This piece was first published in Southerly magazine, Sydney, in 2000. It is 3,200 words or about ten printed pages long.
“ At the end of The Floor of Heaven, with its title figuring spatial reversal, the veils of storytelling fall away to reveal the motives of plot and narration as erotic and textual. ”
The oblique epigraph to John Tranter’s Under Berlin (1988), written by Ronald Knox, presents a figure of the author as uncanny child:
It is alleged by a friend of my family that I used to suffer from insomnia at the age of four; and that when she asked me how I managed to occupy my time at night I answered, ‘I lie awake and think about the past.’[i]
The initial disorientation produced by this catachrestic description of a preternaturally ancient and sleepless boy is deepened by its relation to the adult man who controls the narrative frame, the author who has forgotten himself, able to relay the story only as ‘alleged by a friend of the family’, an unnamed woman. The author of Under Berlin marks his own position as father in the dedication to his daughter, Kirsten, above the epigraph. No amount of reading can disclose the private meanings of this juxtaposition but it does establish a problematic of narration and genealogy that forms the ground of both Under Berlin and Tranter’s next book, The Floor of Heaven.[ii]
Forming a kind of pair, these two collections work the chiasmus of fictional autobiography and autobiographical fiction, exploring the intricacies of narrative dislocation and address, layering and reordering the relations of speaking and listening, writing and citation.
Under Berlin’s epigraph serves as a vignette of masculine disarray and inverse forgetting, mediated by a potentially unreliable female witness, a woman whose voice is overwritten and expropriated. The man/boy writes and ‘suffers’, a woman ‘alleges’. In The Floor of Heaven that classic scheme is transumptively troped according to the logic of its title and epigraph from The Merchant of Venice:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here we will sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica: look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins . . .[iii]
These lines are addressed to Jessica, Shylock’s converted daughter, by her new husband Lorenzo. Tranter omits these anchoring details: for a moment at least, he encourages us to remember who writes but forget who speaks. The four narratives which follow will ravel and unravel questions of origin and transmission, the temporality of writing and reading. We may forget momentarily who writes as we ‘listen’ to the characters who ‘speak’ so volubly, but that forgetting will always lead us back to the author as father.
In the epigraph, Lorenzo tells Jessica to sit ‘here’ with him in the moonlight on ‘this bank’ and ‘look, how the floor of heaven/ Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold’. Figural interpretation serves here as a reflexive model of reading as interpersonal, intertextual and deictically complex. Seated on the stage, the conjugal pair will ‘let the sounds of music/ Creep in our ears’, and be mutually penetrated by ‘the touches of sweet harmony’ in an allegory of the theatrical mise en scène and its hidden debt to inscription.
Jessica as auditor is luminously silent like the personified figure of sleeping moonlight. She is told where and from what position to ‘see’, and how to understand what she sees. This brief scene within a scene at the beginning of the last act of the play is specifically a recasting of Jessica’s marital conversion to heaven: in order to be saved she must first learn from her husband how to read, and to become a reader she must first learn to recognise a (heavenly, paternal) text to be deciphered. Seen from the lowest point possible, the degree zero aligned with recumbent femininity as tabula rasa, the sky or ceiling — the overarching space of the paternal text — is presented as a second floor. The doubleness and mobility of perspective inherent in the perverse formulation of ‘the floor of heaven’, in turn conjures the indivisible, atopic space of heaven itself as unclassifiable and in that sense catachrestic, at once above the paternal limit and its instantiation as the condition of legibility. Only by acknowledging that structurating distance can Lorenzo properly guide Jessica to ‘see’ the floor of heaven, for it is only that distance which inaugurates fallen textuality as its supplement and surrogate:
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear.
[enter Stephano with musicians]
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn.
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music. (5.1.63-68)
These lines immediately follow Tranter’s excerpt, but his exclusion of them can nonetheless be understood as an engaged reading of the scene as a provocation to fallen ‘music’ and its authorisation. In The Floor of Heaven the dynamics of conversion and seduction so crucial to Shakespeare’s play make a scandalized return as truncated citation, prelude to a narrative series oriented around Dr Masterson’s group therapy. Dedicated ‘To my son Leon’, masculine authorial narration in The Floor of Heaven channels female character and is mired in the crossed lines of speaking women. The criss-cross of dedication and epigraph in The Floor of Heaven and Under Berlin encloses the diagesis in an ironised tableau of paternal instruction and transmission.
