A Common Loss
By Kirsten Tranter
Fourth Estate | $29.99
KIRSTEN Tranter’s A Common Loss is a novel about friendship, and about the effects on a group of friends when one of their number dies. For the survivors, their loss is common in two senses: it is shared among them, but it is also commonplace. Friends die, and so do friendships. The title is a reference to Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” one of the best-known of all meditations on friendship and on the devastating impact of the death of a friend. The allusion to Tennyson is a reminder that while the experience of grief at the loss of a friend is well nigh universal, that is small consolation when it comes our turn to do the grieving. “That loss is common,” runs the novel’s epigraph, in lines borrowed from Tennyson’s poem, “would not make/ My own less bitter, rather more.”
The subject of friendship, Tranter has remarked, is “very underrated,” and it is not hard to see what she means. In these post-post-Freudian times we have all too easily come to see friendship not in its own terms but more as a mask for something else, something more raw and more real and not necessarily noble that lurks beneath the surface of affable camaraderie. Sexual longing, perhaps, disguised as mere friendship. Or the chances offered by friendship for professional advantage or the prospect of entree to other, more desirable circles of influence. Linguistically, friendship has piggybacked on “networking” to become “friending,” a premeditated process of acquisition rather than something that happens spontaneously. Friendship by itself, minus the underlying motivations, has come to seem a bit tame. What is it for if it isn’t for something else? Our knowingness about these things, our quiet smile to ourselves as, for example, we hear the phrase “just good friends,” simply reinforces the idea of friendship as a cover.
It is this very tameness that can also make friendship seem like a safe option, one that carries fewer risks than say, romantic love, and which serves to keep at bay all the difficulties that come with sex and work and making our way in the world. The extraordinary success of television shows like Seinfeld, Friends and Sex in the City testify to the attractions of this idea of friendship as a refuge from all of that other, complicated stuff that friendship keeps below the surface. As the actors on Friends or Sex in the City age from series to series, their mutual friendship, frozen in time, comes to seem less and less plausible. We can’t keep out of our minds indefinitely the question of what happens to friendship when friends are forced to grow up. It is exactly this question that Kirsten Tranter tackles in A Common Loss.
Tranter approaches her novel at several removes; she is an Australian writing about America, in the voice of a man, on the subject of male friendship. Intriguingly, out of this apparent distance comes a complex and deeply sympathetic portrait of friendship, and specifically of both the strength and the vulnerability of the bonds that link a group of five American men (strictly speaking, four American and one Anglo-American), ten years out from college but still in touch, and still meeting without fail for their annual reunion. When one of them, the charismatic Dylan, is killed in an accident, the four who remain must come to grips not only with the resulting change in the dynamics of their friendship, but also with the way his death brings both their secrets and his to light, obliging them to re-evaluate themselves and one another. It is a common enough plot device; the dead man who turns out not to have been who his friends thought he was. But Tranter’s real interest is not in solving this particular mystery, the mystery of who the dead man really was. Even though some of Dylan’s secrets are revealed, we do not by the end of the novel know very much more about him or his motivations than we knew at the beginning. The focus is rather on the impact of his death on those he leaves behind.
Elliot, the one among the five friends who tells the story, has, along with Brian, Cameron, Tallis and Dylan, turned the annual reunion into a tradition, one that the survivors all feel obliged, with varying degrees of commitment and enthusiasm, to continue the year after Dylan’s death. Tranter is very good on the ways in which friendships that go way back rely heavily on precedent and unspoken rules – “after all this time there were customs that felt like ancient law” – and the way that these rules go on determining patterns of behaviour and interaction. As Elliot contemplates the upcoming reunion, the first one without Dylan, he recalls the occasion when their friend, not usually the sentimental type, referred to them all as his family. “You know, you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends,” says Dylan. The cliché, simply because it is a cliché, seems clunky and insincere – “openly sentimental,” Elliot calls it – but it is also, in one of the novel’s profounder insights, wrong. You can’t actually choose your friends, the novel seems to be saying, any more than you can choose your family. They are just sort of there.
The annual reunions of the friends take place, in accordance with one of their “ancient laws,” in Las Vegas, the town where everything is fake, where everything is a simulacrum of something else. Tranter makes considerable play with notions of authenticity and fakery, not to mention of the authentically fake and the fraudulently real. In one of the novel’s few forced notes, Cynthia, the new girlfriend who Brian brings along to this latest reunion in contravention of another of the group’s unwritten rules, is “doing some kind of research on imitation versus authenticity.” Not that this provides her with any greater insight into the difference between what is real and what isn’t. Much of the men’s erratic behaviour she puts down to grief at their common loss, whereas in fact it is all rather more complicated, both more trivial and more profound, than that.
Each of the friends keeps his own secrets but Dylan, it emerges, has been documenting and storing everybody else’s as well as his own. There is now a real possibility that these secrets will be revealed to the world, damaging lives and threatening careers. Tranter has spoken of the importance of the secrets to the underlying framework of the novel, and of the thought she put into determining what they should be. They “range all the way,” she has commented, “from the very mundane to the shocking and disturbing and criminal.” The secrets, whether shocking or mundane, have one thing in common; they reveal the men to be hypocrites and frauds. And yet somehow this fraudulence, attributable to each of the men as individuals, does not quite extend to their shared friendship which, though battered by events and the passage of time, looks set to continue. At the very end of the novel, plans are being made for next year’s reunion. •
Richard Johnstone is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney.