Gail Jones: Dreams of Speaking
It was Henry James who said Tell a dream, lose a reader and I entirely agree. Dreams in novels are often boring and intrusive and though they are not too annoying in this one, it is not dreams, as the title implies, that makes this novel a very good one. The dreams of speaking presumably comes from one of the many key themes of this book, namely the idea of communication. I say that it is one of the many key themes as this novel superbly combines an excellent novel of ideas while, at the same time, dealing with the age-old issues of communications and relationships. It is Jones’ skill to make both aspects work very well.
Alice Black is an Australian woman who, for much of the book, is in Paris writing a book on the poetics of modernity. The title sounds pretentious. Black’s or, rather, Jones’ approach to this theme is not. Indeed, with the exception of the brilliant and very much underrated Thomas McMahon, I cannot think of an author who has so expertly integrated the role of science and technology as a generally positive force into the novel. She manages to make us look at standard technological inventions – the phone, the television, the train – and see how we interact with them in new ways. We follow Alice’s story from childhood. She is the older of two sisters. Unlike Norah, her younger sister, she is keen on technology and science. This partially stems from time she spent in an isolation ward in a hospital when she had scarlet fever and where she discovered both the hospital machinery and the transistor radio of her only fellow patient and became fascinated by their technological possibilities. Her father was an electrician and his knowledge of electricity and his interest in Australian Rules football were something she shared with him which her sister did not.
But Alice is not a nerd, obsessed only with technology. We also follow her relationships. There is Stephen, her boyfriend at university, whom she soon outgrows but who does not outgrow her. Above all, however, is Mr. Sakamoto. Mr. Sakamato was in Nagasaki when the atom bomb fell. Though he survived, many of his family did not. He followed in his father’s footsteps, making saki but he is now a widower and retired, with two adult daughters. He speaks fluent English, having had an English tutor as a child and then having lived in Scotland. He is now writing a biography of Alexander Graham Bell, not least because of his fascination with the telephone and his discovery that his communication with his uncle works best when by telephone rather than in person. He meets Alice on a train from Chartres – their meeting is caused by their both hearing John Lennon’s Instant Karma – and sharing a love not only for John Lennon and the Beatles but for things technological and, in particular, the poetics of technology. They establish a warm and friendly (but definitely non-sexual) relationship, enjoying food and drink together and enjoying technology together but also because they are both foreigners in Paris. They exchange all sorts of fascinating information about technology, from the factual, such as the fact that the film star Hedy Lamarr was the co-inventor of the frequency-hopping radio-controlled torpedo, to the more poetic. It is a fascinating relationship, both for its somewhat improbability as well as for their discussions on technology and it beauty.
But this book is not a wild, nerdish hymn to the wonders of technology. Jones makes us well aware of its negative side, particularly with reference to the atom bomb, both from Sakamoto’s experience as well as from Alice’s visit to Nagasaki. And she also shows us that the strength of relationships – friendship, family, love – is more important than all the poetics of technology, something, let us be honest, that it is unlikely a male writer would have been able to do. Her generally post-modern style only helps makes her point about the fragmentary nature of life, whether personal or technological. It is a wonderful book that deserves to be better known
First published 2006 by Harvill Secker