Sara Dowse, Schemetime (Review)
What Sara Dowse didn’t know when she recently commented here on her love-hate relationship with Los Angeles was that I was in the closing stages of reading her novel, Schemetime, set there. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I’ve had this novel since Christmas 1990 when I was living in the LA area (in adjoining Orange County, in fact). For some reason, I didn’t read the book then, and it has been sitting on my TBR pile ever since, along with several other novels by Aussie writers from the 1980s and early 1990s.
It was interesting to read a book in 2014 that was published in 1990 but set mostly in the late 1960s. This is not a unique situation of course, but most books in my TBR pile are set around the time they were written. Why then was this one set a couple of decades before it was written, making it a “bit” historical, but not really? I think it’s because the late 1960s was an exciting time, politically and socially. It was the time of the anti-Vietnam War movement, a time when high ideals were being vigorously tested against commercial imperatives. Where better to set such a novel than in LA – using the film industry as a framework?
Early in the novel, Dowse establishes this tension through her description of place:
California the golden, Eden re-entered. People pretend they are children. They revel in the heat and the sunshine. But they are fretful. Do they deserve this? The question nags. So there is always, underlying the play, the fear of catastrophe. For a paradise, it has known its fair share. Earthquakes make dogs howl and plateglass shatter and bricks spill from walls, and the fires that sweep through the hills and down the canyons have consumed the grandest of estates. Coyotes live in those hills …
I love this prose – so crisp, so clear, so evocative, and yet so provocative too.
But now to the plot. Schemetime concerns an Australian filmmaker, Frank, who comes to LA wanting to make a career in the film industry, a quality career, though, on his terms. Through him we meet a varied cast of characters: refugee film director Mannheim who wants to make artistic films but needs to make commercials and B-grade movies to survive; Frank’s old flame Susan, a physiotherapist and anti-war campaigner, who leaves her Aussie husband for Nathan; this Nathan, a lawyer conflicted about money and his ideals; the black singer-actress, Paula, with her precarious career; and sundry others. We watch Frank as he enlists these characters to help him, practically, artistically or financially, achieve his goal of making a film about his somewhat mysterious father.
This is not a plot driven novel, however. It is about LA, but more than that, it is about characters searching for, well, meaning. This may sound clichéd, but isn’t it what most of us seek? What makes this novel not clichéd is the style and structure Dowse puts to her task. Often when we describe a novel as reading like a film script, we are suggesting, usually a little dismissively, that the author has written it with a movie deal in mind. But, when I say Dowse’s book reads like a film script, I am implying something very different. I am implying a complex picture comprising multiple little scenes, that sometimes flow and sometimes jolt us along with sudden changes in perspective, much like a camera can, particularly in an experimental movie. In fact, particularly given its time, I’d say this novel is innovative (or experimental) in structure and narrative point-of-view, in the way it moves between first person narration by Frank, and the third-person subjective perspectives of the main characters. It is, though, highly readable because the language is accessible. The syntax is flexible and the imagery expressive, but they are both comprehensible.
If it’s not plot-driven, then, what does drive it? Several things really. The characters’ relationships with each other, for one. An exploration of the meaning of art, for another. And dreams, the dreams and passions that drive us. Much of the novel concerns Frank’s filmmaking venture with Mannheim and Paula. There are lengthy discussions about the 1931 film Tabu, made by Murnau and Flaherty. It was a production mired in conflict between two, if I understand correctly, competing perspectives – Murnau’s focus on aesthetic “truths” and Flaherty’s on those coming from social or political realities. Dowse seems to be suggesting that “art” is (perhaps even should be) a constant struggle between these two imperatives. In Tabu, Mannheim argues, Murnau’s
craft and artifice triumphed. But there is enough of the real to make us believe …
There’s another reason why Dowse seems to have chosen Tabu to discuss, and this is its setting, the Pacific. The Pacific is the link between her two lives – her American birth and her adopted Australian home. Its nature is paradoxical, representing different things to different people: to Mannheim, “nothing in the Pacific is quite as real” as Europe; to Susan it is both escape and barrier, “the way to freedom and then the highest wall”. One of my favourite scenes occurs when Frank, Paula and Nathan do a beach-crawl along the LA coast looking for the perfect Australian-looking beach! Various stories and images of the Pacific appear throughout the novel, making it, perhaps, her “poem to the Pacific” like Murnau’s Tabu.
Schemetime is a novel of grand conception. Even the title with its hints of schemes, screens and dreams suggests that. I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped all that Dowse intended, and I certainly haven’t touched on all that she raises in this book about “money and love and culture”. I haven’t explored, for example, the rise and fall of Nathan as a hotshot lawyer-investor or the conflicted restlessness of his second wife Susan or the survival skills of first wife Estelle or even the discussions about artists in exile.
“The camera”, Mannheim lectures early in the novel, “is no golem … it sees things you cannot imagine”. And so, we find, does Dowse’s pen. Schemetime is a fine read – and one that is as relevant today as it was when it was written, perhaps even moreso.