Barwin, Gary: Yiddish for Pirates

Yiddish for PiratesBarwin, Gary
Yiddish for Pirates
Random House Canada, 2016
337 pages

For someone who considers herself at least somewhat versed in the Canadian writing and arts scene, I am mystified as to how it could be that I had not previously known of Gary Barwin. A veritable polyglottal polymath, both a poet and a one-man band, an uber-menschian everyman, his curriculum vitae includes a PhD in music composition, other and various degrees in education, creative writing, English and the fine arts, a command of at least three languages, multi-level teaching experience, including work with at-risk street youth, and writer-in-residencies at Western University and the London Public Library. In his spare time, it seems, he freelances as a writer and editor, creative writing workshop leader, and music and literary festival performer.  Described elsewhere as a “multifarious experimental scribe and noted small-press denizen,” he is also a writer of critically recognized children’s books and volumes of poetry.

The central premise of this, his latest oeuvre — that a 500-year-old, multilingual parrot, who may or may not have been splashed  by the eternal-life-giving waters of the fountain of youth, has deigned to entertain you with the tale of his most significant other, Moishe, (an expatriate Lithuanian Jew, turned pirate, on the run from the Spanish Inquisition) and their riotous adventures plying the Ocean Sea and beyond — may or may not intrigue you, depending on your relationship with the rational. I have chosen to be charmed.  To be more precise, I had no choice.

                                       There’s no greater ache than an untold story…   

If, as Aaron the parrot (apparently versed in Angelou) opines, “there’s no greater ache than an untold story,” then he must have been one sore bird. The adventures of pirate and parrot that spill from his articulate beak are almost endless and endlessly varied.  In fact, the word “story”cannot quite contain the contents of the book — imagine that proverbial sack of  weasels with the word “STORY” imprinted across its front. Now add the cartoon action — frantic squirms and wiggles and bulges and shrieks, the occasional tooth or claw piercing the fabric. Now you have some idea of the relationship between this Barwin opus and the general idea of “a story.”

But, to begin at the beginning;

Fin-de-siecle Europe (fin de 15th siecle, to be precise) was a dangerous, turbulent time, particularly if you were Jewish or a resident of what was about to be labelled the new world.  The Spanish Inquisition was in full swing, and the murderous and acquisitive Ferdinand and  Isabella of Spain were busy expanding their horizons in search of new lands to plunder whilst, simultaneously, aided by the insane Torquemada,  inquiring into the religious sensibilities of their subjects. Those deemed insufficiently christian were purged in ways that seem, in hindsight, even considering the tenor of the times, remarkably unchristian.

Those alert to such details will immediately note the enchanted quality of Moishe’s beginnings  — a hint, perhaps, of his destiny.  Raped in the midst of a pogrom, his young mother died shortly after childbirth, the baby thrown into a river, only to be rescued by a young Jewess.  Named “Moishe,” or “Moses” meaning “he who is drawn from water,” the biblical parallels for his beginnings are obvious. And, indeed, many of his early adventures involve him pushing, pulling, and floating his people towards a promised land. With a head full of ideas too big for his tiny shtetl in Vilnius, Lithuania, the fourteen-year-old Moishe runs away with dreams of exploring the world, taking with him only a few necessities, two silver coins, and a mysterious book he found hidden in his parents’ bedroom.  Finding work on a ship sailing to Portugal, Moishe meets his lifetime companion and voice, a multilingual African grey parrot he names Aaron (biblically, the brother of Moses, and his spokesperson, or in this case, spokesbird). Initially handicapped by his limited ability with language  (basic Yiddish only) Moishe is, early on in their adventures in Portugal and Spain, entirely dependent on Aaron, whose excellent command of both Yiddish and Spanish allows them safe passage through many tricky situations in which it was best not to be identified as Jewish. In this way, Aaron does speak for Moishe, as he does again when he tells us his story.

Moishe’s wanderlust has led him, somewhat inadvertently, into perhaps the most dangerous situation he might find himself at the time — a young, unprotected Jewish boy,  wandering through Spain and Portugal at the height of the Inquisition’s insanity. He quickly becomes embroiled in an effort to save a small band of Jews and their precious, ancient books, in the process falling in life-long love with Sarah, one member of this band. Betrayed by his ship’s captain, witness to the grisly extremes of the Inquisition, cruelly separated from his newfound love, a victim of theft and of violence,  Moishe, the little dreamer, is soon taught a thing or two about pain, grief, power and human nature by the world he had been so anxious to explore.

During one of their many and varied adventures at sea, Moishe and Aaron cross paths with Christopher Columbus, here a bumbling quixotic character who wafts in and out of the story from this point on, and, ultimately, is responsible for Moishe and Aaron’s further adventures in the New World, as they accompany him on his quest, in 1492, to find a westerly sea route to China. Unimpressed, as a result of his experiences, with the “civilized,” world, Moishe, is, very soon, disabused of the notion that goodness might be a matter of geography, or that he can leave greed, cruelty, and injustice behind in the old world. Appalled by atrocities committed by the Spanish against the native Bahamian population, and hopelessly separated from his one true love, he rejects civilization outright, and becomes a pirate.

Moishe and Aaron’s final great adventure begins when Moishe decides that, since they are in the neighbourhood anyway, they should try to locate the fabled fountain of youth. Success in this venture, it seems, requires the acquisition of five secret and mysterious books, allusions to which have popped up throughout the story, and much convoluted adventuring results from the attempt to do so.   Are they successful?  I won’t give it away, but some insight may be gained from the fact that Aaron, self-proclaimed inseparable companion to Moishe,  is left, five hundred years later, to tell the story.

