Bruce Russell's first novel, Jacob's Air, won the 1995 TAG Hungerford award for a first full-length work of fiction by a Western Australian-based writer. Set in 1984 in the Sydney suburb of Glebe, it deals with the recognisable preoccupations and problems of inner-city counter-culture - the pleasures and difficulties of communal living, the concern with personal growth, the battles with chemical and emotional addictions.
At one level, the novel is a wryly comic account of a generation in search of a sense of identity and community. Its targets include self-absorbed self-help gurus and middle-class dabblers in alternative life-styles, like Henry Metcalfe, the lecturer in a natural therapies college whose 'version of a working life was about six well-paid hours a week'. (p. 21) It wittily exposes the charlatanism of New Age pseudo-mystics whose wares include 'occult and esoteric publications with air-brushed covers and inflated prices.' (p. 209)
But the novel moves beyond such comic observations and the specificities of time and place to raise complex moral questions of broader and continuing relevance. Jacob's Air is centrally concerned with the issue of choice, with the extent to which we should assume responsibility for the welfare and happiness of others, and with the value of friendship. And it is through an exploration of the darker aspects of personality and relationships, focused above all in the suicide of Jacob Metcalfe, that Jacob's Air ultimately confronts the question of whether life itself is worth living, and contemplates the difficult legacy for those who remain.
The novel is told from the point of view of the young recovering alcoholic Delmarie Fairbridge who, at once vulnerable and resilient, empathetic and tough, is intent on re-inventing herself and her life. Her quest begins when, in response to a newspaper advertisement, she joins the household of the 'thirty-something' Metcalfe brothers. She sees the move as a 'test of (her) recovery É where learning to live together was the cure.'(p. 18) Communal living, she soon learns, has its range of daily pleasures and irritations, as the three occupants of the run-down house called Octavia negotiate their various rights and obligations, duties and desires.
Initially Deli sees nothing particularly untoward in the brothers' relationship. She witnesses both moments of relatedness and tension - the usual and apparently unremarkable stuff of family life. There is the enjoyable spectacle of Henry and Jacob 'harmonising and hamming it up, tea-towelling around the kitchen, bouncing off each other and the fridge door.' (p. 22) There are also the plays for power beneath the surface of their conversations, observed by Deli with an air of amused detachment. Henry, for example, is noted for his 'creative use of self-pity', (p. 20) while Jacob has 'a way of baling out of a sentence, as if he sensed some approaching flak.' (p. 25) Fragments of conversation, descriptions of domestic routines, build up a sense of daily life in all its seeming inconsequentiality and randomness.
Soon, however, Deli becomes aware of darker undercurrents in the household. Theresa, a former resident, welcomes Deli as one who 'might be able to prevent a fratricide'; the brothers, she laughingly informs the narrator, are 'diabolical when they get going.' (p. 34) Theresa's seemingly overblown language here turns out to be disturbingly and distressingly appropriate, as Delmarie gradually discovers the hellishly destructive nature of the relationship. She learns of an earlier suicide attempt by Jacob, his diagnosis as a manic-depressive, Henry's assumption of the burdensome role of his 'brother's keeper', Jacob's continuing emotional dependency. She uncovers, in short, a psychologically and morally complex history saturated with feelings of guilt and inadequacy, anger and betrayal, which culminates in Henry's eviction of his brother from the household and Jacob's subsequent and shocking suicide.
Counterpointing the increasingly destructive nature of life in the communal household is Deli's creative movement outward into the community at large. Increasingly self-reliant, she is slowly able to release herself from the support of Alcoholics Anonymous and assume more control over her life. She chooses voluntary counselling work, initiates friendships, takes a lover with whom she finds herself in love, and begins to discover a sense of identity and purpose through art. By the end of 1984 the rather isolated and coolly detached observer has become an active agent - a creator of sustaining relationships, a painter, 'the one doing the choosing' (p. 285), including the choice of life over death.
While the novel's conclusion is clearly life-affirming, it also refuses a glibly happy ending. Assuming responsibility for her self and her life, Deli also recognises what lies beyond her control. Her lover Alan has chosen to embark on his own journey of self-discovery, including, the novel hints, the exploration of a homosexual relationship. Life's unpredictability is also symbolised by the cancer of Deli's former counsellor and close friend Basiewski, his grave illness 'out of the blue' (p. 284) serving as a poignant reminder of the individual's essential helplessness and isolation.