If, in his opening gestures, Tranter references homosocial allegory and canonical authority, the ensuing text of The Floor of Heaven rewrites the script written in Shakespeare’s stars through the representation of the pairing — or harmonizing — of female orality and aurality. The conjugal eroticism of The Merchant of Venice with its corollary, male writing and female witness (in its active and passive senses), is variously queered in the structure of The Floor of Heaven, in a pattern which reaches a delayed climax in ‘Rain’. Tranter stages a lesbian coup de théâtre in the closing lines of the final narrative, with the long-delayed disclosure of narration and then sex between women:
Kathy finished her drink, and lay back.
‘I think that’s enough bourbon,’ she said.
‘And you?’ I could feel she was looking at me
in the dark. ‘What were you up to,
while I was going crazy in New York?’
I thought about California,
my brother dead on his motorbike,
studying at night for my degree, Thailand,
a marriage that hadn’t turned out well.
‘I can’t start all that,’ I said.
‘You don’t want to hear about buildings,
and the personal stuff is too complicated.
Let’s go to sleep.’ I didn’t want to sleep,
I wanted to make love to Kathy, but
it all seemed confused and impossible.
‘You can tell me some other time,’ she said.
She kissed me on the lips, and her voice
came murmuring into my mouth. ‘Oh Sandra,’
she said, and she was moving in my arms.’ (‘Rain’, 38.)[iv]
This is the narrative destination of The Floor of Heaven, a literalization of the lesbian as the trope of a perverse turning which breaks the covenant between father and son, husband and wife. Kathy and Sandra defer talk in order to have sex; spoken narration lapses in order that written narrative can advance. Tranter silently seals his book with an orgasmic kiss, a figure for the jouissance of orality in the service of writing.
The ventriloquism of Gloria — woman as medium for the voices of other women — which opens the book, returns in the sexually charged trope of Kathy’s voice in Sandra’s mouth. If these last lines read oddly that is perhaps because of the narrative and figural work they must do, subsuming authorial narration in the rhetoric of character, homosocial masculinity in homosexual femininity. He who was present at the picnic in ‘Gloria’, who adjusted his tie in ‘Stella’, who described Sandra in ‘Breathless’, vanishes into inscription in the lesbian tableau of ‘Rain’ with the text’s final words. Like the trace of Doctor Masterson, whose parodically named houseboat, ‘Pequod’ (out of Moby Dick) is the venue for this encounter; like Kingston, drowned in Jack’s narration in ‘Rain’; like the charismatic Drake, blown up by Sandra in ‘Breathless’; and Blake, the son who blinds his father and maroons him in a perpetual present tense by driving a knife through ‘the floor of the brain cavity’ (19): the voice of the author-narrator-father is encrypted as writing machine, absent master of a rhetoric of empathic ventriloquism and impersonation.
Tranter’s ending with a twist is foreshadowed by the earlier representation of Sandra as enigmatic, pill-popping and potentially mannish: ‘At thirty she’d gone back to study/something vaguely masculine at night’ (‘Breathless’ 69); ‘there was more to Sandra/than she let you see at first — a strength,/a complexity of character’ (‘Breathless’ 76). Positioned between men, she is gradually granted the prerogatives of narration in ‘Breathless’. Her life story, framed as reported speech, is so expansive and recursive we sometimes forget that it is itself embedded in masculine authorial narration. It is also in ‘Breathless’ that the talismanic phrase, ‘the floor of heaven’, makes its appearance, when Sandra narrates a fatal accident at a bikers’ picnic. Seated behind her husband, Terry, she watches their leader, Big Bob, die playing chicken:
You could see the stars coming out,
one by one, like lamps being lit.
The air was so clear, and it was so
lonely there, like the floor of heaven. . . .
we heard the horn just before he hit,
that sound, like an animal in hell,
howling.’ (‘Breathless’, 80-81.)
The apocalyptic placement of the title phrase suggests the merging of the orphaned Sandra as tragic witness with the omniscient narrator in a process which reaches its apotheosis in the text’s last words. The revelation of Sandra’s identity at the end of ‘Rain’ veers away from the truth of the author-father whose imminance in the text can only be modelled on the unheard, illegible space of alien transcendence above the floor of heaven. Like the aliens who abduct Maybelline to conduct sexual experiments, and whose bidding Sandra finally does in ‘Breathless’, ‘Rain’ can be read as an experiment in abduction, a textual and sexual inversion designed to disorient the paternal, masculine and homoerotically overcoded space of the Pequod. The book ends with an epiphany that is not quite what it seems: the revelation of identity (Sandra) or orientation (lesbian) is, after all, a textual feint. As a scene of arrested movement, the lesbian tableau underlines the constitutive mobility of the triangle of author, character and reader, even as it demonstrates the limits of textual movement or play.
