by marital infidelity and by her own intractable puritanism and finally a harrowing study of a feisty, flawed and sympathetic female, Belinda, who succumbs to depression and substance abuse (again a South African). The characters meet literal and metaphorical deaths by various grim means including accident, insect venom anaphylaxis, drowning, design/suicide, old age and decrepitude, disease/Aids and murder. Some are reprieved from death but fade into oblivion like ellipses. The novel’s bleak theme is undercut by a mordant humour and moments of painful comedy. In this respect it is strongly reminiscent of the popular American television series “Six Feet Under”, 2005, which was widely praised for the quality of its writing and acting. “Six feet Under” examined the dysfunctional lives of the Fisher family who managed a funeral parlour in LA. The TV program was essentially a conventional family drama, dealing with issues such as interpersonal relationships, infidelity, and religion; it was however distinguished by its unblinking and insistent focus on the topic of death, which it explored on multiple levels (personal, religious, and philosophical). Each episode begins with a death and that death sets the tone for each episode, allowing the characters to reflect on their current fortunes and misfortunes in a way that is illuminated by the death and its aftermath. The show also has a strong dose of dark humour and surrealism running throughout. Heller-Stern has similarly used Death as a framing device for her novel and a leitmotif which links various protagonists and interlinks the stories. The novel begins with the accidental death of Stanley who proceeds to comment on the event in an out-of-body state, in a rather casual and unremarkable way and thereafter to engage in an imaginary conversation with his deceased father . Images which come into his mind serve almost as a Proustian memory stir resulting in a detailed recollection and account of his experiences as an infantryman and POW in WW2 which are presented as the defining aspect of his life and character, ironically the “The time he was most alive”. This portion of the narrative is quoted in parentheses and is ambiguous, possibly an interior monologue, or personal reflection spoken aloud or a war diary/memoir dictated or read aloud. It is “dialogue” with an epistolary quality and uncertain origin revealingly subtitled “The panoramic life review.” Stanley is no Young Winston, however, but a rather mediocre war hero. These highlights should be clue sufficient that this is no conventional narrative but a novel that embraces fabulation and magic realism which are effortlessly interleaved with seemingly orthodox narrative modes and devices. The character Lawrence, one of the five siblings in the second chapter, degenerates into senility and expires on a park bench at the foot of a giant Moreton Bay Fig, an iconic landmark in Mowbray, Cape Town. He appears to have “overslept himself” (like one of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers) after conducting a conversation with “Mr Moreton Bay Fig Tree” which bizarrely responds and “replies” politely, explaining its history and longevity in an ironic contrast. This scene is ingeniously madcap and reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, complete with a prior incident involving the smashing of clocks. It puts a new slant on the idiomatic expression “talking to the trees”. At the start of the second chapter which recounts the lives of five siblings, Death is introduced as the Supreme Justice in an imaginary court and makes a cameo appearance reminiscent of a morality play, pontificating in Jungian- speak about the need for individuation and wholeness. This is a delicious counterpoint to the ensuing guilt ridden melodrama of the character Marina and her foray into adultery.
The inertia and tension inbuilt in the rather mechanical framing of narrative episodes by the deaths of the protagonists is peculiarly satisfying. Most of the characters appear oblivious of death as a life rhythm, or of life as a death cycle. As such, the deaths of the characters irrespective of their cause are invariably experienced by the reader as a sudden and distressing irruption of violence, exacerbated by the narrator’s apparent indifference to the lot of the characters. This aspect is skilfully plotted and creates a cumulative tension as the stories unfold and the reader comes to anticipate the demise of a character. The characters exit the story abruptly and sequentially like a counting down rhyme. This framing device was used most effectively by Edmund White in the semi-autobiographical novel “The Farewell Symphony”. Heller-Stern shapes her characters out of her perceptions, swiftly and economically, each scene ending almost before the reader is aware of it. The ambiguity of the authorial and narrator’s positions on the matter of Death is as mystifying as the melodrama of the protagonists’ lives embattled in what Michael Hoffman has termed “ the tawdry binary of life-death.” The author does not approach the idea of death with the usual and expected gravity or respect for the dead. Her use of an omniscient narrator as a vehicle for the story telling allows for a matter-of-fact, unawed and even somewhat flippant tone which is deeply uncomfortable for the reader. The unemotional and distant storytelling is a perfect metaphor for the subject, death, a cessation of consciousness and for the atrophied emotions of the novels protagonists who are all variously embattled with existential angst and who lead ultimately futile lives.
