OK, Mr. Field

OK, Mr. Field

by Katharine Kilalea


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A mesmerizing debut novel about a concert pianist who fears he is losing his mind

Mr. Field wants a new life, a life cleansed of the old one’s disappointments. A concert pianist on the London scene, his career is upended when the train he is travelling on crashes into the wall at the end of a tunnel. The accident splinters his left wrist, jeopardizing his musical ambitions. On a whim, he uses his compensation pay-out to buy a house he has seen only once in a newspaper photograph, a replica of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye on a stretch of coast outside Cape Town. Together with his wife, Mim, Mr. Field sets out in the hope that the house will make him happier, or at least less unhappy. 

But as time passes, the house—which Le Corbusier designed as "a machine for living"—begins to have a disturbing effect on Mr. Field. Its narrow windows educate him in the pleasures of frustrated desire. Its sequence of spaces, which seem to lead toward and away from their destinations at once, mirror his sense of being increasingly cut off from the world and from other people. When his wife inexplicably leaves him, Mr. Field can barely summon the will to search for her. Alone in the decaying house, he finds himself unglued from reality and possessed by a longing for a perverse kind of intimacy.

OK, Mr. Field
is a strange and beguiling novel that dwells in the silences between words, in the gaps in conversation, and in the unbridgeable distance between any two people. Through her restless intelligence and precise, musical prose, Katharine Kilalea confidently guides us into new fictional territory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525573630
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/17/2018
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 4.30(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Katharine Kilalea grew up in South Africa and moved to London for an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has published a poetry collection, One Eye'd Leigh, which was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award and longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. She lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
            I woke to several different noises, something being picked up and put down, a tap being turned on and off. What time is it? I said. It’s 4 a.m., said Mim. For a moment she was silhouetted in the bathroom door before the light went off and she was reabsorbed into the dark. Outside, the sky was so black that when I looked at it I was looking at nothing but my memory of the sky. Were it not for the moon shining through the narrow band of windows, I couldn’t say whether my eyes were closed or open.

         The church bells rang four times down in the bay. I stuck my foot out from under the covers and tried to sleep, but my head was full of night-time voices overtaking and interrupting one another so it sounded like there were many voices talking at once though really it was just the same voice repeating the same few meaningless questions – What month is it? Clytemnestra? Who was Tchaikovsky’s son? – which, in any case, were impossible to answer since each one seemed to dissolve the moment it caught my attention.

         Lying there, the quiet was disturbed by the sound of Mim’s footsteps toing and froing on the ceiling above me. You’re too sensitive, said a voice inside my head. It’s just Mim, walking. So I rolled over and closed my eyes but on my side the sound of her footsteps dropped down in a straight line from the ceiling into my ear where, having penetrated my head, they made a right turn and took root in my sternum before infecting my heart, which started beating louder and faster than before. Relax, I told my heart, there’s nothing to worry about. But of course a heart doesn’t understand human language and the only way to still it is by force, which I did, wrapping my arms tightly over my chest, though each time I drifted off my grip relaxed and the thudding, unsuppressed, would startle me awake again. Don’t just lie there, the voice said. Why don’t you do something? Why don’t you find her and ask her what the matter is? Because sometimes, I thought, it’s better not to know.

         I must eventually have grown immune to Mim’s pacing because the church bells rang five times in the bay but by six o’clock they’d been incorporated into a dream in which I, in a concert hall, was about to premiere a concerto by a celebrated composer. The orchestra had already started but I was waiting for the conductor to bring me in, which presently he did, gesturing at me with his baton. I put my hands on the piano but when I looked up at the score all I saw was a jar of peanut butter. The next page had no musical notation either, just more pictures of peanut butter. Don’t just sit there, the conductor hissed. Do something! So I took my hands off the piano again and said, Peanut butter. And then, because what else was there to do, I said, Peanut butter again. Peanut butter, peanut butter, peanut butter . . . I said. And the orchestra, lowering their instruments, started chanting, Peanut butter, peanut butter, peanut butter . . . too.

         The mood of foreboding left over from the dream dissolved the moment it was exposed to the pitiless light flooding through the bedroom windows. I pushed past the mouldy blue plastic curtain separating the bathroom from the bedroom, went to the toilet, and felt empty. It was only eight o’clock – the church bells rang eight times in the bay – but I felt disoriented, as though I’d slept right through the day into the following night. The remains of Mim’s bathwater were lukewarm, neither hot enough to be comforting nor cold enough to jolt me out of the fog of oversleeping.

         I pulled the plug and the pipes behind the house shuddered and moaned as they drained away the grey water. Like everything in the house, the blue mosaic bath was a replica of the one in the Villa Savoye. The house was one of three Villa Savoye doppelgängers: there was the ‘shadow’ version in Canberra, which was an exact copy but painted black; the ‘mini’ Villa Savoye in Boston, in which every aspect of the original had been shrunk by 10 per cent to fit the client’s budget, and my house, the House for the Study of Water, which replicated Le Corbusier’s in all aspects apart from its location since the original Villa Savoye overlooks the rural French landscape, while the one in Cape Town overlooked the sea.

