Review: ‘Within the Kiss’ by Charlotte Randall
The Faust myth is a tried and true old corker: ambitious Faust trades his soul to Mephistopheles in return for knowledge and power. Supposedly pretty timeless stuff. Randall’s Within the Kiss is a reworking of the myth in a contemporary, loosely New Zealand setting. It’s a cute idea: what if Faust wasn’t a man but a slightly flaky tennis-mum with clear aspirations to literary fame and fortune but questionable talent and commitment? And what if the devil was a dishevelled tennis coach who chain-smokes in between lessons? In Randall’s version, they still strike a deal: Faust sells her daughter’s soul to the devil. In exchange, the daughter will become a great tennis pro and Faust herself will write a bestseller. So far, so clever.
Randall’s re-imagination of character and setting is new, but it doesn’t feel especially fresh. Honestly, how excited did anyone feel at the idea of Liz Hurley as Mephistopheles in the recent Bedazzled? While an altogether classier beast than the film, Within the Kiss threatens to be a one-joke book; an initially amusing conceit, but is it enough to sustain a whole novel?
To be fair, Randall knows the Faust myth is well-trodden ground. In fact, this becomes part of her point. Mephisto and Faust are central characters but it emerges that the Faustian theme is not the central concern. The myth is in fact a jumping off point from which Randall can dissect the writing process itself, contrasting the often banal life of a writer with the more racy content of her work. All right, so it’s a two-joke book.
If you think this kind of dissection of the process of writing sounds complicated, you’re right. People that the character Faust knows in ‘reality’, also become characters in her book. It is not easy to tell from which narrative level of the book any character operates at any time. Within the Kiss spirals in on itself, It’s a multi-layered narrative where the reader constantly has to re-evaluate just who is speaking at any given time. A narrator that initially appears to be a controlling voice in the story turns out to be only a peripheral character and is then abruptly written out altogether. Just who is writing the book?
This degree of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity mean Randall’s book comes across as more of a behind the scenes view of ‘the making of’ a novel, than a novel itself. This ‘how to’ aspect is interesting, but it’s not enough. Without more straightforward plot or more rounded characters, the book seems little more than a fictionalised illustration of the mechanics of writing a book. It’s a nice behind the scenes view, but there isn’t much on stage.
If I was confused by the complex plot, this is clearly exactly Randall’s intention. I expect her further intention, however, was that any such reader would feel motivated to untangle the story’s layers. I found it difficult to engage with the book in any way that made me feel much like untangling. There’s a lot of figuring out to do and Randall asks a great deal. I didn’t feel like I was getting a lot in return.
Randall seems to have gotten carried away in her exposition of the process of writing, but this is pretty understandable. She’s a full time writer who spends a lot of her time occupied in that very process. The problem is that what is a consuming interest for her, does not necessarily translate to a theme with the legs to carry a whole book. It’s a lot like listening to a detailed description of someone else’s dream: deeply interesting to the teller, but quickly rather tedious for the audience.
I got the impression here, that engrossing the reader is not the ‘be all and end all’. The book pokes fun at Faust, the type of writer who churns out formulaic bestsellers; the bestseller is of course the archetypal audience pleaser. No matter how many dead poets Faust drops into her would-be-bestseller, serious literature it is not. Combined with the clever artifice of Within the Kiss, this stance creates an impression of cultural snobbery. Popular fiction is an easy target. It didn’t take long before Randall’s jibes started to irk: just a little too knowing and self-congratulating. I’m the first to agree that Faust’s jottings are no great shakes, but they make up the bulk of Randall’s book.
When Randall poked fun at the notion of the organic plot, I knew there was no danger that any of her characters might take on lives of their own and run off in unexpected directions. They are all firmly stuck to the page in two dimensions. This is explainable in some cases: a scrum of minor characters is introduced as plot devices in Faust’s novel. She is not supposed to be a very good writer, so it comes as no surprise that her ‘creations’ are cartoonish caricatures. However, Randall is the real author of this book and even Faust and Mephisto did not strike me as especially fleshed out. It was hard to form any strong feelings about creatures with such purely mechanical roles. Unquestionably, Randall has exceptional control of her characters, but they are little more than a series of cogs grinding through their allotted revolutions as the intricate plot unfurls.
The book is all about control; a sampler of narrative flourishes, clever tricks and literary conceits. At one point, Mephisto tells Faust, “[s]ometimes I fear you’ve got quite mixed up between the book and reality.” Faust’s reply, “I’ve got better control of my material than that”, resonates suspiciously like Randall’s voice; a sort of, “aw shucks, that’s nothing. Get a load of this next trick”. I got the same sense from her persistent use of long and unusual words. These seemed more like a flexing of her linguistic muscles, than choosing simply the most expressive words.
Randall’s writing is stylish and smooth, but ultimately it all seemed a slick glaze with nothing much underneath. She’s mostly playing it for laughs but it isn’t that funny. It all feels much more like point scoring cleverness than genuinely entertaining humour. The book appears the working up of a nifty mind twister that tickled the author’s fancy. As such, it does not extend far past pure mechanics and techniques. It’s a smart book but not smart enough to notice my interest waning as I read it. In the myth, Faust wagered that that at no moment, no matter how much knowledge and power the devil gave him, would he become so satisfied as to wish that moment would last forever. At no point while I read Within the Kiss did I wish for time to stand still, but the hours sure dragged.