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John Tranter: Theses

Katherine Furgol

Dwelling on «The Floor of Heaven»:

An Analysis of John Tranter’s Verse Novel

B.A. Thesis by Katherine Furgol for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 2006. Copyright © Katherine Furgol 2006, 2007.

Introduction

paragraph 1 

The therapy-seeking, pill-popping pseudo-murderers that confess their life stories in John Tranter’s The Floor of Heaven (TFH) (1992) dare to ask “What does it all mean?” (Tranter 107). The “it” most obviously refers to life and its seemingly inexplicable events. However, the same question can be posed of Tranter’s work itself. The closing scene, suggesting a sexual encounter between two women, although unexpected, hardly offers a solution to the characters’ or the reader’s desire to find “some pattern in things” (108). Combining references to sex, drugs, alcohol, the Vietnam and Korean War, America, brain injuries, death, passion, perfume, philosophy, and art, TFH weaves a complex pattern that entangles both the characters and readers. Divided into four verse narratives, each highlighting the traumatic life story of one of Doctor Masterson’s several therapy patients, this work connects the different characters and their lives with these motifs. Yet, these motifs’ eclectic subject matters are also perplexing. For instance, in one section, Tranter alludes to a John Ashbery poem, which is itself an allusion to an Andrew Marvell poem, and to “sexy,” risqué magazine stories (10, 16).[1] Thus, Tranter at once places himself in the poetic tradition and grounds himself in trends of the twentieth century. Popular culture and high culture collide, just as the novel and verse converge in the work’s hybrid form – the novel-in-verse.

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This convergence of high and low culture is only one of the many characteristics of TFH that has prompted critics to label this work postmodern. As Andrew Johnston states, “[The characters’] fictional world of desire and decline [in The Floor of Heaven] is as self-consciously post-modern as that of Tranter’s early poems is self-consciously modern” (par. 31). Indeed, TFH’s pastiche of allusions to other poets, a self-conscious form, rejection of modernist assumptions, and refusal to encourage conventional interpretive practices are all characteristically postmodernist elements. In addition, postmodern theorist Jameson Frederic’s emphasis on the postmodern tendency to transform reality into images and fragment time into “a series of perpetual presents” are apparent throughout TFH, especially with the very image of “the floor of heaven.” Moreover, Ihab Hassan describes postmodernism as “playful, paratactical, and deconstructionist,” as well as “cooler, less cliquish, and far less aversive to the pop, electronic society of which it is a part” than “older vanguards” (280). TFH certainly falls into this description with its numerous references to “pop culture.” Tranter also plays with his audience; he is known for constructing poems to “explor[e] the condition of poetry in the modern world” and thus create “unpredictable, alarming, ultra-urban, frustrated and rebellious… companions (Johnston, par. 3 & 1). TFH becomes such a companion for its readers, who simply want to discover what seems hidden beneath the text, rather than “a kind of enervated after-image” (Johnston, par. 3), which seems to loom around them with the unsatisfying close of the novel.

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Despite the postmodern nature of TFH, critics often characterize Tranter’s own career with references to both modernism and postmodernism. Born in 1943, Tranter led his contemporaries in a revolt against the conservative status quo, which has branded him an “outspoken proponent of internationalism and postmodernism in poetry” (Taylor) and the leader for the “Generation of ‘68” (Macainsh 24). Tranter’s books of poems, such as Selected Poems (1982), Under Berlin (1988), and Late Night Radio (1998), as well as the anthology he edited The New Australian Poetry (1979), are manifestations of Tranter’s experimentation with poetry. As a comparatively recent publication, TFH has not received much literary criticism; however, some of the commentary on Tranter’s earlier works is also pertinent for this verse novel. For instance, the same range of images that Macainsh identifies in Selected Poems also permeate TFH: this “panorama includes drugs, spurious freedoms, grotty evasions, the special poetic pantheon of time… sexual deviations (particularly lesbianism), the American scene, movies, cars, the trashy glitter of city life” (Macainsh 23). Selected Poems does not only share common themes or motifs with Tranter’s earlier poems, but more importantly it shares some of their conventions. Johnston comments that Tranter’s earlier poems are

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out to subvert conventional expectations of poetic form and content. But rather than doing so furiously, insistently trying to frustrate those expectations, he’s playing with them, teasing our desires both for a pre-wrapped wholeness of experience and for patterns to give meaning to experience. (par. 22)

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This also holds true for TFH. In fact, this deliberately ambiguous approach to poetry is precisely what I will be exploring in this thesis. As Gloria, Max, the Captain of Industry, Sandra, Kathy, and Jack divulge in monologues and dialogues, they constantly seek “some pattern in things, a kind of balance” (Tranter 108). However, this balance continually eludes them and the reader. The characters’ seemingly futile quest parallels Tranter’s cryptic writing style. Michael Brennan contends that Tranter’s “is not a poetry that decodes experience or language, but further encrypts, hacks and overlays codes. It is a poetry which does not crack code” (par. 12). Just as the quest for meaning in TFH is further encrypted rather than decoded and revealed, Tranter’s poetry encrypts the codes of language and experience. Instead of “engag[ing] humanist or lyrical lines,” Tranter “disrupt[s] traditional poetic modes with an eye to press language beyond established modes of meaning and expression, creating a dialectically tensile relation between the two” (Brennan, par. 4). This tendency has led some critics to accuse Tranter’s poetry “of failing to say anything” (Urquhart 12). However, Tranter’s “encrypting” writing style that does not conform to the reader’s expectations for meaning does not imply that he is not saying anything at all; rather, it forces the reader to become a part of the text and work to “decode” it themselves to understand it. Tranter, himself, recognizes that the

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need for meaning is built into the human brain, which means it’s built into language systems we use… I’ve never been interested in going totally beyond meaning, because [then] there’s no point in writing… But I am interested in the tensions you get when you go beyond conventionally expected meaning and come back again. (Tranter qtd. in Brennan, par. 4)

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Even though a critic should never wholly rely on a writer’s supposed intentions, Tranter’s statement provides valuable insight into his “encrypting” writing style in TFH. He also offers his readers a helpful perspective from which to approach this text.

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I intend to demonstrate how in TFH Tranter explores the inexplicable nature of life to challenge his audience’s conventional reading habits and expectations because, just as The Captain of Industry says in “Stella” (Part II), “it all means something else” (Tranter 55). Four aspects of TFH enable Tranter to challenge the audience’s expectations: the hybrid nature of his text, the juxtaposition of traumatic and grotesque situations, the emblematic image of “the floor of heaven,” and the central role art and photography play in this novel-in-verse. These elements at once elucidate and complicate Tranter’s text. They demonstrate Tranter’s refusal to offer a clear pattern of meaning throughout TFH, a strategy that forces its readers to reassess not only how they read, but also how they approach life.


