John Dollar

by M. Wiggins,
ISBN: 0773722793

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by Marni Jackson

MARIANNE WIGGINS is a respected writer, born in America, living in London, whose life has recently been rewritten by the fact that she is married to Salman Rushdie. For the time being, she has become one of literature's curious new exiles, a kind of outcast in her own country. She must take bitter pleasure in the fact that her novel, John Dollar, foreshadows this situation in several ways. It tells the story of an Englishwoman in the Far East, in 1918, who is shipwrecked, with one man and eight girls, on an island near Burma. What she experiences there puts her in touch with the human animal lurking under the skin of civilization - and the specific, genteel barbarism disguised as British colonialism. The ordeal leaves her both a survivor and an outcast. It also ends with a man-hunt as unimaginable as the one recently focused on Rushdie in real life. But a novel can sometimes tell a more succinct version of the truth than the "news," and Wiggins's book leaves a reader with questions about the limits of civilization that are no longer academic.

The first half of the novel takes place *in Rangoon, where the 25-year-old English widow Charlotte Lewes has come to teach, and recover herself. Her numb state of grief finds an appropriate setting in the dreamy preposterousness of colonial Burma, where gin-sodden officers await fresh supplies of single women for suitable brides. Charlotte doesn't marry. She teaches the daughters of the empire rules and manners, and lives out a kind of refined hallucination -which Wiggins's writing, with the cold beauty of a novel written by a botanist, reproduces with sometimes irritating elegance.

Charlotte meets a sailor, John Dollar, and the two of them take her students eight girls - off for a sail to a nearby island. A mysterious, bloody ambush and a sudden tidal wave kill some of their party and leave the rest shipwrecked on a deserted island, thereby bringing another English tradition (the inverse empires of Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies) into .play. Needless to say, girls turn out to be capable of as much barbarism as boys, although sometimes bad things are done in the name of love. John Dollar, his spine broken, becomes a crippled god, tended to and groomed by the girls, whose education has been rendered totally irrelevant. They make new rules, and break them. They manage well enough until a boat-/ load of strange men arrives with new technology, and terrible habits.

The ending is predictably horrific, but somehow the worst scene in the book happens in the name of civilized sport, before the shipwreck. The party goes ashore for a picnic (with pretend servants named after every day of the week, not just Friday) and discover hundreds of sea-turtles struggling ashore to lay their eggs. In a kind of game, the children destroy the eggs an act of light-hearted violence whose innocence is worse than the pragmatic savagery of the ending.

The strength of John Dollar -its unwavering, passionate hatred of the colonizing mentality (in this case, that of the British) - is also its weakness. The novel sometimes reads like a cold accounting of a foregone conclusion; the British characters are captured in ruthless, witty mimicry, unendowed with any credible inner life. Wiggins's moral vision, combined with the opaque beauty of her writing, overwhelms the characters and sometimes amounts to a little act of imperialism itself - the tyranny of the author imposing a Higher Truth on the lives of her characters. But she has taken considerable pains to make the novel concrete and vivid, flaunting her research in page-long learned digressions on the colours and variety of seashells. Here is an example of the ravishing distraction of her style:

Across the calcified anatomy of coral her little toes appraise the price of pain against the gain of pleasure. The sea was at her navel, she had ruined her white dress.

This seems less like a story unfolding than a writer writing.


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