The prologue to the novel is a quotation of the concluding lines of the poem Buffalo Bill by e.e.cummings 1920 which introduces the subject of Death with a wry, ambiguous and slightly supercilious question:
“And what I want to know is/ how do you like you blueeyed boy/ Mr Death”
Thus Heller-Stern introduces the theme of her novel in a sly, offbeat manner; the tone of conscious irreverence implied in the quote, the rhetorical question and the bantering flippant phrasing is amplified in the colloquial title she has chosen for her novel: “Who’s Knocking on my Door?”, which suggests a moment of reckoning, an unknown and possibly unwelcome visitor or intrusion (the grim reaper) and also the element of riddle or intrigue in the erratic truth of death’s timing.
The style of the novel is its real innovation. It is has the dissonance of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. It is spare, elliptical more than economical, sardonic, somewhat brusque and unemotional. Heller-Stern has devised a prose style which is bold, terse, obit-like and declarative. It is a somewhat clinical prose that sets the reader on edge from the outset; the cold intelligence of the narration borders on the misanthropic and is augmented by the precise reliability of details, the vividly described characters, landscape and social milieu. There is an obvious congruence between the style and content of the novel. Sentences are fragmented into phrases with few connecting words, seemingly eccentric line breaks, with subjunctive clauses and predicates separated out as standalone sentences or adjuncts or individual words isolated between phrases. Heller-Stern tantalises the reader with suspense, making him/her conscious of the sentence as something that unfolds itself in the time it takes to read it, causes the reader to doubt the coherence and logic of the narration. Literary form is usually a matter of finitude i.e. sentences, paragraphs and chapters usually have a clear beginning and an end; the dictionary defines a sentence as a ‘set of words, complete in itself’. There is also a fair deal of repetition of phrases and words and a mirroring of expressions and activities which enhances the multi-stranded storytelling. The end result is a fractured, highly dramatic and telegraphic style which creates a mounting tension and anxiety in the reader who experiences discomfort in scanning sentences and knowing where to place stresses in the articulation of the sentence or phrase. The personal taste of the reader will determine whether this is innovation or obfuscation, a wilfully eccentric style.
The novel’s style emphasises the aural quality of language; it is clearly indebted to modernist free verse poetry and to stream of consciousness novels such as “Ulysses” or “To the Lighthouse”. Both Joyce and Woolf combined narrative methods such as interior monologue, free indirect speech ; the device of an omniscient narrator/ impersonal narrative, quoted speech and other types of discourse to show their characters receiving sense impressions which trigger memories, questions and desires and to allow insight into the thoughts, interior characterization and personal issues of the protagonists. Joan Didion experimented with a fragmented narrative technique in her novel “A Book of Common Prayer” 1977 which is close to the style of “Who’s Knocking on my Door?” but she did not sustain the approach throughout that novel or subsequently. Her novel deals with the aftermath of a marital breakdown experienced by a woman named Charlotte Douglas in Central America.
