Saturday, October 12, 2019

Millennials (3): Skylark Lounge (2000)

Nigel Cox: Skylark Lounge (2000)

Publisher's Blurb:
In the middle of his life, Jack Grout found himself abducted by aliens. There were other things. His wife left him. His son came one night to the Skylark Lounge - the pool hall Jack bought after throwing in his job in newspaper advertising - and punched him. And there was the mistreatment for melanoma. But what Jack really needed to know was why the aliens, who had first taken him when he was nine years old and shown him his life in unbearably vivid close-up, had returned.

Nigel Cox
1.0 out of 5 stars
Who on earth will ever read this?
February 15, 2004
Format: Paperback
Okay, I wrote this one – the novel I mean, as well as this review. And I bet that within ten years no-one will ever look at this review, so let’s just say it’s the greatest novel since War And Peace. Well, nearly. Actually, it was very well reviewed – one “the biggest book of the year” – honest! – and one “one of the year’s very best” and “from this unusual material Cox has mined a little gold,” plus, “Once Cox would have been called visionary” and other cheering stuff. Dodgy sales, but you get that – it WAS a serious novel that included an encounter with aliens. I was happy. What I liked was that the reviewers liked what I liked about it, which is that its narrator, Jack, is an ordinary man. In my opinion this is the hardest thing to write, an ordinary person who has a job and a family and is not over-intelligent but no fool either – and who isn’t depressed or depressing or boring, but can give you (this is my idea, but several of the reviewers picked up on it) a sense of the wonder of being in the world. Okay, that’s all I think I want to say: it’s a weird thing to do, this, kind of like an advertisement for yourself. But no-one will ever read it, except you maybe.

Nigel Cox, Berlin.

Yes, this is indeed Nigel Cox's own review of his 2000 novel Skylark Lounge. He'd published two earlier novels, Waiting for Einstein (1984) and Dirty Work (1987), over a decade before, and this was his big come-back title.

He'd spent much of the time between Dirty Work and Skylark Lounge working as a senior writer at Te Papa - a theme which leaks into Skylark Lounge. The hero's wife Shelley has basically the same job.

Shortly after the publication of Skylark Lounge Cox left New Zealand for Germany, where he took up a job as Head of Communication and Interpretation at the Jewish Museum, Berlin.

Looking at the recorded time (February 15, 2004) and place (Berlin) of the comment above, it must have been composed a year or so before his return to New Zealand in March 2005.

Nigel Cox died of cancer on 28 July 2006. His Wikipedia entry says that it's something he'd 'been battling for some time' - so perhaps that was one of the motivations for writing such an online cri-de-coeur.

Clearly he didn't think that the book - or his whole body of work, for that matter - had been given its due. So far as I can see, there are no such messages on about any of his other titles. Perhaps it was the neglect of this one in particular that really galled him.

Skylark Lounge is a novel about aliens. The main character, Jack Grout, had some encounters as a child, but when the aliens rediscover him again in the middle of a road just outside Wellington, his carefully constructed life begins gradually to unravel.

Recently, after a cancer scare, Jack quit his job and bought a pool hall, the eponymous 'Skylark Lounge,' which he runs as a haven of peace and quiet for the beleaguered wage slaves of the city.

All of this is threatened by the return of the aliens. They don't manifest in flying saucers; neither do they look like 'Greys' or any of the other familiar images from contemporary Abduction mythology. In fact, as we learn at the end of the novel, they are so microscopically small as to be virtually undetectable by human senses.

Their dilemma is that they tend to become anything that they pay undue attention to, so Earth, and humans, are maintained by them largely as a museum of Otherness. There's a small cadre of people they call on from time to time - a few thousands from among the millions - and Jack, it would appear, is one of these.

As Cox says above:
What I liked ... is that its narrator, Jack, is an ordinary man. In my opinion this is the hardest thing to write, an ordinary person who has a job and a family and is not over-intelligent but no fool either – and who isn’t depressed or depressing or boring, but can give you (this is my idea, but several of the reviewers picked up on it) a sense of the wonder of being in the world.
It's tempting to regard the 'alien' plot as entirely metaphoric: simply a device for pointing out the wonder of 'ordinariness' by depicting its opposite. However, the careful attention Cox has paid to the mechanics of Jack's visions makes them sound more like Thomas Traherne's ecstatic prose-poetry than a kitchen-sink drama:

Tom Denny: Traherne Window (2007)

