Monday, September 10, 2012

The Point of Talking and Not Talking: Tim Parks, "Dreams of Rivers and Seas"

The following paragraph appears about three-quarters of the way through Tim Parks's novel Dreams of Rivers and Seas:

John felt clarity coming and going. It is pointless saying anything, a voice told him. The words were spoken quietly and convincingly, as if across a table in a quiet room where everything is calm and reasonable. It is pointless saying anything. John listened and saw at once how true that was. It was a wise voice. Talking is pointless. He hadn't really been listening to the girl, after all, had he? And she hasn't been listening to him. Why say anything? She just wants to take advantage of you. She's been telling you lies. Elaine had certainly lied. All the messages Elaine sends are lies. Text messages were invented for lying. John soon realised that. It's too easy. Then he was overwhelmed by an image of Sharmistha's body, her golden nakedness swam into his mind. She is right beside him. Her lips covered his. Her hair is on his face. And he started at the touch of Heinrich's hand. (322)

John James has been walking through Delhi at the beginning of a sandstorm. A young man who lives in London, he has come to Delhi without telling his mother, a doctor at a Delhi clinic for the poor, but at this moment, he has decided that he will go see her right away, despite the sandstorm, and he has left his cheap hotel to walk to her house. This is his second recent trip to Delhi; the first was a few months earlier, on the occasion of the funeral of his father, Albert James.

Three women are on his mind in this paragraph. First of all, he is accompanied here by Jasmeet Singh, a young Sikh in her late teens who was not only a pupil but also the mistress of his father's; she wants John to take her back to London with him. For a few minutes, they have been sitting in an unattended autorickshaw, waiting for its driver to turn up. After John hears this mysterious voice, he first applies its "wisdom" to his conversation with Jasmeet: here, "it is pointless saying anything" because neither participant in the conversation is really listening to the other. John wants Jasmeet to leave him alone, and, as John spins it here, Jasmeet "just wants to take advantage of" him. From this perspective, whatever she says has to be parsed as part of her attempted manipulation of him. But not all of what she says as the sandstorm rises is actually part of her attempt to talk him into taking her to London; in fact, as a Delhi native, she is trying to get the naive visitor to come in out of the dangerous storm. What she is saying is neither pointless nor manipulative; it is simply the attempt to communicate potentially life-saving information to John. John's observations about language are thus ironized by the situation; language -- and specifically conversation (in literary terms, dialogue) -- can be more than only "what the characters do to each other" (as Elizabeth Bowen put it in "Notes on Writing a Novel").

The second woman on John's mind is Elaine, his girlfriend back in London, who has been texting him incessantly in Delhi, despite his never responding to her messages. His train of thought runs smoothly from Jasmeet's "lies" to Elaine's, and then to a further interpretation of the voice's "wisdom": "Text messages were invented for lying." Unbeknownst to John (as well as to the reader, who will find this out in just a few pages), Elaine herself has just arrived in Delhi at his mother's house (as she thinks he is staying there). If John sees all of Elaine's messages as lies, his non-response to her messages has also been a kind of lie, as he had told her he was going to Delhi to see his mother, whom he has not contacted at all since his arrival in the city. Again, John's reflections on language's manipulative quality neglect its role as a provider of information, in which it is not "pointless to say anything."

Not saying anything also comes up in John's memory of a young Indian woman, Sharmistha, with whom he went to bed a couple nights earlier, only to break off his foreplay with her because her impotent boyfriend, an older German man named Heinrich, touched John's foot. Sharmistha had not said anything to John about the unusual nature of her relationship with Heinrich, who apparently always watches her when she has sex with other men. In this scene, she obviously assumed that John would not agree to let Heinrich watch; it was not her speech that manipulated John, but her silence.

John agrees with the voice that "talking is pointless," then, but the interactions alluded to in this paragraph (with Jasmeet, Elaine and Sharmistha) all undermine that conclusion. As a provider of information, language is more than manipulation -- and silence can be as manipulative as speech.


That's a nice resonant conclusion, but there's one point in the paragraph that I want to pursue further for a moment: "Text messages were invented for lying." Ever since Destiny, Parks has explored the impact of mobile phones on fiction. In that novel, Chris Burton is unable to use his mobile because his charger in his lost luggage. In Rapids, the characters on a kayaking holiday in South Tirol constantly send texts back to friends and family in England. The "unreality" of the holiday, which I discussed in "The Delirium of the Real Thing," is highlighted by one teenage girl's sending of texts to her boyfriend back home within minutes after kissing one of the boys on the kayaking trip. In Cleaver, one reason the title character goes into the mountains in South Tirol is to get out of range of mobile-phone signals. And Parks's most recent novel, The Server (which I will be writing about soon), takes place in a meditation insitute where mobile-phone use is forbidden. Not only that, the participants in the meditiation retreats are not told that they will have no access to their mobiles during their ten-day vow of silence. Here, the silence of the organizers on this point is as much a tool of manipulation as the silence of John James in his silence at Elaine's numerous text messages to him.

In any case, there is a study to be written on the representation of mobile phones in Parks's fiction. It could begin with a consideration of how his works from before the mobile-phone era would look different if the plots were shifted to a few decades later. Cara Massimina, for example, is the tale of Morris Duckworth, a hapless expat English teacher in Verona whose kidnapping of, or elopement with, the Massimina of the title would not work at all in a mobile-phone era. Again and again in his work since Destiny, Parks has directly confronted the problems mobile phones raise for plot by making them central to his plots, just as they have become essential to the lives of so many of his readers.

No comments: