Struggling to get Onshore

After my first reading (thirty-five years after publication) of Penelope Fitzgerald’s much lauded 1979 Booker Prize novel, Offshore, I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. The work received wide acclaim, albeit from reviewers, but little academic interest.

It has at its core the relationships between five barge owners, and the families of some of them, moored at Battersea Reach on the Thames. The author would be expected to develop such relationships into an interesting tapestry of personal feeling shaped by events, revealing the characters to their fullest extent and thereby giving the reader an insight into their innermost psychologies. Fitzgerald, however, creates a snapshot, as it were, rather than a complete revelation, thus leaving one feeling the work to be inadequate, wanting and unsatisfying. It could be argued that in a novel barely two hundred pages long, little opportunity is provided for such development and, on first consideration, there may seem to be a point except for the fact that Henry James managed it masterfully. And I use James as a comparison only because several reviewers likened Fitzgerald to Jane Austen – an accolade misplaced and undeserved in the extreme. AS Byatt suggested she was Austen’s ‘nearest heir’ and I am decidedly perplexed (possibly even dumbfounded) why George Eliot might not have been considered suitable for the part. I can only reason there seems to be a desperate proclivity by some reviewers to find in a contemporary writer the genius of some of the great 19th century novelists.

Fitzgerald’s lack of comprehensive characterization weakens the novel immensely and the first half of the book drifts aimlessly to the point of being boringly insubstantial. The characters are presented superficially, and the reader never gets to know them intimately as a result of the author’s inability to allow a full range of reflection or emotion on their part. Consequently the novel cannot develop into a meaningful work and relies on a series of character snapshots to hold it together.

The term ‘snapshot’ is, perhaps, not insignificant as it suggests a style and method not unlike that of cinematography and raises the interesting observation that Fitzgerald’s Offshore is better suited to being developed as a screen play rather than a novel. The sudden and unexpected changes of scene resemble the motion picture, which, it must be said, has never reproduced faithfully, and with telling force, any major literary work because of its reliance on visual perception. Whether or not Fitzgerald was overly influenced by film, I do not know, but the presence of its style and method in Offshore makes it an interesting question.

One cannot escape the fact there is a dull superficiality about the book. The character snapshots (or movie clips if you prefer the idea of motion) presented by Fitzgerald are of mundane, trivial incidents in the lives portrayed – which is not to suggest that a degree of pain and suffering is not present in the representative contextual sampling. But the writer doesn’t explore, in a profound way and not even in one or two characters, the range of content in the individual psyches that could reveal personal tragedy. If she had dealt with her subject matter accordingly, Fitzgerald may have evoked a close and percipient response in the reader and provided substance in an otherwise thin narrative. Yet it is almost as if she wants her audience to assume the tragic consequences of her characters’ lives and simply provides a canvas for the reader’s imagination to play on. This is not subtle suggestion, as some of those who rhapsodize about this book may claim, but an inadequacy unable to meticulously examine and reveal the infinitely delicate processes of human thought and emotion. It is, sadly, and one may venture to say it, an easy way out.

That said I do not believe Fitzgerald sets out to deceive. She has, rather, simply written a defective novel in an unconvincing style, a style unsuited to the task of aspiring to achieving a major (or even a good) work of fiction. Regrettably, many critics (who should know better) mislead the reading public in describing the work, with extravagant claims, as ‘tight’, ‘compressed’ and ‘…unerring in economic force’. What exactly such specious terms are intended to mean or evoke one only can guess. But it is probable, and I suggest likely, that these critics do not themselves know and use such terms to impress and cloak unfortunate critical inadequacies – inadequacies that will attempt to promote something as a work of genius which, in fact, is second-rate.

I could be proved wrong but I’ve not seen the work proposed or selected for serious study and surmise that a competent, critical ethos has had the last word on the subject and put the matter to rest.

Bruce Cooper

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