‘Maps of the Imagination: A review of David Brooks’s “Napoleon’s Roads”’, by Scott Esposito


“There are no endings, only sites, only moments of pause or clarity,” writes David Brooks at the end of his short story ‘“Kabul”’. It comes after a dozen pages of fragments about the titular city, which the narrator has been wandering post–American invasion. À la Calvino, it is an invisible Kabul he wanders, a Kabul of the mind glimpsed through memories and conversations, passages from books, television images, and travellers’ anecdotes. Yet Brooks’s subtlety, the enigma and richness of his prose, is such that this revelation only comes about slowly, the reader’s attention focused on the striking moments that dominate each fragment. By the time we reach this concluding, but far from conclusive statement, ‘“Kabul”’ has revealed multiple entrances and exits. A place for the reader to be dislocated, it is distinctly not a Freytag trajectory that moves from instigation through crisis to resolution.

If we could pick just one thread to link these remarkably diverse stories penned over a decade and assembled here, Brooks’s fourth story collection, it would be this: the frequent invocation of maps as a metaphor for the writerly and readerly task, fiction as cartography for the reader to explore. As he states in ‘A Traveller’s Tale’, “things continue past ‘endings,’ even and perhaps especially things deeply involved in those endings.” What could be more traveller-like than continuing to explore once you have reached the destination? In fact, viewing the destination as but the beginning of adventure? Brooks’s stories are always continuing past themselves, always desirous of imbricating what feels to be a potently conclusive thought into a new narrative conception.

These stories work in two main modes: pieces like ‘“Kabul”’ that collage fragments into a puzzle for readers to jigsaw open, and a more allegorical method where Brooks saturates a central image with some meaning – but exactly what remains tantalisingly unclear. The latter is typified by ‘The Wall’, which finds a group of men on a bleak lunar landscape building a segment of a defensive wall so enormous that, like Kafka’s Great Wall, the many masons have only rumours of their colleagues’ doings. During this desperate work it is noticed that a structure of some sort—precisely what sort is impossible to determine—begins to rise up adjacent to their wall. A parasite on the host of an inhumane thing, or the humanity they can no longer recognise? Despite the men’s increasingly frantic efforts, nothing can demolish the upstart edifice, nor even slow its implacable rise. At last the baleful day arrives when its height is at parity with theirs, and then it begins to grow even higher than the men’s battlement. Soon a great door appears. What is the tapping that is occasionally heard behind it? How to breach this portal and learn? But do the men really want to know?

People and places in Napoleon’s Roads tend toward archetype (and often Brooks employs a collective or unnamed narrator), the author’s considerable talents instead focused on evoking moods, creating images, and layering levels of meaning atop one another. The momentum in these stories comes from the desire to pin down a sense of indeterminacy, to find that one telling, revelatory detail. Of course this detail is never provided, for not only would it spoil the effect, it would also mean that in allowing itself to be so easily named, Brooks’s subject of contemplation had proven itself unworthy of the effort. These pieces often feel like variations without a theme, a series of partial equivalences to some illegible animating force. Perhaps the story that comes closest to describing the effect of reading Napoleon’s Roads is ‘Lost Pages’, which is about all of those thoughts writers lose for one reason or another (you didn’t manage to jot it down; the file was mysteriously lost from your computer; it came to you in the middle of the night). All of these stories feel like a search for such lost thoughts; or perhaps they circle around thoughts that never were to begin with, a central void that can be sensed, as are black holes, by the effect they have on the world around them.

In the title story Brooks laments that questions and answers have a tendency to spawn one another; our author seems to prefer “the question that rejects its own answer,” or “the answer that will not fit the question.” “Questions that spawn answers” describes the movement of the classic plot, opening up by presenting its characters with difficulties, then revealing the mechanics by which the resolutions are effected, which then open more questions and so on. At one point civilisation unreservedly endorsed this view of life, and often it still does. But now other ways of observing the movement of reality are increasingly recognised: Brooks reflects this world wrought by the early postmodernists by working on the level of the simulacra. So it is that in ‘Napoleon’s Roads’ plane trees planted along the titular routes to shade the Emperor’s troops become the bars of a panther’s cage, then poplars which resemble gothic arches, then English oaks cut down to colonise the West Indies, then Napoleon himself pulling a cart of saplings. These responses do not answer the questions that spawned them, yet they clearly are answers of a sort, interrelated through the titular metaphor and the mental landscapes that Brooks sculpts throughout. There is no resolving “a-ha”, no semiotic moment the story has been moving toward all along. Rather, the “answer” inheres in the fact that we cannot clearly say which fact is primary, which metaphor should be the central one around which all others orbit.

