The Lap Pool by Robert Drewe

“The Lap Pool” is a short story by Australian author Robert Drewe, and the opening story in his 2008 collection The Rip. Robert Drewe is known for writing about the beach and its centrality in the lives of many Australians. But this story is about man’s relationship to a different body of water — a pool on a farm. The beach is nowhere in sight, except that he has moved away from it.

In this story the author paints a picture of a complicated, unsympathetic character and then kills him off at the end, sort of like divine retribution, the modern equivalent of deus ex machina. (Another example is “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple.) These stories can feel pointless if the author isn’t careful, partly because killing a character at the end can feel like a cheap and easy way to stop writing. If you’re planning this category of story there must be another point to the narrative.

For instance, the story might be a frame for a well-rendered evocation of a very interesting storyworld, symbolically and metaphorically fascinating in its own right.

Or, the author might be testing the reader’s sympathies, encouraging us to understand a character and therefore empathise as a human being. Whenever an author gives us a glimpse into the secret part of a character’s psyche we tend to empathise, even if that character is truly terrible. In that case, a death at the end forces us to realise we actually didn’t mind this guy after all. Stories with this underlying structure can thereby make us question our problematic powers of empathy.

Who do you empathise with in this story? Did you feel a pang of sadness at the end? I remained detached from Leon and I’m pretty sure I groaned at the end but “The Lap Pool” is still a masterful work of short fiction.

STORY WORLD OF “THE LAP POOL”

In a slightly different universe the “The Lap Pool” might have been plotted by America’s Annie Proulx, who has written many short stories about rich city folk who move to rural areas with romantic notions. These naive townies fail to understand the harshness of the natural environment. They annoy the real rural people with their dangerous ignorance and then the environment ends up punishing them severely. “The Lap Pool” is the Australian equivalent of a Proulx Wyoming tale.

Some stories open with a wide angle view of a storyworld. We’re basically told the GPS coordinates (or a fictional version thereof). In this case Robert Drewe opens with a view of a pool, and only at the beginning of section two zooms out to ground the reader in place:

Lushly green, thanks to their prime position between the coast and the Nightcap Ranges, his thirty-two acres lay along a north-south valley of carved-up dairy farms, formerly dense rainforest known as the Big Scrub.

But by opening with a man in a pool, the story becomes more universal than if it were a man in a pool in a specific region of Australia. (We’ve previously been told about Sugar Cane road, though unless you look on a map you may not know where that is.)

‘Lushly green’ paints the farm as an Arcadian setting, though what follows corrects this view for the reader. This is a postlapsarian world. It goes without saying that the dilapidated farm is an outworking of Leon’s emotional state, but worth pointing out how an opening of ‘lushly green’ fools us into thinking this is a beautiful area. In the same way, Leon’s family, friends and acquaintances were ‘fooled’ into thinking Leon was some big shot successful guy, until proven otherwise six months back.

That’s how very closely Drewe ties his main character to the storyworld. It’s masterful.

As Annie Proulx is wont to do, Drewe goes some way towards positioning this landscape in human history. This has the effect of widening a story’s lens, universalising it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LAP POOL”

WEAKNESS/NEED

Leon K. is a first or second generation Australian with a clear Bucharest heritage. The lifelong impact of his non-whiteness is mostly left off the page but Drewe offers enough for us to deduce the quiet racism directed his way, and like various characters in The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, the dominant Australian culture may have taught him that in order to be afforded basic human respect he must make himself financially impressive.

… an urge to become a regular Australian, a suntanned sporting champion…

By middle age he has accumulated a lot of wealth, including a yacht and a ski lodge. As the story opens Leon is in the middle of court proceedings. Drewe drip feeds details of this situation across part one. It’s interesting to see how an author does that, and where he stops. We never find out exactly what crime Leon has committed — it’s enough to learn that he’s a white collar criminal and his impressive assets are (at least partly) partly ill-gotten.

CLUE ONE: His sixth month alone… [Why has he been alone for six months?]

