Prithvi Varatharajan reviews The Double by Maria Takolander
By Maria Takolander
Reviewed by PRITHVI VARATHARAJAN
We are fascinated, as a culture, with doubles and doppelgängers. This fascination is evident in our collective cultural consciousness: in our art. Think of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which the protagonist stays forever youthful, and able to indulge in sensual decadence, while his locked-up portrait grows hideous and progressively older with each sin he commits. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century science fiction is populated by doubles in the form of clones, in stories and novels by Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro, among many others. And there are several films that present doubles as uncanny or disturbing, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s excellent Solaris and Duncan Jones’ more recent Moon. From a few of these examples it seems that, at least in art, it’s when we seedoubles together—such as in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, whena young boy turns a corner in a remote and supposedly abandoned hotel, and encounters a pair of identical twin girls, holding hands, in a picture of perfect symmetry—that we’re gripped by a sense of the uncanny, of something not quite right, even vaguely terrifying. This sense of the uncanny, as something not quite right, is notably absent from performative but non-artistic contexts: in Elvis Presley impersonators, for instance, or in the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, who were part of a nineteenth-century travelling circus. While such doubles may strike us as curious, they rarely provoke the sense of dread that accompanies literary and filmic portrayals of the double.
Maria Takolander’s The Double is named after a novella by Dostoevsky, published in Russian as Dvoynik. Dvoynik is the story of a Mr. Goliadkin, a lowly titular councillor who lives alone in St. Petersburg and talks in a roundabout and deferential way that reflects his extreme timidity. Goliadkin consults his doctor, who tells him to be more outgoing, and advocates forcefully, “you need to reorganize your whole life radically and in some sense break your character” (12). Soon afterwards, Goliadkin is standing forlornly in the rain and snow, following an episode in which he—completely out of character—gate crashes an aristocratic ball and is evicted in disgrace. The mortified Mr. Goliadkin now wants “not only to escape from himself, but to annihilate himself completely” (44). What follows is the story of an opposite Mr. Goliadkin—a bold, cruel, and cunning Mr. Goliadkin—who comes into being and slowly insinuates himself into the first Mr. Goliadkin’s life. The story is full of a dreamy uncertainty about what is actually happening at any time (“he, ladies and gentlemen, is also here, that is, not at the ball, but almost at the ball” (34)), and implausible events that nevertheless feel inevitable. Mr. Goliadkin’s reality is unstable—I’m tempted to say “dreamlike,” but the story ought not to be reduced to a dream—and full of multiple doublings and mirrorings; these produce a pervasive sense of uncanniness and dread in the story.
Takolander’s The Double isn’t exclusively about doubles and doppelgängers, but it has the eerie foreboding of Dostoevsky’s tale. This sense of foreboding springs partly from structural doublings, from inexplicable repetitions that occur in both Dostoevsky’s Dvoynik and in the stories that make up Takolander’s The Double (Takolander may have learnt to double in poetry, which revels in repetition: she’s an acclaimed poet and essayist, and this is her début book of fiction). However, some of the stories in The Double—most notably the Roānkin sequence in part two—are also characterised by an extremely playful whimsy that’s opposite in spirit to Dostoevsky’s Dvoynik.
The Double is comprised of one large section, containing eight stories including the title story, “The Double,” and a smaller section, containing four interlinking stories centred on the fantastical character Zed Roānkin. A foreboding mood infuses the stories in the first section, while the second section is characterised by playfulness, bordering on absurdity, but these moods sometimes bleed into each other. The first section features stories that are doubles of other stories, stories which revel in inter-textuality. Their titles are suggestive of this: “The Red Wheelbarrow;” “Three Sisters;” “The Double;” The Obscene Bird of Night;” “Mad Love;” “Paradise Lost;” “The Interpretation of Dreams;” and “The War of the Worlds.” Takolander’s interest in inter-textuality is a distinguishing feature of her work. It also underpins her second collection of poetry, Ghostly Subjects.