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“Maybe if I’d written it all down like a novel”:
Shattering the Boundary between Verse and the Novel

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Tranter defies the reader’s expectations by writing TFH in the uncommon form of the novel-in-verse. Lars Ole Sauerberg in a discussion on five late-twentieth-century verse novels, including Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986) and Craig Raine’s History: The Home Movie (1994), defines verse novels as “fictional works resembling the realist mainstream novel in all respects except for their mode of discourse, which is verse, not prose” (439).[2] The verse novel can also be defined against poetry as Sauerberg defines it against the novel: Patrick D. Murphy explains, “long poems with a plotted narrative can rightly be called verse novels” (66). Although these distinctions among the novel, verse, and the novel-in-verse are seemingly simple, their effects are much more complex. In particular, TFH’s form complicates the relationship between the reader and the text, creates a tension within the work itself, and mirrors the unconventional nature of the story and its cryptic meaning(s).

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As Tranter’s readers encounter character after character who has endured traumatic hardships, they must read the story for its narrative plot but also appreciate its verse-like features. Moreover, as verse, Tranter’s novel leaves more to the reader to discern from the language and structure of the text than in traditional prose novels. Just as “the relationship between a reader and a poem is different from that between a reader and a novel” (Aaron i), the relationship between a reader and a poem or a novel is different from that between a reader and a verse novel. Sauerberg reaffirms this idea when he states,

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the late-twentieth-century verse novel [works its effects] in terms of how the formal shift from familiar prose to unfamiliar verse (as it definitely appears to present-day readers and not the other way round as in literary history) affects the issues of the texts through actual reading experience (442).

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This reading experience shares elements with both reading verse and prose. Murphy accounts for those elements of reading verse novels that are similar to reading prose novels:

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readers of the verse novel experience the reading conditions of the prose novel in the duration of the reading experience as well as the potential plot complexity and narrative density and compression afforded by a potential reading that allows rereading and interrupted reading (65).

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In other words, a reader must delve into the running narrative in TFH about Tranter’s characters search for guidance as they talk to their therapy group about their problems to comprehend and interpret the plot and “narrative density.” Moreover, as Murphy explains by infusing elements of prose into poetry, “the reader becomes a participant in dialogue rather than merely a recipient of information,” as he/she is with traditional poetry (63). Since this verse novel heavily relies on dialogues and monologues, the reader is especially invited to participate in the text as a conversation rather than simply receive stated information.

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Thus, on one level, the reader is dissecting and explicating the plot and characters as he/she would do in a prose novel, such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. On another level, Tranter’s reader is also paying attention to the language of the text. At times it may be easy to forget that Tranter’s verse novel is written in verse since the ongoing narrative driven by vibrant monologues and dialogues rushes the reader onward through the narrative and thus easily enables the reader to disregard the verse aspects of the text. Yet, the arrangement of the words on the page into verse paragraphs, in addition to the rich figurative language that permeates the text in lines such as “But in that story, / like a pearl within a pearl shell,/lies another dream – perfect, shimmering. / It’s the mirror of another life” (Tranter 11), serve as reminders that this work is indeed written in verse. And as verse, TFH insists that the reader take into account diction, versification, enjambment, and rhythm because as The Norton Anthology of Poetry states, “a poem is a composition written for performance by the human voice” (1103). Unlike most prose, verse engages both the eye and ear: “the best reading… of a poem involves… the eye attentive not only to the meaning of words, but to their grouping and spacing as spacing as lines on a page [and] the ear attuned to the grouping and spacing of sounds” (Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 1103). Thus, reading Tranter’s novel-in-verse simultaneously involves understanding and interpreting the plot and appreciating the words and their arrangements on the page.

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Furthermore, reading this hybrid form becomes not only unique but also difficult as a tension arises within the text between prose and verse. Sauerberg explains that “a complete makeover in format from prose to verse, while maintaining the norms of prose fiction in all other respects, create[s] a certain tension between verse-novel (writerly) text and prose-novel (readerly) audience” (442). In fact, Tranter himself initially attempted to write this work in prose; he started it in prose, but then switched to verse, and then switched back to prose before eventually reverting to verse again (Williams 224). Tranter’s struggle to find the most appropriate discourse for his subject matter reflects the tension between prose and verse evident in his occasionally prosaic, occasionally figurative language. This tension challenges the reader to such an extent that

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the presentation in verse of what, in all other respects, read like novel narratives will probably be an experience whose success depends on the persuasiveness of the elements of the individual text that function as justification of a ‘strange’ mode of writing. If not successful, the experience will be one of alienating the potential reader at a very early point in the reading. (Sauerberg 440)

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It is essential that the writer appropriately integrates elements of verse and prose together to compose a successful verse novel. Indeed, because of the complexity of this task, Michael Magie condemns this hybrid literary form as a failure; he denounces it as a “bastard child” of verse and the novel because “it is the offspring of a union which did not achieve the stable and ‘legal’ status of marriage” (vi). According to Magie, successfully uniting the novel and verse is simply impossible. However, Magie’s denunciation was written in the 1970’s before innovative contemporary authors readopted this rare literary form and produced successful novels-in-verse, such as Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986), Craig Raine’s History: The Home Movie (1994), as well as Australian poet Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse (1999). Nevertheless, many of Magie’s contemporaries appreciated the verse novel before these late twentieth-century ones were published. For instance, Amalendu Bose (in 1974) promotes the verse novel as one of the “two most notable contributions of Victorian poets to the form of poetry” (5). Bose further describes the novel-in-verse as “a compact… and poetically powerful form” (5). Nevertheless, merging these two distinct literary forms is a strenuous task. The author must create a rapport with the reader immediately to familiarize him/her with this “strange mode of writing,” while the reader must attempt to change the way he/she approaches the text.

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Tranter embraces this unique literary form, and I argue, contrary to Magie’s argument, effectively unites the verse and novel. He successfully creates the necessary rapport with his reader by opening with Gloria recounting her dream, a recitation that involves her taking on numerous people’s roles as well as depicting an episode of vicious eye-gauging and a violent grenade-and-leg-of-lamb incident. In fact, Tranter explains in an interview that he “wanted to get that obsessive effect of monologue that buttonholes you and won’t let you go” (qtd. in Williams 224). In addition to a “breathtaking headlong rush” (Williams 224), Tranter maintains a certain degree of ambiguity: he does not divulge all. For instance, he changes narrators from section to section without disclosing his/her identity until the end of the section or at all. Moreover, Tranter fails to satisfy the reader’s expectations for the narrative to come to a significant comprehensible conclusion at its close. He engages the reader in a cycle of reading; upon completing this literary work, the reader is only propelled back to the beginning of the work – to re-read it. The reader becomes like Blake in “Gloria” who has to reread “over and over/page thirty-seven” to his brain-damaged father as a type of penance for stabbing his father in the eyes through the brain with a fork (Tranter 22). Similarly, when Gloria finishes recounting her dream, she asks for her notes back from Dr. Masterson and says, “‘Let’s start at the beginning, then, shall we,/where I have this extraordinary dream’” (Tranter 26). In these instances, Tranter explicitly demonstrates his desired reading practices for his own work. Consequently, the unusual form of this text corresponds with the unconventional content—the content that does not fit into a meaningful pattern or leave his audience with an epiphany.

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Tranter’s use of the verse novel for his unconventional content is historically appropriate since this hybrid form originates from Victorian poets’ desire to write poetry about unconventional topics, namely everyday life (Bose 11). In the Victorian era, “the tremendous vogue of the novel and its suitability for delineating contemporary life, suggested the idea to some [Victorian poets] that a hybrid form, the verse-novel or the novel-poem” would be advantageous since the novel was beginning to eclipse poetry (Bose 9). Victorian ideology “tried to conceive of poetry as a pure form, somehow separate from the concerns of politics, the market, and ideology” (Felluga 493); therefore, writing about the concerns of contemporary life, Victorian poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote the verse-novel Aurora Leigh, used this unique form, as Tranter does, to compose verse about unconventional topics.[3] By composing TFH as a novel-in-verse, Tranter disrupts the conventional reading experience and forces his audience into an unfamiliar practice of reading that requires attention to plot, characters, and language but eventually simply propels them back to page one.

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“Extraordinary… events!”

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Just as TFH’s form disrupts conventional practices of reading, Tranter’s tendency to juxtapose tragic, grave events with absurd, comedic, or simply unexpected elements complicates emotional and intellectual responses to these traumatic scenarios. Yet again Tranter challenges the reader’s expectations; as Tranter’s characters long for it “all [to] fit together” (Tranter 9), the reader is left attempting to fit all of TFH’s incongruent pieces together. For instance, while Bruce assaults his brother Blake, Karen, Blake’s girlfriend, attempts to save him by knocking Bruce out, but rather than using a more typical weapon, such as a baseball bat, she uses a frozen leg of lamb sitting on the kitchen table (Tranter 24). Even though a leg of lamb is as Australian as a baseball bat is American, the former would not usually be considered a weapon to Westerners; in fact, picturing someone striking an attacker with a leg of lamb is more evocative of a cartoon-like scenario than a violent, traumatic event. In another instance, Sandra explains that her parents were killed in a car accident:

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They were driving fast along a bush track
at dusk, going to some gathering,

And – I imagine this – arguing, fighting.
Around a bend, some timber-cutters
were jinking a large tree out of a gully,
and for a few minutes the steel rope
stretched out tight across the road

The cable cut straight through the car,
decapitating both of them. (Tranter 65)

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This event seems utterly distressing and tragic; however, it becomes absurd as Sandra recalls the newspaper headline for the news story about her parents’ death – “Father’s Head in Baby’s Basket” (Tranter 65-6). The image of Sandra’s father’s head laying on top of her baby basket is even more disturbing than the car accident; yet, the image and rarity of such an event makes this situation absurd or at least darkly humorous. These instances are not only unexpected and discordant but also thought-provoking.

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Tranter uses such scenarios to illustrate that his narrative, like life, does not fall into a definitive pattern. He twists conventional aspects of tragic stories to force the reader to examine these situations more closely. As Andrew Reimer remarks, in TFH,

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there is … [an] 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.

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Not only does Tranter bestow “portentous significance” on mundane or simple aspects of everyday life but also on various influential and significant life events. Tranter’s technique makes his characters’ situations at once more memorable and perplexing. Finding meaning in their situations becomes increasingly difficult since the tragedy of the circumstances is juxtaposed with unanticipated absurdity or dark humor.

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This jarring juxtaposition further challenges conventional reading practices. Unwilling to utilize poetry to “decod[e] experience or language” (Brennan, par. 12), Tranter disrupts his audience’s expectations of literary works. As I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, Tranter is interested “in the tensions you get when you go beyond conventionally expected meaning and coming back again” (qtd. in Brennan, par. 4). By including unanticipated, grotesque elements in his stories, Tranter creates these tensions in meaning. Readers expect to hear poignant, tragic stories that will evoke their emotions, as well as help them appreciate their own lives more and/or identify with the tragedies of the characters. However, the absurd interjections compel the reader to carefully ruminate on the text rather than simply being carried away with the rushing dialogues and narratives. TFH refuses easy access while simultaneously alluring the reader to read and reread its cryptic pages.

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Despite my own contention that Tranter’s unique narrative technique disrupts readers’ expectations, Christopher Pollintz contends that this tendency simply augments TFH’s emphasis on story-telling or “narratology.” Pollintz asserts that this verse-novel primarily aims to demonstrate varying aspects of “narratology.” In fact, he avows that the characters “don’t have a voice: all they have is a lie to unfold, a narrative” (Pollintz, par. 6). Pollintz is correct to the extent that Tranter captivates his audience by interjecting unexpected, startling, or grotesque elements into his story. For instance, Sandra exclaims, “I had a brother, and he died too--/and it was my fault, because of a pizza!” (Tranter 63). Dying because of a pizza is an even more startling and absurd event than being knocked unconscious by a frozen leg of lamb. Sandra’s peculiar exclamation seems to corroborate with Pollintz’s claim that each “monologist… enters the dark areas of narratology –the narrator’s authority seducing the auditor’s complicity” (par. 3) Similarly, when Jack abruptly reveals that “Beth [his wife] was killed. I killed her” (Tranter 95), there is a moment of shock as the audience grapples with the fact that they have been listening to and identifying with a murderer. Tranter holds his audience in suspense for another 37 lines before revealing that Jack “didn’t kill Beth deliberately… That’s not what I meant” (Tranter 96). These instances certainly enthrall Tranter’s audience and serve as effective narrative techniques.

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However, Pollintz’s emphasis on TFH as simply an exercise in “postmodernist techniques for undermining authorial voice” detracts from the characters’ search for meaning as well as their effect on the reader. Pollintz claims that “Gloria’s monologue testifies less to a debilitating trauma than to her ferocious narrative energy” (Pollintz, par. 4). He compares her to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: “as she [Gloria] finishes her eye glitters like a certain Mariner’s. She’s learnt what it takes to dazzle, to send her listeners home as if of a sense forlorn” (Pollintz, par. 8). With these contentions, Pollintz neglects to perceive the significance of Gloria’s story. She, like the other characters, has established an ethos and pathos with her audience. As she takes on the roles of her sisters while dictating her dream, Gloria develops a commanding sense of presence. Her monologue does not simply serve as a story to “dazzle” her fellow therapy group members, but rather functions as a vehicle for her to attempt to grapple with and find meaning in her life. Gloria even claims that she is searching for an outlet through language to become “healed.” She explicitly articulates her difficulty when she says:

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[I] really can’t bring myself to speak…
to come out with all that… all those…
extraordinary… events! My goodness!
When I think back over… I hope that
getting it all down in black and white,
turning what happened into a kind of story,
that is, if I could hold back a little way
from all that… those terrible memories,
and the good ones, also, because you know
when things are good – so good – they can be
just like a form of torture, too… why,
maybe then, with all the blind alleys,
the promises that led to nothing, dreams
that turned into nightmares when you woke –
maybe, crossed out and botched as they are,
it would all fit together, and make sense. (Tranter 8-9)

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Consequently, Gloria’s monologue is not simply an exercise in story-telling; she needs to talk because through articulation she gains control and thus does not have to remain a victim of her past. This cathartic need corresponds with the Freudian psychoanalysts’ “talking cure.” According to psychiatrist Hans Loewald’s language theory,

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Only language can bring together the conscious verbal knowing of secondary process and the doing, feeling, and being of primary process. Because semantic meaning derives from interpersonal experience and maintains inherent, if distant, connections to bodily states and feelings and memories, speech is both the intrapsychic and the interpersonal mechanism of transformation. It is due to the bridging potential of language that talking can cure. (Vivona 56)

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Thus, Gloria and her fellow therapy members’ monologues are primarily therapeutic rather than narrative exercises. As these characters struggle to articulate their past “with all [its] blind alleys,” they and the reader are striving to fit it all together. Therefore, Tranter’s tendency to juxtapose tragic events with grotesque, unexpected elements is not simply a narrative technique to captivate his audience; more importantly, it forces the reader to identify with the characters’ struggle to “make sense” of it all.

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“So lonely there, like the floor of heaven”

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A central image to TFH Tranter employs to challenge his readers’ expectations of literary form is the floor of heaven itself. As the title of the book, this image assumes significance. The floor of heaven derives its meaning not just from Tranter’s text but also from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, where Tranter borrowed this image from. In fact, part of the verse paragraph in which this image appears in The Merchant of Venice is the epigraph for TFH. This excerpt features Lorenzo talking to Jessica about the sound of perfect celestial music and harmony. Tranter quotes Lorenzo saying to Jessica:

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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… (6)

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Shakespeare thus constructs a magnificent and awe-inspiring floor of heaven dazzled with harmoniously singing orbs. In fact, following Tranter’s excerpt, Lorenzo says, “Such harmony is in immortal souls, / But whilst this muddy vesture of decay/Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it” (Shakespeare 5.1.63-65). In other words, although the human body, a “muddy vesture of decay,” encloses an immortal soul, which contains this celestial harmony, the mortal human body is incapable of hearing this harmony. Thus, the floor of heaven in all its splendor is also humbling and daunting for mere humans.

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Yet Tranter does not include these last few lines in his epigraph. According to Kate Lilley, this truncated citation supports her contention that Tranter’s text is a testament to male authorial narration. She claims Tranter’s “exclusion of [these lines] can nonetheless be understood as an engaged reading of the scene as a provocation to fallen ‘music’ and its authorization” (Lilley 107). For Lilley, Lorenzo’s speech exemplifies male authority because she asserts Lorenzo is telling Jessica “where and from what position to ‘see’, and how to understand what she sees” (107). She even equates the ground on which Lorenzo and Jessica are sitting with “the degree zero aligned with recumbent femininity as tabula rasa” while she equates the “floor of heaven” to “the overarching space of paternal text” (Lilley 107). Transferring this sentiment to Tranter’s work, Lilley claims that “Dedicated ‘To my son Leon’, masculine authorial narration in TFH channels female character and is mired in crossed lines of speaking women” (107). I, however, disagree with Lilley’s interpretation. I maintain that Tranter’s truncated citation simply augments his refusal to fully reveal anything to his reader. Again, the reader must act on his/her own initiative to glean meaning from the text; he/she must recall or seek out The Merchant of Venice to read the remaining lines of Lorenzo’s speech to understand the context in which he is speaking. Even then, Tranter will be goading his readers since they will only discover that their “muddy vesture[s] of decay” lack sufficient faculties to comprehend celestial harmonies (and perhaps Tranter’s text). Moreover, the floor of heaven does not serve as “the overarching space of paternal text” through which Tranter “channels female character.” Rather, this image’s function in Tranter’s novel-in-verse corresponds with Fredric Jameson’s two key features of postmodernism; namely, “the transformation of reality into images” and “the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents” (28).

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The floor of heaven transforms reality into images because it serves as an image for the characters’ multi-faceted tales of sorrow and love, and it also evokes multiple images of these tales. This emblematic image, which assumes multiple meanings for each character and reader, most obviously refers to a plane of loneliness. The only explicit reference to the floor of heaven is when Sandra describes the night of the tragic episode of a game of chicken—a motorcycle aerobatic trick—that unexpectedly ends with her gang leader Bob being killed by a truck full of logs:

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The darkness seemed to come on quickly –
it was cold, this was in the Fall –

it grew quiet and peaceful, just our engines
turning over softly, and I heard a bird
whistling and chirping in the grass
at the side of the road. 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. (Tranter 68)

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In this instance, Sandra compares the very atmosphere that envelops her to the floor of heaven. She transforms her reality into this single image, which initially does not seem to fit the simile at all: why would the floor of heaven be lonely? As depicted in The Merchant of Venice, the floor of heaven may be lonely for humans because it is also the ceiling of earth—a distant, incomprehensible plane. Sandra echoes this sentiment as she explains, “it grew quiet and peaceful, just our engines/turning over softly”: even the deafening roar of a motorcycle is lulled by the “sunset like a big purple blanket,/the whole world fading into darkness.” This single passage encompasses the mood with which each character wades through the events of his/her horrifying past, and it compresses this mood into a single image—the floor of heaven.

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This overarching mood that settles over the pages of Tranter’s verse novel also translates the floor of heaven into Jameson’s idea of fragmenting time into a series of perpetual presents. Even though each story takes place in a different time period, through their fragmented tales, the characters’ shared sentiment of loneliness and similar tales blurs them together and thus gives the illusion that time is simply fragmented into many presents. Moreover, since Tranter uses this image as the title for his collection of four verse-narratives, it seems that it holds currency throughout the work as a whole and not simply in Sandra’s brief mention of it. For instance, when Max recalls his life story in “Stella,”[4] the narrator of this section describes Max’s distraught emotional state: “His face was flushed and damp,/he seemed on the edge of an emotion/that might crush him if he let it/take one more inch of his body” (Tranter 51). Max, like Sandra, is being enveloped by the “big purple blanket” of the night as the “whole world fad[es] into darkness” (68). Thus, he, too, feels “it was so lonely… like the floor of heaven” (68). In another instance, Kathy also shares a similar mindset as Sandra: she laments, “[my husband] was hardly speaking to me any more,/sunk in his drink and his marijuana/and his late-night painting binges./I was as lonely as hell – America/can make you feel like you don’t exist” (Tranter 82). While in New York with her husband and son, Kathy becomes overwhelmed by the fast-paced speed of American life and its competitive nature. The floor of heaven lies above her—daunting and disheartening. She cannot reach this plane “thick inlaid with patines of bright gold”; thus, it becomes an ever-present and formidable plane of loneliness. Through Kathy’s and the rest of the therapy group’s similar relationships to the floor of heaven, this image fragments time into a series of perpetual presents and thus dissolves boundaries of time and space among the characters.

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Following postmodern tendencies, the image of the floor of heaven in Tranter’s novel-in-verse at once evokes reality and transcends it, which again challenges the reader’s expectations of a literary work’s representations. In fact, this emblematic image alludes to a story in Tranter’s own life and thus evokes Tranter’s reality as well. In an interview with John Kinsella, Tranter recounts a childhood accident in which, while sleeping on his mother’s lap in the family car, the passenger door accidentally opens and he tumbles out onto the road. Tranter explained:

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I can still remember staggering to my feet, covered with blood from the gash in my head, and seeing the tail-light disappearing around a bend. It took [my parents] a moment or two to realize what had happened, and stop the car. For those few endless seconds if felt very lonely there in the dark.

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Just as Sandra feels loneliness seep through her as she stands on a Sierra Nevada highway while the night sky slowly envelopes her, Tranter became overwhelmed by a sinking feeling of loneliness as he stood on an Australian dirt road in the dark. Thus, Sandra’s experience evokes Tranter’s own reality, just as it does for many of Tranter’s readers who can also relate to her forlorn sense of isolation. However, TFH, in its constant challenges to conventional literary form, demonstrates that fiction does not simply mimic reality; rather, it creates its own realities and thus transcends reality. Raymond Federman articulates this point in his introduction to Surfiction, especially in reference to postmodernist works: “to write is to produce meaning, and not to reproduce a pre-existing meaning… As such, fiction can no longer be reality, or a representation of reality, or an imitation, or even a recreation of reality; it can only be A REALITY” (qtd. in Stevick 146). Thus, fiction does not necessarily represent reality. However, I contend that fiction is more than a reality as Federman suggests; rather, fiction creates multiple realities because each reader brings his/her own meaning to the text – a reader’s internal and external circumstances all affect how he/she reads a text and what realities it forms for him/her. Murphy discusses this phenomenon for poetry in particular when he says, “as the poem is utterance, its meaning(s) is shaped by the interaction of author, reader, and text within specific cultural environment, and the meaning of the text alters at that environment alters” (Murphy 59). As the interactions between reader and writer alter, the text creates different realities.[5] Consequently, there is a wide, complex repertoire that entangles a text to create multiple realities. In this sense, the floor of heaven transcends reality: this image not only has similar yet divergent connotations for each character in the text but also for each reader at different junctions in his/her reading and in his/her life. Accordingly, the floor of heaven evokes the reader’s reality while also transcending it as it splinters into a myriad of realities in Tranter’s verse novel.

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Although each character adds another layer of meaning and symbolism to the emblematic image, Doctor Masterson’s relation to the floor of heaven is particularly complex. Specifically, it provides more insight into Tranter’s refusal to comply with the conventions of literary interpretation. Masterson, the “troop leader” or psychiatrist of the therapy group, only has cameo appearances in the text; he does not have an opportunity to disclose his own story. However, he too expresses moments of bewilderment and confusion at life that connect him with the floor of heaven. Unlike his patients, who seem to be expunging themselves of their true life stories, Masterson faces his group with “a kind of pleading: see me as an uncle, a tutor, a friend,/but not as the fraud I fear I am” (Tranter 8). Masterson is thus not only unable to hear and feel the celestial harmony that rings on the floor of heaven because of his mere corporeal “muddy vesture of decay” but also because he is hiding behind a fraudulent mask: he constructs a wall between himself and his patients as well as the celestial harmony on the floor of heaven since he does not honestly expose himself before his group with all his woes, flaws, strengths, and failures as his patients do. Masterson may, in fact, be the loneliest figure since he cannot connect meaningfully with anyone else.

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Tranter also uses Masterson as a commentary on/against humanist thinking, as well as British colonialism and imperialism, which implies that the floor of heaven does not simply involve a sense of hopelessness and overwhelming loneliness but also Tranter’s refusal to conform to literary and historical conventions of interpretation. Masterson embodies the failure or insufficiency of humanist “Old Masters” to discern life and all its mysteries. In Tranter’s poem Under Berlin (1988), he comments on these “Old Masters”:

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Beyond their exhausting vanity and their hatreds
the Old Masters agreed in the small hours:
a work of art, they said, collectively,
lies in a kind of mud:

gossip, bad faith, someone else’s
wife, phone bills, a little happiness. And so we
go on, they said, doing what we can; while
across a horizon full of exasperating detail
a headache piles up. (Tranter qtd. in Urquhart 16)

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Alan Urquahart explains that Tranter puns with the word “lies” in the first stanza: this term both refers to being deceitful and stretched out prone (16). Urquahart further maintains that emphasizing “lies” as telling untruths corresponds with the postmodernist perception that “a work of art inevitably lies… .[and] the fact that fictions are not truth, that the representation is not the object of representation, but is itself” (16).

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Urquahart simply reiterates Federman’s comment that fiction is its own reality. However, he translates this sentiment to a commentary on Tranter’s attitude towards the humanist “Old Masters”: “When one thinks of the Renaissance ‘Old Masters’, one thinks of them as revealing the highest human achievements of truth and beauty. What Tranter suggests here, is that such beauty is a kind of lie, a falsification of things” (Urquahart 16). In other words, these “Old Masters” are incapable of understanding and revealing the truth and beauty in life because this beauty “lies in a kind of mud”—mud that these men cannot sieve through. In fact, instead of uncovering truth, “a headache piles up.”

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I do not mention this excerpt from Under Berlin to claim that Tranter persists with the perception of beauty as a lie in TFH, but rather to argue that he creates Masterson from these “Old Masters” to express his rejection of humanistic modes of interpretation: the floor of heaven cannot be penetrated by the “Old Masters,” and his readers cannot expect to read his text as they do other literary works to understand it. Masterson as literally the “son of a Master” symbolizes the “Old Masters’” displacement in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries by postmodern thinkers and writers. Instead of interpreting Gloria’s transcription of her feelings and story, Masterson asks her what it all means:

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Masterson adjusted his spectacles
and leafed through the first few pages,
then burrowed further into the mess.
‘Yesss, this is interesting, Gloria,
but it looks complicated, full of bother.
Tell me, what does it represent? Hmmm?’ (Tranter 7)

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This “son of a master” does not have the humanist “Old Masters’” ability to reveal “the highest human achievements of truth and beauty”—he becomes confused and overwhelmed rather than enlightened. Furthermore, when Gloria cannot explain her own notes, Masterson desperately hopes he will be enlightened:

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Masterson held a page up to the light
as though something semi-transparent
were hidden underneath the layers of erasures
and white-out, behind the second thoughts
and reconsiderations, a drift, an argument
that might unravel and explain itself
if he stared through it thoughtfully enough. (Tranter 8)

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Yet nothing manifests itself to Masterson, and just as a “headache piles up” for the “Old Masters” in Under Berlin, Masterson suffers from indigestion from Gloria’s graphic tale of Blake stabbing his father in the eyes: Masterson literally cannot digest the story never mind interpret it and help Gloria find meaning in it. Tranter further insists that his reader readjust his/her practice of reading through Masterson’s inability to master his patients’ stories. Just as Shakespeare explains that mere mortals cannot perceive the celestial harmonies that lie on the floor of heaven, Tranter avows that humanists or adherents to conventional modes of interpretation cannot perceive the meaning in his characters’ stories.

