The eminent American literary critic Edmund Wilson made a telling, if rather axiomatic observation that “No two people read the same book”. Pamela Heller-Stern’s novel “Who’s Knocking on my Door” is likely to provoke powerfully ambivalent responses from readers, on account of its contentious and discomfiting primary theme, Death, and also its wayward, unfamiliar and fragmented style which eschews conventional syntax, grammar and punctuation.
Likewise, the tenor and tone of the novel and the cool, dispassionate narration (mostly in the third person by an unnamed, genderless and omniscient narrator) appears transgressively outmoded and distancing. The device of an uninvolved narrator is a risky one, since a number of very private details need to be presented as if they were within the range of the narrator’s experience. It is a measure of Heller-Stern’s skill as a novelist that one never questions the authenticity of the storytelling.
She masters an effortless prose and writes with immense assurance, switching between first and third person narration, alternating passages of dense metaphorical and literary prose with demotic vernacular, everyday observations and dialogue. Her especial forte, like Christopher Isherwood or Saul Bellow, is social observation, closely written descriptions of characters, the actualities of lived lives, and vivid, memorable characterisation, including interior characterizations.
A particular blend of detachment and specificity marks this type of fiction writer – Chekhov might not be far off the comparative mark. In this respect the novel is very much a psychological novel dealing with personality development and presents a sequence of coming- of- age stories. The characters are engaging, eminently real in their desires, contradictions, vulnerability and blind spots (Arthur Miller asserted that the writer’s job is to ‘tear away the veils of denial’). It is unlikely Heller-Stern’s readers will ask themselves: “do I believe this?” This is surely the mark of a gifted storyteller and entertainer.
Who’s Knocking on my Door?
In the pre-amble to this book we are teased into expecting a catalogue of intrigues, curses and deaths. And in many cases Pamela Heller-Stern delivers. Yet it is more than that. Because death, often a taboo topic is given full play – candidly, fearlessly and often abruptly to the point of dismissal. The author talks of death and indeed some other equally sensitive topics in an admirably matter-of-fact way with more of a shrug than with a dollop of sentimentality. This is perhaps a brave stance in the realms of modern novel writing. But not so with today’s cinema. This to me is the clue. For this work is inescapably cinematographic. The rich imagery and characterisations stand out over the narrative which is sometimes fragmented, a little repetitive and on occasions predictable. But that is the way of modern cinema.
Heller-Stern’s writing style, in this presentation of four portraits or four novellas, has been acclaimed as an innovative literary style. To me it is poetic, more so than prose. Perhaps a hint of where Heller-Stern’s heart really lies. But the halting, fragmented sentences, which break all the rules of textbook grammar, give it a pace and an urgency which borders on journalistic, but is far more committal. At first reading I found the process to be a little lumpy and stopped every few lines to question why the author had chosen to break the words where she did – even re-running the line with my own breaks to see if it read any better. It was almost as though I was hitting potholes as I raced along a road paved with capital letters and full stops. However I soon settled into the pacey style and found myself reading as if there was no punctuation at all! I suppose that I became absorbed into the realm of images and pictures which are pure cinema.
The book’s detail is evidence of the author’s impressive research. The characters are strong and lavishly described. To me all are individuals, even though some of them do lapse into the collectivity of their societal contexts. To me there is no family curse, no ill-luck. Just Providence playing out its inevitable hand, seemingly in many cases without cause or reason. The characters (and the cast is a large one) all claim their own identities in a way that Carl Jung, or even Meister Eckhart might have approved. A weakness, if there is one, is that they all hail from a narrow raft of well-to-do middle class post-colonial society, whether South Africa’s Cape coast or America’s Ivy League belt. As such they seem to be a little over-sexed, over-stressed and under contented. Only a handful seems to be mindful of making a contribution to society at large.
Stanley stands out for me. Not because he is the first to appear, nor because he prefers a reclusive rural environment. But because he vividly experiences hardships, survives them and then succumbs to an unexpected and ironical turn. Perhaps this is Heller-Stern’s slightly tongue-in-cheek statement about the unpredictability and seeming senselessness of it all.
Who’s Knocking on My Door? is a good read, if a little challenging in style and content. As a piece of cinematographic writing it is a good watch!
You have managed to cover a complete debate and analysis in a seemingly effortless way.
The Pink Slippers
Compelling! A powerful exposé of the vagaries of life.
The Pink Slippers