Many of the stories in the first part of The Double are about migrants, and feature barren, almost gothic landscapes, tinged with melancholy—though it’s hard to generalise, as the stories are quite different to each other. But, in general, there is a lot of oppressive silence (“the windmill clunked, and then its wheel began to churn. It was more noise than he had ever heard out here” (130-31)); stark corporeal imagery; strained romantic relationships; and occasional violence. Takolander is adept at portraying family scenes that are imbued with a quiet drama, but she can just as adeptly portray the dramatic in a quiet but arresting way, such as in “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Along with structural doublings and mirrors, which turn up in a few stories, men are doubled or paired, in “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “Mad Love.” Both of these stories feature an undesired man that a female character is married to, and another man or boy who represents what her lover could be. In “The Red Wheelbarrow” there is a disinterested, violent father and an interested, loving son, who cares for his mother after an episode of violence. These scenes are charged with an unexplained eroticism:
Kneeling on the linoleum floor in front of her, I started cleaning the protruding thumb with the damp clump of paper. I noticed the breasts and nipples under the threadbare cotton of the nightie, and I saw that her lean thighs were smeared with blood. Her face, curtained by her hair, was streaked with tears. (6)
The most significant doubles in the first section—significant for being actual rather than metaphorical—occur in the title story, “The Double,” where a man encounters another who looks exactly like him. His wife, meanwhile, keeps recalling a doubling that occurred in Finland, before she migrated to Australia; both man and woman are haunted by the memories of these doublings.
The mode of storytelling is varied, and Takolander switches dextrously between male and female points of view, and third, second and first person narration. The intermittent second person address in “Three Sisters” felt like an experiment, but a successful one (“Do you see the derelict cottage out back? Three sisters live there” (31)). “The Obscene Bird of Night” was an unexpected delight: it features an eerie urban landscape, comprised of inanimate objects that speak to the narrator, in the manner of a surreal children’s story:
‘Help me,’ the fire had called, trying to make itself seen through the sooty glass.
The man hesitated in the hall. He should have gone in to feed it another log. The cold, after all, was something they all had to contend with.
‘Why bother?’ said the night, pressing its weight against the kitchen window. (87)
However, the more conventionally realistic stories in this section (“Mad Love,” “The Interpretation of Dreams”) are also the strongest. Put another way, Takolander is masterful when she returns to portraying an everyday reality, having exercised her imagination on the uncanny. The weakest story by far is “Paradise Lost,” a post-apocalyptic scenario featuring a somewhat paranoid narrator, which lacked movement, in the absence of dialogue or any other character interactions.
The book’s second section, on the elusive Zed Roānkin, abandons the forebodingly uncanny and revels in the hilariously absurd. These stories are also where the double is most powerfully present: Roānkin haunts these episodic and interwoven stories as the poet-philosopher that the narrators recoil from, aspire to be, and eventually become. His nonsensical but strangely compelling ideas, expounded in a little pamphlet titled The Roānkin Philosophy of Poetry, are worshipped for their “realness”: but he is a grotesque fabrication, and mirrors the other characters’ own self-fabrications. These stories are about pretension and fakery, particularly in the world of poetry; this is underlined by the other book that keeps turning up in the stories: Workplace Fraud.
This is a fine collection of short stories, both jarring and pleasurable to read, from a wonderfully novel imagination. Takolander wrote her PhD thesis on South American magical realism, and subsequently published a book of literary criticism titled Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground. The Double certainly has elements of magical realism in it—most strongly in the Roānkin sequence—and these are grounded, so to speak, in the figure of the double. Doubling here is not only an event but also a structural mechanism for blurring the lines, in fiction, between the real, the unreal, the surreal, and the magical.
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Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Double and The Gambler. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. 1846. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. London: Faber & Faber, 1989. Print.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Nine Lives.” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Print.
Moon. Dir. Duncan Jones. Stage 6, 2009. Film.
Solaris. Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky. Visual Program Systems, 1972. Film.
Takolander, Maria. Ghostly Subjects. Cambridge: Salt, 2009. Print.
—. Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground. Bern: Peter Lang, 2007. Print.
The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick.Peregrine, 1980. Film.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Mighall, Robert. 1890. London: Penguin, 2006.
PRITHVI VARATHARAJAN is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, and a freelance producer of radio programs for ABC Radio National’s Poetica. His reviews have been published in Australian Book Review and Islet, and his poetry and prose have been published in Island, Meanjin and Voiceworks.