CLUE TWO: Awaiting his trial… while the authorities strengthened their case against him [What has he done?]

CLUE THREE: By now all the official delays, court adjournments and tax investigations were jumbled together in his mind. [Ah, he’s being tried for tax fraud. This is in line with expectation — Drewe has just spent a paragraph painting him as a formerly rich, white-collar character who likes sudoku and fine wines.]

CLUE FOUR: How easy it was to forget the minutiae of the case — the dates, the amounts, the stock transfers and telescoping bank loans, all that paper-shuffling…

FINALLY: Instead of a former company director under indictment for alleged ‘corporate misconduct’… [Sounds boring and technical, that’s all I need to know.]

At this part of his journey towards prison Leon is teetering on the edge of sanity. The reader, along with Leon, doesn’t know for sure whether he’s being followed by white vans. Drewe draws us into Leon’s paranoia with the close third person point of view (a.ka. close psychic distance). Notice how the narrator chooses to take us into Leon’s head when it suits, then pulls out to offer a commentary on his personality that Leon himself probably doesn’t understand. For instance, in the opening paragraph below, does Leon know just how important the swimming is to him, or is this something only a narrator would understand fully? Notice also what Drewe has chosen to put inside brackets. I believe when he uses the brackets he’s inserting what Leon himself would tell us, moving more fully into Leon’s head in a paragraph which is otherwise psychically distant:

Naked and forty-seven, Leon K. backstroked steadily up and down the lap pool, an eddy of drowned insects in his wake. Of course he knew his rhythm by now; he automatically counted strokes as well as laps. … Despite the pool’s cool temperature (it was a windy autumn and the connection to the solar panels on the farmhouse roof was broken) he needed to swim in order to relax…

However, when Drewe wants to the reader to share in Leon’s confused view on reality, we’re right inside Leon’s head (close psychic narration). First we are offered Leon’s parallel view of reality, the story that goes on inside his head:

What should he anticipate around the next murky head? A riskily unlit hippie cyclist, an invisible hitchhiker, a petrol tanker thundering across the imperceptible lane markings? Would he ever see his way clear?

Lists feature heavily in this short story as well. The lists are in keeping with Leon’s psychological trick of counting his strokes, his laps, his days. He’s counting down his days towards death (though the reader doesn’t know it yet). Notice how in the paragraph below Drewe uses various kinds of lists. The first sentence describes the same thing (his fugue) in three different phrasings. The second sentence is a more traditional ‘list’, checking off all the things Leon hears around him:

At the start of his troubles he’d tried to fight the unusual effect [his solicitor’s monotone] had on him: the gradual fainting sensation and cloudy vision, leading to a total mental fade-out, a sort of grey noise where only background sounds had any relevants. The tap-tapping of the pool’s filter box, magpies calling on the lawn, brush turkeys scratching in the shrubbery.

Below, there’s no ‘bird’s eye narrator’ telling the reader, don’t worry, there’s no white car following Leon, he’s just imagining it:

Whenever he went to town, purposely observing the speed limit, his car was tailgated by furious motorists, and also sometimes by mysterious white vehicles. Several times he’d noticed a white car parked in his lane while someone photographed the house and property from the front gate. When he stepped outside to question the photographer, the man (he couldn’t tell if it was the same man) nonchalantly sauntered to his car and accelerated away. Some authority keeping tabs on him, he supposed. One of the many gung-ho State and Federal acronyms fighting corporate crime nowadays, all competing to capture the big-business scalps.

DESIRE

We can deduce that Leon doesn’t want to be found guilty and sent to prison, but that’s actually outside the realms of this story.

This particular snapshot of Leon’s life centres on a short period before his court case in which he’s losing everything. He’s lost his family, his friends, most of his assets. In this story he wants to keep his grip on reality as best he can, stave off paranoia and worry, and keep doing laps in the pool on his run-down farm.

OPPONENT

What’s stopping him?

First it’s his lawyer, who is otherwise on his side. (For the part that happens outside the bounds of this story.)

