An essay from Megan Dunn’s new memoir Things I Learned at Art School, published by Penguin Random House New Zealand 24 August 2021. The book can be ordered here.
It’s hard to write this letter to you because you are dead. I only write letters to the dead these days. This is the postmodernist’s lament.
I am supposed to be writing an essay about my father, but it’s difficult because I am forty-six and my father is sixty-seven and alive — rush hush the sound of the sea — and I want to tell the story of when I was seventeen and he was thirty-eight, and I lived with him for the first time since I was three, in his shoebox at Lyall Bay by the rush hush . . .
What happened that year?
- The sound of the waves breaking at Lyall Bay
- Donald Barthelme
Your books were lined up on a low wooden shelf in the hallway. Sadness. The Dead Father. Forty Stories. Come Back, Dr. Caligari. Nearby, windbreakers on hooks. Above the bookshelf, a framed print of Katherine Mansfield in a red dress. A fat book on her lap — not one of your slim PoMo classics — her painted pupils gazed intently towards the windbreakers; rush hush the sound of my father reading . . . turn the page.
My father is a big reader. Voracious. I get that from him. The shoebox was his nickname for his rectangular house at Lyall Bay, which had a flat roof like a lid. Inside the shoebox: his running shoes and volumes of books, their spines battered and creased, wearing out-of-date dustjackets.
Recently, I picked a spine from his bookshelf and held it up to face him. The Dead Father. Black font for a black title.
‘Ha! I started that one but couldn’t finish it,’ Dad said.
I haven’t read it yet either.
There are some things one doesn’t rush, hush . . .
The sound of the sea at Lyall Bay can be difficult, rough and choppy, especially in winter. Surfers’ black neoprene bodies bobbing up and down in the waves.
My father is tall, with an alpine nose, often pointed into a book. He has a bad back and sometimes lies in the lounge in what I call ‘the lizard pose’, his stomach on the Persian carpet, arms outstretched, trying to autocorrect his spine.
Likes: marathon running, reading, Peter Greenaway movies, red wine (Valpolicella), the sea, his cat (Tiger).
Dislikes: stupidity, capitalism, immaturity.
His nicknames for me: ‘Wolfie’, after a red knitted hat with ears I wore as a toddler, and ‘the Child’.
My parents split up when I was three. ‘I always wanted you to come and live with me,’ Dad said. And, in 1992, I did. In my first year at university, I picked my way along the long brick driveway towards the shoebox. I was studying philosophy, anthropology and rush, hush, religious studies. It was difficult and lonely and maybe even boring. Turn the page.
My father lent me Forty Stories, then Sixty Stories. ‘I don’t get all of his stuff, but, when I do, I really like it.’
Snap! I felt the same.
His favourite story of yours is ‘The Balloon’. A giant balloon suddenly appears over New York. In it, you wrote, ‘Ideas of “bloat” and “float” were introduced, as well as concepts of dream and responsibility.’
‘What’s it about?’ I asked.
‘I suppose it’s a metaphor for how people respond to art.’
But my initial reaction to your work was closer to home. I realised my nickname ‘the Child’ might have come from the pages of your stories, many of which were about husbands and their difficult relationships with their wives and babies and children, and all the things wives and babies and children wanted — i.e., merchandise. You often identified these characters simply by their familial roles. ‘The Baby’, for instance, begins: ‘The first thing the baby did wrong was to tear the pages out of her books.’
When I was growing up, Dad and I wrote to one another. We played chess by post. He would draw a chessboard in biro and make his move. Knight to queen four. I would counter in my letter later. Remarkable, considering I was a child and terrible at chess.
I can now see that the years between the ages of three and seventeen, when I didn’t live with my father, might have been difficult, and that, perhaps, when I wrote back not with a chess move — pawn to king four — but with a request for the latest Strawberry Shortcake doll, he might have felt used. Or perhaps just unloved?
I know you had a difficult father of your own — Donald Snr, an architect. Your relationship was strained. Perhaps that was why you wrote The Dead Father, published in 1975, the year after I was born. I don’t know when Dad bought his copy, but today the novel is described on Wikipedia as ‘the journey of a vaguely defined entity that symbolizes fatherhood, hauled by a small group of people as the plot unravels through narratives, anecdotes, dialogues, reflexions and allegories presented to the reader through the tools and constructions of postmodern literature’.
‘Collage is the central artistic mode of our time.’
