The Memory Room, by Christopher Koch
Sydney, Random House, 2007. Paperback, ISBN: 978 1 74166 730, 438 pp.
In late March 2007, selected extracts from the interview Susan Wyndham conducted with me via email were published in The Sydney Morning Herald, anticipating the release of Water From the Moon: Illusion and Reality in the Works of Australian Novelist Christopher Koch in August 2007. One of Susan’s four questions was: “Why do you think [Koch] is Australia’s finest writer?” And I replied unabashed that “A great writer is somewhat a monomaniac, someone who sticks to the exploration of one’s preoccupation throughout his oeuvre and builds it over decades until it has reached a state of completion. Koch, who stuck to the illusion and reality theme throughout his literary career, is the perfect illustration of this. His poetic style and blending of various genres make him quite a distinctive and refined novelist.” Sadly enough, journalistic reduction forced this well-read critic to abridge my quote to “Vernay…admires Koch as a ‘monomaniac’ preoccupied with the themes of illusion and reality.” Retrospectively, my statement about Koch’s monomania turned out to be spot-on with the publication of The Memory Room in late 2007, Koch’s seventh novel which revolves around secrecy and obsession.
In the introduction to his Oxford monograph on Gerald Murnane, Imre Salusinszky writes, “Like Blake, Murnane has the courage of his own obsessions, following them through to their conclusions even when those conclusions may be unsettling or distressing for the reader; and his imaginative strength derives from this courage.” I feel that Murnane and Koch, both recipients of the Emeritus Award last February 2008, are both monomaniacs. It may be noted that obsessions, while turning creative writers into forceful novelists intent on fleshing out an ongoing literary project, are a risky business which beget repetition and ennui. And one may rightly feel that Koch’s obsessive concerns give a sense of déjà lu. As in Highways to a War, the novel opens with the disappearance of one male protagonist and the investigation into his life by an old-time friend (Derek Bradley, in this new novel). As with Mike Langford, Vincent Austin’s secretive personality and Tasmanian formative years are conveyed through a series of diary entries. Erika Lange’s childhood experiences in Lutana Rise are reminiscent of Francis Cullen’s in The Boys in the Island (1958). The allusions to James Bond, which made their first appearance in The Year of Living Dangerously (1978), crop up again quite early in The Memory Room. Derek Bradley embodies the “comfortable suburbanite” (31) very much like Robert O’Brien in Across the Sea Wall (1965). And Vincent’s “Secret Room” will remind Koch readers of Richard Miller’s “Red Room” in The Doubleman (1985). Other recurring interests in Koch’s The Memory Room include androgyny, psychosis, Chinese poetry, the la vida es sueño motif, the German Romantic concept of the Doppelgänger, two-faced female characters, arcane knowledge and esoteric creeds, to name a few. But there is more to it than mere repetition of concepts – this dry list of commonalities could pave the way for a study of intertextuality in Koch’soeuvre.
Throughout his literary career, Christopher Koch has been obsessively concerned with the hidden, the concealed and the invisible. According to the Tasmania-born novelist, we can only expand our minds and lives by embracing the invisible. Therefore, one half-expects Koch to take a vested interest in the very nature of secrecy, which is closely related to spying in The Memory Room. But don’t expect Koch’s seventh novel to smack of an Ian Fleming or Sebastian Faulks thriller with the goodies and baddies going through all sorts of stunning stunts to save or destroy the ever-jeopardized world. Koch’s vision of espionage reads more like undercover agents being privy to confidential information and gathering intelligence on covert assignments among the diplomatic corps. In short, The Memory Room records the life of Vincent Austin, a man on a mission who does his best to master the art of secrecy by trial and blunder, blunders which jolt him into renewed action or make him recede into the background for his buddy Derek Bradley to take centre stage. His other kindred spirit, Erika Lange – his childhood friend who during the summer introduced Vincent to spying by trespassing New Town properties – is presented as an enigma which needs puzzling out. However, Erika’s bipolar disorder might have been given further development with extra giveaways in her speech instead of having Bradley stating bluntly her pathology to Jim Demsey in the concluding pages of the book. In The Memory Room, secrets finally leak out through letters, diaries, and conversations overheard by readers snooping into private lives and peeping through the looking glass.
To be sure, obsessions are hard to deal with in literature and the way Koch tries to convey them in the novel is, to all intents and purposes, descriptive. As a mainstream – if not classicist – novelist, he can get away with it. But one would need to turn to a late modernist-cum-neo-baroque writer like Antoni Jach to get a feel of the inner workings of obsession in print. The Weekly Card Game is the perfect example of how a writer can skilfully incorporate obsession into his tale without having recourse to spelling things out.
However, all quibbles aside, The Memory Room, which deals with some of the irrational and mysterious impulses in the human psyche, promises to be a well-thumbed Koch novel.
Jean-François Vernay is currently selecting essays with Dr. Nathanael O’Reilly for a special issue of New York-based journal Antipodes on fear-related topics in Australian literature due out in 2009.