Foxybaby is the third of Elizabeth Jolley’s novels to appear in the United States and the fifth she has published. Born in England but a resident of Australia since 1959, Jolley has recently burst upon the American literary scene and seems likely to occupy a prominent place in it for years to come. Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (1984) and Mr. Scobie’s Riddle (1984) were enthusiastically reviewed, and Foxybaby is receiving an equally favorable response.
When Geoffrey Chaucer wanted to gather together a random collection of medieval English people, he chose the device of the pilgrimage. Jolley’s equivalent is no less characteristic of her time: the self-improvement seminar and weight-loss clinic. Even by California standards, however, Trinity House School is an unlikely and offbeat place for culture and slimming. Located in the Australian ghost town of Cheathem East (the obvious pun is intentional), Trinity is a depressing collection of crumbling buildings amid a wasteland of wheat stubble and weeds, one of which Miss Peycroft brews into an unsavory tea. To this unlikely spot come various struggling artists and writers, such as Miss Porch and the Russian émigré Vladimir Leftov, plus their overweight and mainly female students. Here the students’ basic insecurities and looniness are exacerbated by a diet of lettuce and raw carrots, washed down by Miss Peycroft’s tea, while their largely middle-class sensibilities are shaken by Miss Porch’s work in progress, “Foxybaby.” Each student has her own story, completing the Chaucerian analogy.
Miss Porch’s “Foxybaby” is presented in the class as a quasi-novel, quasi-drama. Under Miss Peycroft’s direction, Miss Porch reads long passages of description and narration, while the students speak the dialogue or (more frequently) mime the action. While the mode of reenactment is ridiculous, the play itself is starkly painful. It concerns a successful scholar, Dr. Steadman, and his wayward daughter, Laura, whom he has brought home from a prison hospital to nurse and love. Laura is ill with some nameless physical and psychic disease, perhaps brought on by the drug addiction that she has passed on to her own illegitimate child. Steadman struggles to understand the changes in his daughter, whom he may have loved too much as the little girl he nicknamed Foxybaby.
The readings of Miss Porch’s work come at strategic points in the series of scenes and vignettes that constitute the novel. There is no plot as such, unless it is Miss Porch’s struggle with her own emotional and artistic problems, the intrusions of her students, and the dictatorship of Miss Peycroft. These episodes and vignettes are held loosely together by Miss Porch, but they are presented at a variety of levels. Some are dreams, others are memories, still others imaginative flights, overheard conversations, offstage voices, and direct narration, description, or dialogue. The novel moves freely from one level of reality or consciousness to another; indeed, one can never be certain that anything occurs at all. This complex structure creates a series of unsolved or only partially solved puzzles for the reader, who must actively engage in putting together the various bits and pieces into something resembling a unity. The reader is, like Miss Porch herself, at the mercy of life’s randomness and unpredictability, and many will find a second reading of the book necessary to comprehend or even enjoy it.
With its medley of characters and situations, Foxybaby will necessarily appear to be different things to different readers. Some will see in its comic situations and dotty characters a satire on the modern self-improvement craze. Particularly in those passages in which Miss Peycroft is dragging a reluctant and uncertain Miss Porch into performing the novel as a mime accompanied by Miss Peycroft’s scrapings on the double bass and her secretary’s tapping on rhythm sticks, the novel recalls the absurd cultural posturings of Kingley Amis’ Lucky Jim (1954). Miss Porch lacks...
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