Dreams of Speaking By Gail Jones

The ghost in the machine
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The Independent Culture

Alice Black, a young Australian academic, moves to Paris to write a book on "the unremarked beauty of modern things, of telephones, aeroplanes, computer screens and electric lights, of television, cars and underground transportation". Isolated and disorientated by the growing physical and cultural distance from her working-class family and her failed relationship with her lover Stephen, Alice is saved from loneliness by a chance encounter with an elderly Japanese gentleman. Mr Sakamoto, a survivor of the Nagasaki bomb, is also fascinated by technology and is working on a biography of Alexander Graham Bell.

Their improbable but intense friendship, forged across cultures and generations, is at the heart of this novel. Both are searching for some way of articulating the elusive poetry which resides in the machine, from the "rapturous disembodiment" of telephones to the "physical haiku" of the MRI scan.

The novel's form, as much as its content, is a mediation on how memory and technology alter our experience of space and time. Modernity causes our perspective to shift. We live in a constant present tense and yet are sent hurtling back in the "folded time" of a photograph.

Jones's narrative is woven from fragments: the emails Alice and Sakamoto exchange, her childhood memories and lonely reveries in cities where she is a stranger. The story begins where it ends, as Alice returns to Australia to find her sister undergoing chemotherapy, suffering from a cancer that she has kept secret from Alice.

Whereas Sakamoto's exchanges humanise our relationship with machines Alice's seem more elegiac. The telephone is "a space of pure wind; it is a wind that snatches presences, an erosion, a loss". Her discourse on the dislocation and insubstantial subjectivity of contemporary life becomes a lament rather than any lyrical celebration of modernity. Alice is cast adrift in a machine age of miscommunications and broken connections.

Shards of poetry stud Jones's writing like diamonds as she switches masterfully between a lyrical and academic register. The subtleties of her writing reside in the intersections between emotional and intellectual discourse, although the latter is less developed than it might be. In the end, Jones plays safe and sacrifices poetic indeterminacy to provide the enigmas and resolutions conventionally required of the novel.

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