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Consequently, Tranter dismantles the “master narratives” of modernity. In fact, Masterson also represents the British imperial power’s inability to understand the Australian experience. Masterson is even described as looking British: “He puffed on an old pipe, the grey-blue smoke/almost invisible in the hazy light… and I noticed how the pipe went with his jacket--/dark green tweed, with elbow patches -/to make up a uniform, suited to a character/from an old British movie” (Tranter 8). Tranter’s verse novel thus also suggests the Australian post-colonial experience.[6] Masterson’s inability to help and guide Gloria parallels Australians’ belief that they do not need Britain to direct them anymore. Masterson even thinks like a conqueror: he “followed [Gloria’s] look/at a leisurely pace… Looking for a producer,/as it were; a person with tact, someone/who would wade down that black tunnel/that framed Gloria’s view of the universe and bring back treasure – polished, gleaming,/sorted into heaps and counted up” (Tranter 10). Masterson, just like the British imperialists, wants to venture into the unknown to discover treasure. However, Tranter does not equip Masterson with sufficient analytic faculties to “bring back treasure” because the Australians do not want to be exploited anymore but rather independent with their own conventions—not those forced on them. The floor of heaven thus obtains yet another layer of significance as a plane of loneliness: this loneliness is not necessarily self-defeating but can be empowering albeit overwhelming.

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Most importantly, the floor of heaven as an image in itself illustrates a conflicting idea because it is at once the bottom and foundation of one place as the floor of heaven and the top and summit of another as the ceiling of earth. Accordingly, the image of the floor of heaven parallels how this work challenges “conventional expectations of poetic form and content.” In the reader’s search for meaning, he/she wants to reach celestial heights, not simply the floor of heaven. Tranter only allows his readers to see the floor of heaven—not what is beyond it. Accordingly, the reader’s experience parallels what Tranter says he aims to do in his writing with “go[ing] beyond conventionally expected meaning and coming back again” (Tranter qtd. in Brennan). “Go[ing] beyond conventionally expected meaning” can be understood in one sense as a postmodernist technique manifested in Tranter refusing to resolve his story and provide an opportunity for a meaningful interpretation. It is the “coming back again” that distinguishes Tranter from other postmodernist writers. Tranter constantly brings the reader back in view of the floor of heaven with each character’s monologue and thus back to some semblance of meaning in this complex symbol. It is in this “coming back again” to the floor of heaven that the reader becomes engrossed and tantalized. In this unique position of viewing the firmament of the earth and the bottom of the heavens, the reader eagerly seeks to enter the heavens and understand their mysteries as well as all those that lie below in earth—the mysteries that persistently perplex Tranter’s characters.

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“Blur of Frozen Moment”

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Like the image of the floor of heaven that permeates Tranter’s novel-in-verse, photography and art play central roles in Tranter’s characters’ lives. These art forms at once help Masterson’s therapy group to gain a better understanding of life and contribute to its confusion about the “meaning of life.” Similarly, through these characters’ experiences, the reader also finds art both enlightening and perplexing. More obviously, art serves as a connecting thread amongst Gloria’s, Max’s, Sandra’s, Colin’s, and Kathy’s tales. In particular, Max, Kathy, Sandra, and another character Jake all take up photography. Through these numerous references to art, Tranter again challenges conventional representations of life but he also uses them to provide a key to crack through the floor of heaven.

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To fully understand photography’s role in TFH, I will first discuss the mechanics and art of photography itself. Photography, derived from the Greek photos (“light”) and graphein (“to draw”), literally involves “drawing” an image with light (Photography”). However, unlike painting, sketching, and sculpting, a photograph is produced through mechanical not manual reproduction, specifically with a camera. Regardless for what purpose photography is used, the camera is a remarkable invention since it enables humans to transcend the limitations of the naked eye. As Walter Benjamin claims in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:

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the enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject… Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye—if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man (1239).

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Endowed with this power of seeing what is unseen, photography expands humans’ capabilities. Benjamin ingeniously articulates this phenomenon when he says, “the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses” (1239).

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As Tranter’s characters struggle to find some sense in life which seems to be, as Sandra comments, “a mystery, with no explanation” (Tranter 110), they often attempt to express themselves with photography as a means to grapple with life just as they engage in verbal catharsis to relieve themselves of their past tragedies. Through photography, Tranter’s characters strive to understand life, which subsequently empowers them. In fact, photography is “inextricably linked to the real world. Lenses project images—visual representations composed of the actual light reflected from the actual things of which the lens has an unobstructed view” (Thompson 3). The mechanics of photography do not simply reproduce an image but empower an individual; it, as Susan Sontag explains, “gives us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images” (3). Photography thus instils individuals with a sense of power over the expansiveness and mysteriousness of the world.

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Tranter uses photography for this very reason in TFH. For instance, when asked how she felt about New York, Kathy explains, “I can’t sort it out. It broke me./It made me into an artist,” or more precisely, a photographer (Tranter 78). In her despair, Kathy turns to photography because, as she explains, “the work kept me sane/when things got bad – and they got bad –/and it reminded me of who I was./I was disintegrating, otherwise” (79). Photography is an important pastime for Kathy; its remarkable, almost mysterious process captivates her emotionally and intellectually. She specifically reflects on this artistic phenomenon when she says:

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I’d been fascinated by photography,
how a snapshot can freeze a scene
and turn a piece of three-dimensional
coloured, moving reality, full of sound,
scented, tinted with emotion and anger,
into something flat and motionless,
silent, permanent, like an art print,
and show you things you couldn’t really see,
tiny details, the blur of frozen movement,
an expression that flitted across a face. (Tranter 78-9)

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Studying a “blur of frozen moment,” Kathy can arrest time, zoom into certain aspects of life, and meticulously analyze them. She, in a sense, transforms her “moving reality” into an object that she can hold, touch, and examine. Benjamin further explains that “by close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film… extends our comprehensions of the necessities which rule our lives” (1238). Photography, like film, empowers individuals over their own lives, which, as in TFH, facilitates human beings’ need for control and understanding over their lives.

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Painting also emerges as an empowering art form in TFH; it serves as a way in which the characters can strive to become more in control of their lives. For instance, the Captain of Industry advised his friend who was troubled by disturbing visions to “paint it” out of her: specifically, he recounts his advice:

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Paint it, I’d say, trying to whisper,
sketch it out, embroider the bloody thing,
make a painting out of it, distance yourself.
. . .
. . . Paint it
out of you, I’d say, halfway
between a shout and a whisper, let it out,
give the devils a name and a habitation. (Tranter 39-40)

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The Captain purports that painting is a means to “distance yourself” from life and put it in perspective so that it makes more sense. He thinks that if his friend gives her “devils a name and a habitation” then she will be empowered; she will be in control, rather than controlled. Yet, at the same time, the Captain wonders about the painting as one wonders about life; he says that the painting is clever, “But is it the Real Thing?” (Tranter 38). He goes on to say that “art’s for looking at, not bleating about./ But then I don’t really understand art./I should, I suppose; I own enough of it” (Tranter 39). He is confused about art just as Sandra is confused about life: she says in “Rain” that “my life was falling into a pattern” and thus “I should have known who I was” (Tranter 82). Just as the Captain should know about art, Sandra feels she should know who she is and where she fits in life. Therefore, understanding art parallels understanding life. In fact, the Captain said about another painting that “‘It’s real, but emblematic too… it all means something else. Art makes/life worth living’” (Tranter 55). The Captain inextricably ties life and art together so that it seems he could be talking about life not art when he says “it’s real, but emblematic too… .it all means something else.” This connection between life and art drives Masterson’s therapy group to explore art as a means to understand and control “the real world.”

