May 2015

Noted

‘A Short History of Richard Kline’ by Amanda Lohrey

By Barry Hill
Black Inc.; $29.99

This is another deft life-study by Amanda Lohrey, whose recent narratives have a sardonic edge with metaphysical reach. In the novella Vertigo (2008) she did not miss a beat. Its protagonists, a young couple disaffected with city life, move to a coastal retreat, to simplify themselves and commune with the net of forces we inadequately summarise as “nature”. The mind-states of individuals, delusional or not, are given their perfect artistic forms, and the climactic bushfire delivers a spiritual freight that we take from the book without argument. What’s happened is that our reading experience has been conducted through several levels of awareness. Vertigo stands as a masterpiece.

A Short History of Richard Kline is another page-turner, but it is less satisfying. It is longer, there are more tricky balls to keep in the air, and its narrator-protagonist Kline is a pushy, toneless mid-career malcontent from the corporate world who chronically resists one’s sympathies. He is a difficult being from the start, who is into everything but always feels that something is missing. What is one to do – in fiction or in real life – with a bright, upper-middle-class Sydney boy whose insouciance leaves him bored, even in the face of death while hanging from a commandingly high rock face?

Lohrey’s narrative tempo, then, is brisk: Kline’s work life and love life in Sydney and London are given a satiric sheen; even his grief at the loss of his brother feels slightly packaged. His river of angst, which gives the book its gravitas, is interspersed with recurring bouts of soul-destroying boredom. Still, he comes in and out of good stretches of time in therapy and in marriages, where Lohrey’s gift for telling dialogue excels itself. Time for Kline becomes the thing: he must live with time better than before, if only to contend with his inevitable death. Eventually – it seems inevitable by now – he meets his guru, where he lays his depression down; and speaking, thinking and willing cease to be the order of his day. (The guru is an Indian woman, as in the true story of spiritual awakening told by Andrew Harvey in his Hidden Journey.)

The problem with Richard Kline is that once we go with Kline’s quest for a life of generosity and connectedness, it’s clear that Lohrey has set herself an almost impossible task. The “short history”, which strains to be a fable, seeks to revivify what Lohrey calls “rudimentary” Buddhism, as well as the tenets of Hindu Vedantist philosophy. I put the book down having enjoyed the journey well enough, while all the time wondering if its path might have been better rendered directly in the author’s first person.

Barry Hill
Barry Hill is a poet and historian. His book Naked Clay: Drawing from Lucian Freud was short-listed for the UK’s 2012 Forward Prize.

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