Against his own best interests he’d come to dread the weekly visit of the one person who might at least clarify matters for him

What else is stopping him from psychic peace? He is widely disliked by his neighbours because he comes from Eastern Sydney (Vaucluse is an expensive part of Australia). In a story about the rural urban divide, Leon’s rural neighbours make natural opponents.

Of course his neighbours, real farmers, many of whose ancestors had razed the original rainforest to plant gras for their cattle, detested the camphor laurel as an alien weed…

A note about the camphor. As noted by the narrator, the ‘detested camphor laurel’ is closely associated with ‘the Asian Hordes’ in rural Australia. (Camphor features heavily in Japanese animation My Neighbour Totoro.) In South Asia, camphor is considered highly purifying is used to represent the dissolution of the ego since it burns without leaving any trace. I’m not sure if Drewe had this symbolism in mind when he wrote this story, but let’s imagine nothing is an accident.

What he absolutely did know is that the camphor laurel is “probably is a tree that has stirred up more emotion than anything.” It grows quickly around the Big Scrub area and provides nice, green, leafy shade but is now considered a weed. Farmers are currently divided between those who consider the camphor tree a problem and those who are okay with a more gradual eradication.

Camphor is mentioned again in the context of moth balls as Leon recalls a fur coat in a wardrobe after seeing a pony’s ragged rump.

The ‘community’ as opponent requires a face, and that face needs to appear in a scene. In this case it’s the old hippie who yells at Leon in the street, calling him a wog.

Finally a romantic opponent arrives, or a proxy. China Mason, another Asian reference which in the end has nothing to do with Asia. (China is a rhyming slang nick name.) Drewe is making use of that old chestnut in which women are closer to the earth (because women are the vessels of reproduction and provide food from the body), while men consider themselves closer to god. Like many of Drewe’s middle-aged male narrators, Leon battles against his own hormonal/physical reaction to a woman when he knows, for propriety’s sake, he’s not meant to react in that way. In reality, the snake catcher (an erotic pun?) has nothing to do with Leon’s battle against himself.

But notice how what Leon thinks he thinks about men and women isn’t actually how he feels about men and women. Before the arrival of the unexpectedly woman snake catcher, Leon (or the narrator) has this to say about men:

Male habits made a disgusting list. The deep indentations their buttocks left int he sofa, the everlasting stink in the bathroom, the eggy detritus of their breakfast plates. Representing his gender, irritating and unaware Wyntuhl had a lot to answer for. Men were so rooted to the ground, over-earthed and overbearing.

PLAN

Although it really tests Leon to pick up the phone in his current psychological state, he has no choice but to call the snake catcher.

In Australia these people really do exist, and this is what we’re meant to do if we find an unwelcome snake on our property. We’re not meant to wait until the creature is almost dead before calling, because snakes are a protected species. In short, Leon does nothing at all until he really has to.

BATTLE

The snake catcher removes the snake deftly from the pool. Another writer might’ve made a big deal out of that, turning it into the Battle scene. But this would’ve been the wrong thing to do because this is not the Battle scene of the story at all. Instead, it is written in a matter-of-fact way:

She took only about twenty seconds to scoop up the snake from the pool and snap the trap shut, and perhaps another minute to detach the trap from the pole and place it in the back of her van.

When a second snake emerges in the pool and bites Leon on the neck (of all places) the story jumps the shark. Or, more generously, Drewe plunges us firmly into fairytale realm.

SELF-REVELATION

A dead character can’t exactly have a self-revelation but they can have some thoughts just as they expire. Leon asks the snake catcher woman, “What do I do now?” He has realised his powerlessness. Until now he’s distracted himself with swimming and sudoku and whatnot, but finally he’s realised the extent of his own vulnerability.

This is why I think Drewe knows full well the symbolism behind camphor. As he dies, Leon shucks off his ego.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Leon is dead. He won’t have to go to court, I guess.