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting.
That's the quote - from Trahern's Centuries of Meditation (c.1674) - which everyone's so familiar with. Compare it to Cox's:
My hand touched a table. There was no boundary between the table and me. What a slow life the wood had. In that life all the past was present - the factory where the table had been built, the log from which it had been cut, the earth where it had grown.
So nothing is lost. [142]
And then there's this from Traherne:
The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places.
Compare it to Cox's:
We'd come often to Pukerua when I was a kid. Great hook of bay. Immense eyeball of ocean, with seabirds flying long lines across it. Blue-green island long on the horizon, looking like Te Rauparaha's mere that I saw in Te Papa. In the foreground, the rock pools where we poddled, shrimping with milk bottles, prising limpets. [19]
or this (from the account of Jack Grout's first 'abduction' experience):
And the world itself was wonderful too - the astonishing diversity of it, and all of it so busy and alive. Even the dead bits like the rocks - they seemed to be sort of humming. As I went higher I could see the coast curving away to the north, and then the outline of the southern end of the island, and finally I could see the whole North Island ... I can't tell you how much I loved the North Island. The shape of it. [24]

James Clifford: Returns (2013)

Recently a friend sent me a copy of this book about the concept of 'indigeneity' in the 21st century. I found it fascinating on many levels, but was particularly struck by the quotation below, towards the end of the final essay:
A more common "long-view" of history you hear when talking to Natives in rural Alaska is that the coming of the whites and all their technology was something long foretold by shamans and so on. Televisions and airplanes in particular were long foretold. This summer in [the Yup'ik town] Quinhagak I heard a new twist on this in that the little people (who appear now and again to people throughout the circumpolar world) used to appear to their ancestors wearing 20th century clothing and even sitting on tiny versions of 4-wheelers when confronting their 19th century ancestors, because little people have the ability to travel back and forth through time. But if prophesies exist, they don't seem to address what the end-game will be, or if this slow-motion train wreck of contact will continue forever. Or maybe people are just too polite to bring that up.
- Archaeologist Richard ('Rick') Knecht, quoted in Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century, by James Clifford (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013): 318.
I love that idea of the little people manifesting on four-wheelers, with contemporary clothes, to the distant ancestors - because time means something quite different to them than it does to us.

There's something of that paradoxical, dislocating nature in Cox's book, also:
I don't believe in synchronicity - as far as I'm concerned, a coincidence is a coincidence. It's important that I get this clear: I don't believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden. Because what I am going to get down in these pages will cast that into doubt. [11]
The mention of 'synchronicity' gives us a cue, however. Synchronicity, as you're no doubt aware, is a concept of Carl Jung's, designed to 'account for' the seemingly meaningful webs of coincidences that surround us all.

There's something of self-indulgent double-talk about it, as well as something of wisdom (like so much of Jung's thought), but the point is that it leads us naturally to his classic work on Flying Saucers. This long, late essays really put paid to any remaining scientific credibility he may have had - a bit like Freud's final thoughts on Moses and Monotheism - but it remains a small masterpiece of inductive logic.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 1959. London & Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.
... the problem of the Ufos is, as you rightly say, a very fascinating one, but it is as puzzling as it is fascinating; since, in spite of all observations I know of, there is no certainty about their very nature. On the other side, there is an overwhelming material pointing to their legendary or mythological aspect. As a matter of fact the psychological aspect is so impressive, that one almost must regret that the Ufos seem to be real after all. I have followed up the literature as much as possible and it looks to me as if something were seen and even confirmed by radar, but nobody knows exactly what is seen. In consideration of the psychological aspect of the phenomenon I have written a booklet about it, which is soon to appear. It is also in the process of being translated into English.
- C. G. Jung, Letter to Gilbert A. Harrison, editor of The New Republic (December 12th, 1957)
Jung's point about the flying saucers is that it doesn't really matter - from the psychological standpoint, at any rate - whether they're 'really there' or not. What interests him is the way in which they infiltrated the imaginations of modern people, immediately after the Second World War, most of whom had denied themselves the release of conventional religious systems (and therefore conventional iconography).

Where an earlier generation would have seen angels and demons, these 'Moderns' saw visions which matched their materialist, scientific world-view: spaceships, and aliens from other planets, and such-like 'possible' manifestations to symbolise their underlying fears and anxieties.

Jung's essay concentrates on dream interpretation, and makes an excellent job of persuading readers that this imagery is only to be expected, given contemporary belief systems and material conditions - not to mention the overwhelming terrors of the (then) brand-new atomic bomb. Never had there been more cogent reasons for fear in the whole previous history of the human race. And this is how it declared itself.

