Unheimlich?

According to Freud, one of the key characteristics of the Uncanny is the doppelganger.  In which case, Eleanor Catton’s marvellous debut novel, The Rehearsal, is one of the most uncanny books I have read, because it is crammed with doubles. So much so, indeed, that in many instances we do not see the original, only the doppelganger; and some of the doubles are themselves doubled.

rehearsalIt is an intricate, complex and at times confusing novel that must seem, in synopsis, very simple. A young teacher has been accused of having a relationship with one of his pupils who has not quite reached the age of consent. The novel focuses on the reactions of the other girls in the school; or rather, it doesn’t. Because first year students at the nearby Drama School decide to use the incident as the basis for their end-of-year play, and what we get (mostly) is events as acted out by the students. This is one level of doubling. It is not always clear, but it is possible that we only see one of the pupils at the school directly: Isolde, the younger sister of the girl caught with the teacher. At one point, Isolde enters the drama school, more or less by accident, and witnesses, without realising it, rehearsals for the play about her sister. After this, Isolde starts a relationship with Stanley, one of the students putting on the play, though neither of them realises how each is connected with the other.

If the drama puts a layer of separation between us and the events in the school, the character of the drama separates us even further. Because most of the story is told through the saxophone teacher (like most of the leading adult characters in the novel, she remains unnamed) who tutors the girls who are central to this drama. At several points, including right at the beginning of the novel, the saxophone teacher remarks on the fact that the mothers who come to visit her are all played by the same person (doubling again). As if this isn’t enough to make us conscious of the irreality of what is going on here, there are also occasions on which one or other of the pupils will recount something that has happened elsewhere and we are given lighting cues that suggest the earlier event is somehow being recreated within the teacher’s office. The scene, the stage set, is therefore able to stand for two places at once. Since these flashbacks sometimes contradict each other, we are given little reason to trust the story we are being told here; but of course it is a play not a documentary account.

There’s another doubling involving the saxophone teacher. Her pupils, Isolde and Julia, begin (or seem to begin) a lesbian relationship that clearly mirrors the relationship between the saxophone teacher and her own mentor. In fact, so close is this resemblance that at one point it briefly becomes impossible to disentangle the two girls from the two older women. Of course, this parallel only serves to emphasise the dramatic rather than the natural structure of what we are being told here. Did such a mirroring occur in the ‘real’ events outside the play, or has it been introduced simply for dramatic purposes? It doesn’t matter, what is at stake here is the muddying of identity that is part and parcel of the uncanny effect of the doppelganger, the mirror, the parallel, the echo that is the structure and intent of the novel.

Naturally, since doubling is so much a part of the novel, it is inherent in the structure also. There are two parallel narrative strands. The story of the schoolgirls is told through multiple viewpoints, but keeps coming back to the focus character of the saxophone teacher, and is formed of short sections headed by the days of the week. Paralleling this is the story of the drama students , concentratimg on one central figure, Stanley, though often drifting away mostly to the (unnamed) adult teachers at the college, and is formed of short sections headed by the months of the year. The section headings suggest a chronological structure to the novel, but that isn’t what we actually get. The drama school passages take us from September/October of one year (when the new intake first arrive for auditions) up to the October/November of the following year (when the play is staged), but within this timeframe the narrative is liable to jump from December to August to May to June, and so on. Within the drama school part of the narrative, it is clearly not chronologically structured. The girls’ school sections are less clear cut. A section might well proceed from Monday to Wednesday to Friday to Saturday, but with no way of knowing whether these are all in the same week, or whether the Wednesday or Friday, say, might be from the week before or the week after. The fact that it is not straightforwardly chronological, however, is suggested by the one instance in which the same scene is viewed from two different perspectives. It is a counselling session for the girls at the school who knew the girl at the centre of the scandal, a session in which Julia challenges the counsellor’s narrative of events and motivations. At first we see this from Julia’s point of view, during which we learn of her frustration at the way her ideas are ignored. It is some time later in the book, after quite a few Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays, before we return to exactly the same scene, this time from the point of view of Isolde, and we gather that this is a starting point for Isolde’s sense of attraction to Julia. There are other, more subtle clues to suggest that this is not a chronological narrative, but without giving away any sense of what order these events actually occur in.

What we have, therefore, is a postmodern narrative structure, broken chronology, the awareness of the characters that they are actors in a drama, accompanied by almost an excess of uncanny doubling. By describing the book as uncanny, I don’t want to suggest that there is any sense of the fantastic about it, but equally it is a novel that denies any sense of realism. What it is, is a breathtaking coup de theatre, a stunning work of the imagination that sweeps you up into its story while constantly making you question what it is you are reading.

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One thought on “Unheimlich?

  1. Pingback: 2013 Reading | Through the dark labyrinth

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