Comedy and the Conceptual in Douglas Oliver's The Harmless Building

Laura Steele

There was a dubious man who emerged from the rhododendrons and told a false anecdote about the death of Shelley. Then he mentioned Stevenson and a private theatre. "After that, my owl-watching subtly changed: Shelley manor house itself became my memorious object, entitled in my secret mythology The Harmless Building1.

It is private yet the building is far from being all walls. The first chapter, 'Kind Regards', begins: "For the moment the truth is hiding in obstreperous fiction. I can, however, say that a real mongol baby died and that his memory affects my life." I feel immediately uneasy about the appeal's mixture of the abundantly personal and the impersonally mythic, and the novel continues to pursue unease throughout. "Loving that real baby as I tried and still try to do, failing to love him as I failed – once crucially – and still fail to do, I have an index of how vanity mars my good intentions and of how, proudly shunning my own mental inadequacy, I so often cause harm." This index is one of sweet stupidity, culpability, the flaw in kindness, "This fiction may at times pose as clever, but you will bring the moral to it if you succeed in tracking my stupidity." (113)

How will we track it? The novel keeps generating concepts from a rag-tag plot which follows the kidnapping of a baby called Uncle Aubrey. There is the harmless building, a death, a train-crash. The high style of a yarn, with its silhouette characters, has had its episodic contents replaced by a comedy of concepts. What exists is chaos, in this cosmology, and it can be half-resolved or patterned though it disseminates danger; it can form, and return; it is a chaos which is ground and forest, with clearings. "The project here will not be speed, poise, style, or the crossbow whizz of thought, though that may seem the project. Instead, I should love to keep a mongol baby alive in my mind, an outgoingness and kindness, a lack of coherence, an area of almost no-harm like a clearing in the middle of harm." (113) Towards the end we reach the clearing.


What is politics? It is "the spirit of daring among people" (225).


The human body's organs are treated to the inverted life of description throughout. I remember the tracing of two stomachs during a sex scene, "At first, the two stomachs wrangled, pushing each other indiscriminately out of shape and stressing the sphincter muscles which kept the food in the leathern bags." (248) The stomach seems to have usurped the heart as the organ to which the face is index. Your stomach is where you intersect with things. At other times bodies are "like a vast shore in moonlight." (128) What is a body, is it a set of relations, and what can the body do? "How many people can mentally equip a human body with its right organs, correctly arranged – let alone an estuary of sand with its under-surface organs and its sub-oceanic implications? Where does ragworm and cockle have its home? How many people can detail just the passage of food through their own bodies? You see what I mean about the chaos underlying apparently clear statement?" (128)

The idea of a body encompasses good: "The flaw in goodness is also a wound in your image of your body." (202) The flaw is also a poverty in a system.

The human face is intermittently a patchwork of politics, "The mottling was now recognisable as a map of Uruguay" (204) and perforation: "Our eyes normally send out something of ourselves, a puff of air through the iris, that expands momentously to live in the sunny surroundings. We end up joyful in a landscape that regards us, like a mirror or a true-love, partly with our own look." (167) The body's theme is provided by the Western, the mirror-landscape where a slick gunfighter may walk tall or, as Oliver puts it, "the more you dominate other people the taller you feel." (117) It is domination which affects the body. Back to sex: "Penis and vagina expand and contract according to analogous illusions of our control over them; and we are back to the Western film subtleties of how domination affects notions of body-size. So the penis, sensed as out of control and yearning to ejaculate, dominates the mind, and feels and is large; the case of the orgasm-seeking vagina is rather more complicated for the woman, but holds to the same laws of desire exceeding mental control, with consequent sensations of increased size and openness." (166) During sex, there are "fluctuations of domination which pass between the couple". This is Oliver's sense of oppression as voodoo: "Voodoo death is in all of us who are dominated. All who snub and have contempt for us curse our stomach, lungs and heart." (168)


The diagrammatic often appears as an unexpected exposure of formal relations, rendered absurd in freeze frame: Frank tells of his days in Uruguay, ". . .the crowd, as it raced round the building to stone the buses, froze into the pattern of a banana trying to circle an orange." (133) How does it happen? How does the personal myth or diagram form? "How, out of the developing chaos of our lives' stories do the patterns emerge?" One example: "The dots of light that swarmed behind the closed lids (he called this 'the eyelid swarm') had many networks of tension that complicated the mysterious rhythms of self–firing neurons in the brain – a self-firing which, some suppose, causes the dots." (131) These marks are Donald's favourite line of inquiry, these "amber hyphens and slashes of light", "scars and blotches", pressure, residue, combinational probability, Coleridgean Will, they are pure immanence of pattern.

The arrow and the dot are the two elements of bodily diagrams. Descartes tried to imagine the soul as a vapour, but Oliver muses otherwise: "Though I don't believe in reincarnation, it's pleasant to think of a painless identity that gradually becomes motionless in the body when it dies. Just a single direction arrow, broad and thick, sulking in the middle of the chest like a grumpy lungfish. Then in cremation there'd be a crazy moment when the arrow explodes into a transmigration of little arrows hurled into the air." (139) The body itself is reduced to arrows of information or feedback: "He sent out direction arrows from a central point in his chest to replot the internal body territory at all limits south of his gullet and more direction arrows from just behind his eyes to all parts of his head. [. . .] The conclusion was inescapable: one of those arrows goes more cautiously whenever the internal space is more emotionally complex." (137) Within this flow chart, death is a still point: "The fear of death began as a dark spot in the interior of his body and rolled along passageways of internal space, gathering to itself the reddish brown darkness as it went, becoming bigger and bigger, more and more solid, increasing pace, until his heart suddenly loomed up and the hard-packed clot smashed into it." (189)

There is a danger or a limit in perceiving the arrow not the force: it is a question "whether when they explained magnetism to you and drew diagrams of oblong magnets with little N–S direction arrows inside, you could really get rid of those arrows in your mind-picture when the explanation became more complex." (221)


"Wet lawns speak to bare feet, 'It's all right; it's all right'; gravel paths said, 'Never mind the present discomfort; you have a history still to live." (252) "In the park, late–abed seagulls circled overhead, calling 'Jacques Lacan, Jacques Lacan', without giving further details." (212) In the navy-blue bus, "the engine shuddered with the phrase, 'We love from the heart and we hate from the heart.'" (225)

1 Douglas Oliver, An Island That Is All The World

All page numbers refer to three variations on the theme of harm (Paladin, 1990), which collects three Oliver books together, the third being a revised reprint of The Harmless Building. It is this revised novel which is discussed here. The first version was published in 1973 by Grosseteste and Ferry Press.

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