I’ll start with the end of the first section of the book, where we read how the narrator-protagonist, James, after the collapse of his albeit surprising marriage, sits in a newly rented room in a share house in Denison Street (which is somewhere — I can tell you now — downhill from the crooked ridge-line of King Street Newtown in Sydney):
trying to make sense of things, scratching out pale little sentences on the backs of flyers from cafe pinboards advertising gigs and garage sales that had already drifted off into the past. Pale, scratchy little sentences that failed to get to thing itself. Nothing ever seemed to happen in those sentences; there was no feeling of movement, of starting somewhere and setting off for somewhere different.
If I’d read this collection of sentences out of context, I am fairly sure I would have taken it for what it looks like at a hasty reading: as the kind of assessment of supposedly good writing that has always made me despair of ever being interested enough in fiction to spend any time with it at all. I might have understood the “somewhere different” to be the sort of wholesome-sounding thematic-emotional location that I have tended to resist getting to for much of my life. Ian Alexander’s novel as a whole, however, unsettles this easy reading, because if the “thing itself”, for James, is so noticeable for not being got to, we soon come to wonder whether it is really for a want of any ordinary understanding of that “feeling of movement”, the sense that somewhere new has been reached, or that the place — as he tells us — the field of the book — has been shifted for us by the integrity and knowing-how-to-get-to-things agency of other sorts of sentences.
Soon after this section, we are offered what the narrator calls “careful little scabs of bitterly lyrical prose, as if the wounds themselves — and the falls and blows that had caused them — could somehow be divined and pacified through words” (the criticised specimen of this not-itself thing, if you like):
I found some clothes one night near the pool in Victoria Park: two canvas bags with new shirts and trousers, underwear, socks, pyjamas, handkerchiefs, an unused toothbrush and a hand towel. One of the bags had a boy’s name written on it in a large, neat hand, and I had a vision of a teenager just moved to the city to start his first job, being robbed by some streetwise city kids who laugh at his daggy work clothes as they go through his bags then dump them. Playing at being a streetwise city kid, I took the toothbrush and the towel, because they would be useful. I took the tube of toothpaste too, but for some reason I changed my mind and threw it back towards the bags. It landed on the path and skidded, and I felt like going back to put it gently where it belonged, but I was too lazy and Sandra was cold, wanting to go. Later, the vision came back, and I wondered who this boy was, this someone’s son, this someone’s brother: where he was staying, whether he had any friends who would comfort him, how he would face the people at his new job. I was sad that I had stolen from him and treated his toothpaste with contempt, for it is an unsettling thing to be young and far from home, sleeping in spare rooms in strange houses among unfamiliar people, and I hoped there was someone who would hug him and respect his tears.
And so, here we read of an extraordinary and even stupid tenderness, on the part of “Jamie” — as Sandra, the one-day-to-be-ex-wife calls him — for the unknown owner of a stolen and discarded bag, a patient attentiveness to the smallest physical detail, an uneven but new unfurling interest in an existence beyond his or Sandra’s claustrophobic own, and then the sudden break, as Jamie’s confessed laziness and his vulnerability to an imperious but emotionally blank Sandra drops a hundred metre hole through the sequence of what he is doing; when we have a sense that the whole of the exchange and the reflection afterwards might be functioning as a displaced gesture of tenderness for the self that Jamie is unable to take care of. But then the narrator-James immediately reflects in the paragraph that follows it:
When Jean Cocteau – who died on the day I was born – was asked what single item he would save if his house were burning down, he reportedly said J’emporterais le feu. That’s what I was doing: I was trying to save the fire.