“Who’s knocking on my Door?” is a novel with an epic cast of characters. The novel’s protagonists are “ordinary” instantly recognizable characters, mostly upper middle class who lead variously dysfunctional lives; most of the lead characters are undone by incipient character flaws or psychoses i.e. by their own natures and prove to be their own antagonists and worst enemies. The novel is difficult to place in a particular genre. It is in part history novel, roman a clef, relationship drama, coming –of- age story /bildungsroman and psychological novel and also in parts magical realism. As an uncomfortable reminder to the reader of his/her own mortality it is a marvellously entertaining Memento Mori and a thought- provoking and edgy exploration of Big issues/philosophical issues. It is tempting to speculate about possible influences on Heller-Stern’s writing style or concepts and her novel’s congruities with famous novels such as William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” or John Updike’s “Rabbit” series novels. These stories, however, are told in a present-tense narrative, destabilizing the novel’s traditional style, a device Heller-Stern uses only in the chapter about Stanley, excluding occasional quoted dialogue. Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is a middle-class man who feels there is something missing from his life. The series of four novels follows Harry and his family through marriage, affairs and aging, each novel embodying the many triumphs and frustrations of the everyday American. In common with Faulkner’s novel, Heller-Stern presents different narrative points of view with chapters titled after the central characters; Faulkner’s character Addie, a matriarch, after dying, expresses her thoughts from the coffin a surreal touch echoed in “Who’s Knocking on my Door?”. Don De Lillo’s novel “White Noise” has common themes; it is a novel about a dysfunctional middleclass post-1970’s American couple obsessed with death and the question of who will die first.
In some respects “Who’s Knocking on my Door?” is an anti-literary novel. If there is poetry in the novel, it is Larkinesque; I think of Larkin’s famous poem “Aubade” which is about the specific, all-consuming fear aroused by death and mortality, rather than dying. Waking at 4am to ‘soundless dark’, the speaker of the poem sees ‘what’s really always there:/Unresting death, a whole day nearer now’. His mind ‘blanks’, not inwardly, in remorse or despair, but outwardly,
“at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.”
The final story of the compendium novel concerns a character named Belinda whose early promise and vivacity is eclipsed by mounting depressions, lack of self worth and nihilism. This story has a chapter dealing explicitly with Belinda’s downward spiralling, depression, rootlessness and fear. It has a brittle suggestive opening:
“Fear. She was afraid. Fear was her own friend. Or enemy from way back. Aeons ago. From the blackness of the nigredo. The stygian depths. Perhaps unlike some people. She had a thread linking her with that blackness. The vast sea of the unknown. The unknowable. Which somehow seemed to threaten her. To engulf her.”
Author Karen Thompson Walker observes “Fear is a kind of unintentional storytelling that we’re all born knowing how to do.” She continues “Our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: what will happen next … How we choose to read our fears can have a profound effect on our lives.”
The second chapter of the novel, which deals with five siblings, has an epilogue linking the characters, Marina and Jeremy, who respond to a repressive and puritanical upbringing by indulging in midlife promiscuity at great cost to themselves. Both are afflicted by “a vague uneasiness…an existential angst colouring their lives” which they repress and dismiss as a “common human condition”. Like classics such as “The Bridge of San Louis Rey”, this novel explores the searching issue of latent patterns in human life and the relationship between chance and providence as a cause of death. The prologue to the story of Marina begins: “I used to think we were cursed. As a family. Until I could see it all clearly. From the other side,” a virtual replication of the surreal opening of the novel in which Stanley provides an account of his life after “crossing over”.
The character Belinda whose story concludes the novel is strikingly reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood in “The Bell Jar”, a painfully graphic roman a clef in which a woman struggles with her identity in the face of social pressure. Both characters are driven, damaged and neurotic, with too much emotional baggage to lead fulfilled lives. Belinda’s tale is told with blistering honesty and vivid attention to detail. It is a raw and unsettling story with a sympathetic and fully nuanced lead character, a devastating portrait of an isolated person suffering a breakdown. Belinda ends her life hanging from a rope, a method of suicide strangely topical with the recent celebrity deaths of Americans, Robbie Williams, a Hollywood actor and comedian, and also L’Wren Scott, fashion designer, stylist and girlfriend of Mick Jagger. Heller-Stern has succeeded in evoking the psychic and physical dismantling of a human being due to depression, isolation and substance abuse; she allows herself full reign to capture the vagaries and whims of the character, her defencelessness and vulnerability and latent tendency to self-harm. Belinda is a complex, sympathetic character whose emotional dependency, ambivalent attitude towards men, bumbling adolescent sexual exploration and later married life and malaise are explored with incisiveness. The pathos of the story is in the action and narrative itself rather than reported responses from characters or the narrator. At the very end of the book, our final image is voyeuristic and disturbing.
