FETISH LIVES

biographical information on Gail Jones

Gail Jones' second collection of short stories explores the ways in which we fetishise other lives - how we imaginatively invest in other people as the objects of our longings, fantasies and obsessions. The stories deal with the mysteries of identity and relationship, with yearning and loss, memory and grief - as persistent, ambiguous and sometimes bizarre. Exploring different forms of desire, Jones offers an array of fictional characters, from the melancholic to the engagingly eccentric; while the tone of these stories is variously sombre, meditative, exuberant or wry.

Some of the lives in this volume are those of historical or public figures, among them the writers Chekhov, Whitman, Proust and Virginia Woolf, as well as the Queen, Elvis Presley, Madame Curie, Mata Hari and others. While these stories strive for historical accuracy, they are essentially imaginative speculations about the characters' inner lives.

Sometimes they draw on details which have been glossed over or ignored by biographers. The first story, 'Snow', for example, about the Russian writer Chekhov, speculates on a little known fact about his life - a sexual adventure in Ceylon after having nearly died on a prison island. 'Snow' imagines what it might have felt like to have inhabited that lost body, the Russian self dislocated in a strange country, longing for but finally unable to experience the plenitude he sought.

Similarly, 'The Veil', about the notorious spy Mata Hari, is less concerned with her public self than it is with the oddly suggestive and again largely unknown details of her private life. What might be made of the fact, for example, that her only son died in Sumatra poisoned by cats' whiskers, and that her only daughter, in a sadly ironic replication, was also shot as a spy? None of the several movies which have been made about Mata Hari's life have imagined what Jones has elsewhere called 'this miserable and anguished maternity'. By playing off the public woman - the object of crudely sexual longing - against the imagined sufferings of the private self, the story becomes a way of honouring Mata Hari's life.

Some of the stories deal humorously with the more obsessive aspects of desire. 'Heartbreak Hotel' captures what the narrator calls 'the original inflated glory' of the Elvis Presley impersonator Teresa Papadopolous. With her hair 'bottle blue-black and Brylcreem-slicked, a coif just so, iconic and heraldic, with the trademark kiss-curl trained neatly in a wave over the forehead, a teased boofy arc rising like a cat at the top'(pp. 114-15), she is a testimony to the more bizarre manifestations of obsession. Or there is the fixation of the little outback girl in 'Queenie the Wordless', who convinces herself she is the long-lost colonial daughter of the Queen.

In exploring the nature of desire, the stories often focus on objects and the symbolic significance they might hold. Associated with the particularity of a person, objects are at once and ironically a confirmation of presence and absence. There is, for example, a poignant moment in the story 'The Man in the Moon', in which the narrator contemplates the belongings of her dead father:

Yet it was not the drawings, but those other objects' much more banal, that seemed essentially mysterious. His eyeglasses, his coffee mug, his horsehair shaving brush. And these are all objects, I realise now, that had touched my father's face. (pp. 137-8)

The 'mysterious' nature of these objects lies in the way they simultaneously summon the particularity of the father and remind the daughter of his absence. While she can see and even touch the objects that have touched her father's face, he is forever and irretrievably lost. What these objects register, then, is the painfully paradoxical nature of desire itself - the way in which it can never finally and fully attain that for which it longs. The sadness of the moment is registered, too, by what the narrator does not say. Implicit here, as is often the case in Jones' stories, is the insufficiency of language itself - a recognition that for certain kinds of experiences, such as intense grief, there is simply nothing one can say.

It is perhaps a paradox to talk about the insufficiency of language in stories which use it so eloquently and elegantly, with both precision and poetic intensity, with a fine sense of rhythm and cadence. These are stories which at one level seem confident about the capacity of language to convey the mysterious complexities of desire and deprivation, longing and loss.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the stories as dealing with the paradox of language itself. On the one hand, they show us how words are a means of making ourselves known to others and attempting to overcome our loneliness. In this sense, Jones' stories are communicative and enabling; they remind us that language can provide us with the gift of access to the inner lives of other people. But they also remind us that language is always and already an inadequate substitute for bodies - that it can only ever stand in for the material reality and precious specificity of those for whom we long.

The narrator of the story 'Skiascopy (or, The Science of Romance)' understands this all too well. Abandoned by her lover, she contemplates the X-rays - the skiagraphs, as she technically calls them - as a symbol of her painful sense of isolation:

These skiagraphs are something like the stories he has left her. They are vulgar evidences of the loveliest things. They lie, and they tell the truth. They are interstitial. She cannot bear existing with only his stories. This negative of touch. This immateriality. (pp. 69-70)

In the end Jones's stories offer us the consolations of language. While they often speak of loneliness and yearning, they also provide the pleasures of intelligent, lyrical, energetic and rhythmically satisfying prose.


Questions for discussion

1) Many of the stories in Fetish Lives are concerned with unsatisfied desire. What different forms does desire take in these stories, and why is it so often unmet?

2) Almost incidentally, babies appear in a number of these stories. Consider the possible meanings or significance of babies and birth in this collection.

3) A number of these stories explore the phenomenon of grief - its complexities and ambiguities, its capacity to change us, its power to endure. Consider the ways in which grief is represented in this volume.

4) Jones' fiction characteristically reveals a fascination with the world of objects, and with the symbolic significance they can assume for certain characters. What are some of these objects, and what meanings do they hold in the stories?

5) Many of these stories create a vivid or strongly realised sense of place. What is the significance of place for Jones' characters? What does their experience of place suggest about their own emotional and psychic lives?

6) The motif of hands links many of these stories. Consider the possible meanings of hands, and of touching and being touched, in this collection.

7) The myth of Echo and Narcissus links the stories in this volume. What is its significance, and in what ways does it connect the stories?

8) Jones has said that she is interested in bringing 'the poetic' back into narrative. In what ways are these stories 'poetic'? What aspects of their language do you find interesting or challenging?

9) The story 'Eleanor reads Emma' begins with the narrator's question: 'What is it, to read?' In what ways have these stories made you think about your own role as a reader?