Review: ‘Within the Kiss’ by Charlotte Randall
Untrustworthy narrators have been perplexing readers since the unnamed narrator of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness paddled about with three listeners on the Thames. And although we could happily accept Kinbote of Nabokov’s Pale Fire actually existed, despite being such an obvious liar, we have no such frame of reference in Charlotte Randall’s new book, Within the Kiss.
Within the Kiss retells Historia von D. Johann Faustus, an anonymous work from the 16th Century, later adapted by Goethe into his play Faust: Eine Tragödie. Indeed, the Faust and Mephistopheles of Within the Kiss hobnob with such literary luminaries as Goethe and Byron, who have, through time, become almost mythical characters in their own right.
The title refers to Greek virgins raised to be slain as human sacrifices. The life of privilege they lead up to the time of their predetermined deaths was said to be a life led within the kiss. With the novel’s Oedipal and Electral overtones, as well as the sacrifice of a young virgin’s soul for the gain of another, it’s a title that evokes a mystery that we might never really get to the bottom of. And perhaps we’re not meant to.
The book begins with someone describing Faust, a housewife suffering from extreme boredom, meeting Mephisto, a tennis coach with coal-black eyes and spittle that sizzles. Before long, they make a pact: Mephisto will aid Faust to pen a best-selling novel and to improve her and daughter’s tennis game, in exchange for her daughter Helena’s soul.
It isn’t long before the narrator himself is introduced: Faust’s adulterous husband addressing his young bit-on-the-side. It’s here that the reader becomes aware that this is no ordinary novel, as the two distinct paths compete for the readers’ attention, and eventually control of the narrative flow of the story.
Randall wrote Within the Kiss during her Writer In Residence term at the International Institute of Modern Letters, at Victoria University in Wellington. It is very clear that her placement at such a creative hub provided some influence: this is very much a novel about the craft of writing: the sacrifices we make, the promises we keep, and traditional notions of style and substance. Some of the most interesting revelations come from the resurrected Goethe and Byron. Towards the end of the novel, they meet for the first time in history and say several grand things to each other, such as this declaration from Goethe disputing accusations of plagiarism:
“Doesn’t everything achieved by the past and present belong to the poet by right? Why should he be afraid to pick flowers where he finds them? Only by incorporating the treasures of others does one become great. Have I not taken Job and a song of Shakespeare for my Mephistopheles?”
About a third of the way through the novel, we find Faust and Mephistopheles discussing the flow of the story as it is happening. Things are being rewritten as we progress: Faust judges sex scenes too racy and rewrites them; Mephisto is pointing out incongruence within the text and correcting it. The effect is disconcerting: if Faust and Mephisto are rewriting as we go, then does the original narrator, Faust’s husband, actually exist? Is he still narrating when he shows up later as John Smith, in the third person?
And here is the second of the book’s concerns: deceit. Faust deceives her husband, by bedding a young tennis-player with the improbable name of Luxman, while her husband deceives her by persisting in meaningless trysts with the young, gormless Candy. But is the narrator deceiving us? At least once, Luxman’s bedroom antics are admitted to be nothing more than Faust’s idle fantasy. But perhaps not only the narrator is untrustworthy, but also the author, whoever the author might be. In fact, if the book were to be taken at its word, the novel would exist in perpetuity and Randall herself wouldn’t exist. Or something. One is reminded of the scene in Mulholland Drive where the MC at the Silencio Theatre says: “We hear a band, and yet, there is no band … this is all a recording … this is all an illusion.”
Yes, Within the Kiss is a confusing novel, and one that delights as much as it confounds. It isn’t an easy read: Randall’s vocabulary is extensive and sometimes meaning is lost because of it. The constant switching of perspective and sense of displacement may bother some traditional readers: but for the adventurous it can only excite.
It’s self-referencing, book-in-progress style is somewhat protected from criticism by the story: the writing of a novel. We are forced to accept with good grace the disappearance and reappearance of characters, odd inconsistencies, living and breathing dead poets and the fading out of protagonists as central to the plot of the book’s construction.
Randall’s triumph here is getting away with breaking the rules by pointing out the rules as she goes, and ignoring them anyway, to create something very distinct, almost punk, with its tightly-controlled anarchy.
For those who can negotiate the myriad layers, the ending does not disappoint, and goes some way to providing clues as to where we may discover truth. A second reading will aid further understanding. But like punk, we are forced to ask ourselves, as Johnny Rotten asked his audience at the Winter Land Ballroom in San Francisco:
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
We probably have. But Within the Kiss proves that sometimes it’s fun to be conned. That’s why they call it con-artistry.