Steven Carroll

 

The Time We Have Taken

 

This felt less like a book to me than a concept.

 

I think Carroll aimed to show the poignancy of everyday life – to capture something of the interweaving of lives in a small but growing suburb. It feels very autobiographical: the time (early 70s), place (suburban/borderline rural Australia) and characters all relate closely to Carroll’s own experience. Granted, there's lots of great material here, in characters, events, setting, and a very usable plot structure.

 

Rather than create a story however, Carroll muses his way through every page, always detached, always deliberating on each moment. This while the moment is happening.

 

The young soon to graduate son – most like Carroll himself at that time – even acknowledges this bizarre tendency – to be nostalgic even as an event is happening. Thus in the very moment a romance is beginning, this character partly (and narrator overwhelmingly) is seeing its end. It’s looking back sentimentally as it’s happening – even before it’s really happened.

 

Some might see this as poetic, pausing to observe, meditate, and commentate on every moment – not letting the uniqueness and implications and significance pass you by. And the language *is* quite florid (I wish I could find a word for ‘florid’ that wasn’t in itself ... florid ... decorous, verbose, ornate, pompous), self-consciously poetic. However this does the opposite to the sort of poetry I enjoy – where a few perfectly chosen words hit the nail on the head, vividly conveying some idea or emotion. It’s not powerful, penetrating or succinct - but woolly, grandiose, purple. And this covers a lack of substance - not less to say more, more to say less. In Carroll we drown in words, all is muddy, we can’t swim to the meaning through the engulfing syrup of whimsy.

 

Moreover I think he’s actually doing a disservice to the everyday suburban and community life he’s supposed to be celebrating, or, at least, illuminating. Somehow it’s not valid to merely experience a walk, a chat, a pie, a drive – for Carroll it has to always be some sort of epiphany. Plato may have said (seriously, may have, I’m not sure it was him), “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but the overexamined life is not worth reading. Or, I suspect, living. Every exchange, sorry, is not pregnant with meaning. To try to paint it this way actually shows contempt for the everyday: in the act of trying to legitimise daily experiences by giving them all ponderous (and specious) significance he shows he feels they need legitimising.

 

Or maybe I just wasn’t convinced by the interpretations he gave: C. S. Lewis’ ‘Screwtape Letters’ likewise attempted to show the big implications of seemingly small encounters in shaping character, but he succeeded, not only in insight, but also in style. The epistles were entertaining as letters, and as drama between the senior and junior devils. They weren’t merely ruminations with character and story as vague background.

 

I’m running against the awards and committees here I suppose, but maybe that also fits. Is this more a book targeted at grants, discussion and being taken seriously than being a good read?

 

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy a muse as much as the next guy. Even a tangent or a rant (c.f. Keillor). But the ratio is all wrong in this book – it’s all musing. Call me populist if you will (hey, get how defensive I’m being. Well, I suppose I’ve really had a go at Carroll), but I much prefer the ratio in something like Hornsby’s, ‘High Fidelity’. Indeed, there’s probably more reflection per page than a lot of other books, but there’s enough action and dialogue – enough to experience, enough being taken to and through interesting incidents by the craft of the writer – to warrant the occasional bit of musing.

 

August 2010