Experimentation. For example: Dad built an extension on to the shoebox with a bedroom just for me.
I lay in the mauve room at the back of the house. A picture of a black cat on the wall. I had bought it as a birthday present for Dad, but it had returned to me, its rightful owner. Through the wooden window was a view of a corrugated-iron fence. Bang, bang, bang. The fence clanged in the Wellington wind. In the distance, the screech of another Air New Zealand flight.
I turned the page. The Old Man and the Sea appeared to be about a man trying to catch a fish. He had gone out in a boat. I turned the page . . . there was no woman in the book. No love interest. I kept waiting for one to appear. As though a mermaid might suddenly pop up over the side of the boat, like Jessica Wakefield from Sweet Valley High, and go, ‘Yo, old man, do you know any younger sailors or a surfer perhaps?’
Instead, Dad poked his head around the door. ‘Yoo-hoo. How are you getting on with Hemingway?’
Ernest Hemingway’s writing advice is simple: ‘Just write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’
My first impression of The Old Man and the Sea was that it was boring.
While writing this essay, every time I find it difficult, which is often, I open Google Images and stare at a black-and-white photo of you. You are wearing glasses, your eyes beady and shrewd and small, but genial. Your smile mischievous. You have a white beard. You are dead. My father is alive. Alive!
On Goodreads in 2008, Daniel Beavers gave The Dead Father five stars. ‘A book for anyone who has a father, who had a father, who had an absent father, who had a father who loved too much or not enough or the right amount; a father who beat them or taught them to ride a bike or both. A book perhaps not for fathers, but a book for fathers who had fathers themselves (and so, a book for fathers).’
On Goodreads in 2008, Sara rated The Old Man and the Sea one star. ‘Oh, my good lord in heaven. Cut your line, land your boat and go to McDonald’s!’
That year, the sand pirouetted and swirled in long sweeps, then banked along the long brick driveway at Lyall Bay. Seagulls cawed and swooped, their white feathers sluiced into neck ruffs in the wind. Are seagulls difficult, Donald? At least they don’t have to study philosophy, anthropology or religious studies. One seagull often sat on the wooden mailbox, its red beak facing out to sea as yet another Air New Zealand flight hit the tarmac.
Dad’s nickname for his girlfriend was ‘Beaky’. She was often sick, home from work, draped in her white dressing gown, and wreathed in cigarette smoke, thinking, thinking, ash collecting in the tray, her Jenny Craig diet food stacked up on the shelves. Inside the kitchen cupboard was a large prominent photo of a bald eagle, also nicknamed Beaky. Dad had sellotaped it there as a joke. The eagle was an apex predator. Its eyes were yellow and penetrating. So was its sharp beak. But not when the cupboard slammed shut.
‘STOP FIGHTING!’ Beaky’s twelve-year old daughter screamed, standing in the doorway of her bedroom, next to the kitchen. Cupboards banging. Dad and Beaky shouting.
What happened next?
- Watching DVDs
Once postmodernism has been let out of the shoebox, it’s hard to write a narrative constructed, mousetrap-like, to supply at the finish ‘a tiny insight typically having to do with innocence violated’. I am paraphrasing you there, Donald. This is the postmodernist’s lament, and I am my father’s child, and that year I lived with him my innocence was violated by:
- An Italian man who followed me into McDonald’s and asked me on a date
- My German philosophy tutor
- Watching DVDs
- Ernest Hemingway
- All of the above!
My philosophy tutor was German and handsome. One day, he looked at me and smiled. It was a wide smile that didn’t seem entirely philosophical. His dashing brown hair was kind of windswept. If push came to shove, perhaps he would frolic nude in a small pond in Surrey, like Julian Sands and Rupert Graves in A Room with a View.
After my next philosophy lecture he stood up. He had been sitting in the row in front of me. He smiled. ‘Hello.’
‘Hello,’ I replied.
‘Do you want to go for coffee?’ he asked.
I did go for coffee with him, but my innocence was not violated. He had a coffee. I had a Coke, because I was too young to have acquired a taste for coffee. We shared a citrus cake. He wore a trench coat. I wore a long flowing skirt. He talked about film stars. He talked a lot. Michelle Pfeiffer could act, Julia Roberts couldn’t. His reference point for Michelle was obviously not her starring role in Grease 2. I ate my cake and listened.
The difficulty of Wellington built into the hills.
