Murray Bail's The Voyage came out in Australia, which its narrator repeatedly calls "the New World," two years ago. At which point critics heaped praise—and even some prize money—on the novelist. But this book saw print in that other New World, the United States, only months ago. The delay makes sense: Bail's fiction is stunning. That is, its brilliance is hard work.
Even the first pages of The Voyage demand effort. Bail indulges his bent toward impressionistic, slow exposition. Take the description of smug, "music-saturated" Vienna: "The dark trees, the streets and boulevards, the clothing of people and the expressions people arranged around their mouths, even the air they breathed, were blurry or furry with the accumulation of words, congestion in the guise of world-weariness." Between such sentences, the book points distractedly to Sydney or Brisbane or Perth, and also sketches a container ship headed to Australia. The ship, oddly christened The Romance, is "stacked with [ … ] rectangles of various faded colors," and is held together by "rivets the size of dinner plates."
Thus, at its simplest, the voyage promised by the book's title is just this: a ship churns from one continent (Europe) to another (Australia).
But for Frank Delage, the novel's key character, the voyage is a roundtrip and not simple. In Austria, romantically entangled with both a grande dame of the arts, the wealthy and still arresting Amalia von Schalla (a decade or so his senior), and her daughter Elisabeth (a decade or so his junior), Frank makes a habit of misjudgment, of losing the thread of his original intentions. Originally, after all, the 46-year-old manufacturer-turned-far-traveling-salesman heads to Vienna to promote a radical invention that the book holds off naming and that the city's elites find suspicious. In championing it and comporting himself, he fails to read social codes. He proves a ham-handed entrepreneur (if a deft engineer). And, at the end of his dubious European ordeal, he trusts The Romance to grant him quiet, supposing that container ships are generally unpopular with all but misfits eager to keep to themselves—another misguided assumption.
The novel, meanwhile, assumes that we would not keep its protagonist company without the incentive of repeated coy allusions to his invention, "a remarkable product, in every way an example of New World ingenuity," which crop up repeatedly in its opening.
I can see why, although Elisabeth keeps Delage company eagerly enough. She shows him the sights in Vienna, first at her mother's behest and then without it. And when Delage departs, she follows him; uninvited but sure of her welcome, she meets his ship at a port in Piraeus, Greece. Standing at the bottom of the gangway, she is all wry gaiety and expensive luggage, and her arrival is the book's last major surprise. At page 26.
Put plainly: The Voyage is slow and short on plot. The most dramatic events in this novel happen offstage and garner little attention from the principal characters. To wit: A man's house burns to the ground, inspiring mostly flippant commentary: "And you say his house caught fire? What some people will do to attract attention." A boat's pilot drowns with as little fanfare as Brueghel's Icarus. A trumpeter exhumed from an avalanche survives but appears in the novel's present only to drive one of Amalia von Schalla's cars and ossify into archetype.
Indeed, apart from such anecdotes, which it holds aloof, this story stirs up only a little suspense. For instance: What is the invention Frank Delage has come to Vienna to champion? Will he pursue the mother or daughter? But it also dispenses with that suspense too soon. For instance: A piano. Yes, both, in turn. It offers in the place of that suspense something else, a more languid uncertainty.
I think the barter a fair one.
True, some readers will not find it worthwhile to stick around past the unveiling of Frank's contraption and the disrobing of the von Schalla women. For others, though—for me—the novel's early bait is almost irrelevant. I read The Voyage (past the revelation of its small mysteries) for the same reason I re-read Mrs. Dalloway (which remains compelling even after it loses the suspense of a first reading). I read them because they narrate the way the mind covers for its records' skipping, a phenomenon almost impossible to narrate, let alone make beautiful, which they do. I read them because they insist that my thoughts rub elbows with yours, and because they make their case by hopping from one character's thoughts to another's on slight pretexts but without gimmickry.