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John Tranter: Reviewed

Andrew Riemer reviews The Floor Of Heaven by John Tranter

Casual Slaughters

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, September 19, 1992
This piece is 974 words or about three printed pages long.

“ … a cool elegance and by a macabre whimsy which reminded me irresistibly of the best moments in Twin Peaks. ”

The floor of heaven, according to some famous lines in The Merchant of Venice, is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold. In John Tranter’s four cunningly interlaced verse novellas it resounds with voices — by turns plangent, obsessive, neurotic, candid and mendacious. They may not sing like angels quiring to the young-eyed cherubins, but they do sing with their own characteristic music about our familiar world, the here-and-now.
     Tranter’s previous major volume, Under Berlin, revealed him as one of the most abstract, allusive, at times cerebral of contemporary poets. In The Floor Of Heaven, he takes a surprising and exhilarating change of direction, exploiting the ancient and honourable capacity of verse to tell stories, to speak succinctly about our common experience in accents not usually considered ‘poetic’ by those who have little ear for poetry.
     These voices cry out. insist, harangue and complain — in parks and on ferries. on a houseboat, in smoke-filled restaurants and in coffee shops — clamouring to be heard, revealing the sad plight of people cast adrift in a confusing, at times brutal, world.
     They tell of betrayals and infidelities, of cold cruelty and senseless accidents, of lost illusions and opportunities. Their voices merge, clash, at times rise above each other, sinking once or twice into the inaudible, achieving a peculiar harmony which has its own sweetness in spite of these tales of violence, drugs, booze and sex.
     In the first section a woman called Gloria tells a weird story about her sister, Karen, and Karen’s husband, Blake, flash in sharp clothes and a supercharged Thunderbird, who one night, in a fit of rage, took to his father’s eyes with a knife so lovingly honed that ‘it sparkled like a scalpel blade’.
     In ‘Rain’, the last story, Kathy remembers her life in New York and how her son died when ‘a truck full of fur coats hit him’. In a dingy coffee shop overlooking Circular Quay, Sandra remembers the death of her brother in America, killed by a Thunderbird driven by

a rich kid whacked out on speed
doing ninety-five, the cops said, minimum,
and no lights.

In ‘Stella’, the second tale, Max tells a complicated story about how his lover’s husband died of a heart attack after the two rivals had played a gruelling, revenge-driven game of tennis in searing heat.
     Meanwhile, in spectral counterpoint, someone called ‘the Captain’ confides in the narrator about his infatuation with a strangely obsessed painter, an hysteric, a woman who had committed to canvas her enigmatic and tormented visions. ‘So what are they pointing at?’ the Captain asks, looking at the figures in the painting, ‘Is there / some kind of symbolism in that?’ — knowing, of course, that his question will remain unanswered.

Cover of The Floor of Heaven

The Floor Of Heaven is a tour-de-force, a devious and profoundly subversive conjuring trick by a poet writing at the peak of his powers. The tales he tells with serene indifference are often brutal and sordid. The language is colloquial, reined-in, avoiding hyperbole and rhetorical embellishment. Yet the book pulses with curious resonance as it recounts its tales of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts, of accidental judgments, casual slaughters and of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause.
     The brutal and the horrible are refracted and converted by the fascination of these insistent voices and by the restrained lyricism that accompanies some moments of outrageous Grand Guignol.
     In ‘Breathless’, the third of these stories, for instance, Sandra reminisces about a murderous game called ‘Blue Angels’, in which two pairs of bikers rush towards each other on a deserted stretch of road at night, aiming to pass through the gaps between them. She remembers the still perfection of the evening while, beneath her words, we catch distant echoes of Shakespeare:

                        ...Terry and me
on one bike, Bob on the other, waiting,
the sunset like a big purple blanket,
the whole world fading into darkness.
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.

The next moment Bob is dead:

We heard the horn just before he hit —
that sound, like an animal in hell

Despite its delight in grisly horrors, The Floor Of Heaven is distinguished by a cool elegance and by a macabre whimsy which reminded me irresistibly of the best moments in Twin Peaks. There is a similar endowing of the ordinary and the commonplace with a luminosity that slips in neatly alongside the horrendous, as well as a strange lyricism that makes the homely details of our familiar world — a ferry gliding over sparkling waters, a dish of shellfish served in a city restaurant, a young girl sitting on the ground polishing her glasses on the hem of her dress — take on portentous significance. And there are, moreover, those dislocations, inconsistencies of time and place, unreliability of voices and cunning cross-references which make the often used (and abused) term ‘post-modern’ seem inevitable.
     Tranter’s touch rarely falters; almost everywhere in these tales he strikes the appropriate balance between jokiness and gravity, between richness of texture and flat, prosaic diction — as in the first page or so of ‘Breathless’. The people and images provide memorable (though often misleading) topographies to alert us to curious strategies and purposes. The Thunderbirds and Harley-Davidsons, the men who use after-shave (both cheap and nasty and elegantly suave), the characters who slip in and out of these tales and the cycle of violence all mark out a vision of our world which, despite its weirdness, convinces.
     Only in the final tale does Tranter’s control waver. There the series of extraordinary calamities the characters must endure brought to mind Lady Bracknell’s strictures about dead parents.

You can read “Breathless”, one of the stories from The Floor of Heaven, here on this site.

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