Jessica Au, Cold Enough For Snow (Giramondo/Fitzcarraldo, 23 February 2022), 104pp.
Joshua Calladine-Jones reviews Jessica Au’s deeply personal, cinematic, and impressionistic novel.
Autofiction, despite popular protest, is still very much alive, and fictional. It can extend itself as far as the dichotomy allows, between the autobiographical, and the invented. Its limits are unclear, border-hopping several existing genres, infringing the territory of the confessional novel in particular. What it is seems to be clarified by what it isn’t, but this begs some questions. To what extent can it extend beyond its home terrain before becoming simply something else? Have too many efforts to define it rendered it overlaboured and passé? Jessica Au has put herself (inadvertently or not) into this equation with her short novel, Cold Enough For Snow. Mother and daughter are brought together by the conceit of a shared trip to Japan, a country neither have visited before. For both, Japan constitutes a symbolically unmapped territory, close enough to home to contest and share in equal measure. Mother was raised in Hong Kong. Daughter (ostensibly Au), in Australia. And therein lies the first divide.
The two engage in predictable cultural tourism. Notable, however, is their engagement with contemporary Tokyo art scenes. Au has a certain fascination with the plastic and visual arts that’s carried throughout the work in a way that echoes the novel’s highly visual style, which though it could be described as cinematic, is not so much the new-cinematic literature of Adania Shibli — long-takes, hard-cuts and shaky close-ups — but a kind of neo(neo)impressionism, looking back-and-forth at what might once have been called Feminine Modernism: the image-worlds of Woolf and the daylit scenarios of Mansfield. It’s film-like modernism, however, is one of HD-screens, over dim picture-houses. Slow crossfades, past-to-present, backlit in a wistful corona. Chiaroscuro city-glow on windscreens. Slow-inhale landscape shots. Summer afternoons of lens-flare and artful composition.
I cooked several dishes that I had already made from the cookbooks, and brought these out to the big wooden table in the garden. During the lunch – perhaps because the day was beautiful and the orchard peaceful, and perhaps also because we were all young, drinking and talking and laughing, and because I had tied my hair back with a scarf as blue as the cobalt of Delft tableware – I had again the sensation of seeing us like a still in a film, or a photograph, and the feeling was paired with another one of satisfaction, and rightness.
This risks being tiresome. Overperfect. But Au’s self-consciousness of her inner filmic moments strikes a balance between composition and awareness thereof necessary to carry this sort of thing off. Neither is it purely aesthetic: though the temporal-shifts between layered memories and self-perceptions drift like crossfades on a screen through the pages of the work, this multi-layered landscape is internal, and Au is seeking within, not without. This is nothing new, and has been the mainstay of searching psychological fiction since at least Thomas Bernhard, through Sebald and onto the autofiction of the recent moment. And comparisons between Au and the dowager queen of the genre, Rachel Cusk, are justified. Like Cusk, Au finds her muses in the same sphere: the family.
Cold Enough For Snow sometimes risks resembling the world of Cusk’s Outline trilogy in miniature, with a softer backdrop and a seemingly more muted lingering trauma. It is dreamlike, between traum und trauma, in its aethereal cadences. And if Au is striking out for herself, the essence of the move is in her patient manner: not self-restrained (as trauma might be) but self-measured (as a slow dream might be). Her prose is serenely executed: astutely and expertly. Perhaps too expertly, and at times the echoes of an unreachable past begin to sound hauntingly similar to other echoes heard before, with which Au has a resonance and a dissonance.
This is, however, the stylistic chance Au takes in adopting the aloof and keen-eyed contemporary style as her own. And to venture a theory, it doesn’t seem to be stylistic innovation that’s behind Au’s project, but some smaller (and paradoxically bigger) task of extracting the particular from the universal: her mother from her family, herself from her time. So it’s alarmingly cold and cleansing to the reading sense (adjectives maybe better suited to a fishing-retreat than a novel) to sail gradually through a work so patient about finding a point, without trying too hard to make one at all.
There’s something being sculpted by Au, though it isn’t clear exactly what it is. What its purpose or resemblance is. The Tarkovskian connection has no choice but to come to mind (sculpting in narrative time of narrated literature: infinitely more flexible and proportionally less tangible than in cinema), if the novel is again considered cinematic. This metaphor is notched out literally. She visits her partner’s father.
