When the Sirens Wail: Living Far Out. A Commentary on Tim Winton’s Breath

A wonderful change of pace for The Retired Men’s Book Club! Thank you, Burk. I don’t know really why you chose Tim Winton’s Breath, but it’s a doozie, a little gem. As the narrator says, “Thriving on risk is perverse” and this we learn stands for the motto of this cautionary tale. Though most of our Book Club’s works are focused on characters suffering anxieties of psychological, intellectual consciousness, this story shows such heightened concerns, but an ingredient quite new is an individual’s eager craving for power, the feeling of power, through feats affecting body consciousness. By body consciousness, I mean the craving for extravagant sensations by stimulating the corporal and mental systems to the extreme, to the point of expiration, close to the risk of annihilation.

This is a fine novella, a not overlong study of the rebel outlier; namely, one who, as a juvenile and adolescent, chooses by necessity to live, or exist, as an outsider, performing actions that the ordinary member of a community would not often consider sensible behavior. Though many a rebel youth eventually conforms to social norms as youth changes to adulthood, there are cases where there is no fit entrance back into normalcy, the inside track, where mores and social conventions are heeded and abided by. In some people, the ritual behaviors of adolescence, which are of the nature of ritual stages of growing up, preclude the possibility of coming back into community, into family, into the ordinary structures of conventional society. Sometimes outsider status becomes the norm. Not all adolescent experiences are, therefore, a passing phase.

Bruce, or Pikelet in his boyhood life, is the authentic embodiment of the outsider, and Tin Winton makes a plausible case of the psychological type who gets caught in the labyrinth of extreme pleasures and needs. Though the ‘hero” survives the thrill-seeking career, Bruce is aware that he has just barely made his transition into manners of conventional society. The kind of loner he was, and still is, even though he has daughters who accept him, sought creative power in his innocence through actions that held addictive qualities. Because of the channel he had worked himself into, Bruce found the conditions of succeeding to an experienced state were for him fraught with life-threatening dangers. He wised up in later life, though it cost him his marriage and comfortable association with ordinary souls. Pikelet’s (Bruce’s) journey from innocence to experience, told in reflection by the grown up Bruce, must certainly be a story that resonates with many young readers. It did with me, and I’m 71. It is an affective, poignantly sympathetic history of a boy’s growth, surmounting strange obstacles towards socially acceptable manhood.

The Genre
For most of its narrative, I thought I was reading young adult fiction. That is the target audience, surely. And yet, because of the prudery of American conservative culture, it is hardly likely this could be a staple of the high school literature class. Even in Advanced Placement courses, any teacher who, in the past, might have felt comfortable offering Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (with its single graffito “FUCK” and scenes of an adolescent in bars) would be chary in this cultural-political climate to offer Breath for exciting, interpretive reading. A young reader with the maturity to face real-life problems in fictional literature must find this book by him or herself. Without the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Fiction—Accidental Suicide” or “Fiction—Sexuality,” I don’t understand how one can be prepared for the climactic scenes of Pikelet’s and Eva’s erotic relationship. It shocked me because of its erotic vitality and violence; however, I judge those scenes as intrinsic pornographic experience for the overall artistry of character development. Other writers we old timers might know, those who have tested the serious reader in this way, are Henry Miller in his Tropic of Cancer, [Bill Hagen’s selection some years ago], Hugh Selby, Jr. of Last Exit to Brooklyn, and Allan Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Some of these remain banned books to this day. Of recent literature, the Scottish writer Irvine Welsh of Trainspotting and Frenchman Michel Houellebecq come to mind, the latter the author of Elementary Particles, Atomised and Lanzarote.

Finding Creative Power
After he has grown up, Bruce admits: “Bit by bit, I congregated, I suppose you could say, and then somehow I cohered. I went on and had another life. Or went ahead and made the best of the old one.”
This is an intriguing statement about Pikelet’s experience of pulling himself together to become the mature Bruce, which implies he did not wholly mature, as such, but just made the best of his internal life as a grown-up Pikelet. “Congregated” and “cohered” are interesting words: “gathered himself together” and “made the pieces cleave into a unity.” In the way I see it, Pikelet was an outsider who could not tolerate the ordinary, the conventions of society. He lived in a marginal world, rather like the Australian Aboriginal youth on an eternal “walkabout,” unable to fulfil his initiation and merge again into a community that would accept him. Some of this may be connected with Pikelet’s aged parents, the “oldies,” who had emigrated from Kent, England. Still very English, in West Australia, they remained outsiders, too. Quiet people who kept to themselves. Pikelet’s dad was an oddball teetotaler with the boozer Aussie men. Pikelet, perhaps a partly acculturated Aussie in nature, had never truly integrated into the Australian society of Sawyer and felt he had found his cult-gang in the American Sandersons (Sando and Eva), and Ivan Loon (Loonie). All bad choices, but given his nature and personality he felt fortunate to have them as “mates.” (*)

