MICHAEL FITZGERALD Late. Reviewed by Ann Skea
Evoking Sydney in the 1980s, Michael Fitzgerald’s third novel plays with ideas of identity, celebrity, and mortality.
I’m not always Zelda, and Zelda is not always me.
The voice is not Zelda’s and yet it is, and this is a very strange book, which is not at all what the blurb inside the dust jacket suggests it is. Instead it is something of a mystery, until the owner of the voice that is ‘not always’ Zelda has dropped enough hints to make her identity clear. As the film critic CJ Johnson says on the back cover, this woman is someone ‘we all know and don’t know at all, and she is passionate, smart, self-aware and very, very funny’.
Zelda Zonk, whose body she inhabits, lives with her two cats, Carson and Isak, in an architect-designed clifftop apartment in the Sydney suburb of Vaucluse. Carson and Isak, so the voice tells us,
… are named after two writers I had lunch with in the (late?) 1950s. Not that their taste runs to oysters, white grapes and champagne, as those two lady writers did, nor are they female … Carson and Isak are undoubtedly boys. I’ve always preferred the company of males.
The cats disrupt this person’s typing on her ancient American Royal machine as she remembers ‘important and personal’ fragments of her ‘way of being’: her films, her three husbands, and her thoughts and opinions about photographers, producers, films, books, art, and about Zelda. ‘It must be two decades since you last saw (heard?) the twists of this tongue,’ she tells us. ‘But why now you ask – what has changed?’ Two things, apparently. ‘One was a typewriter and the other a book, and they were addressed to Zelda Zonk.’
Zelda appears to be Jewish (as was this other person, who converted to Judaism after she married her third husband), and she observes many Orthodox Jewish customs.
You might not notice her, only your reflection in her sunglasses. With the slight synthetic sheen of her wig as it catches the sun, the Jewish ladies think of her as their own, as do the Irish widows up at the cemetery on the hill, though she’s not a member of any group.
Zelda’s taste in clothing is ‘quite dark’, we are told, but expensive. She wears furs and black Ferragamo heels, her camera is a Leica; she likes to visit the cemetery, and she has stuck photographs of three missing young men to her apartment wall. They ‘are both missing and lost’ and were last seen on the clifftop headland from which Zelda and ‘not Zelda’ have been hearing terrible things happening late at night.
One night a scream so pitiable it sent the cats scampering into the bathroom. Then the other night a kind of yodelling, a drowned baritone that brought my palms flush with the salt-streaked window glass.
So begins another mystery. And when a young man called Danny locks himself out of the apartment next door to Zelda’s, a series of events begin that involve them both and reflect some of the terrible things that happened on the Sydney headlands not so very long ago.
There are other things mentioned in Late that Sydneysiders will recognise but others will pass over as just being part of Zelda’s world. She takes ferry rides on Sydney harbour and notices recognisable places; she refers to iconic buildings both loved and reviled; she walks on easily identifiable pavements and paths; and her descriptions of the wildlife, plants, and the colours of the sea and sky, are beautiful and exactly right.
Alongside Zelda’s peregrinations, there are constant references to acting, filming, to the early life of ‘not Zelda’, and the many things she did or was said to have done. Frequent footnotes, too, offer details and comments on events, books and films. There are many digressions but often they are linked to the skills required in acting a part – as if Zelda, too, is just another part.
So now do you see my problem? How I keep getting distracted and then life intervenes. Working out how to play it doesn’t get any easier, doing it justice (life, that is) being true to it but keeping it loose. (Nothing must come between me and my part – my feeling – concentration.)
She relates how she first met Zelda in the Jewish quarter of Los Angeles, how she ‘put on the black wig and sunglasses’ as a form of disguise, then ‘I took Zelda home in my big black Cadillac and we’ve been together ever since’. And she describes her own death in detail, and the details of the Jewish rites Zelda performed over her body, taking ‘the role of shomer, the guardian or watcher over my body, and also its agent of purification’. At the same time, as Zelda, she is trying to answer a philosophical question Daniel has posed about a falling girl in a book he and Zelda and ‘not Zelda’ have all read. Their conjoined lives interweave like this throughout the book and the imaginative flair of ‘not Zelda’ allows her to join herself to both Zelda and Daniel and feel everything they experience. This is especially gripping in the final dramatic pages of the book.
It becomes clear that this woman who builds so much of her life into this storytelling was not the dumb blonde she became in her films but was clever, funny, determined and talented. And once her identity is known there are online accounts of her life confirming all this.
Altogether, Michael Fitzgerald’s Late is a most unusual book, with a daring, and sometimes confusing, structure. Some readers may find it too puzzling, others may know straightaway the identity of the speaker and will enjoy the conceit, but even for those who, like me, suspect the identity but wait for confirmation, Late is an imaginative and enjoyable read. Significantly, Fitzgerald notes in his acknowledgements that ‘its many literary sources are integral to it’, and part of the experience of reading it is recognising at least some of these, but this is never essential to the story.
Michael Fitzgerald Late Transit Lounge 2023 HB 208pp $32.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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