The Fall of Light, by Sarah Laing (Vintage, 2013), 339 pp., $38.00
With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
Auckland-based writer and illustrator Sarah Laing opens her novel The Fall of Light with this Italo Calvino passage from his 1972 novel Invisible Cities, and so sets the tone of her book. In Invisible Cities, Calvino explored the imagination and the architecturally imaginable/unimaginable through descriptions of the imaginative potentialities of cities. He visualised the possibilities of how cities could be constructed and how they could function on a practical level.
In The Fall of Light, Rudy (short for Rudyard, as in Kipling) is an obsessive, workaholic middle-aged architect whose glamorous (in that distinctly glossy, bohemian jasmine-scented-Grey-Lynn-house way) wife Yasmin has left him and the flash, clutter-free West Auckland house Rudy proudly designed for them, taking their two daughters (the bitingly dismissive, surly neo-goth Seraphine and the empathetic Gala) with her.
Yasmin seems to revel in itemising Rudy’s shortcomings, mainly, that he hasn’t learned to connect with his girls and that he doesn’t have time for any of the important things in life. The mythical work/life balance doesn’t exist for Rudy, but one day he has a Vespa accident (of course he rides a Vespa!) and while recuperating, is forced to confront himself and where his life is going and what matters to him beyond work.
Rudy works at an architectural firm where he pitches ambitious avant-garde structures, but he is increasingly overshadowed by a confident, young, fair-trade-coffee-drinking gunslinger whose ideas are scaled back and functional as opposed to Rudy’s wild and dreamlike but impractical creations. Seething and teeming with competitiveness and creative frustration, Rudy is angst-ridden. All of his grievances are wholly recognisable: those frustrations of being a creative-for-hire and the compromises that spring from the endless grappling with maintaining a work/life balance.
Laing’s cunningly colourful and varied cast of characters provides wonderful texture and real interest. There’s Rudy’s alpha-male mate Greg who, in contrast to Rudy, makes art out of trash. There’s Genevieve – Rudy’s brittle and icy old friend from university and co-worker. There’s Rudy’s distant, adoptive mother, her ‘face lined from washing-hanging-outs’, who still makes homely lasagne with ‘that frilly dried pasta, with cheese sauce and mince. Old school.’ Particularly evocative is the disconnection between Rudy and his mother, which he encapsulates as the ‘harmonic thrum of loneliness’.
The dreams Rudy has play a central part in the narrative. Rudy describes his dreams as being too ‘pungent’. When he’s not exploring his invisible city, chasing an unidentified girl (is it Yasmin? Rudy’s adoptive mother? His birth mother? An un-met woman?) prowling distantly on her tiger, or trying to find magical pomegranate seeds, he is reliving his Vespa accident in the form of feverish anxiety dreams.
Sure, Rudy’s a bit hopeless in that vaguely pathetic man-child way. But he is just so likeable. Rudy’s characterisation is so refined and defined that he really comes alive. I know men like him. Just like Rudy, they listen to Sonic Youth, wear mid-life crisis trainers (usually bright orange) and black thickly-rimmed glasses. In a clichéd move, Rudy announces at one point that he specifies Nick Cave be played at his funeral march. But Rudy is also very funny and sharply observant: when potential clients pop into the office for a business meeting, Rudy offers them coffee. When they order (gasp!) mochaccinos, Rudy dryly thinks to himself: ‘I tried to quell my fear that people who drank such things had bad taste in architecture.’
When Rudy meets Laura, a hippified recovering Brethren who, again, provides an interesting polarity to the ‘square’ Rudy, he demonstrates an acute self-awareness: he imagines Laura sees him as an uptight architect in Italian wool trousers, mired in the material world, too conservative to eat mushrooms and commune with ghosts. While he rejects Laura’s offer to read his tarot cards, explaining, ‘I don’t go in for that kind of thing’, Rudy’s friendship with Laura pushes to the surface an altogether more complex, practical and capable side to him.
Rudy identifies being adopted with being programmed for abandonment. This is a theme that runs through The Fall of Light, and it’s a revealing insight into Rudy’s motivations, his ongoing identity crisis, and the dynamics of how he relates (or doesn’t) to people. It becomes clear that Rudy needs to feel useful and needs a purpose, and the heavily pregnant Laura fulfils that.
I don’t know about you, but for me, dream sequences are frequently deathly dull, almost as intolerably boring – as when someone tells you blow-by-blow the details of that really bizarre dream they had last night. A talented illustrator, Laing smartly skirts around this issue by using elegant ink-wash drawings to illustrate Rudy’s febrile dreams. She brings to life the structures Rudy dreams about: the observatories, onion-domed cathedrals, tulip-shell buildings that construct the ‘invisible cities’ in his dreams.
This graphic element of The Fall of Light pushes the expectations of what a literary novel can be, and Laing uses illustrations as a clever device. Outlining Rudy’s dreams in picture form prevents the bogging down of narrative, therefore sustaining momentum.
It is also refreshing that this is a New Zealand novel which is firmly set in the here and now. Laing’s contemporary Auckland is instantly recognisable, from the green Inner Link buses which feature, to cafés such as Dizengoff.
This is a very readable novel, easily Laing’s most refined work yet. It strikes an agreeable balance between the comic and the tender and I love the defined characters, lovely domestic details and quietly dry humour. Laing’s scenes are vivid and bright and the ending is satisfying indeed.
KIRAN DASS is an Auckland-based writer and reviewer who has written about music, film and books for the NZ Listener, The Wire, Sunday Star-Times, Metro, Landfall, Real Groove, Rip it Up, NZ Musician, NZ Herald, Dominion Post, No, Pavement and Staple.