Parallax: a novel
Etymologically, the word “parallax” derives from the Ancient Greek “parallaxis”, which means “alternation”, but it is generally used to describe a shift in perspective. Indeed Robin Morgan, in the epigraph to her work, Parallax: a novel, offers this definition: “The effect where the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions”. Parallax is a useful concept for thinking about subjectivity (literary precedents in this field ranging from James Joyce to Slavoj Žižek), and Morgan certainly uses it in this sense, but she also employs it on many other levels in Parallax, as motif, form and theme. This makes the work a playful and satisfying read, but it is also not easy to find a stable perspective on it; which is, of course, appropriate for a work about such a concept.
Parallax comprises a series of stories “knitted” together by an overarching framing narrative, a yarn. This is a tale of The Yarner, a woman who lives a humble life in the “old part of the City”. Sometimes, “if in the mood when importuned, [she feeds] a story to a hungry listener”, such as the “stranger”, who arrives one day with purpose (1, 3). He is soon no longer a stranger, for his story intertwines with The Yarner’s. “A yarn imagines itself, … entangling”, as The Yarner says, “out of separate strands” (92). But a garment is not made of yarn alone; hooks and needles are also needed and Morgan is adept at wielding such tools. Her storytelling is addictive. As Ursula Le Guin is quoted, on the cover of Parallax, “The more I read, the more I did not want to stop” (and what a hook that is!). Not only does the story’s pace draw the reader in, with suspense injected into the framing narrative by each of the shorter stories within it, but so do the paratexts, and Morgan’s characters, places and times. The latter elements always seem half known yet mysterious, which draws in the reader and stimulates curiosity and the desire to read on. The former elements, paratexts (title, epigraph and Author’s Note) set up the reader for an adventure.
Morgan’s Author’s Note sets another frame around the central framing narrative, yet it stands further apart from the stories that make up the core of the book. The Note describes the extraordinary lifecycle, or generative cycle, rather, of the Monarch Butterfly. This cycle takes place over several generations. Within it, Morgan says, patterns of the butterflies’ behaviour may change. “No one butterfly ever makes the round trip”, Morgan tells us (xiv); therefore no one butterfly ever sees the whole story. Each knows or experiences or tells through its embodiment only its part. This motif carries to the rest of the book: The Yarner and the stranger, and each of the figures whose stories are told by these two, know only part of the whole, yet their tales are intertwined, concurrently recording and making each other as histories and possible futures.
I’ve been referring to Parallax as a “work” because, despite its subtitle insisting: “A Novel”, the term “novel” seems ill-fitting. Not only does the book read partially as a collection of short stories or parables unified by an overarching framing narrative, but, the stories themselves hardly seem “novel”. They have, rather, an air of timelessness. This complements, formally, the theme of story making. It is as if the tales have come to us from, simultaneously, a deep past (so deep it seems like an alternative world enfolding our own), and a strange future that also feels already half known, perhaps like a dream or an imagining – a forward interpolation of reference points taken from the world we already know. The stories tell of, for example, a village keeper of lists, who, “to notice what required listing … also had to notice what didn’t” (27). It is an unenviable task which leads the woman to a crisis of reason when she concludes that “even an order of chaos is denied us” (29). Among the other accounts it contains, there is one that describes a debate over the meaning of a river, and a child who reads the river (41-56); and another about a handmaiden and a holy man who must face the contradictions of their respective quests for freedom to learn that “no living thing [is] free” (83).
Certainly Parallax is a story about interconnectedness, yet it is also about difference and diversity, and how this can be reflected and communicated (or, conversely, obscured) in stories. Morgan herself is a committed feminist and an activist. One would, therefore, expect Parallax to feel radically feminist, and in fact it does, but, beyond its feminine motifs and characters, perhaps not in other ways readers might conventionally anticipate. Parallax is certainly not a strident call for a radical overturning of the status quo. Rather, the work is gentle and inclusive. It is a vision of co-existence and balance, rather than demanding what might otherwise amount only to a flip from one extreme to another. Morgan’s position is aptly symbolised by the yarning motif, which can be imagined as a double (or multi-ply) helix, each thread alternating and enfolding the other so that all together what is achieved is simultaneity, balance and a kind of in-motion wholeness. It’s an accommodating approach that asks only that we slow down and listen to stories, and that we think and dream and make and share our own new-old stories. “Imagination can conceal while it reveals”, Morgan/The Yarner suggests, but “[s]ooner or later though, everything gets used” (92) – it is through active participation in this ongoing work that our redemption from pointlessness or waste might lie.
I really enjoyed this Parallax. I loved the timeless folktale feel of the stories, and the wonderful evocation of the lives of Monarch butterflies, and the quiet, domestic humility and contradictions of The Yarner and the stranger. I cannot pretend to know how to definitively explain the “meaning” of all of the stories Parallax contains, but I think this is the point. They are stories about learning to see enormity and complexity and striving to arrive at a balanced perspective on all the world’s shiftiness and change. It is a book that will surely make readers think, but is also a tale told masterfully: full of hooks and needles.
Robin Morgan, Parallax: a novel. North Geelong, VIC and Mission Beach, QLD: Spinifex Press, 2019. ISBN 9781925581959