By Graham Rawle
Out 22 March from Chatto & Windus
Rejoice, lovers of all that’s innovative and experimental, for Graham Rawle, whose last novel, The Card, came out in 2012, returns with Overland.
Set in Los Angeles, California, in 1942, it’s a sideways exploration of truth vs illusion, obsession, love, discrimination (specifically, of Japanese Americans post Pearl Harbor), and displacement.
When I say sideways, I mean that literally.
Graham’s an artist as well as a writer. All of his books experiment with format, making them delightful objects as well as stories. Woman’s World was composed of words and lines cut from vintage women’s magazines, The Card featured a wealth of typographical quirks, and his version of L. Frank Baum‘s The Wizard of Oz is a marvel of ingenuity. He created characters using dolls and stuffed toys, and repurposed household detritus to compose sets—which he photographed, photoshopped, and built up via a complicated series of layers to create striking images. The end result is beautiful and spooky.
Overland is printed in landscape format, which is just unusual enough to slow you down, encouraging that you savour the see-sawing conversation between two worlds. One is Over, the other is Under. Each is distinguished not only by placement, by by font. Readers toggle between them—though they, themselves, overlap and intersect—following the story through to its surprising conclusion. This back and forth approach reinforces one of life’s essential truths: perspective is everything.
The book is stuffed with allusions to earlier works of art, and this, in particular, functions like a cinematic split-screen effect—apt, given the story’s proximity to Hollywood. Readers become observers, seeing characters converging and diverging, a doubling effect that may cause some to shout, “No, wait, just stay there a few moments longer, someone’s coming.” It’s an effective way of ramping up tension.
The inspiration for Overland comes from the history books. After Pearl Harbor, the US government wanted to protect vulnerable aviation factories along the Pacific Coast. They took special precautions with the vast Lockheed factory in Burbank, blacking out windows and commissioning a camouflage expert to make the complex “disappear.”
Rawle explains: “Using a technique called ‘visual misinformation’ [Colonel John F Ohmer] combined two-dimensionally painted canvas with foreshortened three-dimensional props to disguise the Lockheed plant as part of the California landscape.” Many of those recruited to work on the project honed their craft in Hollywood’s movie studios.
Rawle’s Over is this disguising world, conceived of by Hollywood set-designer George Godfrey, whose attention to detail is so intense that he even has Residents (factory workers spending their breaks in Overland) moving parked cars, and herding artificial sheep from one field to another, lest pilots zipping overhead grow suspicious about a static landscape. Overland benefits from sunshine and clean air. It’s a paradise, meticulously maintained, a playground for Residents offering them respite from the grimy, grubby work of the factory, and the sadness of life during wartime. And it’s rather sweet seeing how seriously these grown ups play.
For Godfrey, his slightly off-kilter creation is realer than reality. He’s so heavily invested in Overland that he lives there—illegally—subsisting on a diet of doughnuts and coffee. He’s on the run from a disappointing marriage. Painful memories of betrayal contrast with his current bliss. He’s traded life with a belittling, adulterous, now ex-wife, for his own private Idaho, where, it has to be said, Godfrey is God. (Knowing Rawle, one suspects that surname’s no accident.)
This idyl is about to be shattered: the military’s evicting him, sending him to Seattle to work the trick again on another munitions plant. But he won’t go quietly.
Under comprises all the rest of the world, including the factory, where workers toil under the dark umbrella of Overland, marvelling at the strange objects occasionally falling from the “sky.” To those unaware of what’s overhead, these out of context arrivals—a fishing hook, fruit— are curious indeed, though no more alarming than everything else going on at the height of the fighting.
Under also encompasses the local neighbourhood, including a rooming house run by Mrs Ishi, who lives there with her talking parrot and stockpiled cans of sardines. One of her long-time lodgers is a young woman called Kay, an orphaned, California-born Japanese American. Despite her birthright of citizenship, Kay can’t find work: her face betrays her ancestry.
Often lonely, Kay finds solace in an old calendar depicting a lakeside cottage nestled in a verdant wood, complete with the blue-grey smoke that promises a cosy fire indoors.
