[Review] Goya in the Wilderness: Louis Armand’s Abacus — Jim Chaffee

Louis Armand’s Abacus opens at the beginning of the 20th century in an Australian backwater not far from Sydney. The novel initially reminded me of Omensetter’s Luck, the masterpiece by William H. Gass: the pacing and atmosphere capturing place and time unfolding in a montage of images and vignettes, and of course the plethora of redneck bigots. Gass’s novel takes place in Ohio in the 1890s, but bigotry is endemic whether in Ohio or Australia. The similarity persists through the first chapter with a focus on three sisters and a younger brother from an important family in the small settlement. One of the sisters, a cripple confined to a wheelchair, dies early on but remains a character throughout the novel, much like Rufus Scott, the protagonist of James Baldwin’s Another Country, and the Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When Armand is done mining that particular lode of events in his hopscotch, fragmentary narration possibly termed “nonlinear” in the patois of modern literary academics and mavens of “creative writing” aping mathematics where the word, however, has an actual and precise meaning, he follows threads leading from these lives forward in time, broadening the focus of his vision more than does Gass. In fact, by novel’s end I am reminded more of Jonathan Weiner’s beautiful The Beak of the Finch than of any fiction.

Armand has written several novels for Equus Press and no matter the genre into which critics attempt to force them, they have in common the underlying objective of mapping the vagaries of the human primate’s behavioral terrain. It can be argued that all novels have this objective, but when one examines the cliché that embodies the characters of most fiction, especially “literary” modern popular fiction, the reality is that more often the goal is no more than pro-human propaganda. Certainly that was true of Dickens, arguably the great-grandfather of cliché modern “literary” popular fiction and the myriad tricks on the emotions, usually based on unreasonable coincidence and one dimensional depictions of simple-minded ethical personifications, that are prized by the less than nimble of mind such as literary scholars, critics, and denizens of schools of “creative writing.” The epigraph of Abacus, a quote from Kenneth Rexroth, plainly expresses Armand’s intended mapping, as follows:

Each human being has at the final core of self a crystal from which the whole manifold of the personality develops, a secret molecular lattice which governs the unfolding of all the structures of the individuality, in time, in space, in memory, in action and contemplation. Asleep there were just these dreams and no others. Awake there were these actions only. Only these deeds came into being.

The surviving sisters, Jenny, the elder, and Annie, spawn the edifice upon which Armand erects his family saga. Jenny gives birth to two daughters, one of whom, Thelma, is prodigious in providing descendents from various men, while her aunt Annie contributes to enlarging the influx of genetic information to the family pool through a coincidence related to World War II via a relationship with a German communist fated to Nazi extermination. Annie, acutely sensitive to the human condition from the very beginning, steels herself early on by painting in a personal style that develops on its own from her consciousness of the quotidian mundane horror of man’s minute place in the cosmos. Her sister Jenny is a vicious monster of convention, angry and bitter with whatever humanity conflicts with her vision of convention, loving the more her beastly younger daughter Tiny who is an aberrant version of the curvature of Jenny’s twisted conventionality. The playing off of Tiny’s mockery of social convention against Jenny’s filtered reality, had Armand chosen to develop it, could have brought about a work of pathography much as he created in Breakfast at Midnight.

Anna’s epiphanies complete her definition as an artist and hence as an adult. First with the German Emma Natschke as lover who sees through the subterfuge of her art in a flash. Annie realizes an underlying motive she had not perceived: “There’d been so many forking paths, each leading to another but none ever returning.” The immutability of the space-time events that make up an individual’s worldline slices through her consciousness of reality so that she’d distrusted the existence of her subjects. She considers the facile work of a popular artist: “Or Jools Ashborne’s soup kitchen epiphanies, with their evocation of a depressed, sterile Creator, in whom history crouches like some elemental turd He can’t excrete.” Recalling Emma Natschke’s piercing laughter in the face of life, which had first captivated her as it pierced the veil of reality, she reconsiders her own paintings:

“She’d have to undo everything, she decided, begin again. But that laughter, if only she could find a way to paint it.

“But then she knew.”

The other epiphany defines her attitude toward success following her consideration of Jools Ashborne’s successful tripe. Fellow artist Lyn Boland, who recognizes Annie’s genius and perhaps is in love with her, convinces her to adopt the name Goya which he had already begun calling her. Through his efforts she has a showing under the adopted name at a gallery in Sydney, Obscure Lives, but when he asks if she is pleased with her work’s reception, she asks him, am I supposed to be? “She felt vaguely sorry for him. A sense that all he’d accomplished in her was empty gestures — her ‘obscure lives’ as fatuous as a ship of fools drifting towards calamity.” The acknowledgement of her art as nothing more than an activity for herself serves her well, as it should anyone who is serious about art which is more often than not a detriment to commercial success. No body of work survives on merit, but on luck.

Boland goes on to become famous, making a name for himself in Britain. After Annie’s death, he repeatedly tries to rescue her work from her sister, to no avail. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Boland’s death, an announcement in a Sydney newspaper of a retrospective exhibit in the Art Gallery of New South Wales concludes with “Australians will have their first opportunity to view some of the major compositions of this prolific artist, including the centre-piece of last summer’s Tate Gallery exhibition of Australian Modernist Masters, “Goya in the Wilderness,” a heartfelt tribute to the great Spanish painter by whom Boland was inspired throughout his lifetime…” This is perhaps the saddest moment in the novel.

