“I feel like a character in a novel written by myself who runs into a character in a novel written by himself.”
I’m not sure how a book as finely written and original as Mark Henshaw’s Out of the Line of Fire stayed under the radar for nearly three decades, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that the author is Australian. How could I resist a novel that opens with the purloined line: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler” and then invokes the name of Walter Abish, one of my favorite writers?
First published in 1988, then reissued in 2014 by Melbourne’s Text Publishing, Out of the Line of Fire reads like a compelling mystery, except that it is laced with bite-sized doses of philosophy drawn from the likes of Kant, Husserl, Hegel, and Wittgenstein. Most of the quotations that Henshaw extracts from their writings deal with the broad question of how language works and how we believe we experience the world, all of which he uses to raise questions about the nature of literature itself (and, by extension, the nature of the book we are reading).
Henshaw’s unnamed narrator in is an Australian studying in Heidelberg, where he meets Wolfi, another student who rents a room in the same house. Wolfi is working on his dissertation, the subject of which, they decide after much discussion, goes something like this in English: “The metonymic perception of reality.” But just as their friendship seems to be taking off, Wolfi mysteriously moves to Berlin. Eventually, the narrator returns to Australia having not heard from Wolfi again. Then, a year later, he receives a package in the mail containing “bundles of papers, news-clippings, letters, postcards and God knows what” along with a note from Wolfi: “Perhaps you can make something of this.” The second part of Henshaw’s novel is comprised of Wolfi’s story, which ends with a shocking revelation. In the third and final section, the narrator finds himself in Berlin for a conference and tries to find out what happened to Wolfi. New shocking revelations seem to replace the original shocking revelation, pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet more than once. Sadly, these twists and turns cannot be revealed without spoiling Henshaw’s book for the next reader.
Out of the Line of Fire plays with a number of postmodern literary obsessions — who is the author? what differentiates fact from fiction? how does language convey meaning? what gets lost in translation? But Henshaw approaches this in a way unlike any other book I have read. After each new revelation, I had to literally stop and entirely rethink everything I thought I had understood up to that point. Henshaw gives the reader fair warning that the story he is telling is suspect, especially when he name-drops authors like Calvino and Abish, two writers who deliberately constructed their fictions as if they were games. As his Australian narrator puts it: “The novelist … is obliged to conceal and reveal at the same time, to include, exclude, manipulate and shape his characters with some ulterior purpose in mind.” Looking back, I can see that Henshaw left several sly clues that might have led me to suspect what he was up to, but I confess that I only caught one of Henshaw’s clues, which I underlined and wrote question marks next to, even though I had no idea why. But even this clue was nothing more than the substitution of one pronoun for another.
Mark Henshaw (who, by the way, is not the Mark Henshaw who writes the Red Cell series of spy novels) didn’t publish his second novel, The Snow Kimono, until 2014, twenty-six years after Out of the Line of Fire. To be honest, I gave up on The Snow Kimono more than once, even though it has a very promising start. Auguste Jovert is a recently retired police inspector in Paris. Shortly into his retirement, Jovert receives a letter from a young woman declaring herself to be his daughter from a brief relationship he had while he had served in the Algerian War. At the same time, Jovert meets a neighbor in his building, Tadashi Omura, a retired law professor from Japan. As the two men get to know one another they slowly begin to tell their stories whenever they can get together for a night. Jovert recounts his time in Algeria, while Omura tells the story of his troubled friendship with Katsuo, a brilliant but rather dissolute and ethically-challenged man.
For me, one problem with The Snow Kimono was that the rather lengthy narratives of Jovert and Omura keep alternating, which meant that I continually lost track of the characters and plot details of one story while being enveloped by the other story. The other, more serious, problem had to do with the ending. As in Out of the Line of Fire, Henshaw eventually provides a revelation that entirely changes one of the stories. But this revelation turns out to be just a Hitchcockian plot twist, whereas the literary magic that occurs in Out of the Line of Fire forces the reader to rethink the very act of reading itself. While beautifully written, The Snow Kimono simply couldn’t live up to my expectations.
I give credit to M.A. Orthofer’s recent piece over at Complete Review for belatedly bringing Out of the Line of Fire to my attention.