This is unquestionably a bleak novel which should appeal equally to Annihilationalists and Evangelicals, assuming they read good fiction. Wisdom is perennially out of fashion. However, there is an abundant example of bad choices and judgement in the novel and also, paradoxically, sufficient Jungian-themed insights from the protagonists themselves and the narrator/s to provide a corrective and balance. The omniscient narrator/s in the novel perform a function similar to a chorus in a classical Greek play, typically serving to formulate, express and comment on the moral issues raised by the dramatic action. This theme is amplified in the story of Romy, a beautiful Bostonian actress who gives particular attention to the development of masks and personas in her film performances and in her public image. The literary device of editorial omniscience refers to an intrusion by the narrator in order to evaluate a character for the reader, as when the narrator of “The Scarlet Letter” describes Hester’s relationship to the Puritan community. Heller-Stern makes effective use of this method typically when the narrator introduces a new character or after their demise.
All novels, of every age, are concerned with the enigma of the self. “Who’s knocking on my Door?” is an especially well-considered psychological novel, whose characters have a vividly imagined and presented interior life. The author is clearly sympathetic to Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung’s (1875-1961) theories. Jung developed the concept of the collective unconscious, a shared collection of transcultural images and symbols known as archetypes that would resonate powerfully within the human psyche. The study of how Jungian psychology relates to literature is called archetypal criticism; “Who’s Knocking on my Door?” could certainly be analysed against this framework. Inevitably, however, fictional characters tend to live longer in the memory than ideas and such is the case with this epic cast of characters . The female characters, in particular, are especially well realized, a gift bestowed on certain acclaimed authors extending from Thomas Hardy to contemporary authors including Colm Toibin, Amy Tan and Stieg Larsson. Not for nothing, Heller–Stern has the character Romy, an actress, cast in the role of Hester Prynne in a film of “The Scarlet Letter”, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary contemplation of a woman who breaks cultural bounds to gain personal power and who refuses to name the father of her child born out of wedlock (ironically a pastor). The doubling of a fictive character in a fictional film has a further irony as Romy’s husband fathers a child by a mistress. There is a subtle feminist discourse running throughout the female characterizations in the novel as characters attempt to assert themselves and individuate, despite the constraints of society, class, religion and marriage.
The novel is a challenging read and certainly rewards the effort of a second reading which is likely to yield wavering allegiances to the characters and to the style and narrative devices of the novel. The skilful plotting of the novel becomes apparent upon completion of the reading as various interlinked motifs and subthemes come together.
Ted Gioia in a recent article titled “The Rise of the Fragmented Novel” observes that while the fragmented novel has been a mainstay of the literary world for the last century, a new type of fragmentation has come to the forefront in 21st century novels. He quotes as examples novels such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), Geraldine Brooks’s The People of the Book (2008), Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men (2102), T.C. Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done (2011), David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (2011), Zadie Smith’s NW (2102), and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) . He asserts that instead of relying on fragmentation as a means of disjunction and dissolution, as many experimental novelists had done in the past—Julio Cortázar, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Gilbert Sorrentino, etc.—the new fragmented novel is holistic and coalescent. It resists disunity, even as it appears to embody it. Where previous attempts to create fragmented novels tended to emphasize content over form, the current tendency in the fragmented novel is to exhibit a relentless formalism even while, at a superficial level, the books seem to reject it. He quotes Michael David Lukas who, in trying to come to grips with this same tendency, has noted the emergence of a new type of fiction distinguished by its “multiplicity of voices.” “A strange literary beast has re-emerged,” he writes, “a hybrid of the short story and traditional novel”. This newly reinvigorated genre he calls “the polyphonic novel.” He points out that the comparison with musical polyphony is appropriate because, as with counterpoint, the voices in these recent novels are made to fit together with a virtuosity akin to that demonstrated by the great contrapuntal composers. Instead of a “messy cacophony”, these novels delight with their complicated coherence. Their authors are not just displaying virtuosity in creating a range of voices, but also showing off their ingenuity in building coherent narratives out of starkly juxtaposed bits and pieces. Consciously or not, Heller-Stern appears to have produced a “coalescent fragmented novel” and to be writing in the forefront of new experimental fiction. Yet a further postmodern narrative trend relevant to Heller-Stern’s novel is the re-emergence of the omniscient narrator as a narrative device. In the last two decades, and particularly since the turn of the millennium, a number of important and popular novelists have produced books which exhibit all the formal elements we typically associate with literary omniscience: an all-knowing, heterodiegetic narrator who addresses the reader directly, offers intrusive commentary on the events being narrated, provides access to the consciousness of a range of characters, and generally asserts a palpable presence within the ﬁctional world. The novelists who have utilised this form of narration include Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, David Lodge, Adam Thirlwell, Michel Faber and Nicola Barker in the UK; and Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Tom Wolfe, Rick Moody and John Updike in the US. The question arises; how do we evaluate novels which employ an ostensibly redundant nineteenth century form in the twenty-ﬁrst century? Are they conservative and nostalgic by virtue of their form or are they experimental and contemporary in their use of this form?
