Nigel Cox, Tarzan Presley (2004)
I’ve been learning some new terms over the past few days, including ‘historiographical metafiction’, which equates, I think, to what Abrams calls the ‘fabulative’ historical novel. Could what Nigel Cox does in Tarzan Presley, then, be called metafictional biography, fictional metabiography, or magic bio-fiction? Fabulative metabiographical historiography? Do I need a break from my reading journal? These are all important questions, but they’ll have to be put aside.
The book is an impressive imaginative feat, both the idea itself and the commitment or passion to have followed it through. I say passion because the major themes broker a great deal of speculation (and they are major themes: humanity itself, above all else – what makes us human, how we think, how moral sensibilities arise, the nature of love, etc). The characters themselves are not realistic and are difficult to relate to, but there were moments when I felt moved, moments that reminded me of events from my past and so on, which are common transactions between writers of realistic fiction and their readers.
So the book is founded on this enormous what-if: what if Tarzan had been real, had grown up in New Zealand and, after being discovered by his Jane, had gone on to have Elvis Presley’s musical career in the States, replacing Elvis in his family home when he died in a car accident, picking up his record contract, and so on. The narration of the story is taken up by a vivid first person voice who writes as a biographer, so Tarzan’s story is told in third person, but it turns out that the ‘biographer’ is in fact Tarzan Presley himself in later life (who has by that stage become literate, faked his own death and for a long time preserved his anonymity). Phew. It is is a complicated narrative view. What it allows Cox to do with his narrative voice is 1) to make it funny and outlandish, 2) to allow the narrator intimate knowledge of all of the events of Tarzan’s life, and 3) delay our knowledge of what happened to him, though we do know before we’re told that the narrator is Tarzan, so we have advance knowledge before he decides to fake his own death.
The narrative voice is very strong indeed, and especially so at the beginning. The opening sequence sets the tone as speculative. Some of my favourite passages in the book, actually, take place near the beginning, when the narrator is describing the not-quite Wairarapa setting (populating it with giant wetas and gorillas) and telling the story of Tarzan’s upbringing and his relationship to his environment. Tarzan’s voice is used to study human behaviour from a point of view that’s simplistic, literally primitive. Here’s a passage about attraction from the scene in which Tarzan meets Jane: ‘And without warning a connection was made between them … they explored this connection. Seeing you affects me. Pleases me. I like looking at you – a powerful thing.’ The result of this simplicity is similar to the poignancy of the child’s point of view, except that the experiences Tarzan goes through and the issues he faces are adult ones. This is what Tarzan thinks when he receives a love letter from Jane: ‘she was in him … he could feel that – and he could also feel that that was what she had wanted.’ He has the limited knowledge of a child, but the heightened perception of strong animal instincts. Tarzan is presented very much as a representative male of the human race. There’s not much suggestion that he feels emotions or reacts to situations in a unique way. I think the assumption is more that he reacts in a pure way; his primitive outlook gives him a kind of moral authority. We are encouraged to think: look at what civilisation has done to us.
Elvis’s life is appropriated as an example of the corrupting influence of material success. Tarzan becomes the drug-addled blimp that Elvis did, but ultimately reaches his salvation by learning to read (nice plug for the transformative powers of literature). The Elvis section of the story trailed off into being less interesting to me, maybe because Elvis’s life became less interesting; that is, it started to seem as though the story was about Elvis’s decline but with the names changed, rather than about this newly created character’s decline. This might have been unavoidable and even deliberate (one character is fictional and one ‘real’ after all, of the two stories being combined), but if so, then I prefer Cox’s adaptation of fictional story to his adaptation of a real life. This wearying might also have been caused by a lack of sub-plots – the focus was all on Tarzan, all of the time.
The narrative sometimes jumps forward in the middle of scenes and presents two scenes simultaneously, one in the future. Cox’s intention might have been to suggest the process of reflection: some memories inform others and are recalled in conjunction with them. I found the effect a little jarring, but maybe it’s appropriate, in a novel with such an artificial premise, not to experience the illusion of time passing in naturalistic way.