As I listened, I thought too about Laurie’s drawing and his father’s sculptures, how they were somehow alive. Earlier, I’d asked his father a little about his work, and he’d spoken about the process, the method of subtraction or addition, how he might choose to make something from wood or stone, depending on its properties, or how he would sometimes create a mould so that he could cast in metal or bronze. I had wanted to ask more, to probe deeper, but somehow I couldn’t think of how to phrase what I wanted to know, and so let the moment pass.
Always something passes, uncaught, though the moment of its passing is precisely carved and preserved, then cared for and repaired long after its initial sculpting. So it’s a restorative novel, but palliative, reminding the reader that under the comfortable cloak it offers is their own impotence and ignorance, selfishness and fault. Not in the sweeping canvas of being, rather in the subtleties of everyday existence. To right those wrongs, to alter our own conceptions and misconceptions, though, remains a dilemma for us. That, that is the lasting impulse (the novel leaves us the impression) of perhaps all worthy reading. A lesson? Well, maybe so.
There’s an argument to be made that autofiction is the contemporary answer to both the philosophical novel, and the moralistic one. In the current of autofictition, frequent criticisms of the philosophical form — too weighty, too preconceived, or perhaps even too Victorian — are dissolved into the ponderous but swimmable depths of the author’s self-reflections, and distilled through day-to-day life: they are made real, made everyday, made routine. If everyone today is forced to be a philosopher, then so too a moralist. Rather than through the didactic character (the self-righteous Bounderbys and pompous Stryvers of Dickens, for instance) morality in autofiction can be lived through the writer’s remove, their doubt and distance from ethical certainty, putting the reader through the motions of judging the rights or wrongs explicitly shown, or only hinted.
There are many things we don’t learn in this brief novel about the mother-daughter relationship Au calmly and probingly examines. The reasons (political or otherwise) that she was raised in Australia, rather than Hong Kong, are never raised, or even really alluded to. At times the book, in all its delicate and unabrasive composition, leans towards a truth inaccessible to both narrator and author: this watch-tapping longing is slightly deflating, even if the one tapping the watch is the reader waiting for the author to surface from an uncertain water.
Even at that hour, the sun had been hot, but Laurie said that once we got to the track, it would be all right, we would be under the cover of the trees. I said that the night before, I had dreamt of the crater lake. He had been a teenager again and I had been his girlfriend at the time. I said that we had swum out together easily but when we reached the middle, I had stopped and said that I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t go on. I remembered the feeling of the endless depth beneath me, which I could only feel because he had told me about it, thinking that if I stopped now I would sink and sink and no one would know for how long. But in the dream, Laurie had said no, go on, and then we had, and when we reached the other side, it was night.
If the novel is cinematic, there’s trickery, illusory depth, and camera-magic. This isn’t Hemingway’s iceberg, where the tip that shows suggests a greater depth beneath. The key element of the tale (or non-tale) is the absence behind what’s said and done. And what we aren’t privy to, like the depths of the lake Au tries to cross in her movie-dream-sequence, is almost too unfathomable, too out-of-focus, to comprehend.
What’s underneath is nothing, and the sublime terror of searching is the reason we’re still holding the book. There’s a missing self, and it’s not the only one purloined or lost. Searching for it is the thrill, the intrigue in watching the sculpture be formed, while finding it misses the point, spoils the trick and mars the work. And this is what separates autofiction from its sincerer cousin, memoir, or its saturnine-choleric relative, the confessional. What Au doesn’t say suggests mystery. Truths too deep to expose or to willingly comprehend, because those truths seem too deep to have existed, or to any longer exist. This is where autofiction is still alive and fictional: there will always be the self. And, above all, there will always be an-other.
Joshua Calladine-Jones is a poet and the literary-critic-in-residence for Festival spisovatelů Praha. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including 3:AM, The Stinging Fly, Minor Literature[s], Freedom, The Anarchist Library, and Literární.cz. It has also been translated to Czech. His short collection, Constructions [Konstrukce] was published by tall-lighthouse, and its counterpart Reconstructions [Rekonstrukce] is forthcoming in 2022.