Marshall McLuhan a distinguished American media guru, philosopher and social critic explored the function of clichés and archetype in literature in a seminal work titled “From Cliché to Archetype” 1970. McLuhan posits that there is a factor of interplay between the cliché and the archetype, or a “doubleness”. Apropos of literary genres, he asserted that “talent rides in a hackneyed vehicle”: he argues that clichés are probes which, used unreflectively, reveal all sorts of personal and cultural biases (embedded ways of thinking), while cliches that are carefully and self-consciously retrieved can be powerful means of communication that bring with them rich and evocative histories, having been retrieved from Yeats’s “rag and bone shop of the heart.”
This dichotomy is much to the point in evaluating Heller-Stern’s use of language, cliché and archetype in the novel “Who’s Knocking on my Door?”. Her narrator/s, in particular, frequently use clichéd expressions and rather stock and stale metaphors. These glaringly overused expressions are, however, often contrasted with sharp, fresh variations or reinventions of the trope. By way of example:
The character Lorraine Sinclair (mother of Belinda ) is described as “A spoilt Barbie Doll. In human flesh.” By contrast Sophie (one of the five siblings ) is pictured as a pink cheeked, bobbed and fringed Kwepie doll, a fresh and specific take on the “doll-like” simile.
In the opening section of the novel, Stanley, confronted with death, “fights like a tiger”. In an out of body state, it is “crystal clear” to him that the scientists and psychologists were wrong about death. It is easy to cull examples from the novel; more pertinent to ask is why they are there and why the narrators are so parochial and coarse. The character Janet, we are informed, “has her tubes tied” after producing two heirs for Gerald. There seems to be a deliberate disconnect between the observations and utterances of the omniscient narrator/s which are highly judgemental, somewhat puritanical, prejudiced and small minded and a degree of detailed and precise descriptive writing which is extremely sophisticated, although casually presented.
Lorraine Sinclair, Belinda’s mother, is dismissed as “a travesty of a mother. Bone lazy”; “a spoilt Barbie Doll”. “Superficial” and “ a butterfly. She is a narcissistic personality worthy of Nabokov; the description of the character becomes progressively more nuanced as the story unfolds and she is pictured reading women’s magazines, smoking, painting her toe- nails, drinking warm mulled wine in winter, indolent and indulged.
In the novel’s second chapter dealing with five siblings, Heller-Stern uses the familiar metaphor of flowers and plants to augment her description of the sexuality of Marina and Leo and the consummation of their extramarital relationship. Leo’s enthralling effect on Marina is compared to the phototropism of a sunflower. Her spiky and disapproving friend Cynthia’s response to the affair is likened to a thorned Aloe leaf. Marina’s siren-like midlife sexual reawakening is compared with the rapid flowering and wilting of a red-orange Hibiscus. In the final chapter Belinda is described as “A plant deprived of sun…The fertilizers of concern. Maternal nurturing.”
