Katharine Kilalea: Ok, Mr Field review – brilliantly funny debut novel
Kilalea has created a perfectly poised and mad book about chronic loneliness
Katherine Kilalea: a Berhardian air of repetition works nicely in ‘Ok, Mr Field’
Ok, Mr Field
Faber & Faber
In poet Katharine Kilalea’s enigmatic, often dream-like and brilliantly funny debut novel, a house identical to the Modernist architect Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Savoye has been built overlooking False Bay in Cape Town. Following a train accident that damages his wrist, English concert pianist Max Field decides to spend his compensation payout on this house. We learn that a crisis of personal sadness, and a seeming inability to comprehend his own emotions, predates the accident that undid his career.
But the clinically pure, orderly ethos of the House for the Study of Water, as it is named, or its idyllic situation, have no calming effect. After spending her days writing banal observations about the sea in notebooks, Field’s wife Mim leaves him. The house turns to ruin, and the woman who sold him it – the widow of its architect – becomes for Field an erotic fantasy, a voice in his head, and eventually the subject of his stalking. Sitting below her window ledge one night, he kidnaps a (seemingly) stray dog from her garden.
So far so strange. Very little is given away about the important moments in Field’s timeline: his wife leaving him isn’t dwelt upon, and her reasons for doing so can only be inferred. We don’t know why he has become obsessed with the widow of a South African architect who replicates Le Corbusier’s designs “verbatim”. Rather, Ok, Mr Field is a story made out of the lacunae that these absences create.
Mr Field himself has been compared by early reviewers to a Beckett character, but he might have more in common with the creations of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. These tend to be deeply cultured perfectionists who keep circling back, in their minds and in the movement of their sentences, to a single obsession or plangent regret. In Ok, Mr Field, a Berhardian air of repetition works nicely: a dullness of narration which is also beautiful and perfectly intentional.
“I looked at myself so intently and for so long that, as happens when one is tired or has been looking at oneself for some time, I saw myself from a distance as if I were someone else.” “The sleep I fell into was heavy, like the temporary shutting down a computer does when it goes into sleep mode to conserve energy.” This is artfully, affectingly clumsy – the “sleep” being like “sleep mode”– in a way that is similar to how Field’s last ever performance is perceived by listeners: “Unmusical [. . .]Mechanical, even. Yet somehow also heartbreaking. [. . .] It’s as if what was so moving was his absence of feeling.”
The prose itself is similarly “unmusical”, in that there is a simulated absence of feeling for the line and its melody while sly authorial understanding peeps over the top. The book’s funniest lines are governed by what Kilalea can do with such absence and dullness: “Autumn arrived with a general spray of autumn colour.” Of Field’s valuable piano held at customs: “It was the piano I’d played since childhood, so at first I’d felt its absence acutely, but rather than missing it more as our separation lengthened, my feelings towards the Bechstein had dulled.”
In this novel full of Doppelgängers, False Bays, splits, echoes and repeats, it is hard to miss the absence of another sort of replication. The ghost-feeling, only faintly addressed, of childlessness hangs over the book. Mr Field, and presumably Mrs Field, spend their time in need of things to love, and be loved by. Kilalea has managed to create a perfectly poised, funny and mad book about chronic loneliness, the struggle to connect with other people, or even feeling estranged from oneself.