So I've done it again. I don't know why I do this. Sometimes literary fiction appeals to me, but most of the time it comes off as bland or just unremarkable. Nothing about The Pages indicated to me that it would be any different, and I was predictably unimpressed with it. But I can't very well write a review that says, "More of the same." I feel an obligation to provide a full explanation of my displeasure, especially because, at the time I'm writing this, the other two poor reviews of this book both consist of single sentences.
Erica and Sophie are gal pals, the former a philosophy and the latter a psychoanalyst. When a recluse named Wesley Antill dies, his surviving siblings invite someone from the University of Sydney's philosophy department to read over his epic philosophical tract and determine which bits are worth publishing. Sophie tags along for the ride, because she's got a hole in her schedule of having affairs with married men. Instead of getting to work, however, upon arriving on the farm, Erica does everything she can to avoid revealing Wesley's philosophy to us even as she stokes some sexual tension with Roger Antill, Wesley's brother. Oh, and she was sleeping with Sophie's dad.
There's a certain sense of majesty in the way Murray Bail describes both the setting and its characters. I love his descriptions of Sydney in the second chapter, the way he explains that it's a city that embraced psychoanalysis instead of philosophy as a result of how it grew from the forced immigration of convicts and other social misfits. This descriptive quality stays constant throughout the book and testifies to Bail's abilities as a writer. In fact, Bail's ability to make Australia come alive for me not just as a setting but as an atmosphere almost makes this book a worthwhile read:
Travellers and strangers to all parts of Australia, especially away from the coast, can expect wonderful hospitality. The coutnry has its faults, as any country does, but lack of hospitality is certainly not one of them. Only when hospitality is little more than an excessive informality, when an entire nation breaks into premature smiling and all-teeth, small-talk mode—which betrays an absence of philosophical foundations—does it appear as nothing more than an awkward type of lightness.
I could go on and quote more of the opening to chapter 8, which establishes a character to Australian life even as Bail continues his thematic contrast of philosophy and psychoanalysis. And to some extent, Australia becomes a better-realized character than either Erica or Sophie, for we at least better understand it. While Bail provides plenty of pithy descriptions of his other characters, there's very little conflict to accompany these pictures, and what conflict there is feels contrived and very confusing.
It's a sneaky thing, a novel without conflict. Hard to accomplish, of course, because a story needs conflict, but doable when you can distract with description and dialogue. I didn't notice it until after I finished the book and began to think about how to write this review. Then it struck me: nothing happens.
As with most damning statements, this one is not entirely true. More specifically, what does happen feels unsubstantiated by the plot. The only hint of conflict for our two main characters occurs toward the end of the book, where Sophie storms into the shed full of Wesley's papers and accuses Erica of sleeping with Sophie's father. Erica admits that she has been, and Sophie intentionally or accidentally spills her coffee over a number of the pages of Wesley's tract.
I was taken aback—not over Erica's misdemeanour or the coffee spilling incident, but because I didn't see this coming. It was entirely unexpected because I had sense of the relationship between Erica and Sophie's father. The only hint we got was when Sophie's father phones her only to ask to speak to Erica. Maybe I'm dense, but I don't always assume that if a father wants to speak to one of his daughter's friends he is sleeping with that friend. . . . Moreover, we never meet Sophie's father or her evil step-mother. All we know of them comes from Sophie herself. I feel like I'm missing an entire layer of story that would have made The Pages more interesting.
This conflict between Sophie and Erica never gets resolved. Sophie ends up leaving, taking Erica's car back to Sydney. I realize that this is a trend in literary fiction, this idea that "life goes on" after the story, but now I have to ask what the point was of having Sophie discover Erica and her father's relationship. How does it affect the story? Erica doesn't really seem to change much, and I don't know what Sophie does, because we don't hear from her after she leaves. As beautifully established as these characters are, neither of them has any development.
The same goes for poor Wesley's philosophy. Here I was shallowly expecting to actually learn about it before the end of the book. I wasn't expecting some revolutionary secret to the meaning of life, but I wanted to see something . . . different. Instead, not only does Erica avoid Wesley's philosophy for the majority of the novel, but we get a serious of disjointed statements at the very end of the book, with very little moderation or interpretation. So I'm left to interpret things for myself—always a dangerous task—and conclude that the moral of the story is that amateurs don't make good philosophers!
Really, the entire exploration of philosophy and its juxtaposition with psychoanalysis is shallow and pretentious. I can say this because I have examples of literary fiction that does exactly this and does it well. Take, for instance, any novel by John Irving, who demonstrates that a fascinating plot is not anathema to deep characters with psychological issues. More appropriate even to our discussion would be the Deptford trilogy by Robertson Davies, which draws heavily on Jungian psychology, and features actual scenes of psychoanalysis in the later books. Davies uses a full cast of characters to illustrate his themes on psychology and philosophy. Bail's minimalist and tightly lyrical approach, while artistically intriguing, is not as successful nor as satisfactory.
I can't, in good conscience, recommend it, not when there are so many better executions of similar themes in the works of Irving, Davies, et al. Yet you may decide otherwise. I'm finding that the statement "your mileage may vary," while applicable to any matter of taste, is doubly applicable to taste in works of literary fiction. Judging from the blurbs on the back of this edition, Bail has a strong following—and all the more power to him. I won't be joining that following, however. The Pages didn't strike any chords with me.