Heller-Stern is certainly capable of reinventing clichés in fresh, finely observed and closely written passages. The third chapter commences with the meeting of the actress Romy and her future husband Walter and describes the instantaneous attraction between them. The occasion is a dinner party in Boston held to celebrate Walter’s attaining a Phd. Walter waits for Romy to come to him in a crowded function room. He is described as an angler landing his catch with an elaborate description of fly fishing procedures, baiting a line and wishful thinking. His acquiescent catch “swims” towards him, transmogrified as a mermaid: a fanciful imagination, indeed, for a Harvard Business graduate. Heller-Stern makes great play with the transformative potential of language, cliché and archetype, both presenting banal and clichéd images and dismantling them through imaginative and fresh metaphors and a writing style which is highly mannered and distorted, in effect, questioning the communicative function of language itself. On occasion, the action of the novel resembles a reprised and re-imagined iconic literary scene or trope. Romy, distraught by her husband’s infidelity, “disappears” and travels incognito to Connecticut to Rose Strawberry Picking farm to introspect and shut out the world whilst participating in the harvesting of the fruit. The ensuing highly sensuous description of the strawberry picking adventure is very well written and a clever ironic mirroring of the seduction scene in Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbavilles”. Romy is ironically without a suitor in the scene but “finds herself” indulging in a sensuous reawakening and revivification in the idyllic rural environment. This scene also mirrors a prior grape harvesting scene set in Lombardy, Italy, in the first chapter dealing with Stanley’s prisoner-of-war activities.
A significant challenge for this reader was responding to the utterances and observations of the novel’s omniscient narrators. Perforce the narrator is also a persona or character in the novel, Roland Barthes refers to a “Paper Being” whose function is to tell the story. The narrator/s of “Who’s Knocking on my Door?” is not likeable or personable, invariably proffering harsh dismissive opinions and judgements on the characters, while remaining consistently cool, distant and unemotional:
Thus the character Janet is described as “a vain person. Snobbish. Shallow. Collective.”
Lorraine is described as “a travesty of a mother”, a “Barbie Doll”, a social “Butterfly.”
Belinda is a “Travesty of a human being. ”
Where the challenge emerges is in the author’s use of free indirect speech, a narrative method famously associated with Jane Austen, in which the thoughts and speech of the characters mix with the voice of the narrator. As a reader, one is uncertain who is projecting these assessments and if they are intuited negative self-assessments emanating directly from the character, which is highly likely in the case of Belinda, but extremely unlikely in the case of Janet or Lorraine who have an exaggerated sense of self-worth. A blurring of identities adds to the complexity and ambiguity of the storytelling.
Gore Vidal observed that democratisation has made one inalienable gain: the equality of the sentiments i.e. nowadays, nobody’s feelings are more authentic and thus more important than anybody else’s. This is the new credo, the new privilege. This status is certainly acknowledged in Heller-Stern/s approach to this novel, the deadpan delivery and ambiguous tone of the narrators, the compendious details of the characters’ lives and the numbing melodrama, clichéd descriptions of character “types” and behaviour. Like a two-way mirror the good and the “bad” writing co-exist and play off one another, like the neuroses and dark side of the characters. The novels approach appears to have much in common with Don De Lillo’s “White Noise” or John Updike’s “Rabbit” series tetralogy, whose protagonists are obsessive, small town and seemingly insignificant characters, with middleclass anxieties and concerns, all of which are emblematic of Everyman.
Coming back to Edmund Wilson’s observation that “No two people read the same book,” Christopher Hitchens in his memoir “Hitch22” quotes Kingsley Amis to the effect that the only critical tool anyone really needs is the word ‘good’ and its variants (running from ‘bloody good’ to ‘some good’ to ‘no good’ to ‘absolutely no bloody good at all’). Rather controversially both men agree, for example, that Jane Austen, is ‘not all that good’. The reason Amis gives and with which Hitchens concurs, is that she had an ‘inclination to take a long time over what is of minor importance and a short time over what is major’.
Following this example, my assessment of “Who’s Knocking on my Door?” is: pretty good.