Hemingway’s writing advice assumes that the truth is self-evident, that it can be identified like a white dressing gown hanging on the washing line. Drip, drip, drip.
More true sentences: Reading is a quiet activity. I like a difficult read. And there’s no one I find harder to read than my father.
An Italian man followed me into McDonald’s and asked me on a date. I was so surprised, I said yes. He took me to dinner at an Irish pub. I ordered chicken and regretted it, leaving the bones in a little funeral pyre on my plate. He later wrote me a letter, addressed to my father’s house at Lyall Bay: ‘If a man asks you out for dinner he is usually looking forward to having you for dessert!’
A tiny insight: I didn’t want dessert.
In the back garden at Lyall Bay, built against the garage, a small, battered glasshouse that contained a couch, sandy but comfortable. The glasshouse hunkered down against the elements, inside it, a bold effort to grow tomatoes. Night swilling.
I found Dad in there and sat beside him in the dark.
‘I got to know your mother when we shared a flat. She worked at Cherry Farm.’
It sounded like a nice place but was actually a mental hospital.
‘I met her one night after she got back from the night shift.’
They got drunk together on Blackberry Nip.
Dad later remembered the stain on her nurse’s uniform.
‘Your mother changed after you were born. She became more like her mother.’
This was not a compliment.
‘She used to write poetry,’ Dad said. ‘She hung out with poets like Peter Olds.’
My father always said leaving me was like losing a limb. But what happened if the limb came back? Could it ever reattach?
Into that silence: the sound of the sea.
After I moved out of the granny flat above the old people’s home, Mum wrote this poem, which has always meant a lot to me:
Reflections on Living Alone
Like loneliness, the poem bristles with economy.
I just googled your YouTube interview with George Plimpton. He asked what advice you give your writing students. Your response: ‘I have only one rule — no weather of any kind!’
People who drink Valpolicella in glasshouses shouldn’t read:
- The Old Man and the Sea
- Their fathers
- ‘One Lonely Toothbrush’
‘I’m not her mother,’ Beaky’s voice, overheard on the phone. A flatness to it. A false calm pervaded the house at Lyall Bay.
‘You’re just like your father,’ Mum told me, but only when she was angry.
In Dad’s bathroom a list of talismans hung on the wall. The list was written in a calligraphic style and was the same colour as the toilet seat (apricot.) On the list the pinecone was equated with good fortune.
One night, over Valpolicella, Dad told me a story about a friend of his who died while picking pinecones. He fell from the tree, and I imagined a pinecone dropping on his head. The final irony!
Later Dad replaced the list of talismans in the toilet with a tapestry of the tree of life. In the bottom of the tapestry, a hare twists his head towards the tree — waiting for a pinecone to drop?
My favourite quote of yours is: ‘Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art.’
That year I bought my first art poster, a calla lily by Georgia O’Keeffe, and took it back to the mauve room. The lily was mysteriously lime green and huge. It looked like a giant ear, the way she had painted it, as though it were listening. What could it hear? The aluminium fence outside the window, banging, always rowdy in the wind. If I opened the window, I could touch the fence. The mauve room had no view but was noisy. The screech of seagulls and the entry and exit of planes at the airport. Arrivals and departures could sound the same.
A whisper on the phone. ‘I had to buy her new knickers, does nothing round the house.’ Snatches of conversation caught in the inner ear. Boom-boom-boom. I exited the mauve room aquiver.
A six-pack of cotton knickers sat on the kitchen table. ‘Those are for you,’ Beaky said. My own underwear had not only been thrown away but also discussed with her friends for being in a state of disarray.
A key in the lock. Dad opened the door. ‘Tiger!’ The cat slunk between his legs, purring, purring. He bent down and stroked it, then looked up and saw me, his face blank, maybe even difficult.
‘Who put the spoons in here?’ Beaky asked after dinner. She held up a spoon and the kitchen light hit it.
It was me! I had filed the silver stems of the spoons into the wrong compartment of the cutlery tray.
Dad and I walked along the beach at night, the houses in the hills like lanterns, the darkness grainy as sand. We sat in the cold freighted weight of a dune, with a bottle of Valpolicella, our lips stained dark. There’s regret in everything. I sat beside him, his name in my mouth, a small spoon that just wants to say ‘Dad’.
‘I always wanted you to come and live with me,’ Dad said.
It is one true sentence. But what, if later, you need to add another?