Fiction writers, too, must deal with a world where the truth of what they say is always at a remove. The close attention paid to details of landscape and setting in Skylark Lounge - its intersection (presumably) with details from the author's own life - doesn't alter the fact that everything it is saying is to be taken metaphorically.

Are the 'aliens' meant to be real, in context? It doesn't matter. One could easily read the book either way. Even if Nigel Cox were a zealot for UFOlogy, and had written his novel as a contribution to the cause, it would still be the effect of these beliefs on his character - the things that could be said in this manner - which would actually matter to him.
Shelley is the only writer I've ever heard of who doesn't feel she should be writing a novel. She doesn't leave poems, or bits of poems, around the place on scraps of paper or in the margins of books. She's not an artist. She writes good clear prose, she says, and semi-snappy headlines, and she always hits her deadlines. She doesn't stay up late agonising. [51]
Cox's main character certainly doesn't see himself as an artist. The proposed genealogy for the book we are reading is that it was all scribbled in exercise books in a motel in Waiouru shortly before his fateful last encounter with the aliens.

He is, of course, in practice, a hell of a writer - because Cox himself was - but then the same would have to be said of Mark Twain's mouthpiece Huckleberry Finn. Could an illiterate boy really write as resonantly and clearly as that? Of course not. But the tone must sound plausibly his for the writing to succeed at all. The same consideration applies to Jack Grout.

And, since Jack survives this final encounter (sorry for the plot-spoiler), we can imagine a final tidying-up of the manuscript - if not a careful reworking over time of the rough first draft - by him, or even by Shelley (if she ever works her way round to forgiving him).

For many years I co-taught a postgraduate course with the catchy title Contemporary New Zealand Writers in an International Context - a bit of a mouthful, certainly.

I suppose the reason for the clunky title was that we didn't want students to be surprised by what they encountered there. There certainly used to be a certain apartheid about literature courses here. 'Local' writers go in through that door - the old shabby one, just past the manuka hedge and the septic tank - and 'international' writers are ushered in through the space-age one covered with zinc, with a big red carpet leading up to it.

The average New Zealand literature class would begin with something along the lines of: "I was talking to Karl Stead the other day, and he said that Ronald Hugh Morriesson once told him that ..." Oodles of name-dropping and regional colour and only the occasional lapse into actual lit crit. I say it who know. I'm as guilty of all that as the next man ('Kendrick once said to me ...' 'I was having tea with Paula Green and she mentioned that ...')

The idea of this one was to compare prominent works by local authors with analogous 'international' texts, and to point out - all appearances to the contrary - that we don't live on an island intellectually and creatively, however far away we may be geographically from everyone else.

One of the texts we taught was Nigel Cox's Dirty Work (1987), and on one occasion his widow came to talk to the class - and us - about his work. I was the poetry person in the course, while my colleague Mary Paul handled the fiction, but I guess if I'd been trying to find a good analogue to Skylark Lounge (which would have been my first choice, much though I do admire Dirty Work), I might have come up with something like this:

Mark Z. Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)

Those of you who've read it - or even heard of it - will know that Danielewski's debut novel is designed to screw with your head. The typography is odd, the story baffling, the implications quite terrifying - it's one of those stories, like Ring or Videodrome, where even encountering the outer levels of the mystery is enough to doom you to a fearful end. I suppose that's why it was so surprising that it became a runaway bestseller.

The same could not be said for any of Danielewski's subsequent works, which I have to say I found it impossible to make heads or tails of. This one, though, is a classical ghost story, despite all its frills and trimmings. In the same sense, Skylark Lounge is a classical UFO tale. Cox's economy of means is far more profoundly considered, however, which might even lead some readers to see it as throwaway.

