Falling in love can be a dangerous thing. It makes you crazy.
Whenever I fall head over heels in love with a book, I’m filled with the desire to immediately find and devour everything I can written by the same author. I turn into the literary equivalent of the Cookie Monster.
Me want BOOKS. Om nom nom!
A few weeks ago, I was utterly, utterly blown away by D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. I adored that book with all my heart. As soon as I could, I wanted to return to D. H. Lawrence’s dream-like world. My blue, furry paws clasped another Lawrence novel, and I began to read with gusto.
But there’s a problem. It just wasn’t the same…
by D. H. Lawrence
Published in 1923
England might have emerged victorious from the First World War, but this victory came at a cost. And I’m not just talking about the senseless tragedy of the thousands of lives lost on the battlefield. Back at home in England, something awful and insidious happened: paranoia and fear turned Mother England upon her own citizens.
Englishman, Richard Lovat Somers is a man left bearing the scars of a war he never fought. As a gangly writer, he wasn’t sent to fight. He remained at home. But he and his immigrant wife, Harriet, were persecuted as spies; driven from their beautiful cottage in the English countryside and forced to stay with family, friends – anyone kind enough to take them in.
When the war ends, Richard and Harriet feel cold and dismayed. England has forever lost its charm.
Richard Lovat Somers is a man in need of some serious healing. To find it, he travels across the globe, to begin life again in Australia. But beginning again isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
Arriving in Sydney, Richard quickly finds that his reputation is already known. Rather than the new beginning Richard was expecting, he steps into a country charged with political tension. Richard finds himself right in the middle of a struggle between two influential men: the charismatic, would-be dictator Kangaroo, and Willie Struthers, a communist. Which side will Richard choose?
D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo is a seriously complicated work…with a seriously complicated main character. In fact, the first and foremost problem with Kangaroo can be expressed in three simple words: Richard Lovat Somers. He’s one of the most inscrutable, unfathomable – even at times disagreeable main characters I’ve ever encountered. Although Kangaroo is narrated in the third person, the action centres around Richard. We’re given access to his every thought and feeling…which is quite confronting, really.
He rambles. He rants. His emotions flail around wildly between the extremes of elation and depression. It’s not that Richard is an unreliable narrator. I like unreliable narrators. He’s almost an unstable narrator.
Keeping up with Richard Lovat Somers is next to impossible. One moment, Somers loves Australia. Then, moments later, he can’t stand it. In one chapter, he asserts that he wants to be alone, and cannot possibly deal with other people. Then, in the next chapter, he asserts that he wants to become a great leader of men; that he wants to be respected and admired. How are we meant to deal with a main character who simply can’t make up his mind?
It’s not that I disliked Somers. I liked him. I admired him intensely. But as a main character, he’s difficult to follow.
Reading Kangaroo, it’s difficult to tell where Richard Lovat Somers ends and David Herbert Lawrence begins. It’s a blurry, blurry line. And D. H. Lawrence doesn’t make it any easier for us by purposefully flirting with the boundaries between author and character; between fiction and fact. Towards the end of the novel, he occasionally refers to Somers as R. L. – as if in imitation of his own pen-name. Cheeky. Lawrence even steps into the role of narrator every now and then, to pass comment on the progress of his own novel:
“Now, a novel is supposed to be a mere record or emotion-adventures, flounderings in feelings. We insist that a novel is, or should be, also a thought-adventure, if it is to be anything at all complete”
– D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, page 348
Lawrence tells us that his novel is a “thought-adventure” – and he’s quite right. Because, really, Kangaroo is a novel of ideas. And Richard Lovat Somers has many, many ideas. At a chunky 449 pages, Kangaroo is a long book. And Somers spends many of these pages thinking out loud. We’re audience to his theories about society, love, the new world, politics, psychology…even vulcanology. Eep.
There’s a lot of thought and thinking in Kangaroo. But thought and thinking doesn’t necessarily make for a particularly interesting novel. Kangaroo isn’t intensely, dramatically human in the way that Sons and Lovers was. There are a few moments of drama, where the intense beauty of Lawrence’s writing shines through. But they’re few and far between.
I know how childish and unprofessional this sounds, but reading Kangaroo, I often found myself wondering when Somers was going to stop lecturing so something could actually happen.
Somers is a fantastic character. He’s passionate, confused and hurt. His flaws make him unique. Many of Lawrence’s other characters are just as compelling. Somers’ wife, Harriet, seems to simmer with repressed emotions, as she stands faithfully, stubbornly, possibly even stupidly, by the side of the man she’s sworn to love. And then, there’s Kangaroo himself, the imposing, booming man of words, who looms like a presence over the whole novel, like the Kurtz to Richard’s Marlow.
Kangaroo has moments of fleeting magic. There are glimpses of it, here and there, like light through the gumtrees; caught randomly in between the lecturing and the “thought-adventures”. I couldn’t stop reading the long chapter describing Richard and Harriet’s experiences in England during the war. The climactic scene of the novel, in which two political rivals – Kangaroo and Willie Struthers – come face to face is similarly tense. And, when he’s not bombarding the poor, unsuspecting reader with convoluted, confused thoughts, Richard’s intense descriptions of the Australian landscape as seen through the eyes of a fascinated outsider are simply beautiful.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure how I should take this book. Kangaroo is an interesting, unconventional novel, imbued with a strange charm all of its own. But, unfortunately, I simply didn’t find it satisfying.
If you’re looking to read D. H. Lawrence at his glorious best…I’m sorry, but Kangaroo simply isn’t it.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Lawrence wrote the first draft of Kangaroo in just forty-five days. And it shows. It’s preachy, strange and far too long. Read it if you’re into politics, sociology – or you’re just a whopping great big fan of D. H. Lawrence and can’t help but want to devour all his works…
In a word: