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Out of the Line of Fire

by Mark Henshaw

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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612328,901 (3.57)None
"A remarkable and brainy work of metafiction."--Kirkus (starred review) "Experimental, extraordinary. . . . One of my favorite Australian novels."--Australian When a brilliant young philosophy student begins recounting his life--from his inquisitorial father and passionate mother to his eccentric grandmother who paid for his sexual initiation with the beautiful Andrea--we are lured into a mysterious and erotic maze. But what in fact is fact, and what in fiction is fiction? Brilliantly seductive,Out of the Line of Firewas the literary sensation of the year when it was first published in 1988 and was a hit in France, Germany and Italy.… (more)

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Ah, back when you could write a perfectly realistic story and surround it with a meta-narrative framework and felt fresh! I don't remember the days, but I'm sure they existed, and Henshaw writes so cleanly and amusingly that I can even forgive him the genuinely precious moments. I have no idea how this novel would sit with someone even less familiar than I am with Henshaw's discussion group (Musil, Calvino, Kant, etc...) But if you have some idea what those fellows were up to, you might enjoy this book.

I enjoyed it, I think, because its *positive* about literature's unreliability etc., rater than bemoaning the inability of words to adequately represent reality. Also, it has a gleefully scurrilous 'plot' and very funny set-pieces. I've been reading a lot of Sebald lately, in an attempt to work out why people like him, and I see a lot of Henshaw and Sebald in each other, with the important caveat that Henshaw seems smart, is funny, and, implausibly enough given the sections on German idealism and how it developed or was challenged by phenomenology and Heideggerian thought, *less* pretentious.

So if you like Sebald, or don't like him that much but do like the whole "is it him or isn't it? how much of this is real, and how much is not?" thing, try Henshaw. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
I really loved this metafictional, psycho-philosophical striptease from Canberra writer Mark Henshaw, which I bought at Perth airport and proceeded to devour in a single day, tearing through most of it in one gulp during a bumpy flight to Melbourne. It's been a long time since I had the opportunity to read a book so devotedly, and it made me think about how much the circumstances in which we read a book can affect the way we react to it. This is a not inapposite reflection, since one of the things this book is about is how we relate to fiction, and whether fiction is, in the final analysis, actually distinguishable from ‘reality’.

It's about a lot of other things as well; this book is jam-packed with ideas. It's about sex, or rather that time in adolescence when life seems to become ‘permeated with a sense of strange and relentless erotic presentiment’, when girls start to feel an inherent sense of power and boys start to feel an inherent sense of predation and desperation (these roles can also be reversed, but – for reasons we must hope are more societal than genetic – they often aren't). It's about language and its limitations, specifically Wittgenstein's conclusions about language's ‘ultimate incapacity to articulate the world’ (something WG Sebald has also written about…I feel differently, but it's a debate I like). It's about translation and what it means, what is lost in translation, the eternal mystery of how so much survives translation (large chunks of the text are given twice, first in English and then, in square brackets, in the ‘original’ German – the book is set in Germany). And it is about the relationship between truth and fiction, a subject with which Henshaw has enormous fun, starting even before the novel itself has started: opposite the usual publisher's reminder that ‘Any similarity between persons living or dead is purely coincidental’ we have the writer's dedication ‘FOR WOLFI’. Wolfi is the name of the central character.

Opening lines. Well. There are many famous openings to novels, but this is the most audacious I've ever seen. He begins:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler.

I was laughing straight away. Where the hell do you go after a theft of this magnitude and specificity!? Henshaw turns it into a playful commentary which also establishes the book's tone.

These are the words Italo Calvino selected to open his novel If on a winter's night a traveller. Astonishingly he sets them out in the same order. Had Walter Abish chosen the same words he might have begun, after, of course, placing them in alphabetical order: You, Italo Calvino, are a winter's night traveler about to begin reading a new novel If. But as yet he has not, and until he does we will have to wait.

Straight away I noticed that ‘traveler’ was spelt thus, the American way, in the first instance and with two Ls, the British way, in the second instance. But already I feel confident enough in the author that I assume it's deliberate, and sure enough, he immediately goes on to reference this tension between regional translations while also introducing the subject of multiple languages which will be so important later:

In fact Calvino begins his novel: ‘Stai per cominciare a leggere il nuovo romanzo Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore de Italo Calvino.’ Thus the original avoids a peculiar problem which arises only in the translation – ‘viagiatore’ with a single ‘g’ would simply be wrong.

So now you've read the two opening paragraphs. I realise this is a slow way of reviewing a novel, but since there are currently no other reviews of this on the site, you might as well have a sample.

I think this is a wonderful way to open a book. Even though it's probably too clever for its own good, the tone is light enough and funny enough that he gets away with it.

It is very hard to discuss the plot without giving away important details, because the book is in part a sort of metafictional thriller, where the ‘truth’ of what we are reading is always in question. An Australian narrator meets a brilliant philosophy student called Wolfi while studying in Heidelberg. Wolfi disappears; our narrator returns to Oz. Years later, a box arrives containing Wolfi's writings and letters, which are presented in the first person. From these disparate elements we as readers attempt to piece together the story of Wolfi's life – the life of a fictional character who might even be fictional within the world of the novel. But these possibilities are part of the book's point; bear that in mind as you approach the ending, which I imagine has annoyed several readers.

The narrative mode switches between the erotic and the philosophical. Perhaps it's just because they're both published by the excellent Text Classics, but I kept being reminded of Rod Jones's Julia Paradise, another 80s novel about an expatriate Australian and a childhood story of transcendent psychosexual trauma which may or may not be true. Henshaw forces his themes to crash into each other in striking ways, discussing, for instance, the translation of philosophy, or the sexiness of metafiction. Or there's continental philosophy and sex: one character, overthinking his first blowjob as some men are apt to do, reflects on this milestone in the following way (which I sincerely hope is intended to be hilarious):

For the first time in my life, with Andrea bent tenderly over me, I became conscious of the real implications of the Hegelian dialectic….

There are many nice descriptive set-pieces. A woman having an orgasm ‘surrenders to the short percussive rebuttals of her body’; a character a few pages earlier is described as looking ‘like the young Mahler might have looked just after someone had told him a joke’. But mostly what we are concerned about here – what, I think, the other themes are all feeding into – is how the ‘gap between fiction, between abstract speculation and so-called reality became blurred’…or perhaps more specifically, as it's restated 250 pages later, the notion that

there is essentially no difference between a fictional world and the real world – that each world is particular to the mind that simultaneously perceives and creates it.

There are many ways in which this book is not perfect; many people will dismiss it as clever-clever, not without reason, and there is something very slightly adolescent in its male-centric sensibilities. But despite its flaws, as I said above, I really loved it. It's the sort of book I wish I had written – and indeed, given the book's message, I feel encouraged to walk away thinking that maybe I did. ( )
  Widsith | Nov 5, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mark Henshawprimary authorall editionscalculated
Henson, BillCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Romei, StephenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vlassopoulos, NasiaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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"A remarkable and brainy work of metafiction."--Kirkus (starred review) "Experimental, extraordinary. . . . One of my favorite Australian novels."--Australian When a brilliant young philosophy student begins recounting his life--from his inquisitorial father and passionate mother to his eccentric grandmother who paid for his sexual initiation with the beautiful Andrea--we are lured into a mysterious and erotic maze. But what in fact is fact, and what in fiction is fiction? Brilliantly seductive,Out of the Line of Firewas the literary sensation of the year when it was first published in 1988 and was a hit in France, Germany and Italy.

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