Not so Elizabeth Knox. Recently she posted quite a long essay about the novel on her website, in which she made it clear that it was one of her favourites among his works. I won't quote too much of it (you can read it for yourself), but there are a few points she raises which I feel should be mentioned here:
Skylark Lounge is a book by someone who didn’t want to write a “kind” of book; a book with a defensible territory. It is not coincidental that its protagonist’s name is Jack Grout. Grout isn’t what sticks tiles to a wall, it’s what joins the tiles, and seals those joins. Skylark Lounge doesn’t have a single setting ... or a milieu. It has irises that open on its many scenes, a pool hall, a marriage bed, a back porch, a kitchen table in the Grout house, a tennis court, the surface of the moon, a Waiouru Motel.
That's very nicely put, I think - and ties in very well with that comment of Cox's I quoted above (and which I first came across as a link on the thread inspired by Knox's article). The fact that it clearly came as news to her, as well as to me, makes the coincidence an even more striking one:
Skylark Lounge is a novel about a middle-aged man having a crisis because the alien abductors of the most ecstatic period of his childhood return, bringing their alienating ecstasies. ... The reader squirms with Jack as he tries to avoid telling his family why he’s off – off by himself, off at odd hours, off in his behaviour. And it cleverly incorporates into the story why Jack’s family at first offers him such latitude with his crisis. He’s recently had a brush with cancer, fruitless scans, and a course of chemo. By putting the cancer alongside the aliens as what might be going on with Jack, Nigel avoids the possibility that the metaphorical scope of his book will be reduced to the aliens representing cancer. I have heard Skylark Lounge discussed that way, and I remember that the first time I read it, with Nigel’s melanoma’s first appearance so fresh in my mind, I was happy to accept the idea that the aliens were a metaphor for cancer (as well as being real science fiction) and that this was a way Nigel had found to write about his illness ...
If the book's so metaphoric of the richness of 'ordinary' life, it is tempting to reduce it to a long meditation on the fact of just having been diagnosed with cancer. But if one contents oneself with saying it's 'only' that, it does reduce the significance of the book somewhat - makes it more strictly personal than I think Cox meant it to be.
Reading the novel now, at fifty-seven, a year older than Nigel was when he died, I can still see the aliens as aliens – as character and plot. And I can still see them is something of a metaphor for cancer. Or for the interruption of life by fear of death, which throws us back on life. But now I can see whole new strata of meanings, and a book I always admired and considered intellectually and emotionally deep has flowered further in my understanding.
What a coincidence! I'm 56 - due to turn 57 next month. I hadn't realised that that was Nigell Cox's age when he died. There is a certain sense, though, in which certain things come into focus as one gets older - parts even of long-favourite books begin to take on new resonance.
It seems to me now that Skylark Lounge is also a book written by someone who had, at some points in his life, a very real fear of losing his mind. I recognise this partly because between 2000, when I first read the novel, and 2006 when he died, I learned a lot more about Nigel.
So it's about cancer, and mental illness, and ordinariness, and - everything really. But there's one last aspect of it, too:
Another thought I had about Jack Grout’s having been press-ganged into the job of revealing human life to aliens, and his pressing need to understand what all that actually means, is that this is the writing life. The fiction-writing life. Jack’s aliens make him go off on his own, make him secretive, vague and cold to his friends and family. Jack’s aliens are an enemy of family life, and the reliably ticking-over everyday. They put thoughts into Jack’s head that no one else can see or hear. They torture him with immanence, with things that have to be solved, with the tantalising, unsettled shimmer of a great pattern. Jack Grout’s aliens are isolating and marvellous, and they do his head in. They are the writing life. They pass through – like novels – leaving him to say, “I’m back. Sorry I was absent. I’ve had enough out, please take me back in.”
That's a very writerly thought. As a fellow (albeit far more obscure) fiction-writer myself, I can see the metaphor of 'invasion by outside forces' in this way - as well as empathising strongly with Cox's sense of the neglect of this, his strongest statement to date on the simple mystery of being alive.

I guess where it takes me for my own last statement on the novel is somewhere nearer to an experience I think is available to all of us, albeit in different forms according to our own predispositions. Writers (such as Knox) might see it as inspiration; ecstatic contemplatives (such as Traherne) as visions bearing on the nature of God; Shamans as the various stages on their own interior journey.

That last is the model I think fits best with my own experience of the novel. I note the tendency for imagery of dismemberment and reassembly in accounts of the Shaman's journey to the Otherworld. I note, too, the tendency of Shamans in many cultures to embrace transsexual and culturally dissonant lifestyles.

These do seem to be the experiences (and temptations) endured by Jack Grout at the various stages of his own visionary journey. His final manifestation as a cowboy, outfitted in the tourist shops of Waiouru, commencing his long trajectory home to Wellington, would certainly seem guaranteed to disconcert, at the very least, the people awaiting him:
I'll get out my thumb. Head south. One look at Shelley's face will tell the whole story. [190]

Unnuyauk / Night Traveler

Why is it my spirit helper, why is it you are apprehensive of me
on the seal rocks?
I will bring you game to be caught.
I went through the inside of the universe;
my helper, that one made me afraid.
I went down where they are motioning.
- from 'Second Life: The Return of the Masks', Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century, by James Clifford (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013): 290.
'Spirit helper' was originally transliterated, in 1871, as 'дьявол' [d'yavol] (Russian for 'devil'). Alphonse Pinart, the original collector of these masks, translated this as 'esprit' (French: 'spirit'). The new translators have rendered the Alutiiq word ikayuqa as 'spirit helper' - the original meaning is, however, is inaccessible. [297-98].