There’s an ideology implicitly embedded in stories like these, in which a main character commits wrongs against society and then ends up punished by nature: That nature has its own karmic force.

This sums up why I’m not personally a fan of stories like this. My own worldview is inversely that nature doesn’t care. Worse, due to how we’ve set society up, nature in reality takes good people more often than it takes the Leon Ks of this world.

“The Lap Pool” is a short story by Australian author Robert Drewe, and the opening story in the 2008 collection The Rip. Robert Drewe is known for writing about the beach, and its importance to the lives of many Australians, but this particular story is about man’s relationship to a very different body of water — a pool on a farm. The beach is nowhere in sight.

This is an example of a story in which the author paints a picture of a complicated, unsympathetic character and then kills him at the end, sort of like divine retribution, the modern equivalent of deus ex machina. (Another example is “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple.) These stories can feel pointless if the author isn’t careful, partly because killing a character at the end can feel like a cheap and easy way to stop writing. If you’re planning this category of story there must be another point to the narrative, because the plot in itself is not sophisticated.

For instance, the story might be a frame for a well-rendered evocation of a very interesting storyworld.

Or, the author might be testing the reader’s empathies, encouraging us to understand a character and therefore empathise as a human being. Whenever an author gives us a glimpse into the secret part of a character’s psyche we are primed to empathise, even if that person is truly terrible. In that case, the death at the end forces us to realise we actually didn’t mind this guy after all. Stories with this underlying structure can thereby make us question our problematic powers of empathy.

Who do you empathise with in this story? Did you feel a pang of sadness at the end?

STORY WORLD OF “THE LAP POOL”

In a slightly different universe the “The Lap Pool” might have been plotted by America’s Annie Proulx, who has written many short stories about rich city folk who move to rural areas, who fail to understand the harshness of the environment, annoy the real rural people with their dangerous ignorance and then end up punished by the environment itself. This is an Australian equivalent.

Some stories open with a wide angle view of a storyworld. We’re basically told the GPS coordinates (or a fictional version thereof). In this case Robert Drewe opens with a view of a pool, and only at the beginning of section two zooms out to ground the reader in place:

Lushly green, thanks to their prime position between the coast and the Nightcap Ranges, his thirty-two acres lay along a north-south valley of carved-up dairy farms, formerly dense rainforest known as the Big Scrub.

But by opening with a man in a pool, the story becomes more universal than if it were a man in a pool in a specific region of Australia. (We’ve previously been told about Sugar Cane road, though unless you look on a map you may not know where that is.)

‘Lushly green’ paints the farm as an Arcadian setting, though what follows corrects this view for the reader. This is a postlapsarian world. It goes without saying that the dilapidated farm is an outworking of Leon’s emotional state, but worth pointing out how an opening of ‘lushly green’ fools us into thinking this is a beautiful area. In the same way, Leon’s family, friends and acquaintances were ‘fooled’ into thinking Leon was some big shot successful guy, until proven otherwise six months back.

That’s how very closely Drewe ties his main character to the storyworld. It’s masterful.

As Annie Proulx is wont to do, Drewe goes some way towards positioning this landscape in human history. This widens a story’s field of view, universalising it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LAP POOL”

WEAKNESS/NEED

Leon K. is a first or second generation Australian with a clear Bucharest heritage. The lifelong impact of his non-whiteness is mostly left off the page but Drewe offers enough for us to deduce the quiet racism directed his way, and like various characters in The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, the dominant Australian culture may have taught him that in order to be afforded basic human respect he must make himself financially impressive.

… an urge to become a regular Australian, a suntanned sporting champion…

By middle age he has accumulated a lot of wealth, including a yacht and a ski lodge. As the story opens Leon is in the middle of court proceedings. Drewe drip feeds details of this situation across part one. It’s interesting to see how an author does that, and where he stops. We never find out exactly what crime Leon has committed — it’s enough to learn that he’s a white collar criminal and his impressive assets are (at least partly) partly ill-gotten.