The Floor of Heaven can be read as a critique of what we might call action poetry and its dynamic of machismo and pathos, aligned with the stupidity of bikers playing chicken. Tranter’s alternative in this book is not the version of impersonality associated with language poetry but a feminized rhetoric of character, talk and affect which is ‘thick inlaid’, and which recognizes, as a consequence of its critique, the necessity of rewriting and rereading classic homosocial narrative and compulsory heterosexuality. Talking about the masculinist, confessional, spontaneous rhetoric of action painting, Kathy tells Sandra, near the beginning of ‘Rain’: ‘that’s bullshit. You can make/as many false steps as you want;/if a piece doesn’t work, you just/throw it out, or scrape it back/and paint something better over it’ (93).
The Floor of Heaven takes its bearings in the elaborate framing devices and techniques of embedding, multiple narrators and internal auditors of dramatic monologue, adopting that genre’s characteristic variable verse paragraph and iambic pentameter line, itself taken from dramatic blank verse. Read through multiple levels of reported speech and frame narration, the narratives themselves are richly reminiscent, loaded with novelistic and cinematic reference. The book as a whole can be construed as a serious pastiche, and a reading of the classic narratives and scenarios of melodrama and film noir, orchestrated around the oxymoronic trope of fated accident.
‘Gloria’, which opens the book, offers the most recursive framing of the relations between writing and speaking, voice and narration, psychic process and textual order. It is framed as an account by an anonymous member of a small therapeutic group of a meeting under the authority of the ‘troop leader’, Dr Masterson, over a picnic lunch. In the manner of pastoral, this is the time of otium, when business is arrested and stories are told; the time also of the midday movie. The structure of ‘Gloria’ establishes a feminized model of narrative complexity and multiplicity for the rest of the book: its narrator serves only to frame and occasionally interrupt the embedded narration’s spiralling displacements. The Floor of Heaven begins with a literalized gesture of textual transmission: ‘Gloria handed the doctor a bundle of notes’ (3). Masterson responds: ‘“Yesss, this is interesting, Gloria,/ but it looks complicated, full of bother./Tell me, what does it represent? Hmmm?”‘ (3). The narrator intercedes to tell us, ‘It represented horror, but we didn’t/ know that then’ — for that will only be disclosed through the substitution of Gloria’s writing for her speaking in a circuit which will eventually be closed when it returns to the long-delayed moment of the reading out of the written text: ‘Gloria/smiled, adjusted her glasses, and began’ (26). Occupatio is the rhetorical tactic by which the woman figured as unable to read out, and as the repository of an unspeakable past, the woman narrated, comes to occupy the space of narration by other means: ‘“I really can’t bring myself to speak . . ./to come out with all that . . . all those . . ./extraordinary . . . events!”‘ (5)
The process of composition in ‘Gloria’ is implicitly offered as an allegory of psychic process, ‘the layers of erasures/ and white-out’ never yielding a transparent ‘argument’. Throughout The Floor of Heaven a vertical model of the book or the psyche as surface and depth, form and content, is challenged by a different logic which reads the grammar of the surface horizontally and metonymically, in a process of continual exchange and displacement. In the space between Gloria’s reluctance to read out her manuscript, and the different reluctance of anyone else in the group to take on the risks of reading and identification, Gloria starts to speak about the origin of her manuscript in a dream, and the process of writing as the ‘track’ of an imaginary career: ‘But in that story,/like a pearl within a pearl shell,/lies another dream — perfect, shimmering./It’s the mirror of another life’ (7-8). The monologue which follows (in reported speech) has an abidingly opaque and secondary relation to Gloria’s written manuscript. The latter remains encrypted, an empty sign of the impossibility of a text that will ‘fit together, and make sense’ of ‘all the blind alleys’ (5).
The corollary of this interminable textual movement within the written transcript of Gloria’s spoken dream-narrative, is the triple displacement of her voice as origin. For a start, the story she tells, in the first person, is that of her younger sister, Karen, as told to her twin, Majorie. Karen, in turn, is telling the story of her ex-lover, Blake, now incarcerated and ‘hearing voices’. This extraordinarily elaborate framing might seem to defeat any further complication, but leads to another equally recursive story of Blake’s textual fetish. As the essential prelude to sex with Karen, Blake must read aloud a certain story of adultery, blindness and conspiracy to murder. When Karen refuses the roles assigned to her in this fantasy, Blake is prompted to tell the ‘true’ story of blinding and lobotomizing his father, for which he has devised his own punishment. He must read the same page of the same story aloud to his father, over and over, forgotten even as it is heard. When his father dies, Karen unwittingly becomes the father’s surrogate, and the occasion of its conversion from compulsion to fetish. At the end of this story of compulsive rereading, and of ‘Gloria’, the narrative in which it is embedded like a key, Gloria is back where she began, preparing to read her manuscript aloud: ‘Let’s start at the beginning, then, shall we/ where I have this extraordinary dream.’