Yet, perhaps against Brooks’s will, one does begin to find centres to this writing. One theme that exerts itself to such a degree is the aforementioned “stories = maps”; another is how many of Brooks’s strongest images literalise the process of psychoanalysis. What else to call ‘The Cellar’, a story about a man who continuously enlarges and cleanses a space beneath his house, then builds into it a trap doored chamber, which itself leads to another trap doored chamber where he finds something indescribable? Or ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Dream’, which is about “a lighthouse keeper dream[ing] that he is a man dreaming that he is the keeper of a lighthouse”? The latter (the man within the dream) finds that his imaginary lighthouse is an almost impossibly remote, battered keep where the winds and waves are so loud and powerful that not even a word of language can escape. So perhaps then it indicates a region of our psyche that can only speak to us through the images so deeply embedded in dreams.

To maps and psychoanalysis we might add other recurrent motifs that bind this collection, among them trees, birds, travellers, and panthers. The last gets pride of place in the title of the concluding story, perhaps the crown jewel in a collection that does not hurt for brilliance. A man glimpses a panther in a painting in the National Gallery (oddly, his friend cannot see it). He feels a presence following him home, and later that night a panther appears at his French doors. He lets it in, it tours his house, and in the morning it has left. These visitations continue, and during that time man and panther walk the streets together at night, but only certain people seem to see the beast:

Our life together was our own, it seemed to me, all the more private and carefully guarded as our relationship developed. I appeared to draw something human out of him, or answered to it, and he, who knows?, drew something panther-like from me – became, in the longer and longer nights of winter, a kind of witness to my loneliness, my secrets, and, yes, for I was a man alone, an angered man, an embarrassed man, my furies, my disappointments, my desires, my confessions. And he seemed to swallow them, even in some way to understand.

When the man visits his sister’s home, the panther comes and is seen be her as well, and thereafter the three are often together. During this time a neighbour of hers glimpses the beast and begins to blame the panther for devoured sheep. Then there are murders of humans. One night a mob captures a massive black cat, strings it up horribly, and tortures it to death. But the killings continue, and eventually a disturbed man who calls himself “The Panther” is caught bearing an artificial claw meant to mangle his victims. Every year for thirty autumns our narrator visits his panther in the National Gallery.

What a capsule summary of this story cannot capture is the elusive feeling of menace that permeates it, the sensation of an uncertain accord the narrator has made with the wintry moods that flit in and out of his life, and that seem to find embodiment in this shadow beast that may or may not exist. It cannot be a coincidence that the panther comes at night, when a loneliness and weariness tends to assert themselves, when an examination of our own mortality creeps upon us unawares. Nor can it be a coincidence that only those with certain predispositions toward the more sooty reaches of the human psyche see the beast. Perhaps this discloses one purpose of art: when we construct it, or when we examine it, we find within it those things that we refuse to observe about ourselves. It grants us a way of making them palpable, to the point where we may share them with other people who have the capacity to see as well. This can be a dangerous game, insofar as these abstract ideas assume a level of reality that frees them from our control (did we ever really control them?). But then again, were they ever really real? This all may be a fantasy produced by a taxing mind, a mere wilfulness toward some darkness that does indeed exist in the world, but is wholly alien to ourselves. So then, why the narrator’s enduring fascination with the panther, why his consistency in returning to it for thirty years?

Brooks clearly writes these stories with knowledge of his predecessors, but his pieces never feel like pastiches of more dominant styles, mere exercises in putting his own spin on what has already been written. Part of this success is the particular mood achieved here: the author is playful with peril, he is warily familiar with futility and paradox, he lends a sound-stage plasticity to his scenarios that curiously accentuates their effects and heightens the stakes. There is something Australian to his gaze (or at least it seems so to a reader who only knows that continent through video, photographs, letters, and literature), a deep conversance with Continental thought that benefits from a large physical remove from it. Napoleon’s Roads is a quietly, cunningly postmodern book—a little like a panther itself—a suite of work for the new millennium that does not erupt with the flash and crackle that is often glamorised in the mass media as literary innovation, but that will surely outlive it.

Scott Esposito is the author of The Surrender and the co-author (with Lauren Elkin) of The End of Ouilpo? He is currently at work on a book of creative nonfiction based in film.