         Everything I knew about Le Corbusier came from a South African academic who, like a number of so-called architourists, had turned up at the house one day as though it were a museum rather than a private residence. She wore a kaftan and jangly bracelets and was writing a book, she told me, on Le Corbusier and the ‘third world’. The architect who’d designed the House for the Study of Water, Jan Kallenbach, had met Le Corbusier during a tour which he and several other architecture students had made of European architecture. They’d turned up at Le Corbusier’s apartment one day, she said, and the old architect had invited them in and said, OK– she mimicked his French accent – so now I will teach you the système. The système entailed a number of rules which Le Corbusier applied to all buildings, regardless of their size or use, like that all buildings should have movable walls, a roof terrace, horizontal windows and be raised off the ground on stilts. The architecture students – later known as the Johannesburg Group – published articles on Le Corbusier’s système in the local journal, South Africa Architectural Record, and applied it to the design of a number of new houses, built mostly for German Jewish immigrants who’d developed a taste for modernism before the war. With their glass walls and external staircases, these houses typified what became known as the Johannesburg Style. The point about the houses, she said this must have been important because she repeated it several times – is that they were ‘à la Corbu’ but not just meaningless copies. They took his system and synthesised it in a new way. Whereas Kallenbach, apparently, had been so seduced by the Master, as he’d called him, that he believed the practice of architecture post-Le Corbusier could offer nothing more than to replicate his buildings verbatim. We were standing at the strip of windows in the living room, looking at the sea. That’s why he was ostracised from the inner circle, she said. Then she turned away from the window. I feel queasy, she said. The way these windows cut off the ground makes me feel seasick. And for a moment she did look pale, but then, laughing, went on. Maybe that’s the reason Kallenbach’s wife left him. Because living here was like living on a raft. It’s true, the windows did give one an odd perspective of the world. I’d often thought it perverse that a house overlooking the sea should have windows so narrow that they hid all but a sliver of it. It was a restrictive view, almost punitively so, so frustratingly partial that it seemed a kind of tease. Though the sense of something withheld – the sea was there, of course, you just couldn’t see it – was not entirely unpleasant.

         My first encounter with the House for the Study of Water had been on an overheated train several months earlier. I was returning from a recital in which I’d played a prelude by Chopin. The performance had gone badly, a failure I blamed partly on the piano (which I’d not had a chance to familiarise myself with beforehand) and partly on playing directly after the improbably named Belinda Carrots – the standout pianist of our generation, newspapers called her – to whom I was certain that some terrible thing had happened because every time I heard her I just felt so sad.

         The venue was makeshift, an old London courtroom with a piano in it. I had played Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, a piece which most pianists find appallingly sentimental but I, for whatever reason one falls in love with a piece of music, had loved since the moment I first heard it. I’d sat down and, as was my habit, closed my eyes. What’s he doing? someone (deaf or senile, perhaps) had whispered. And what was I doing? I was thinking about Chopin. I was imagining his situation. I was trying to let his feelings, by force of will, enter my body. By the time I started – the melody began in a minor key – I had relocated myself from the brightly lit courtroom where I was sitting to the damp Majorcan monastery where Chopin, pale, dark-haired, tubercular, had installed the piano he’d shipped over from Prague. It was raining. Chopin was waiting for his lover, George Sand, to return with a doctor. The gentle and elegiac melody was, to a certain extent, an expression of the weather, or his feelings about it. When the rain swelled the melody got darker; when the rain relented, Chopin – thinking the storm was withdrawing – made it sweeter and more harmonious. A single A flat note, repeated predominantly by the left hand throughout the piece, represented the sound of the rain from inside the house. While I was playing I was imagining Chopin, himself imagining Sand, or her carriage capsized somewhere along the mountain path, and my chest sank down over the piano in sympathy with his situation. What made the story so awful wasn’t the rain or the cold or the illness, what was worse was the waiting. The waiting made my heart accelerate and caused my fingers, since the heart is the body’s metronome, to follow suit, rushing faster and harder over the keys until they hammered the instrument with such urgency that they seemed not so much to be playing it as trying to penetrate it, to break through to its interior, to burrow into its deepest, most inscrutable recesses, the parts of it where I’d not been before. My right foot rested on the pedal. All around me in the airless courtroom were muddy undifferentiated sounds hanging in the air. The prelude – or that of it which emerged through the wash of notes – mingled with sounds of phlegmy coughs and people shuffling around. Showoff! someone whispered. And I must have been really pounding the piano because as the storm reached its climax it literally came to pieces, the beading falling off and landing on the floor with a clatter.