I helped Dad box up books in a large, dank, shadowy warehouse near the airport. The afterlife of these books — their passage into boxes, to be hauled around the country and filed into various libraries — felt dull. Outside, the roar of engines. Inside, the ceaseless packing and unpacking. The gnawing sense of unease — not from the books. A sense of stifling, of suffocation, of exasperation; things that can never be unboxed.
‘We must box on,’ Dad says. A phrase that fills me with melancholy, the wind carelessly sweeping over the dunes, skimming their heads — books unskimmed, remaindered and pulped. Trees that will never get their branches back.
Difficult-Father Pop Quiz:
- What stirs the silence?
- Watching DVDs.
I stopped and read ‘A Manual for Sons’ — an extract from The Dead Father. It was excellent, each sentence pulled taut with your genius, your wit and vigour. And your lists! You are the bon vivant of lists: mad fathers, the leaping father, names of, fanged etc., the falling father, lost fathers, rescue of fathers, ‘responsibility’ . . . you covered everything that could be covered about the possible pitfalls and pratfalls of being a father or ‘reading into’ your father, concluding, ‘Your true task, as a son, is to reproduce every one of the enormities touched upon in this manual, but in attenuated form. You must become your father, but a paler weaker version of him.’
The true task of a daughter? Ditto.
I always put off writing my university essays until the last moment. One day, I sat in the mauve room, the fence banged, nothing else did. I wrote my essay by hand, watched over by the painting of the black cat, because the deadline was looming, and I’d already had an extension. ‘I got an assignment from Big Hal,’ I wrote. Big Hal was my anthropology professor. He had black bushy hair like a Brillo pad, horn-rimmed glasses, and was American. He looked serious, which he was.
My essay, however, was deeply unserious. It was a pastiche of a private-eye story, like The Maltese Falcon, and I felt as reckless as Bogart writing it, laughing out loud to myself, ironically. The postmodernist’s delight.
I took it out to the kitchen, feeling pleased with myself.
Dad read it, then said, ‘Okay, you’ve had your fun. Now write your essay.’
A tiny insight: I had been having fun, now I was having none.
‘I’m struggling,’ I might have told my dad. My words a burble. My throat hurts. I don’t feel well. True, my throat was sore. Pink and inflamed inside, undulating like a Georgia O’Keeffe flower painting. Vaginal. Hot.
Dad offered to help. ‘Why don’t I take the anthropology assignment off your hands? And you do the others.’
It strikes me now as an unusual — even a difficult — solution to my problems.
Although it probably explains why I feel so philosophical about my first year at university. I didn’t write my anthropology essay. My dad did.
At the end of the year, Big Hal called me into his office.
‘If you could write like this you wouldn’t be in first-year anthropology,’ he said.
‘My dad helped me,’ I confessed. Because wasn’t that what had happened?
I mean, Donald, if this was your story how would you tell it?
A tiny insight: once your innocence is violated, it keeps on happening.
What happened next? Glandular fever. I had no energy. I lay in the mauve room. Couldn’t speak. My voice hoarse down the phone to my mother. Bad weather. The wind sluicing under the door. Things that were difficult to read. My throat pink and creepy and swollen in the bathroom mirror. I crept along the hallway one night and listened.
‘Why don’t you take her to the hospital?’ Beaky said.
Good question. I didn’t hear Dad answer.
The next morning, Dad took me to the airport. I flew back to my mother and was admitted to Rotorua Hospital that night. I was put on antibiotics and hooked up to a drip. My throat nearly shut tight with a bad case of tonsillitis.
‘I’m very sorry about what happened that year,’ Dad has said since.
I know it is one true sentence.
I also know the weight of sadness. It’s a paperback on my father’s bookshelf. I love the retro cover art. The title, Sadness, in a buoyant 1970s purple font. Underneath, an illustrated eye shedding one tear from its rim. What happened that year? I got over my tonsillitis, came back to Wellington, moved out of the shoebox and took out a student loan, aged seventeen. Turn the page. Sand and debt accruing, accruing. And it seems to me that the subject of literature is quite simply always this sadness that gets between the teeth of things and can’t ever get out. I have not read Sadness yet. But why read it, when I know it so well?
On Goodreads in 2015, Adam wrote, ‘Sadness is hilarious.’ Five stars.
My father said to me recently, ‘I have reservations about your memoir.’
‘Oh, yeah. Why?’ I asked.
‘Some things are better left unsaid,’ he replied.
It is one true sentence. Then the next.