Tracing a Circle: Autonomy in Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks

Towards the end of Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks, Charlie—the novel’s sixty-year-old narrator—is listening to her grandson Tommy justify his sudden commitment to pro-life politics.

Tommy is in his late teens. He loves order, mathematics, logic. David, a man Charlie has developed a clandestine relationship with during New Zealand’s stage-four Covid lockdown, hesitantly asks him whether, as a man, he believes is entitled to an opinion on the subject of what women can and cannot do with their bodies. When he flatly replies that yes, he does, his girlfriend Jenna tells him: ‘you’re entitled to a feeling, Tommy, not an opinion.’

The opposition that Jenna establishes here seems to make intuitive sense: feeling is inchoate, pre-verbal, whereas opinion is an ideological position constituted in speech. Something you break down rationally, away from the impolite mess of emotional responses. While Tommy likes to think that he is ‘only interested in facts’—an echo of far-right pundit Ben Shapiro’s ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’—he ignores the ways his ambiguous and fragmented family lineage has informed his growing obsession with the subject. For Tommy, the question as to whether a pregnant person has the right to make decisions over their own body is a moral one, but he believes that moral questions can and must be answered through hard reasoning. Nothing so hazy as feeling can be permitted to intrude. Everything operates in the realm of the abstract.

Of course, Orr herself knows that nothing is ever that tidy. The heart of this novel throbs between these two poles, deep in the human slippage of political and legal frameworks.

Loops Tracks begins in 1978 with Charlie, fifteen and pregnant to a man she doesn’t know, about to fly from Wellington to Sydney to get her ‘situation’ sorted out. There’s a lot of talk of sorting out situations, gentle euphemisms to skirt the edges of bemusement and her parents’ shame. The Sisters Overseas Network will greet her at Sydney airport and take her to an abortion clinic—illegal at the time in her home country—and then she will fly home and return to school with nobody any the wiser. She is with two other young women who compete for a spot near the back of the plane for ease of bathroom access.

But the plane stalls on the tarmac—first for an hour, then two more—before the pilot finally announces that they’re going to have to wait for a while. Anyone that would like to make alternative travel arrangements is welcome to do so. It’s as if this offer of escape purges Charlie of all volition: Orr shifts the narrative voice to the third person. Without speaking, Charlie rises to her feet and leaves the plane. In this most decisive of moments, Charlie seems to leave her own body. She doesn’t leave the flight out of fear or shame—she just does it. The young women accompanying her run to the plane’s doors and desperately call her back but she ignores them, the gravity of her actions only hitting home once the doors have locked and the plane has left for Sydney:

I can only watch the girl that I was. Sixteen, pregnant, with her head full of romance and a brain yet to develop the parts that tether her to reality, she stands up … the girl that was me understands nothing of this, and that is why … she picks up her little bag and joins the queue of passengers walking down the aisle.

Call it an impulse, a sudden act, but whatever it is, it’s not a decision. Not in the definitive sense of a resolution reached after consideration. Orr’s protagonist is not an outright feminist like the young woman in Annie Ernaux’s L’événement, railing against reproductive fascism no matter the cost. Instead, the novel dramatises how the intersecting pressures of unjust laws, a patriarchal state, the family, the school, impact someone who does not yet have the tools to conceptualise herself in relation to the world.

Eliza Hittman’s film Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) stars a young woman living in Pennsylvannia, where abortion is illegal, desperately fighting to miscarry and, when that fails, to legally abort the foetus in New York. To a reader familiar with these narratives, Charlie’s apparent passivity first scans as resignation, but we later come to see that she has not surrendered her agency so much as deferred it—she is a child, after all, one who needs care and support, and who is instead being swept away overseas to face a medical procedure she doesn’t know anything about. Putting things off provides the comforting illusion that they have disappeared. She says of her mother:

It came to my attention, over the course of this visit and those that followed, that she was on a quest to trick me or lull me into revealing the name of the baby’s father. It lurked behind every conversation. That’s how I saw it. He has rights in this too, she said once. His family, they should know. Once I cottoned onto the entrapment, the visits became unpleasant for both of us. Frustrating for her and tiresome for me. I would never give her what she wanted, and therefore she could never give me what I needed: her unconditional love and support.

Her father is the one that ‘breaks first’. He asks what she was thinking, weeps while steeping the tea. Orr omits Charlie’s responses. ‘My recollection is that I didn’t answer his question. I may have shrugged.’ These hazy fissures are not just time laying waste to memory. Orr skilfully writes around Charlie’s pregnancy, with Charlie herself describing the period as ‘the Age of Ellipses,’ in which she would ‘give birth to a single neuter pronoun’ and ‘strip the baby of its humanness’. It’s not that Charlie wants to have a baby, but that she lacks the capacity to see herself in command of her own life.

The silences and evasions of this period will later manifest in a fear of speech, or a ‘speech block’: despite her affinity for structural linguistics, Charlie develops what she calls a ‘disfluency’, a jarring ‘crackle like a power surge’ between her brain and larynx. The anguish and shame of her family that initially fails to register with Charlie lay dormant within her for years, eventually robbing her of a voice and a way of positioning herself within language. When she is preparing to tell her son the story years later, she immediately writes that she has ‘read about this moment in other people’s lives’ and that the words ‘hang in the air between them, apparently.’ The muted pain in this. To be so decentered in your own self-knowledge.

