Writing Out for the Territory
“Keep violence in the mind
Where it belongs.”
Brian Aldiss, “Charteris”
Kathy Hepinstall’s writing comes inflated by high praise, from the Toronto Star‘s lauding of The Absence of Nectar as “a great novel and a terrific work of suspense” to Terry McMillan’s description of The House of Gentle Men as “a tour de force”. Her new novel explores, subliminally and even, perhaps, unconsciously, aspects of the cultural response to the trauma of 9/11, condensed into the crisis experienced by a single woman in response to a random act of terrorism.
A janitor at the school attended by Martha’s son turns up to work one day with a bomb strapped to his chest. One child is killed and several others injured, and Martha’s psychotic reaction to this absurd, tragic incident constitutes the substance of Prince of Lost Places. The novel is told largely through Martha’s consciousness, although there are some slightly disconnected passages of third-person narration that disrupt the centrality of her character, and left this reader with the slight impression that the author hadn’t quite made up her mind as to who should really tell this story.
A sequence of events ensues, as Martha absconds with her son from their home, her husband and her psychiatric treatment to take up residence in an isolated cave on the Mexican border, away from civilisation, although with as many of the trappings of civilisation as can be crammed into a family car. The cave and its environs become the main scenes of the novel, as the relationship between Martha and her son is mapped out and elaborated, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Andrew, a backpacker apparently himself on the run from civilisation and a disastrous relationship. Oh, and there’s a detective tracking her, too.
Somewhat predictably Martha and Andrew get together, and the Edenic possibilities are only destroyed by the arrival of Martha’s husband. The revelation he brings does constitute a shocking twist to the novel, but its shock value resides partly in the fact that everything else that has happened so far is either so conventional or so shadily sketched that the reader is left wondering whether anything has been missed out.
Such a cursory run through the novel’s plot doesn’t quite do justice to Hepinstall’s writing, which is on the whole lucid and controlled, and can be effective in conveying emotion and, occasionally, in narrating action. Here’s Martha in the cave with her son:
“It took several attempts to learn how to build a fire in the cave, one that wasn’t so smoky as to choke us. Within a few days I discovered the benefits of cactus flesh, the soapy properties of yucca roots, the resilience of basket grass. I worked by trial and error, having at my disposal only one guidebook and an old man’s advice. I had something else, I discovered—my mother’s feel for nature, a close-to-the-earth practicality I’d never before seen in myself. And I was proud. How could anyone this resourceful be judged insane?”
Quite apart from exemplifying Martha’s tiresome “me—me—me”, there are so many bedrock myths of American culture embedded in this passage (and, I think, in the novel as a whole) that a little unpacking is necessary. If the literary myth of the territory starts with Huck Finn, there’s also Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” here, and everyone’s hippy dream of the sixties, Kerouac on his road, Walkabout and Deliverance, elements of post-modern survivalism, garages crammed with bully beef and ammunition for the coming apocalypse, with a dash of craft fairs and evening classes thrown in.
Which is as much as saying that this novel, in trying to tap into the cultural anxiety of a nation facing up to Unabombers and the like, succeeds only in reproducing in rather watered-down forms a manifestation of precisely the terrors it seeks to critique. The janitor who blew up the school was presumably exactly the kind of survivalist Martha tries to become—after all, he knew how to wire himself to a bomb, although we’re given such a vague account of this that, like much else in this novel, it remains shadowy and ultimately unconvincing.
Likewise Martha herself, with her touching separatism that coincides with her “close-to-the-earth practicality”, connection and disconnection merrily bouncing off each other as the novel tries to assert its take on an extraordinarily complex cultural moment. In one rather uncomfortable sequence, a group of revellers arrive, potentially threatening with their drunkenness, noise and litter the peaceful lives of Martha, Andrew and the child. Our heroes’ lives, in contrast, are just so in tune with nature that Andrew, a chronic whisky-drinker, leaves chocolate bars lying around the riverbank like a demonic tooth fairy, and Martha torches her station wagon and leaves it burning in the middle of the desert. So much for “close-to-the-earth-ness”.
Prince of Lost Places allows itself a valuable get-out clause in leaving Martha’s sanity in question until the end, and this can just about stand as the novel’s main valid critique of American society. The problem here, though, is that Martha herself remains a less than convincing figure, too dependent for her effects on stereotypes of unreliable narrators and unbalanced storytellers to fulfil the job she’s been given. The other characters - her son Duncan, husband David and Andrew the interloper—are all in the end revealed to be something other than what we’re lead to believe, and one gets the feeling of being somehow sold short, of vital information unfairly withheld.
Ultimately this novel doesn’t achieve the level of intensity it strives for because the scale of events it relates to us is so restricted. When society is pared down to a single dysfunctional nuclear family, the characters making up that family have to be extremely well-delineated in order to effectively perform their symbolic roles. Husband and son here are too thin as characters, too peripheral to Martha’s self-indulgent self-righteousness, which in turn becomes ludicrous, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
It’s not clear whether the novel intends a feminist critique of psychiatry (elements for such an analysis are here), or of the family, or of security systems in American schools, or of men in general, such is the level of uncertainty that Martha’s narrative falls into. All these critiques may be intended, but Prince of Lost Places never quite reaches the mark in relation to any of them.