Nigel Cox

Nigel Cox

Select Bibliography:

  1. Waiting for Einstein. Auckland: Benton Ross Publishers Ltd., 1984.

  2. Dirty Work. Auckland: Benton Ross Publishers Ltd., 1987.

  3. Dirty Work. 1987. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006.

  4. Skylark Lounge. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000.

  5. Tarzan Presley. [Reprinted as 'Jungle Rock Blues', 2011]. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004.

  6. Responsibility. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005

  7. The Cowboy Dog. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006.

  8. Phone Home Berlin: Collected Non-fiction. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2007.

  9. Secondary Literature:

  10. Elizabeth Knox. "Nigel Cox’s Skylark Lounge." Elizabeth Knox website (27/7/16).

Homepages & Online Information:

Wikipedia entry

Unity Books: Skylark Lounge advertisement (19th July 2000)


Richard said...

I had read 'Skylark Lounge' but seeing this post I realized I had forgotten details of it. I re-read it. It reminded me of a certain Sci Fi book I read. It is a fascinating read and he deals with this connection with aliens brilliantly. It is somehow disturbing. It isn't possible to forget he died of cancer so young. I also read his Tarzan-Presley (with that title). I have a few books by Knox but have read none of her works but she keeps appearing in the Listener and on your and other Blogs I suppose. Both those books I read of Nigel Cox's have that strangeness. They have an alienness. A strangeness. But they are both ingeniously plotted and the descriptions are great as noted. I didn't know of those works by Traherne. Vaughan I do, but not that work by Traherne. So I decided to have a look.

Re that book it is a bit sad when the aliens leave him! One feels he needs them. His idea of the aliens -- and Cox mentions the kind of books I read when I "investigated" aliens as a teenager (my son says he knows there are aliens, to him they are a reality, and he tells me where they come from. I cant contest that: in that case it is like a person who has a faith-belief etc says he or she knows. It is impossible to verify that knowledge as true or not, but that is swaying onto my hobby horse of epistemology...); and Grout himself feels glad that his experiences are not like those who are conventionally 'abducted'. His evocations of them and how they are tiny beings connected into one conscious totale are fascinating and quite brilliantly written. (He gets one tech point wrong, although it is not a significant quibble, he has the red cells devouring the white ones! (Actually I wondered if that was also deliberate, it may have been a ploy.)) The eeriest thing might have been hearing them speak with his wife's voice, and earlier with that of Dusty Springfield. Cox had strange interests in strange music -- I distantly recall Springfield in the 50s, I think she was. But his way of combining these things as in Tarzan-Presley (loved Tarzan as a boy at the flicks, but never took much notice of Presley): this way leads to a vivid book. Both, as I say, have that mix of the bizarre with a strange surreality: and a kind of attempt at an alternative ending, or something like that. In Skylark Lounge instead of his escape to the aliens being a minor thing or an aberration it is the centre.

Richard said...

The family is well in second place. Cox is stepping away from the great industry in NZ of writing that is conjoined to the 'Conspiracy of Dullness'. Perhaps I wax to terrible but Cox, you have rightly focused on, as he was (perhaps in part spurred on by his frightening cancer "scare" (but I think also that that really signals that we are all, in a deep sense, terminally ill.) Which is something we like, narurally to forget! Hence I am just now reading Bakhtin's book on Rabellais, and its celebration of life and death and laughter both at and to and back into, and the idea of us being not so separate beings and so on....and indeed, Cox's aliens are so. But it is also interesting that they too are afflicted with a kind of cosmic ennui, trying to decide whether all their great capacity to keep on (they die off as life or their existence seems to lose its point which it seems to do despite their great awareness and great powers, a strange mix of a kind of communality and a modern psychological or existential malaise. So the aliens (the mind-psyche of Grout?) are not as if of much comfort or inspiration. Life remains. But the intense experiences in their museums etc are something for sure...

Cox is probably another of those pretty much unfairly (?) [at least unfortunately for writers and readers perhaps]* neglected writers...

An interesting post again.

*It is hard to put this without sounding pompous about writing. As if those who do other, perhaps even more 'healthy' things, and dislike or are indifferent to lit. etc, were somehow lesser than we great readers...that irks me that idea.