on Katherine Carlyle, a novel by Rupert Thomson (Other Press)
A person in the habit of watching oneself become oneself – that is, one believed to be a changeling who affirms and is elated by the struggle – has two desires. The first is to get lost, to wander away, unfettered, to draw closer to the provisional. The second is to be found, recognized. They are coincident. In his tenth novel, Rupert Thomson enacts these twinned impulses through a narrative by 19-year old Katherine Carlyle.
Her father is an itinerant CNN correspondent. Her mother died six years earlier from cancer – a death, Katherine believes with scant evidence, triggered by her having been an IVF baby, stored for years in liquid nitrogen as a fertilized embryo. This British family had been living in Rome for 10 years, and now Katherine has been awarded an Oxford scholarship. While her father is away, she decides to leave the city for Berlin, leaving no clues of her destination for her father or friends. She throws her phone into the Tiber.
“Sometimes I have to prove that I exist. That I’m vibrant on the inside. Colorful. That I’m not a freak, an experiment,” she says – but prove to whom? The reader becomes her most intimate listener. On her route from Berlin to points north, she attempts to invent a life escaped from given circumstances – but her listener is her most critical and creative invention. “My disappearance is like a crime without a motive,” she says – but it is more like a motive without a crime. “That’s what life is like now,” she continues. “I hold myself in a constant state of readiness. Every occasion – every moment – trembles with a sense of opportunity.”
Her world seems divided between people she has wanted something from, and people who want something from her. In Katherine Carlyle, the latter are male. There were her boyfriends in Rome – but in the strange lands she passes through, she permits chance encounters with various men. Here is how Thomson fashions her interior voice:
“When I first saw you … I let out a sigh. It’s not that it’s not nice to hear., not that I’m spoiled, or arrogant, or vain. It’s just that people keep saying things and then expecting something in return, as if their compliments are a password or a payment, as if they are themselves ingenious and brave and deserve to be rewarded, and maybe they are, maybe they do, but I’m tired of it. I’m beginning to think that what I might be looking for is a place where things are no longer being said, where people don’t talk at all -- or if they do, not in a language I understand.”
Katherine Carlyle retains the jitters of the novelist’s original plunge – of setting a character in motion and not knowing the outcome. A premise hangs by a thread. Furthermore, Katherine wants her listener to act as accomplice, the one who doesn’t talk back or make demands. But Thomson keeps us in uncomfortable alliance with her – plunging ahead in the spirit of freedom, but also, in dread. We are, after all, adults! And about adults, Katherine says, “When you’re young, a lot of older people have a grasping quality, like vampires. … They used to be like you, though you usually can’t see it. That’s why they need you around. They want to siphon off a bit of what they’ve lost.” Ouch.
The further Katherine travels, the more her imagination drifts toward her father. Is Katherine simply trying to revive (or perhaps follow) her mother? “In her final months,” the daughter recalls, “she became capricious, and I would sometimes feel she was usurping territory that should have been my own … Only later did it occur to me that it wasn’t energy at all but hunger … how hard-won these seemingly whimsical projects were.” Is it life Katherine invites or oblivion? It is as if she can recall her own years as a frozen, shrouded embryo. At one point, she describes the ideal life as when we are "adrift yet together, elated but at peace." The environment of Katherine Carlyle abets our skepticism while privileging Katherine's desires. Living with that tension is the reader's anxiety and pleasure.
I'm doing all I can here to withhold details on Katherine's movements. Katherine Carlyle is paced and plotted with an effortless yet impulsive energy. Since she is "experimenting with coincidence," her story entails much chance -- and the unpredictable effects and results of such decisions. Thomson also gives us plenty of local color, but none of it is gratuitous. Everything serves the purpose of setting the tone of her risky world.
Thomson projects Katherine as exceedingly articulate and observant, candid and determined. What might have come off as an extended contrivance becomes an irresistible one-way conversation. Thomson is as shrewd as he is vastly talented – he knows we will take the dare and travel with Katherine – at first because we don’t want to be like those -- and then, because we’re scared stiff that she has made a bold but very foolish mistake.
“What has interested me right from the beginning – what has preoccupied me above all – is the prospect of arrival,” Katherine says. Same here.
[Published October 6, 2015. 268 pages, $16.95 paperback]