While reading this section, I was reminded of Dewey Dell Bundren, the pregnant teenager in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Living with her broken family on the margins of rural Mississippi, Dewey Dell doesn’t possess the vocabulary to even recognise that she is pregnant. All she knows is that ‘God has a way of telling women when something has happened bad’, and that she is afraid of her future, having had a mother who outright reviled the social expectations placed on her. The rural hamlets skirt her vision as they wheel her mother’s decaying body to be buried, buzzards wheeling and circling above. She faces the cruel judgments and manipulations of moralising pharmacists, both of whom chide her for asking for abortion drugs. Eventually, her own father takes the ten dollars she had spare to pay for them, effectively consigning her to a life she fears.

The ramifications of Charlie leaving the plane are perhaps less bleak, but only marginally so. Orr skips ahead to 2019, where Charlie is now living with her grandson Tommy. His father Jim—Charlie’s son—has abandoned him, being unwilling and unable to provide him adequate care. After she returned to New Zealand, Charlie gave birth to Jim, at which point he was taken out of her care, and she returned to school as if nothing ever happened. Jim grew into a vindictive narcissist, having served a sentence for dealing heroin and acid which he tried to pin on his own mother.

We observe Tommy through Charlie’s tender gaze. She adores him, even as his difficulties in parsing emotional cues trigger sour moods and fits of rage. But that tenderness becomes clouded by a deep anxiety towards his blooming sexuality. One part of the novel ends as she walks past his bedroom and passively observes he and his girlfriend Jenna fucking, a sight that startles her, and whose traces hover at the back of her mind like an afterimage for weeks afterwards. Correspondences develop between sex, fear, and silence. Unable to face the real trauma of her youth, Charlie sees its violence reverberate throughout her life and that of her family’s, until she can name it and see it for what it is.

Orr writes with clarity and in plain language, but the beauty of Loop Tracks is in its pacing and structural grace. There is foreshadowing in the novel’s epigraph, taken from Javier Marias’s A Heart So White:

The truth never shines forth, as the saying goes, because the only truth is that which is known to no one and remains un-transmitted, that which is not translated into words or images…

Self-knowledge is always delayed and deferred. Marias’s narrator, a Spanish translator, points towards some elusive truth beyond the closed system of language, but also recognises that such a thing might be chimerical. In Loop Tracks, the truth of Charlie’s experience, and the trauma of her encounters with a patriarchal state, reveal themselves to her obliquely and typically without words. As a narrator, Charlie does not spend much time theorising: we often sense that the people around her know more than she does. But we do see that, in small gestures and phrases and observations, the history of a life is always present. Faulkner again: the past is not dead. It’s not even past.

Charlie’s knowledge is affective. When Covid finally strikes New Zealand and Jacinda Ardern announces a hard lockdown, Charlie grows weary of the constant you may nots, but never voices her resentment towards the government. Ennui strikes each day at five o’clock, and she pours a glass of wine or walks through the autumn air to cope. But she doesn’t speak of her grief until much later, when her life begins to sag under the weight of too much family history.

Orr is not just interested in the cruelties and injustices perpetuated by patriarchal laws—though there is that, too—but the affective overhang that they create in our lives. All of this is foreshadowed by the novel’s opening scenes, in which Charlie is waiting in the airport terminal with another girl flying to Sydney. Sitting on the concourse, they notice an old, weepy looking woman they identify as an anti-abortion protester fingering the cross she wears around her neck. Her punk friend tells her to get fucked, but Charlie feels sorry for her, saying:

She was a loser, hanging around airports at five in the morning, flashing her crucifix, picking on people like the punk rocker and me. It was thanks to her and her mob that we had to go to Australia in the first place. But still.

That’s a big ‘but still’. Charlie’s looking at someone that would rather see her burn in hell than safely terminate her pregnancy. And yet: but still. She just looks like such a fucking loser, she thinks, with all the pathos she is capable of. Just as she will later confront her beloved grandson’s own conspiratorial, misogynist politics: he is wrong, he repulses me: but still. Orr is so good with these moments. Our encounters with coercive political reality are never affectively straightforward—they carry the residue of pity, love, regret, even while they are charged with anguish, fear, and anger. So, when Charlie recognises that Tommy is going to continue to quietly attend pro-life rallies, she decides that she just has to live with it. Again, it’s not a resignation. It’s an acceptance that those we love live within the barbed wire of ideology too.

I walk around fairly confident in my sense of free will, certain that I am in charge of my decisions. It’s more comforting than reminding myself that my consciousness is formed in relationship to complex networks of power and capital. But it’s also a privilege to be able to do so: not being able to get pregnant, I will never need to fear being dehumanised by an extremist state for seeking an abortion, unless I am caring for somebody else who is. In the last pages of Loop Tracks Charlie does find ‘the right words’ for what happened to her, and feels some agency return, even if it’s just the ability to choose between a slow walk and a quick one. When we can truly choose, Orr tells us, that is when we know have returned to ourselves. And that’s the beauty of this novel. Though we see the ways a traumatic event can spiral out into the dense fabric of our lives, we also glimpse ways that spiral can resolve in time.


Image: Ashok Boghani

Sean Watson

Sean Watson is a writer and high school English teacher from Melbourne.

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