Submitted by David Whish-Wilson on Tue, 18/01/2011 – 12:01

Crime fiction is a broad church, and academic Michael Meehan’s most recent novel is a psychological exploration of a murder committed by the central character, Martin Frobisher. Having been called ‘a louse’ by his wife, who has been going through his private writings stuffed in a black garbage bag, he belts her over the head with an epergne, ‘a large, unweldy object designed to suspend delicasies – usually fruit – above the table.’ Martin is as surprised as anybody that he has committed his crime, and the moment of the criminal act is returned to time and again, as befits the meditations of a man in prison for murder, and is used as a structural device by which he is able (from the arc, of the swing) to spin out a whole series of threads upon which unspools the main core of the narrative.

Frobisher is an editor at a publishing house, a ‘courteous and self-effacing man’ who because of his crime has been largely abandoned by his friends and colleagues. With nothing much to do in prison he is drawn to the writings of Marcus Clarke, and with the help of a research assistant, Petra, whom he pays to visit him (all of the characters in the book are profoundly middle-class) he begins to trawl through Clarke’s entire oeuvre, looking for clues as to the man’s essential nature, beneath the mythmaking and logorrhea that has created (or was self-created) for Clarke a viable public persona, while leaving few clues as to what Clarke was really like (even in his letters he was, it seems, he was always ‘in character’).

The book is as much about language, and storytelling, as anything else. Frobisher is reluctant to talk about himself, especially to others, and what he gives us instead are stories from his childhood, stories from his life as a younger man, and stories about his married life (whereupon he carried out a non-sexual ‘affair’ with his wife’s sister.) Frobisher’s stories, as Clarke’s stories before him, serve to characterise, of course, and to advance the overall plot, but also very cleverly leads the reader towards an examination of the ways in which language frames identity, or in Frobisher and Clarke’s case, can be used as a strategy to conceal an essential hollowness at the heart of character, a kind of vacant selfhood, chameleon in nature and eternally elusive. Frobisher is ‘utterly superficial’ ,an actor in his own play, a character in his own novel, a novel that has taken a tragic turn (although the tone of ‘Below the Styx’ is wonderfully absurdist), to the extent that he realises that without the permanent record which the narrator’s story will become (addressed to an invisible  ‘your honour’, another absurdist device, the missing god, the eternal judge, Pirandello’s director, Beckett’s Godot etc) that he essentially has never really existed, in any authentic fashion, an authenticity that is itself called into question, so that beyond the cheap, callow soundbites of the journalists covering his impending trial, he will soon be wiped from the memory of his culture (his isolation in the prison serves as a metaphor for this impending cultural ‘death’.)

As the old saying goes, ‘trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth’ , and in Frobisher’s textual analyses of Clarke’s stories and letters he comes to understand, and appreciate Clarke’s struggle for recognition, ultimately forgives him his evasions and cynical accomodations with the hack-writing made necessary for him to survive, because, in effect, Clarke has succeeded where Frobisher has failed – Clarke has survived in the only manner available to us, perhaps, enshrined in text, in language, in the fickle memory of our culture. 

Whereas for Frobisher’s wife, Coraline, for whom a ‘word stood for a thing’, for Frobisher, ‘as soon as you pick up a pen and try to map the thing in words, the lying begins.’ He refuses to talk about himself to Petra, his research assistant, because he genuinely likes her, and wants her to like him. ‘Life remains livable, for most of us, through our incapacity to see into the hearts of others.’ It’s a bleak view, but one redeemed by an aethetic sense. Frobisher quotes Nietzsche – ‘Give us art, lest we perish of the real.’ And so the storytelling continues, despite his acknowledged inability to tell the truth, a truth mirrored in Clarke’s writings, trying to draw the reader (and to convince himself) into believing that ‘I am meaning more than I say, and saying more than I mean.’ The novel ends with Frobisher begging the question, vis a vis Clarke’s writings – ‘Do you think that he was really protecting some kind of inner self from exposure? Or do you think he spent his whole life hiding from the fact that there was really nothing there – that the centre was hollow – and that all the froth and bubble, all the play-acting, all the pages and pages of clever stuff was just to make sure that no-one could beat through, to see what wasn’t there?’

The question is never answered, of course, except to the extent that Frobisher’s enduring prison sentence paradoxically frees him to recognise that (sentenced, in effect, to spend time within himself), double place where he is both  ‘more in touch here, without phone, diary, or appointments, than I have ever been’, representing both a place of absence and yet of creating, a place where out of the essential absence of himself he is yet free to tell the story of himself, truthful or otherwise, to whoever will listen. 

Below the Styx, Michael Meehan, A&U, 2010. ‘With the prospect of imprisonment for the Term of His Natural Life, can Frobisher and his research assistant Petra find guidance in the life and fortunes of a brilliant young Englishman, marooned in Australia – ‘the land of vulgarity and mob rule’ – more than a century earlier, and obsessed with the darker moments in the nation’s history? Why does Frobisher appear to care more, in the end, about the life of Marcus Clarke than he does about his own?’ From the dustjacket.