The chimera of female subjectivity in ‘Gloria’, a sisterly circuit, identifies the narrative of woman as an always incomplete and oblique disclosure of what cannot be endured (Karen’s narrative breaks off with ‘Oh, Marjorie, I can’t bear it!’): not the histories of male oedipal dramas and triangles, as such, but the endless implication of women in them, as listeners, stand-ins and transmitters. In this brilliantly orchestrated construct what emerges is an accretion of feeling — ‘Grief — like a layer cake!’ — and a sense of the ‘horror’ which attends the positions of both narrator and auditor, and circulates between them. As the text piles up, each story and each voice points inward to ‘some other buried tale too awful/to bring into the light’.
Each of the succeeding narratives develops material from ‘Gloria’, and maintains the conceit of multiple narration in the context of events involving various manifestations of Masterson’s group. ‘Stella’ and ‘Breathless’ are both set, in different decades, in Florenzini’s, that fictionally skewed icon of Sydney sociality, Lorenzini’s. ‘Stella’, in particular, puns on the storeys of the building, and the stories told in its illusionistic space. Upstairs amongst the landscape paintings, Max’s noirish tale of an ill-fated triangle around Stella, the boss’s wife, is offered as ‘real’, but the narrator is led downwards to view a surrealist painting by Estelle, Stella’s figurative ‘twin’. Another story, another triangle, another failed attempt to decode the allegory of the painting and the mystery of woman (Stella/Estelle). The only way out is to reread everything as ‘real but emblematic too’, dismantling the opposition between naturalism (masculine, upstairs) and allegory (feminine, downstairs).
In the second half of The Floor of Heaven two central and tragic narratives by women demonstrate storytelling as a mode of seduction. ‘Breathless’ is the only section in which third person narration transparently frames first person narration; we silently shadow Sandra and Hunter from Florenzini’s to the Quay. The apparently less marked and less complicated mode of narration here functions dramatically to maximize the reader’s sense of voyeurism, and to prepare for the book’s final twist: Sandra’s reappearance in ‘Rain’ as Kathy’s silent auditor/narrator. ‘Rain’, as befits its position, represents the most knowing recapitulation of the book’s established concerns with violence and accident, oedipal confrontation and triangulation, stories which are ‘real and emblematic too’. Most of all, ‘Rain’ focuses on the erotics of disclosure between women, and the embodied intimacy of talk, registered by the narrator as ‘an irrational urge to touch’. Like Sandra’s in ‘Breathless’, Kathy’s story is full of pathos and irony, but this narrative, and the book, ends with the deferral of further storytelling, and the exchange of talk for sex: ‘“You can tell me some other time,” she said’ (138). We are left, once again, contemplating what the text witholds from view. At the end of The Floor of Heaven, with its title figuring spatial reversal, the veils of storytelling fall away to reveal the motives of plot and narration as erotic and textual.
[i] John Tranter, Under Berlin: New Poems 1988, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1988. The dedication is by Ronald Knox (1888-1957).
[ii] John Tranter, The Floor of Heaven, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1992. All further quotations are referenced in the text.
[iii] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.54-62, as cited in John Tranter, The Floor of Heaven, np. All further quotations from the play are taken from William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. M.M. Mahood, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987 and referenced in the text.
[iv] This scene dimly recalls Lorenzo and Jessica, and also perhaps an earlier exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo over Portia:
Lorenzo: How dost thou like the Lord Bassanio’s wife?
Jessica: Past all expressing. It is very meet
The Lord Bassanio live an upright life,
For having such a blessing in his lady
He finds the joys of heaven here on earth,
And if on earth he do not merit it,
In reason he should never come to heaven.
Why, if two gods should play some heavenly match,
And on the wager lay two earthly women,
And Portia one, there must be something else
Pawned with the other, for the poor rude world
Hath not her fellow.
Lorenzo: Even such a husband
Hast thou of me, as she is for a wife.
Jessica: Nay, but ask my opinion too of that. (3.5.60–72)