Characterization of Outsiderhood
With Loonie, Pikelet could not truly bond as best of friends. Loonie was damaged in upbringing, disciplined by corporal punishment. He was untrustworthy, and true to his name, just a mad competitor in risking death, whether the underwater breath-holding feat or spontaneously taking the monster wave and surviving horrific wipeouts. Loonie was truly a fearless idiot (idiotes, a Greek word meaning “of one’s mind, peculiar in one’s own self and connected with no other”). How spiteful he was of those who pretended to be fearless (including Sando). All Sando and Pikelet lacked really was his crazy, fearless idiocy. As a literary antagonist, his near-suicidal nature seems to be somewhat akin to the waywardness of —dare I call him “the musician”?—Sid Vicious of the Punk rock group The Sex Pistols. Loonie, however, was never likely to find his Nancy as a dependable companion in sex and drugs. Ivan Loon was a crazy outsider without shareable values.

Really, none of the outsiders was an integrated member of a ‘structured community.’ Each was proud of living individualistically on the margins, i.e. the outer limits. Community has more to do with an economic connection or ethical values. The community I’m talking about here, the one they found or imagined, is a socio-psychological state of being; it’s a “soul” experience, a psychic state of “being with.” Outsiderhood is usually a state of not “being with,” neither ethically in a value system nor psychologically in a “gnostic” intimacy. Theirs was a pseudo-community; Sando thought he was a guru, but he was just a surfer guide, at least for Pikelet. For Loonie, Sando might have seemed the very ticket to marvelous hell. Eva had married her equal in daring, but her outsider purpose, extreme-sports skiing, had been terminated by injury.

Eva was the saddest figure, a young woman, cut off from her extreme sports activities by an accidental fall, and now reduced to housekeeping. Being young (25 years old), she was an erotic woman who sought the extreme thrill of ecstatic orgasm. This had much in common with Pikelet’s breath-holding thrill, for she wished orgasm as a point of near asphyxiation through throttling. The back story is brief. She was, I presume, a child of privilege in her Mormon past. (Interesting to me that Winton gave her that religious background.) Obviously, in later life she had escaped the Utah life (whatever it might have been) for thrills of extreme sports. Most likely, at some point by her proclivities in sporting choices and unorthodox marriage on the road with Sando the Surfer, she had excommunicated herself from that modern American faith, with its 19th-century prophet-visionary origins and syncretistic mythology. (Mormonism has had (and still has in the minds of many) its own outsiderhood status among world religions, no matter its vast and growing numbers of practitioners and fabulous wealth.) Her wealthy family’s inheritance was the resource of the Sandersons’ livelihood. Nevertheless, she was unhappy, of a disagreeable disposition, and quite selfish.

After her fall, Eva became a pill-popper for her pains and was unable to recover from the loss of her sporting thrills. The compulsive erotic experience she initiated Pikelet into was exploitative. Knowing his athletic nature from the surfing addiction, her seduction of the boy was her way of pushing the innocent loner farther onto the outer edges, onto the rocks. Eva, now a sad recluse, became Pikelet’s temptress, just as Eve was Adam’s. As a kid, uninterested in normal high school courtship with a girl Queenie, he became fascinated and fixated, at least for some time, on the joys of Eva’s outlandish sex games. Pushed to the limits in this kind of “kick,” the boy eventually perceived possible dire consequences. Pikelet’s salvation was that he was not loony nor fearless. Eva taught him a lesson the hard way. Eva’s accidental suicide in Portland, Oregon, reported in the Utah newspaper, meant she had continued into later life to crave the sexual orgasmic fix through morbid asphyxiation. How that obituary must have given the Mormon society something to gossip about! Hardly a heroine’s way out.

Sando? Well, Sando was just a lucky fuck, a narcissist. Out for himself, concerned about his self-image, his celebrated surfer reputation, he was a freeloader on Eva’s inheritance. Charismatic Sando played Pikelet and Loonie against one another, exploiting them to find the more daring companion for his way-way-out surfing expeditions. Eventually, as Bruce discovered from a travel magazine, Bill Sanderson—how ordinary the name “Bill” makes him–had become “an investment guru,” also an advertising hawker of extreme sports-gear, “All dripping rebel chic.” This return to status-orientation makes Sando a demoted figure in Bruce’s eyes. No longer the fearless darer of far-out monster waves, he has become a fallen hero, just a fashion peddler, a money-grubbing piker. Like most hippies, when the music’s over and LSD was toxic shit, Bill had succumbed to the suit-and-tie rat-race for a living. Pikelet did not make a total transition into society’s uniform habits.