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However, the “realness” of art, especially photographs, can easily lead to conflation of mere representations of the “real world” and the “real world” itself. Despite photography’s mechanical accuracy, it, like all art forms, does not actually capture reality. As Sontag asserts:

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Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience… Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are (Sontag 6-7).

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Just as TFH does not offer the reader a clear interpretation, art does not quench Tranter’s characters’ thirst for resolution. However, it does offer them solace and a means of expression. Yet, as in Tranter’s Selected Poems, in TFH “the movies and life, art and reality, get mixed up, imitate each other; it’s hard to know which is which” (Macainsh 23). Tranter’s characters “get [so] mixed up” in their art that reality itself becomes blurred with it. Thus, art serves as a way in which not only to grapple with and control reality but also to become more entangled in the perplexity of life.

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Even though Tranter’s characters cannot actually capture reality through painting or photography, these art forms provide them with a different perspective on life. In particular, photography serves as art that not only enables an individual to capture and/or manipulate his/her perspective of an object or a scene but also as a means of highlighting previously unnoticed, overlooked, or seemingly invisible aspects of a scene. Jerry Thompson articulates this idea when he says, “A tiny detail which had escaped the artist’s attention was there to be seen, included in his picture even though the artist had not seen it and had not allowed for it in his design” (5). Therefore, artists are not in complete control of their artwork, but this lack of control becomes enlightening for artists once they examine their work. In TFH, Kathy’s experience with photography figuratively represents this unique artistic situation. She explains that she used her bathroom in New York as a darkroom. However, this distinct use of the bathroom became problematic because:

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. . .the air
was full of dust. In a darkroom
it’s not the light that gets to be a problem;
You can work at night. No, it’s the dust;
lint from towels, dust in the air,
dandruff, grit – it gets on the negatives
while you’re printing, and the prints come out
with big white spots all over them (79).

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In other words, the tiny particles of dust that are hardly noticed in reality turn into “big white spots” on the photographs; they are enlarged so they can no longer be ignored. The dust particles take on a different form and shape in the prints than in reality, and thus although they ruin the quality of the image, they also create a new perception of the photographed scene. Photography, in turn, enables Kathy to see her environment in a new light. Analogously, these dust particles are like all the small daily aspects of life that are often overlooked or barely noticed but nevertheless smudge—impact—everybody’s life. Photography sheds light on those overlooked features and consequently, realigns an individual’s field of vision to include them. This new field of vision may help an individual look at life differently, which enables him/her to develop a better understanding of it.

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Sandra’s, Max’s, and their fellow therapy patients’ attitudes towards photography are also revealing of their perceptions of life, which helps the reader to overcome Tranter’s persistent challenges of conventionally expected meaning in literary works. Their attitudes seem to counter an established theory, namely, Cartier-Bresson’s theory of the decisive moment in photography. Cartier-Bresson succinctly encapsulates this theory, when he says:

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Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant… To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression (qtd. in Van Riper, par. 1).

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Cartier-Bresson’s theory of the decisive moment in photography simply states that a photographer recognizes a single, precise instant when it is ideal to shoot the photo and obtain the “proper expression” of the event. This theory is a guiding rule for photographers. Yet for Masterson’s group of wandering pilgrims this rule does not seem to apply. In fact, Sandra does not even feel that such a moment always exists. She explains, “I’ve spent a lifetime in a darkroom – / the history of the medium’s tug-of-war/to free the image from its corresponding/form in the so-called real world… ’The Fifties?’ she said, ‘It was terrible./You didn’t know what to photograph” (Tranter 35). In this case, the decisive moment eludes the photographer because of the overwhelming surplus of events to photograph and attempt to free from the “real world.” In another instance, Max demonstrates a more mechanical response to photography. Rather than approaching this activity as an art, it is merely his job; accordingly, he claims, “Well, I shot what I was pointed at” (Tranter 35). The decisive moment becomes immaterial in this context because Max simply took pictures as he was directed: he acted as if he was on autopilot rather than as an artist trying to capture the “proper expression” at the “decisive moment.”

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Max and Sandra’s apathy towards a decisive moment in photography parallels the audience’s experience while reading TFH. Readers often expect a literary work to provide a “precise organization of [words] which give [an] event [or story] its proper expression.” However, Tranter refuses to oblige the reader in this respect; he forces the reader beyond meaning and then brings him/her back again to at once provide some semblance of comprehension and interpretation and leave the reader yearning for more. Tranter’s tendency not to clearly express himself and answer the perpetually hovering question, “what does it all mean?” results from his own poetic crisis. He claims,

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When I was very young I believed the role of the poet was rather visionary and prophetic. I was reading a lot of Rimbaud at the time and I thought the role of the poet was to see things that ordinary mortals were unable to see—relationships between things and patterns of meaning in the universe—and convey that to a general readership in very intense ways. (qtd. in Brooks 280)

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Initially, Tranter supported this idea of the “decisive moment” in literature: he wanted to capture reality and decode the “relationships between things and patterns of meaning in the universe.” However, after enduring a poetic crisis, in which he questioned this idea of “poet-as-prophet,” Tranter “decide[ed] eventually that no longer being able to perform the morally edifying function need not be the end of poetry-writing itself… he [began] to focus on the poem as object, to produce the post-modern and/or abstract expressionist and textually self-conscious pieces” (Brooks 281). In one regards, Tranter focuses on the poem as he does the photograph – as an object in itself that even though it provides an image taken from the “real world,” it does not in actuality represent the world. As I previously mentioned, specifically in regard to Federman’s assertions about postmodern fiction literature, art produces its own worlds, not simply representations of reality. Understanding Max’s and Sandra’s attitudes towards photography enables Tranter’s audience to understand that they should not expect a decisive moment of revelation but infinitely many moments of reflection that perpetually provide new insights to the previously unnoticed as well as new challenges that will puzzle them.

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Moreover, Tranter and his characters deconstruct Cartier-Bresson’s theory in their attitudes towards photography. Tranter belittles Cartier-Bresson’s theory of photography in an interview with John Kinsella, when he claims:

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When you analyse that remark of Cartier-Bresson’s, there’s no theory there at all, just a simple classroom skill. If you’re using a camera, of course you wait for the decisive moment or for the next decisive moment, if you miss the first one; what else would you do?