CLUE ONE: His sixth month alone… [Why has he been alone for six months?]

CLUE TWO: Awaiting his trial… while the authorities strengthened their case against him [What has he done?]

CLUE THREE: By now all the official delays, court adjournments and tax investigations were jumbled together in his mind. [Ah, he’s being tried for tax fraud. This is in line with expectation — Drewe has just spent a paragraph painting him as a formerly rich, white-collar character who likes sudoku and fine wines.]

CLUE FOUR: How easy it was to forget the minutiae of the case — the dates, the amounts, the stock transfers and telescoping bank loans, all that paper-shuffling…

FINALLY: Instead of a former company director under indictment for alleged ‘corporate misconduct’… [Sounds boring and technical, that’s all I need to know.]

At this part of his journey towards prison Leon is teetering on the edge of sanity. The reader, along with Leon, doesn’t know for sure whether he’s being followed by white vans. Drewe draws us into Leon’s paranoia with the close third person point of view (a.ka. close psychic distance). Notice how the narrator chooses to take us into Leon’s head when it suits, then pulls out to offer a commentary on his personality that Leon himself probably doesn’t understand. For instance, in the opening paragraph below, does Leon know just how important the swimming is to him, or is this something only a narrator would understand fully? Notice also what Drewe has chosen to put inside brackets. I believe when he uses the brackets he’s inserting what Leon himself would tell us, moving more fully into Leon’s head in a paragraph which is otherwise psychically distant:

Naked and forty-seven, Leon K. backstroked steadily up and down the lap pool, an eddy of drowned insects in his wake. Of course he knew his rhythm by now; he automatically counted strokes as well as laps. … Despite the pool’s cool temperature (it was a windy autumn and the connection to the solar panels on the farmhouse roof was broken) he needed to swim in order to relax…

However, when Drewe wants to the reader to share in Leon’s confused view on reality, we’re right inside Leon’s head (close psychic narration). First we are offered Leon’s parallel view of reality, the story that goes on inside his head:

What should he anticipate around the next murky head? A riskily unlit hippie cyclist, an invisible hitchhiker, a petrol tanker thundering across the imperceptible lane markings? Would he ever see his way clear?

Lists feature heavily in this short story as well. The lists are in keeping with Leon’s psychological trick of counting his strokes, his laps, his days. He’s counting down his days towards death (though the reader doesn’t know it yet). Notice how in the paragraph below Drewe uses various kinds of lists. The first sentence describes the same thing (his fugue) in three different phrasings. The second sentence is a more traditional ‘list’, checking off all the things Leon hears around him:

At the start of his troubles he’d tried to fight the unusual effect [his solicitor’s monotone] had on him: the gradual fainting sensation and cloudy vision, leading to a total mental fade-out, a sort of grey noise where only background sounds had any relevants. The tap-tapping of the pool’s filter box, magpies calling on the lawn, brush turkeys scratching in the shrubbery.

Below, there’s no ‘bird’s eye narrator’ telling the reader, don’t worry, there’s no white car following Leon, he’s just imagining it:

Whenever he went to town, purposely observing the speed limit, his car was tailgated by furious motorists, and also sometimes by mysterious white vehicles. Several times he’d noticed a white car parked in his lane while someone photographed the house and property from the front gate. When he stepped outside to question the photographer, the man (he couldn’t tell if it was the same man) nonchalantly sauntered to his car and accelerated away. Some authority keeping tabs on him, he supposed. One of the many gung-ho State and Federal acronyms fighting corporate crime nowadays, all competing to capture the big-business scalps.

DESIRE

We can deduce that Leon doesn’t want to be found guilty and sent to prison, but that’s actually outside the realms of this story.

This particular snapshot of Leon’s life centres on a short period before his court case in which he’s losing everything. He’s lost his family, his friends, most of his assets. In this story he wants to keep his grip on reality as best he can, stave off paranoia and worry, and keep doing laps in the pool on his run-down farm.

OPPONENT

What’s stopping him?