Rites de Passage
In the course of the rites of passage, the stages being separation, liminality (living on the high seas of crises) , and reintegration or reaggregation into society, all the main characters were throughout the main narrative “limbo dwellers,” odd-balls caught in the no-place, no-time, out-at-sea realm they had accepted as the on-going “real world.” Like hippies of the 1960s, they lived, as it were, as a small outlying commune (a cult?) with a chosen pretended poverty, a kind of downwardly mobile ethic. Actually, they (the boys and the Sando-Eva team) survived on someone else’s money, lived off the labors of others (their parents’) and had merely elected a “structural inferiority.” Like shamans or gypsies, they feel themselves superior to common society. A holier-than-thou attitude is taken by such people who live on the margins. The Buddha, Jesus, St. Francis, Ghandi, Tolstoy, among other mystics, priests, and shamans, chose to become outcasts from “the getting and spending” world in order to find another path to freedom and enlightenment. Unlike those names of successful iconic figures, many a high-priest guru—Timothy Leary, Mahararishi Mahesh Yogi, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Bagwan Rajnish, or Werner Earhart (of EST and other group psychotherapies)—eventually gives up the ghost of the mystic persona, takes the money and disappears. (Did you ever hear of the Maharishi’s later life?)

Bruce, at least, when he returned to a life of normality, began a program of recovery. He knew he had to come to his senses, whatever they were. Escaping formal rehabilitation, he rejected religion and the advice of the Christian crackpots trying to convince him he was evil. Finally, his recovery came when he moved in with a defrocked priest, an ex-alcoholic, with whom he learned to laugh again. Laughter is so healthfully good! They shared the joys of hallucinating on phantom mirages arising from a dried-up salt-sea bed. (Can you dig it?) Therefore, with the Pikelet child still intact in his soul, Bruce has accepted his strange outsider personality, knowing that the outlier craving was integral in his nature In his wage-earning life, he works as a First-Aid medic, a life-saver if he can arrive on time. As he says: “I didn’t exactly pull myself together—I got past such notions—but bits of me did come around again, as flies or memories or subatomic particles will for reasons of their own.” Bruce is honest with himself. He is more or less under self-control, and his job allows him the excitement of episodic contact with fear, death and madness.

Our Library of Heroes
Many of the stories we have read over the years have depicted characters who went far out and could never find their way home. Kurtz in the Congo, the Consul in Under the Volcano, Von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, the obese professor of Lost Memory of Skin, introverted chubby Oscar Wao. The sexual compulsion and death of Oscar Wao is close to the heart Of Breath. And let’s not forget Franny and Zooey of the Glass family, lost in family boredom after they had passed on from exciting early life as child prodigies. Phillipe Petit (Man on Wire) from Column McCann’s Let the Great World Spin belongs there, too. Sid, the long-suffering failed poet (at least, a failure in his wife’s eyes) in Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, has something of the outsider in him. T.S. Eliot’s sad, searching protagonist of The Waste Land is a lost wanderer, but finds, in the desert, philosophical comfort in the giving of oneself, release of control, and having compassion. Here we saw the modern outcast, sick of society, taking on the “gnosis” of the wandering mystic. Heroes are often thought as models, but in literature and art they are often the losers, the sufferers, or the near-mad. Think Quequeg and Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, or even Moby himself. [By the way, what is a Moby?]

Heroes do not breathe easily in the status-driven, role-playing society. They don’t breathe contentedly because they are always on the move, in transition from one state to the next. They journey with hope, of course, that it is a higher state they might rise into, but often it is a demoted state. For them, there is really no way home. Home is the ordinary world, normal society, of decent folk and families who live free from the unconscious urges to “act out” or “go off.” When human beings go about their business of making a living and maintaining social control, unconscious regularities have to be denied expression. It is when one lives “out-at-sea,” that’s when things repressed in the unconscious tend to appear. Odysseus, comfortable with wild adventures as “No-Man,” wants to hear the forbidding, seductive song of the Sirens that lure men to their destruction, so he has his men plug their ears with wax so they will follow his adamant order to keep rowing past the island. Odysseus has his thrill. As Bruce says: “When the [First Aid car] siren’s wailing, I’m fully present; I am the best of me.” What freaks out the common person, Bruce is “at home” with it.

Some quotes from the “mature” Bruce (Chapter 6):

“When the shit hits the fan, I’m on!”