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Tranter’s disparaging comment corresponds to his characters’ actions and emotions because, like Tranter, this decisive moment in photography does not seem to exhilarate them as it does Cartier-Bresson. Kathy expresses a similar sentiment to Tranter about the theory of the decisive moment but in painting, not photography. She explains,

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You know, with Jackson Pollock, that
investment in the ego – prove yourself,
throw your soul onto the canvas,
one false step and you’re a phoney.
But 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. (Tranter 77)

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Kathy’s comments against the idea that every painting has to be perfect otherwise the painter has failed and is a “phoney,” correspond with Tranter’s about the “decisive moment” in photography. Tranter says a photographer just waits for the next “decisive moment” if he/she misses the first, while Kathy says a painter just starts over if he/she makes a mistake on the work he/she is painting. Both of these ideas can be transferred to life; individuals strive for perfection or at least to do their best, but if things do not work out the first time around, they just “scrape it back” and start again. In fact, that is exactly what Tranter’s characters do. For example, Kathy’s numerous hardships, such as losing her son, initially overwhelm Sandra: she thinks all these horrendous events were all for nothing, but then Sandra reflects, “But [Kathy] still had a kind of faith,/going on with her life and her work” (Tranter 107). Thus, just as in photography and painting, if an individual makes “one false step,” he/she has not failed at life but simply “scrape[s] it [all] back” and tries again. This concept of having a “kind of faith [and] going on with… life and… work” suggests that perhaps Tranter’s characters do not need to know “what it all means”; they do not need to find “some pattern in things.” Rather, it is more important not to lose hope. Like Kathy, Colin’s life was riddled with hardship and after a particularly traumatic time in America, he reflects, “I ended up in Sydney,/like I’d begun. Older. Alone again” (Tranter 107). Exasperated, he then queries, “What does it all mean? You tell me./I’ve had it. I’m going to bed” (107). Colin cannot discover any meaning in all he endured. He leaves it to “you”—the reader—to figure it out.

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“You can tell me some other time”

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Yet, after deep contemplation and confusion, the reader will also eventually go to bed and start anew the next day. Thus, Tranter encourages the process of meditation that may never result in an undeniable truth but facilitates growth and perhaps brings the reader gradually closer to hearing the “smallest orb” singing on the floor of heaven, “thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.” Nevertheless, throughout TFH, Tranter teases and/or challenges his reader; this playfulness is evident with the actual structure of the text as a novel-in-verse, the juxtaposition of traumatic and grotesque elements, the emblematic image of “the floor of heaven,” and art and photography’s role both to enlighten and perplex. Tranter employs all of these techniques and figurative elements to propel the reader through TFH and disrupt his/her conventional expectations. In doing so, Tranter rejects what he calls the “mad professor’s method.” In his poem, “Those God Made Permanent,” Tranter writes:

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And so the scenes unravel as they
must do, some long, some so brief
a glimpse encompasses them, and the story
constructs itself by stacking up
one incident against another,
. . .
and you supply an ending and a moral scaffolding
that locks the plot together in your brain.
But that’s the mad professor’s method
of looking at things – the obsessive neatness
gives it away. (qtd. in Taylor, “Narrative,” par. 9)

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Tranter refuses to comply with this “obsessive neatness,” and reverts to what Taylor describes as “a plot which is not locked together, one in which the slippages, incoherences and sudden substations play a vital part. Only by close attention to them can we realise ‘what we didn’t want to see/was made plain’” (“Narrative,” par. 9). What “we didn’t want to see” and is “made plain” in TFH is that although the pattern and balance the readers and therapy patients seek exists—it exists in the verse structure of the text, the repetitive motifs and characters’ stories, the image of the floor of heaven which at once captures reality and fragments time into perpetual presents, and the key role art and photography play in several of the characters’ lives—this pattern does not provide a code to decipher life’s events. Rather, this pattern ensures each individual that he/she is not alone.

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In this sense, TFH’s closing scene with its suggestion of a sexual encounter between two women may not be as inconclusive as it first seems. Andrew Taylor claims that in many of Tranter’s poems, “we have the trace of desire propelling the language on its perilous journey across the uneven and at times perilous terrain of modern urban life, postponing by its numerous strategies the silence which awaits it at the end of each poem” (“Narrative,” par. 2). In TFH the characters as well as the readers are propelled by a “trace of desire,” and Tranter undoubtedly ends this verse-novel with silence, when Kathy says to Sandra, in regard to Sandra’s life story, “You can tell me some other time” (Tranter 114). These words that initially disappoint and frustrate the reader because they seem to prematurely stop the narrative flow may actually be the very essence of TFH: they do not arrest time, but rather they delay time and allow it and the narrative to continue indefinitely.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy. Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Ashbery, John. “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers.” The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry. Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1997. 18-19.

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Notes

[1] These two particular references to high and low culture appear in “Gloria,” the first section of TFH. One of Tranter’s verse paragraphs reads: “Somewhere in a far recess of summer/monks were playing soccer—the thock of leather on leather, and their happy cries” (10). This passage echoes a verse in John Asbery’s poem “The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” which itself alludes to Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Picture of Little T. C. in a Prospect of Flowers.” In Ashbery’s poem, he writes, “In a far recess of summer/monks are playing soccer” (18). Using Ashbery’s words, which were written in allusion to Marvell’s poem, Tranter continues the poetic tradition of layering poetry with allusions to other poets. Yet, in “Gloria,” Tranter also includes references to sensational stories that Blake reads to Karen at first as a prelude to sex and then as an obsessive habit. Karen explains, “It started out a kind of bed-time game,/like, at first, the stories they were kind of/sexy—not from cheap tit magazines, no-- /books, classy magazines with nice photos,/the models young, with tasteful makeup,/real authors and all that, but kind… /well, you know” (16). Tranter even describes the particular sensational story that Blake reads obsessively over and over to Karen about a soldier brainwashed in Korea to assassinate government officials but who then starts killing civilians and his plan with his lover to kill his lover’s blind husband. This story alludes to tabloids, soap operas, and melodramas – popular low culture—as opposed to poetry—quintessential high culture.

[2] Sauerberg later expands his definition of a verse novel: “The late-twentieth-century verse novel shares with the prose novel its reliance on a strong narrative drive, mimesis of the world-as-we-know-it, and a foregrounding of the subject (human agent) as part of the cast and/or in a narrative stance. To this it adds the formal element of verse, which works its effects by the visual impact of the graphic units of verse and stanza, realized as pauses when read aloud, the prosodic emphasis of rhythm, and the semantic configurations arising from rhyme, whether internal or end rhyme” (446 -7).

[3] Interestingly enough, the Victorian specifications for this literary form that it “must have for its subject-matter the manners and habits of the time in which it is composed” (Bose 10) are still adhered to not only by Tranter but also by the American modernist poets that Murphy discusses in his essay, such as Edgar Lee Masters in his Spoon River Anthology (Murphy 62).

[4] “Stella” is an appropriately name for a character and a section in TFH because it is from the Latin for “star” and thus appears on the floor of heaven.

[5] Tranter further expands on those individuals involved in constructing the realities of texts: he claims, meaning is “constructed by the society, and by the complicated and powerful traditions of writing, editing, publishing, and marketing, as much as by the individual reader” (“John Tranter in Conversation with John Kinsella”).

[6] Even though Tranter alludes to Australia as a post-colonial state and thus attempts to give voice to Australians as opposed to the British imperialists, he limits his cast of characters to a single sect of society; namely, the urban middle class. Moreover, these characters are presumably white since there is no reference to any racial discrimination or identity and thus descendants of the conquerors. Tranter neglects to give voice to any aborigines or lower class sects of Australian society. In this sense, Tranter himself assumes the role of the colonizer because he purports only one narrow section of the wide-ranging spectrum of Australian identities.

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