And so: it is here with a jolt that we might see that the supposedly scabby writing is actually working for us in a fascinating way — when we might start to realise that we are going to need to be reading this novel in another way entirely. Because it soon seems that if we accept that the thing-itself — the heart of any good piece of writing — is something that we can only get to when the writer adheres to the most obviously accepted method of getting anywhere at all — that is, “of starting somewhere and setting off for somewhere different” — we will find ourselves no longer facing forwards on the bus we thought we had just got onto but, rather, hanging underneath it and watching the exhaust. When we begin to suspect that what we are reading is not a Bildungsroman at all, but instead, some sort of collection of the force that is attempting to stop such a thing from being written in the first place. Which means that, while the thing-itself is not, as we just understood from the supposed commentary, that earlier bit of writing, neither is it what the narrator is ostensibly wanting us to expect to be reading in its place. Rather it is something closer to an attempt to account for the saving of a fire that not only consumes the “scabs” of the narrator’s earlier writings but also flips right around and burns to a charred nothingness the knowing assessment of his supposedly older and wiser writerly self. If this is so, we might come to understand that it is not the journey, or even getting to anywhere else at all — anywhere different in a conventional sense — that brings the writing alive in this remarkable novel, but instead the entire commitment of the piece to what the protagonist intuits in his earlier quoted piece: when the narrator is following his own futile and destructive acts — noting his own laziness, along with the dull, mute force of that someone else who is both essential — even vital to him — and yet also “cold”, radically removed, a resounding blank. In other words, the movement is actually the shift itself — the liveliness of the unsettling, the turning, the looking again; the text, somehow, astonishing now, since uneasy and alive. And so we learn that, along with the eruptive fleshiness of a body that both frightens and confuses the narrator, and an astonishingly facility with producing the aptest words possible for almost any material interests other than his own — for Sandra’s French major essay on the topic of Barthes and quests, for instance, which she only has to translate word for word to gain a High Distinction for it in her university course — or for the germ of an idea that becomes that astoundingly defeatist suggestion of the two of them leaving behind everything they own by the side of the road in Tasmania — that along with all this facility and verbal brilliance, Jamie is most compellingly his own self when he is trying to make sense of how difficult it is to be present as himself at all.
In fact, here in this novel, at it might seem to us, we have a figure that we later learn to be called James Dent — whose surname, if we had known it earlier, might have lulled us into believing him little more capable of keeping any sort of perspective on the immensity of his calamity than the fusty, hapless, dressing-gowned hero of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — this oddly wrong-footed being who, as he tries to make sense of how on earth he ever got himself entangled in, and obsessed with making right, his marriage to Sandra, avows in a very Proustian moment that “one of the greatest ironies of those early months of our marriage was not that Sandra seemed relatively uninterested in sex, but that I had never really found her sexually attractive in the first place”.
But if he is not quite Arthur Dent’s brother, or even Swann’s, he might be Job’s. Like Ian Alexander’s earlier novel, Second Son, Saving the Fire takes something of its sureness from the meticulous husbanding of the rubble-ruins of the old and new testaments. The centrepiece is a perfectly paced reworking of the story of Job (James), in which Satan comes off rather less disturbingly mischievous than his maker, and the text as a whole stands out as a honed triptych, whose three subtitles — The Book of Poverty, The Book of Chastity and The Book of Obedience — give a solid wood backing to the often luridly medieval tortures that James depicts himself submitting to.
Indeed, like James as he attempts to describe, later, to Terri, the most exhilarating artwork he can think of — the saxophone in the second half of the Laughing Clowns’ “Eternally Yours” — I have come to see that it might well be the clustering of the damned at the bottom of his artwork that, in loading down the most exhilarating of its imagery — the leaping of flames, the wheeling headiness of Jamie’s flights — makes the work as a whole all the more miraculous:
After words have said all that words seem able to say, after the dialogue of music has pushed rational discussion as far as it can go, the sax breaks away and starts to soar, not like an angel or an eagle, but humanly, awkwardly, struggling to maintain itself in flight, pushing out beyond what had seemed to be its limits, towards something that could easily be pure freedom or pure isolation or pure exhaustion – a total breaking away from communion, from society – and yet throughout this staggering flight the dialogue continues, the other instruments maintain their gravity, maintain their empathy, waiting until that reedy, metallic voice is finally spent and flutters back down to rest. I wanted to try and explain to her that, if there were actually some way for redemption to exist, it would have to sound like that: like a hope held in common, like a tentative balance between liberty and embrace, like the souls of the damned falling upwards into that blue in the Sistine Chapel.