The picturesque scene fuses with her romantic fantasies. She dreams of an artistic man who’s good with his hands, and runs up an inventive list of all the various opportunities that would make him scoop her into his strong, sheltering arms. While there’s an element of comedy in such B-movie swoon fantasies, it’s understandable why someone orphaned in her teens might dream of being alleviated of the drudgery of propelling herself through life, being carried for a while. (Meanwhile Godfrey remembers seeing his wife carried in her lover’s arms. Everything sweet in Rawle’s world also harbours a tang of sourness. Art imitates life.)
When she’s hassled on a bus, Kay meets Queenie, a tough-talking, talent-short wannabe movie star, currently stuck in the role of Lockheed welder. Queenie is accidentally pregnant with an unwanted child, keen to get rid of it. Queenie helps Kay get a factory job (she has to lie and say she’s Chinese), while Kay helps get her in with Mrs Ishi, who never rents to non-Japanese.
We meet our characters around May 4, 1942, six days day before Japanese residents of the city are to be rounded up for evacuation—even those who are American citizens. The future is grim for Kay and Mrs Ishi. It’s grim for Queenie, as she hunts for an abortionist and the money to pay for his services. Godfrey’s got problems of his own, as his obsession with Overland intensifies.
Godfrey’s favourite moments back on the MGM lot were wandering the empty sound stages before shooting, “[when] each set was still a blank canvas onto which any number of stories could be painted.” He had no urge to visit Bali or Manhattan, certain that his imagined version of each was an improved reality.
Somehow Godfrey’s remained innocent, even naive. When someone suggests that Japanese fighter pilots might elect to fly Lockheed P-38s, he rejects the idea because “that’s not fair, is it. . . Pretending to be something you’re not.” The irony escapes him: he utters this standing on a street corner of his contrived city.
For him, and for many of Rawle’s other characters, it’s all about what you want to see. Godfrey recalls a magician at an MGM party who vanished a coin from the palm of Godfrey’s hand. Where did it go, he wonders? The magician says, “It didn’t go anywhere. . . . You’re thinking of it all wrong. I didn’t make the coin disappear. I merely made it so that you can’t see it anymore. It’s still there in your hand.”
Perspective, again—it’s everything.
Who can blame Godfrey for turning his back on such a cruelly disappointing world? Or the Residents, cheerfully spending time revelling in the kind of Andy Hardy ambience that surely conjures up an idealised America worth fighting for? Rawle cleverly celebrates escapism without losing sight of its dangers. He’s crystal clear on what happens if your face doesn’t fit. (Readers cannot fail to notice modern resonances. . . )
The book is crammed with incidents, too many to recount here, and why spoil your fun? Eventually Kay and Godfrey spot one another and are smitten, though prolonged contact is thwarted. Kay is equally enamoured of Overland, which closely resembles her beloved calendar. She sneaks back dressed as Snow White, and falls asleep in Godfrey’s bed. There’s even a wax apple in the fruit bowl. But her lovely dream doesn’t last, and when she returns down Under, things go from bad to worse. The scenes in which the Japanese are rounded up are heartbreaking and shaming.
Eventually Queenie, who’s also made her way between worlds, tells Godfrey, “If you want to meet her you’re gonna have to go down there. . . into the underworld.” Does she mean “you’re going to have to get real?” That would be rich, coming from a woman devoted to her own brand of artifice.
Godfrey does fall to Earth, roaming Under looking for a way back to Paradise, and back to Kay. It’s a delight seeing Rawle revisit and rework some of our most enduring stories—Paradise Lost, Orpheus and Eurydice, fairy tales, even the film mythology that’s as deeply embedded in modern psyches as Homer was in the ancients’.
Rawle’s books are deep pools: though you can cross them at speed, they reward those willing to dive. All his work poses questions about artifice, self-realisation, imagination and story telling—especially the stories forming our personal creation myths. In each of his novels characters wholeheartedly buy in to worlds of their own making. You can’t help wanting to join them.
Rawle asks us to reconsider how we read and absorb information. He asks for a high level of participation from his readers and rewards the studious. Overland is marvellous, and in common with all of Rawle’s work, you may put it down, but it’ll never let you go. The more you recall it, the more you’ll want to go back, asking, “Did that really happen?” and “Did I miss a clue or a joke?”
As I said earlier, Overland is cause for rejoicing.
Highly recommended reading—and re-reading!