“Out there, I’m free. I don’t require management.”

“War correspondents are all creeps.” [Think of Hemingway.]

“Thriving on risk is perverse.” Latin meaning “distorted,” “off the beaten path.”

“Nearly everyone is terrified that this, whatever life has become, is it.”

“The people I work on or work with have either been mad or are going mad, so I usually feel at home.”

“I blow the didj until it hurts, until my lips are numb, until some lady across the way gives me the finger.”

“I slide down the long green walls into the bay to feel what I started out with, what I lost so quickly and for so long: the sweet momentum, the turning force underfoot, and those brief rare moments of grace.”

“My job reassures them [his daughters], I think, lets them see I have a purpose in the world.”

“It’s important for me to show them [daughters again] that their dad is a man who dances—who saves some lives and carries the wounded, yes, but who also does something completely pointless and beautiful; and in this at least they should need no explanation.”

Solipsism and Narcissism
To sum up: I think Tim Winton’s story is about a wayward solipsism, even narcissism. Breath, therefore, represents a life lived in peculiar aloneness, in which a person craves the excitement of solo performance in extreme events. Like the soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress, the liminal solipsist cannot escape craving the feeling of strangeness of having gone beyond, of committing death defying actions, of being the “hero” even if it results in failure or suffering. Like Hemingway’s hero in “The Undefeated,” real life for some people has its meaning in persisting and persevering in the face of death. Hemingway’s penchant for war correspondence in the trench, for bullfighting, and for big-game hunting shows him to have been a perverse macho type. He shot himself when he could no longer write.

Therefore, against common definitions, the hero is not always the conqueror, the one who wins out, but in actuality the one who suffers, the outcast loner, one who often receives (achieves?) ignominy, from trying to do something beyond all reason. Think Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea, think Jesus, think Achilles, Hercules, Abelard, or J. Robert Oppenheimer, etc. etc. Also heroines fit here: think Medea, Antigone, Penelope, Heloise, Sacagawea (Sp.?), wonderful Gloria (of Let the Great World Spin), Helga Estby (subject of historical study Bold Spirit), all the early suffragists, feminists, and don’t forget Pakistani Malala of the present day. Women’s book clubs probably make lists of heroines in the main over heroes.

Beautiful Losers

Really, most of the heroes of our fictional choices have been beautiful losers—Thomas Moore, Thomas Cromwell, the orphan master’s son in Adam Johnson’s novel of that name, the poor tortured child of A Thousand Splendid Suns, the tormented narrator of Peter Dimock’s George Anderson (Do you remember that brave story?). We read about literary heroes and don’t realize this is the heroic nature—not winning but losing. Losing well. Even in Father and Son of Edmund Gosse, the father, Philip, was a brilliant descriptive zoologist but a lousy philosopher and demonic minister. Poor Edmund, bred in isolation, became a lifelong literary historian and critic of the very genre his father would have railed against—Romantic poetry. Most of the fiction we have read has presented us with pathetic heroes, not tragic types, because they were just caught in the game of life, doing whatever they could to survive and hold their heads up. Oh, I failed to mention Orpheus, the enchanter of souls, especially of animals and trees, who, though he won over the Lord and Lady of the Underworld, still could not win back his wife. Shamans die. Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin—singers of the 1960s Rock and Roll soul—all of them shamans—and Evas. “When the music’s over / When the music’s over / It is the end.” Eugene O’Neill’s Larry in “The Iceman Cometh.”

Those who try to teach us about the end, the Oracles, they may be the scientists of climate change, like Naomi Oreskes (How close to Orestes her name is!). They are demonized and made the pathetic pessimists. Cassandra was a heroine but she was a Trojan and the Greeks made her pathetic. Tim Winton has given us another image of a “hero” in our time.

Long live Bruce! I suspect there are many like him among us today.
– David Gilmour (October, 2015)

(*) When I was a fresh immigrant finding my path among American social groups in late 1950s northern Utah, it was very difficult to know which group of peers I should cleave to. School was a bit of nightmare. Living in the Wasatch foothills in a 48-foot trailer, sleeping on a couch for three years, I never felt I had a real “home.” I felt rather ashamed of the shabby conditions of our dwelling, especially after seeing the homes of schoolmates. At least, no one needed to be invited to see our “home” situation. Unlike Pikelet’s, my parents were unhappy in their new American state. My acquaintances were locals who knew my neighborhood, and they did invite me out to smoke and drink with them, so long as I could provide the cigarettes and had money for beer. They provided the car and the gas. These “hoods” were not the best of gangs to hang out with. But they accepted me. In the long run, I had to wait till college to find an American friend, someone who shared my interests.

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