Jacob's Air thus begins as a social comedy and modulates into a moving account of the emotional and moral complexities of human relationships. And as the concluding paragraphs suggest, the novel is above all about the value of friendship. Deli's final tribute to Jacob insists that 'friends bring air É When you've got friends, you don't even need to struggle. You are breathed. You give it back.' (p. 287) The act with which the novel concludes, Deli's visit to Basiewski, is further confirmation of the importance of friendship in the face of loneliness and the temptation to despair. True to her name, Deli has become the 'fair bridge' who insists on the value of connection and communication. Once supported by the loving kindness of her counsellor, she now has the psychological and emotional strength to 'give it back' to her friend. Her recovery, then, entails not only her own growth to self-sufficiency but a recognition of the value of relatedness and reciprocity.
One of the issues most frequently raised with Bruce Russell is his use of a young female narrator in Jacob's Air. In response to speculation about his intentions, Russell explains his strategy as an attempt to achieve some distance from the emotionally charged, at times anguishing, autobiographical elements of his novel. 'I was coming at a story that I knew too well, from the inside,' he observes. 'I was so far inside the story that I couldn't get a good perspective.' Abandoning eighty pages of an earlier version told in the third person, he created Delmarie Fairbridge, whom he describes as 'tough enough and experienced enough to tell the story, but also removed.'
Deli not only functions as an effective distancing device. In creating her, Russell also drew on his experience as a trainer for drug counsellors. Formerly at the Centre for Education and Information on Drugs and Alcohol, and, since his move to Western Australia in 1990 as the Manager of the Communication Skills Training Centre (part of the Department of Family and Children's Services), his knowledge of addictive behaviour and of family and group dynamics clearly informs his conception and construction of character and relationships in Jacob's Air.
But Russell does not want his novel to be read as merely a form of therapy or as an unmediated account of personal experience. While he likes readers who can 'let themselves go with the imaginative flow of the book', he is also pleased if readers can appreciate its craftsmanship. What he seeks to achieve in his writing is a combination of improvisation and control, of allowing the imagination free play - enjoying what he describes as 'that delicious space you can have for yourself' - within a certain frame or structure. In Jacob's Air, he combines improvisation and design, free play and artifice, through the self-conscious use of 'a year in the life' of a communal household as a frame for the spontaneous, diary-like jottings and observations of the narrator. Similarly, while relationships in the novel are depicted as free-wheeling and fluid, Russell has deliberately used a series of different and sometimes overlapping triangles as a frame or structure - the most obvious consisting of the Octavia inhabitants Deli, Jacob and Henry.
This interest in improvisation and design is also evident in Russell's new novel, The Chelsea Manifesto, set in 1990s Western Australia and New York. Seen from the point of view of a male narrator, it is centrally concerned with the psychological and emotional entanglements of the father-daughter relationship - with feelings of abandonment, betrayal, anger and longing. The main structuring device of this work-in-progress is the metaphor of the geodesic dome.
Not surprisingly, Russell
is involved with Perth's Playback Theatre, an improvisational group which works
with the stories of audience members. As his novels demonstrate, such an activity
requires a capacity for both spontaneity and discipline, and an awareness of
the complex and ambiguous ways in which the stories of others are bound up with
1) A central theme of Jacob's Air is the search for a meaningful sense of community. The novel offers a variety of models, including the nuclear family, group households, heterosexual romance, female friendship and platonic male-female relationships. Which does the novel see as more sustaining, and why?
2) One of the novel's characters observes that 'women and men come from two different planets.' (p. 228) Does Jacob's Air bear out this view of the fundamental incompatibility or mutual estrangement of the sexes?
3) What significance does Basiewski have for Delmarie in her struggle to re-invent herself?
4) At one stage of the novel Delmarie voices the desire to be a 'happy normal'. What does she mean by this, and are there any examples in Jacob's Air? Does she ultimately become a 'happy normal'?
5) The novel is both a celebration and a critique of a 1980s counter-cultural urban life. What are the perceived merits and limitations of this life-style?
6) Deli at one stage describes Jacob as 'the black knight' in Henry's Camelot. (p. 20) What might this allusion signify?
7) Jacob's suicide, like all suicides, demands explanation. His death is variously attributed to the psychological and emotional dynamics of his family, the insensitivity and selfishness of his friends and of his brother in particular, a medical condition and, in the words of Basiewski, in terms of an inability to 'contact pleasure' - for Basiewski, Jacob 'died of dysphoria.' (p. 262) How much weight does the novel attach to these various explanations?
8) There are numerous examples of triangular relationships in the novel, which suggest the desires, anxieties and power plays among the various characters. Consider the significance of some of these relationships.
9) Delmarie's search for identity culminates in the discovery of her vocation as an artist. What kind of art does she eventually produce, and how might it be connected to her relationship with Jacob?
10) Consider the possible significance of the title. Why, for instance, is the character of Jacob given such centrality? What is the biblical significance of his name? And consider the connection between the 'air' in the title with Jacob's asthmatic condition, Deli's final words about his need for air, and her own position in the loft at the end of the novel.