First it’s his lawyer, who is otherwise on his side. (For the part that happens outside the bounds of this story.)

Against his own best interests he’d come to dread the weekly visit of the one person who might at least clarify matters for him

What else is stopping him from psychic peace? He is widely disliked by his neighbours because he comes from Eastern Sydney (Vaucluse is an expensive part of Australia). In a story about the rural urban divide, Leon’s rural neighbours make natural opponents.

Of course his neighbours, real farmers, many of whose ancestors had razed the original rainforest to plant gras for their cattle, detested the camphor laurel as an alien weed…

A note about the camphor. As noted by the narrator, the ‘detested camphor laurel’ is closely associated with ‘the Asian Hordes’ in rural Australia. (Camphor features heavily in Japanese animation My Neighbour Totoro.) In South Asia, camphor is considered highly purifying is used to represent the dissolution of the ego since it burns without leaving any trace. I’m not sure if Drewe had this symbolism in mind when he wrote this story, but let’s imagine nothing is an accident.

What he absolutely did know is that the camphor laurel is “probably is a tree that has stirred up more emotion than anything.” It grows quickly around the Big Scrub area and provides nice, green, leafy shade but is now considered a weed. Farmers are currently divided between those who consider the camphor tree a problem and those who are okay with a more gradual eradication.

The ‘community’ as opponent requires a face, and that face needs to appear in a scene. In this case it’s the old hippie who yells at Leon in the street, calling him a wog.

Finally a romantic opponent arrives, or a proxy. Drewe is making use of that old chestnut in which women are closer to the earth (because women are the vessels of reproduction and provide food from the body), while men consider themselves closer to god. Like many of Drewe’s middle-aged male narrators, Leon battles against his own hormonal/physical reaction to a woman when he knows, for propriety’s sake, he’s not meant to react in that way. In reality, the snake catcher (an erotic pun?) has nothing to do with Leon’s battle against himself.

But notice how what Leon thinks he thinks about men and women isn’t actually how he feels about men and women. Before the arrival of the unexpectedly woman snake catcher, Leon (or the narrator) has this to say about men:

Male habits made a disgusting list. The deep indentations their buttocks left int he sofa, the everlasting stink in the bathroom, the eggy detritus of their breakfast plates. Representing his gender, irritating and unaware Wyntuhl had a lot to answer for. Men were so rooted to the ground, over-earthed and overbearing.

PLAN

Although it really tests Leon to pick up the phone in his current psychological state, he has no choice but to call the snake catcher.

In Australia these people really do exist, and this is what we’re meant to do if we find an unwelcome snake on our property. We’re not meant to wait until the creature is almost dead before calling, because snakes are a protected species. In short, Leon does nothing at all until he really has to.

BATTLE

The snake catcher removes the snake deftly from the pool. Another writer might’ve made a big deal out of that, turning it into the Battle scene. But this would’ve been the wrong thing to do, because this is not the Battle scene of the story at all. Instead, it is written in a matter-of-fact way, as if describing a laundry cycle:

When a second snake emerges in the pool and bites Leon on the neck (of all places) the story has jumped the shark. Or, more generously, Drewe has plunged us more firmly into fairytale realm.

SELF-REVELATION

A dead character can’t exactly have a self-revelation but they can have some thoughts just as they expire. Leon asks the snake catcher woman, “What do I do now?” He has realised his powerlessness. Until now he’s distracted himself with swimming and sudoku and whatnot, but finally he’s realised the extent of his own vulnerability.

This is why I think Drewe knows full well the symbolism behind camphor. Leon has shucked off his ego.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Leon is dead. He won’t have to go to court, I guess.

There’s an ideology implicitly embedded in stories like these, in which a main character commits wrongs against society and then ends up punished by nature: That nature has its own karmic force.

This sums up why I’m not personally a fan of stories like this. My own worldview is inversely that nature doesn’t care. Worse, due to how we’ve set society up, nature in reality takes good people more often than it takes the Leon Ks of this world.

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