In one sense, Michael Fitzgerald’s fascinating but troubled debut The Pacific Room, is radically minimalist, as it has remarkably few components one might expect of a novel, such as conversations that run down the page (he said this, she said that…), and people just generally moving and doing. To misquote Flannery O’Connor, it’s unwilling to get down in the dust, and as such confronts the reader with a kind of inertia that makes for a surprisingly difficult read.
Written in the third person, The Pacific Room has three principle narrative strands across two time periods. In 1892, we follow Italian painter Girolamo Nerli as he visits Robert Louis Stevenson, seeing out his days in Samoa, in order to paint his portrait. Nerli, inspired by The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, creates distrust and unease by attempting to discover and show the different sides of Stevenson, somewhat to the frustration of the Scottish author. The 1892 portion is further complicated by being divided between various characters, with chapters designated to the stepson, the widow, Sosimo, the Australian housekeeper Mary and so on.
Then we have the two ‘now’ threads. In the first of these, Lewis Wakefield (the surname offering a clue to the book’s intentions) is researching Nerli’s portrait for a postgraduate degree, first in Sydney and then travelling to Samoa. Throughout, Lewis tries to work out what both Samoa and the painting mean to him (or, perhaps more accurately, why he can’t stop thinking about this group of Europeans living on a Pacific island), while he grapples with the loss of his own family, and subsequent use and misuse of prescription medication.
Nerli, inspired by The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, creates distrust and unease by attempting to discover and show the different sides of Stevenson.
In the second ‘now’ thread, we follow Teuila, a member of the Samoan fa’afafine who exist across genders, a descendant of Stevenson’s ‘servant boy’ Sosimo, and Wilhelmina, the librarian of the Pacific Room Wakefield visits, thus knitting the strands together. While there’s great potential here, its thin rendering and tenuous link to the Stevenson–Nerli thread via a distant relative speaks to the difficulty of building a novel out of disparate strands, particularly with so little happening in each. This is unfortunate in instances where the subject matter needs thorough and respectful development if it’s going to be included at all.
The surname Wakefield, it would seem, echoes the E.L. Doctorow and Nathaniel Hawthorne characters of the same name, who disappear from their families for decades. Theirs are excellent stories that speak to the idea of one’s ability to be lost within society in every sense. In this case, however, Wakefield’s family have left him – some years before the story takes place, when he’s sixteen, his parents and twin brother die in a sightseeing plane crash in Antarctica. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get the measure of this crash and what it takes from Lewis because we’re not privy to what Lewis’ relationship with his family looks like in real-time. This loss serves a purpose – it’s a justification for, among other things, the unnecessarily heightened drama of the library and plane scenes, his struggles with medication, and for his apparent obsession with the painting – but we’re never quite made to feel it.
Fitzgerald has fascinating subject matter on his hands here, but hasn’t quite found the story, or a way to tell it. The Pacific Room could be interpreted as a bold dissention, an attempt to pull a rich language forward, but the heavily pronounced prose style acts as a thick and distancing authorial lens between the world being described and what we see and hear of it.
The Pacific Room could be interpreted as a bold dissention, an attempt to pull a rich language forward.
At one point, we see Lewis reflect on what he’s learned from Nerli’s painting: ‘It’s all about looking and listening, gathering the voices around him, conducting this island of voices in his head.’ This comment, and others like it hint at Fitzgerald’s ultimate aim of creating a cacophony of voices out of his short chapters, rather than a traditional plot-driven narrative. This in itself is admirable – think Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation – but the intent is severely undermined by what can only be described as the author’s unwillingness to let his characters speak for themselves.
While in one sense the novel seems unusually paced and structured – conversations tend to spread over several pages, with only a handful of lines of dialogue on each – the book’s 200-plus pages include a great deal of description, and much of it vibrant. Walking through the forest, Mary notes a bird’s-nest fern, the strangler figs, ‘[a]nd running rampant through it all are the scissoring leaves of the banana plant… No sooner have the logs fallen than they become tangled in vine’. The novel does get at the soupiness of the tropics, the unremitting arrogance of equatorial natural life, but leans somewhat on simile and a kind of overly circumscribed and familiar cache of descriptors – things tend to blossom, bloom and curl. Sydney, particularly its light, is made to feel very present, but I would have liked to see a greater interrogation of how the tropics and its inhabitants are seen and written about, and of what it means for Stevenson, Lewis and Fitzgerald himself to have been drawn to the ‘exotic’.
Fitzgerald is very aware of the way different spaces – libraries, various vehicles – affect our being, frame what we see, and can pull us out of one time and into another. In the Pacific Room in Samoa, Lewis wakes from a reverie about a woman he once spent a night with (their relationship is unclear, but he tells a taxi driver he doesn’t have a girlfriend), expecting to see her, but instead finds himself looking up at a skylight. In the ‘grey-green of late afternoon something else is absent. The glass has drawn clear, and he realises: the rain has stopped.’ Here in the Pacific Room, he not only discovers that his interest in the still painting is about what’s behind it – people’s animated lives (from 1892 and now) – but also that he’s going to be okay.
Fitzgerald is very aware of the way different spaces affect our being, frame what we see, and can pull us out of one time and into another.
It’s somewhat fitting that the experience of a book about a painting should be one of continual awareness of the composition of its scenes, the way they are drawn. But, overwhelmingly, The Pacific Room relies on the kind of poetic internal thought that no one outside of a novel has, at least not so abundantly. These thoughts also have the problem of tending towards summary – again, we don’t get to see events play out or characters behave the way we’re told they do. When Mary is walking through the forest with Nerli, he disappears for a moment and she wonders if she’d hallucinated him. In a library, Lewis hears or imagines he hears ‘the Scottish writer’s words […] sifting through time, sieved and spun forward by the microfiche’.
When Stevenson’s stepson comes across the artist Nerli and Mary, the Australian maid, in a sexual embrace:
He is moved beyond words by the sight of them, not yet shocked. From his mother and stepfather he has grown used to the idea of bodies at war, not so much against each other but against themselves – soused in laudanum or hemorrhaging [sic] from within, blooming with eczema or other unseemly disfigurements of the flesh.
Wilhelmina thinks of every unopened book as an ‘unsung prayer’ that it falls to her to release. Often all too similar versions of these constructions are given to different characters.
Fitzgerald has a strong aesthetic drive and sense of spatial experience, and one can’t help but feel that the novel that could have been is in there, had the author moved in a slightly different direction. We feel the challenge of reconciling his various intentions – which is not unusual or unexpected in a debut novel, even one (or particularly one) from someone with obvious talent and ambition. There is a richly poetic novel ahead of Fitzgerald, in which these things click more elegantly into place.
The Pacific Room is available now at Readings.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece named the character Wilhelmina as a member of the Samoan fa’afafine, when the correct character is Teuila. The piece also stated that Wakefield lost his ‘twin brothers’ in a plane crash, when the character had only one twin brother.