Raised in rural Western Australia, Philip Salom started publishing poetry before engaging with the novel. Since The Silent Piano (1980), he has authored another thirteen collections of poetry, some of which have been rewarded with esteemed prizes. Salom belongs to that cluster of Australian writers (like Patrick White, David Malouf, Christopher Koch, Peter Goldsworthy, Randolph Stow and Sallie Muirden) who have imported their poetic proclivity in the novel, for the greatest benefit of the latter genre.
Playback (2001), which won the WA Premiers Prize for fiction, is a subtle regional mystery novel that unfolds in a fictitious country town called Windrup and involves a “gifted listener” keen on oral history, Jack Biner, who is well aware that he “can only collect what people remember”. In this narrative informed with Salom’s formative background in agriculture, Jack, a folklorist by trade, gets caught in the detective game that lures him in. To cut a long story short: people talk, speculate and suddenly comes the revelation.
In Toccata and Rain (2004), a narrative of poetic bent that has a lot to share with his debut novel, Salom iterates his interweaving of storytelling and memory issues, peppered with mentions of explicit sex (when it comes to sexuality, far from being metaphoric or euphemistic, Salom is the kind to call a spade a spade!), psychoanalytic concepts and guilty secrets, but from a different angle. It tells the story of a forty-eight-year-old eccentric, referred to as Simon, who has built two Freudian “gaudy and metallic beauties” towering over eight meters high in a Melburnian backyard. Becoming an object of curiosity at the heart of a controversy, media coverage of these arty monstrosities results in a late-night call from Simon’s Perth-based wife Margaret who addresses him as Brian. Thanks to medical aid, Simon/ Brian fills in the gaps of his life through analeptic accounts surfacing during psychoanalytic sessions and hypnotic trances.
Constructed like a fugue, Toccata and Rain shows all the versatility of a well-rounded artist who is at once novelist-cum-poet-cum-musician. As in all fugues, the well-matched subject (memory) and countersubject (identity) echo each other while developing at different paces: memory issues often surge in the narrative flow whereas thoughts on identity are more occasional, remaining closely related to the subject of the fugue.
The narrator, Brian Tyrell, who suffers from memory loss, ends up being void of identity – “Amnesia is an emptied story”, so we are told. He is fragmented like the syncopated poems colouring the discontinuous and gap-packed narrative presenting slices of his life. On the surface, Toccata and Rain appears as a befuddling tale multiplying contradicting information and identity ambiguities. At the core of the account lie the complexities of a pathology known as fugue amnesia or dissociative fugue. To resist split, Brian has to overwrite himself like a “human palimpsest”, one story overwriting another. The message the author is probably trying to get across is that any story, like identity itself, is the result of a construct.
Readers might feel that with Salom’s efficiently graphic and thought-provoking prose their sensitivity and intellect are toccata (i.e. “touched” in Italian).
P.S.: Two new books of poetry by Philip Salom have recently been released through Puncher & Wattmann – The Keeper of Fish and Keeping Carter.
Jean-François Vernay, author of
The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama (Melbourne: Brolga, 2010).