Unfortunately, dwelling on Annie distorts the novel, as she is but one in the evolution of a family history through which much twentieth century Australian history unfolds. She is, however, among my favorites in this little gem, masterfully created among a host of masterfully drawn characters; focusing on her is a choice in whittling down to a characteristic item from amongst a full complement of such in so short a novel. Armand draws character with a deft hand, but I find the characters here among his finest.

Twentieth-century warfare plays its not insignificant part in the novel. The first chapter is haunted by the Boer Wars, with the veteran Jass Davis giving us the perspective of the local patriot and racist, as opposed to the racist monarchist Reverend Stoker. World War II plays a pivotal part in the spread of genetic information along the husbandless lineage of Thelma. All the significant twentieth century wars in which Australia participated are represented, from World War I to World War II to Korea and Vietnam. Armand gives the reader a feel for the Australian role in fighting in these world events, even as its leaders are feckless to influence their beginnings or conclusions.

As Lynn Boland puts it at the introduction of television to Australia, “Culture was just what you could sell on TV. They’d fought a war in the name of the American Dollar. For what? The freedom to buy.”

Perhaps that is a bit harsh, given the contribution to the world of Scalia-logic by the US jurist Antonin Scalia, who has been called the greatest logician since Ludwig von Mises, inventor of buttonhole-logic which is applied to buttonhole theories in the social sciences that cannot be subjected to empirical verification, as they supersede reality. Von Mises stated that his own economic theories cannot be falsified no matter how much they diverge from actual events. Scalia extended this idea by devising a novel rule of inference in which modus ponens with a consequent that has nothing to do with the antecedent and which is always vacuously false, making the entire statement vacuously true, implies the consequent; that is, the consequent is thus considered true. He is given to berating many of his fellow justices on the Supreme Court who fail to concur with his frequent application of this rule of inference in his reasoning. It seems, then, that the Australians are a bunch of ingrates, as is readily demonstrated with Scalia logic: if no Australian has red hair, then the nation of Australia is filled with ingrates. Since there is an Australian with red hair, the nation must be full of ingrates.

Armand reminds us that he is a poet, not a logician. His work abounds in imagery that reveals mood and character within the ever present and intensely physical ambient process noise. Consider this extended quote, a description of the old veteran Jass Davis coming upon an adolescent Annie, lying in the grass on a hill as her younger brother Tom plays cricket in the paddock below.

“Nice day for it,” a man’s voice said interrupting her meditations.

Annie put hand up to shade her eyes so she could see who it was. Jass Davis was standing with hands stuffed in his trouser pockets, chewing a paspalum stem. He looked to her like a very queer goat with a brown moustache and no chin. Annie noticed he was wearing riding boots, though there was no evidence he’d ridden there on anything. Jass Davis grinned at her as if not to do so would make him appear even more absurd.

“I’ve brought Sid over to see your old man.”

“Oh,” Annie said, hoping it wouldn’t encourage him.

Sid Smith had been coming to visit every other day since just after Christmas, on account of his engagement. Sid Smith had a head several sizes too big for his body, and though he was far from short he couldn’t be called exceptionally tall either. His father owned the newspaper. Newspapers, Annie thought disappointedly, were never quite as crass as they were made out to be. But so long as Sid Smith’s visits kept Jenny out of her hair, their engagement could be deemed a positive development. But now Annie was stuck with Jass Davis ogling her, which was definitely not a positive development.

Another shout went up from the paddock. This time the batsman was bowled out. Tom was running about behind the skittled wickets, arms a-flap,. The players huddled while the one with the bat trudged off towards the fence, where some other men were having a smoke.

“I hear the wool’s pretty good this year.”

“Does wool interest you, Mr. Davis?”

Annie covered her mouth to stifle a yawn. A crow arced its dreary way over the paddock towards the river. A flock of newly shorn sheep lay naked in the shade of the willow trees. Naked as the day God. And unable to help herself, Annie saw her dead sister take form among the clouds, naked in her chair holding a newborn lamb, and a crippled God beaming down at her. The room Lily died in had a smell like glycerine soap. Jenny had engaged in one of her apoplectics because Ma wouldn’t let her throw anything out. She’d wanted the room to do her embroideries in, though really she only wanted it for herself.

“You’ll get too much sun, lying out like that.”

With a tinge of annoyance Annie realised Jass Davis hadn’t gone away as she’d hoped. He’d taken the paspalum from his mouth and was giving her a look of pretended concern. His swollen goat-face hung in the sky, swaying over her. Annie couldn’t imagine letting a man like that. The way she’d seen one of the Farelly girls doing it with a rouseabout behind the sheds. Or Sid Smith. Or any of them. Horrible, sticking their thing in. Heinke’s cook said it made you bleed sometimes they were so fat, or at least the first time. Fat and ugly like Jass Davis’s red face, with his mouth open now and teeth, about to say. But it was the way Annie looked at him, like she was about to scream. And he didn’t.

If Armand is lucky this book will be recognized for the important literary work it is. Unfortunately, for most careful writers with something not cliché to say, such luck is a rare event. But I hope Armand has some, as the work certainly merits reading. It was good enough to convince me that Australia is not fiction. Not an easy sell.


Jim Chaffee is a Vietnam veteran living in Mexico. He is a mathematician by trade but has remained committed to literature throughout his life. He has published several reviews and is currently at work on a novel. 

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