         Afterwards, paging through the newspaper at the far end of an empty train carriage, I saw a photograph of the house: a brilliant white box raised off the ground on stilts, with curvy sculptural shapes on its roof. The article wasn’t about the house, it was about the death of the minor South African architect who’d built it. It was more a light-relief piece than an obituary, syndicated from a local paper on the strength, I expect, of its macabre headline, All That Was Left Was His Red Swimming Cap. There was an interview with a fisherman who’d witnessed the attack. I saw him wading into the water, he said. When I came back a few minutes later the water was churning. At first I thought it was a shark eating a seal but there was a lot of blood. By the time I called the ambulance, all that was left was his red swimming cap.

         As the train was about to leave, a well-dressed couple slipped in through the closing doors. It was impossible not to hear, even through the noise of the train moving, that they were talking about me. I can’t explain it, the man said. I can’t explain it . . . He spoke slowly, as if searching for exactly the right words. The way he played was just so . . . so . . .

         Unmusical? the woman said.

         Yes, he said, horrible. Mechanical, even. Yet somehow also heartbreaking. It wasn’t the playing itself which was sad – I mean there was nothing sad about his phrasing or his interpretation – what was so moving was, how do I say it, well, it’s as if what was so moving was his absence of feeling. The way he turned the piece into a splintered, wooden rendition of itself. As if he hated the piece, he said, and didn’t want to be playing it. And do you know, the man went on, that when we passed him in the foyer after the performance a strange thing happened. I heard him talking and the way he talks is exactly the same – dull, but almost deliberately so, as if he didn’t really mean what he was saying. Or doesn’t understand the pauses or emphases a person uses to convey a feeling.

         The couple got off and a man with a violin case got on. His eyes were tired and he was so roughly dressed that you couldn’t say whether he was a busker or a music student. I was sitting with my jacket on my lap and my scarf on my jacket and my old leather music satchel on top of that, on which, lying open, was the newspaper, whose pages I had all the while kept turning to avoid being recognised. So they didn’t like me, I thought. Well, I didn’t like them either. But the words in the newspaper swelled and shrunk as though the page beneath me were breathing.

         From time to time, as the train passed through the dark underground tunnels, a ceiling vent opened, letting warm gusts into the carriage, which, if I closed my eyes and let myself believe it, momentarily transported me to somewhere else, somewhere summery. The picture of the house, with its clean lines and pure geometry, was imprinted on the backs of my eyelids. Something about it – the delicacy of the columns holding it up perhaps or the curved shapes on its roof which, contrasted with the restrained mass of the box beneath it, gave the image an almost lyrical flourish – produced a feeling in me: it was similar to love only it wasn’t love because I wasn’t entertaining loving feelings for anyone nor was there anyone in my mind whom I wished to be loved by. It was just a feeling which felt like love, though it was stronger than love and more potent because there was nobody towards whom I could direct and thereby discharge it. I started to doze off. Perhaps it was the heat in the carriage that made me sleepy. Perhaps it was all that weight on my lap, or the rhythm of the tracks, because people around me were falling asleep too in their different ways, some dropping their heads and letting their eyes close, others just staring ahead at the stations passing without really noticing them.

         The sleep I fell into was heavy, like the temporary shutting-down a computer does when it goes into sleep mode to conserve energy. I missed my stop and several after it and woke to a loud bang and everyone talking and shouting at once. I remember someone picked me up and carried me like a dog up a long escalator. I remember a tide of commuters climbing over turnstiles. The next thing I remember is coming to in a hospital ward with my left arm bandaged to the elbow. You were in an accident, said the doctor at my bedside. But don’t look so worried, I’m not going to cut off your hand. He laughed and the nurse beside him laughed too. Even the patient in the adjacent bed, whose head had until now been dropped forward as though he were asleep, started laughing though he may have been coughing, I couldn’t be sure because he covered his face with his hands. The bones of my left wrist had splintered, I was told, and were now held together by a metal pin, the presence of which, since I couldn’t see it (though the bandage confirmed its existence), infected everything with a Gothic atmosphere, making the bloody gauze which the nurse lifted from my skin, hissing through her teeth, look like a stringy spiderweb spanning the lips of the cut, and the fluid seeping from a stitch look like oil oozing from a grotesque sausage.

         The accident must have been in the news because I heard two nurses smoking in the covered walkway outside my window talking about it. It must have been suicide, one was saying, because the driver died with his hand on the accelerator.

         What’s inconceivable to me, said the other, is the wad of cash in his pocket. He’d withdrawn it to buy his daughter a car. Who kills himself when he’s planning to buy his daughter a car?

         The first nurse looked at her cigarette as if it had suddenly become distasteful. Yes, she said, but who drives into a brick wall and doesn’t cover his face with his hands?

         Anyway, said the other, life is short and then you die. Sometimes I wish I were just a train driver, so I could drive around all day listening to music . . .


Excerpted from "OK, Mr. Field"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Katharine Kilalea.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
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