Margaret Drabble: In Defiance of Time

It only makes sense that a novelist of such long tenure, one so preoccupied with the slippery nature of time, should actually write a novel on the subject of “prolepsis”—the anticipation of future events. Drabble uses the adjectival form of the word frequently in her new novel, beginning with the first sentence: “What she felt for those children, as she was to realize some years later, was a proleptic tenderness.” When one notices its insistent reuse, by a writer of such verbal precision, consulting the dictionary seems a good idea.

It turns out that prolepsis has several meanings, a cluster of meanings, some of them overlapping, which form a suggestive arrangement of ideas. As well as “anticipatory,” proleptic can also mean (in an apparent reversal of the first meaning) “anachronistic.” In rhetoric, prolepsis occurs when one preemptively raises objections to one’s own argument and then refutes them. Used in a medical context, it may refer to a series of “proleptic seizures,” in which the interval of time between each seizure becomes successively briefer.

It does seem that Drabble’s frequent use of “proleptic” to describe events and feelings in The Pure Gold Baby has been planted by her as a clue to what her novel is, thematically, brooding over. The narrator, and the main character whose story she is telling, her best friend Jess, wonder a lot about what they knew and when they knew it, and whether or not it would have made any difference if they had known earlier, or never learned, what they have come to know about their lives. Mostly, they find themselves looking back over the years to the 1970s, when Jess gave birth to her “pure gold baby,” Anna, who was born beautiful, blond, and sweet-natured—and, as became clear in the first few years of her life, mentally slow.

The children for whom Jess is said to have felt a “proleptic tenderness” were African; Jess was a student of anthropology conducting research in the 1960s when she encountered the curiously deformed “lobster-claw” children of a particular tribe where the genetic disposition, to what is called “ectrodactyly,” was pronounced. In Scotland, where this particular division and fusing of the fingers of the hand and the toes of the foot into “claws” is also genetically common, these children are called (in a dialect version of “clipped” and with reference to their supposed ancestor, Constable Bell) the “Cleppie Bells.” Images of the African children and the Cleppie Bells float through the pages of this novel, always invoked with affection. As Drabble carefully spells it out again: “They [the African children] were proleptic, but they were also prophetic.”

Jess’s daughter will not be born with this same problem of the body, but with an analogous problem of the mind; she will function, but with some difficulty; she will be beautiful, but different, and hampered. The care with which the narrator and Jess find themselves not naming Anna’s exact problem—the old labels of “handicapped” or “retarded” are avoided; but so are the newer labels of “differently abled” or “learning disabled”—contributes to a curious mood of baffled delicacy in the novel as a whole.

To name the child’s problem would be to restrict, to medicalize, to label the child herself. It would be to offer a proleptic version of her destiny—which Drabble is unwilling to do. It is a testament to the intensity and skill of Drabble’s writing that part of this novel’s suspense has to do with our waiting for definitions, diagnoses, and certainties that are never offered; and that part of our satisfaction lies in our acceptance that they cannot be.

The narrator, who is herself never named and who exhibits an intense, preoccupied attachment to her friend Jess (“Jess’s stories have become my stories and some of mine have become hers”), has her own children and husband and work but tells us only the bare minimum about all that, choosing instead to tell things from what she imagines to be Jess’s perspective—about Anna’s conception, birth, and upbringing to the present day.

There is no plot in the usual sense. There is story: Anna is born, Anna grows up. There is her mother’s parallel story: Jess has a baby; the baby is “pure gold” and a delight, but also a heavy burden, as gold can be; Jess worries that she will soon be too old to care for her daughter. And as I have suggested already, there is in addition the story of how much the narrator will, and will not, tell us about herself; and how much of what she tells us about Jess is from direct knowledge, and how much is speculation.

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