Considering the most enticing topics for discussion in a review of this book, one is confounded by an embarrassment of riches — the wondrous verve and exuberance of the  language, the many and varied literary, cultural and pop cultural allusions and enticing biblical, talmudic, and alchemical references and their possible significance, the examination of otherness, the significance of the sea, the wry and world-weary humour, the meditation on the importance of story… I could go on.

Let’s start with the language. As the title implies, Barwin makes ample use of Yiddish in the book, and the text is peppered with Yiddish expressions, some translated, some not. I must say, there is something particularly infectious about Yiddish and one side-effect of reading the story may be that your own speech becomes, as mine has, colonized with these idioms, to the mystification of your family and friends. Barwin has noted elsewhere “There’s something really energizing about an admixture of languages in one sentence. It’s a vibrant polyphonic or polyrhythmic music. A lively dialogue.” Indeed it is! Pursuing the musical reference, beyond the multilingual aspects of the writing, the next quality of note is the rhythm — sentences that careen across the page with unstoppable momentum, beats that cannot be denied.  Add, now, a razor-sharp ability to capture the  essence of a thing in a few choice words, and a grand, rule-shaming, lexicographical derring-do, and you’ve got — well, what you’ve got is a very beguiling mix. Consider, for example, Aaron’s first impressions upon entering the great Spanish church, the Catedral de Sevilla:

Even the dried-out beef-jerky soul of an alter kaker parrot became dazed by the intoxicating lotus-scented pong of Mother Church in such a Xanadu of thurible-fumed fantasmagoria.

I anticipate little push-back when I note that writing a  sentence like that requires chutzpah.

Further consider this description of an encounter in a pub:

Columbus had already called for food and drink from the barmaid who, it seemed, had been sewn together some time ago from old leather and duck meat.

To the exuberance and humour, we can add moments of admirable precision, depth, and compression, as when the social elites are described as being “buoyed by the jewelled palanquin of privilege,” (the longer one allows that image to inhabit one’s imagination, the more apt it becomes) or the quick sketch of the enormous and powerful draft horses of the wealthy  “dressed in silks and resembling cantering four-poster beds.”

The predominant tone of the work is one of a tongue-in-cheek, swashbuckling good yarn, a sailor’s jig of a story, full of the self-deprecating and ironic humour of the oppressed. However, when Aaron, in his preliminary remarks, suggests to a young boy that he “bench [his] fat little oysgepasheter Cape Horn tuches down on that chair and listen to my beaking,”  he has far more than a slapstick tale of adventure to tell. Barwin is going after life here, the whole story, in all its glory, ugliness and pain, and uses the innocence and humour of the pirate adventure trope to pull unwitting readers closer to the heart of life’s tragedy and grief than might otherwise be possible. You’ve been warned. One minute one is rollicking along on the horns of a fine and funny adventure, secure in the belief that one’s hero must, for stylistic and genre-related purposes, prevail, and before one knows it, or can mount any kind of emotional defense, one finds one has been rollicked right into the middle of, for example, an execution scene from the Spanish Inquisition, where with a slight uptick in tension and contrast, slapdash slapstick turns macabre and lunatic, from madcap to simply mad. Barwin has a fine sense of the limits of his readers’ capacity for the terrors and horrors of human history and before things get too sobering — slap, dash, a good joke, and, if necessary, a little deus et machina, and one is whisked off to the next adventure. The near-brush with the dark-side, however, leaves a slow-fading after- image, a sombre counter-point to all the kibbitzing, and thus the story acquires a depth and poignancy that transcends its style.

Books, and the function and importance of story are ideas which infuse the work. The five mysterious volumes, which, purportedly, hold the key to the location of the fountain of youth, and thus eternal life, can clearly be associated with the Pentateuch of the Old Testament and Torah.  They, along with the five section titles of the novel, Air, Fire, Water, Land, and Quintessence, trail enticing alchemical, and kabbalistic associations, which are sadly, mostly beyond my ken. However, even the uninitiated can divine that an examination of the nature of existence, and the meaning of life, may lie at the heart of this work. Throughout, the primacy of the story prevails, and, indeed, ample suggestions are given that an understanding of story is the key to life everlasting.  Very early in the tale, Moishe’s adoptive father explains to his son that “The world (…) was a book. A great scroll. Like the Torah, when it ended, it began again.” He proceeds, more specifically, to point out that, “At the end of the story, the story begins again and so we live forever.” The key, purportedly, to the location of the fountain of youth lies within the ancient books — and, remembering that it is stories that inhabit books,  perhaps the interpretation of this is meant to be more literal than the seekers suspect. Remember, as well, that Moishe has come to life in our imaginations (and in that of Aaron’s young fictional audience) because Aaron tells us his story. Further developing this idea of the story, the book is populated with more or less subtle allusions to many other great stories.  Beyond the obvious biblical and talmudic references, one can find the voices of Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Joseph Conrad, Huxley, Wilde, Angelou, and Leonard Cohen (and no doubt many others) singing within these pages. The overall effect is the sense that all our great stories are connected in a manner reminiscent of some of Northrop Frye’s ideas about an educated imagination, and alive and well in the world, retelling themselves, infinitely, in large and small ways.

This writing bridges the usual divide that exists between levels of life and thought — the philosophical (the meaning and nature of existence) the imaginative life of the mind (stories of identity and quest) and the far muckier absurdity of everyday life.  It manages to exist in all three simultaneously, and with relish. Above all, it is a great, joyful celebration of our human capacity for story, and the magnificent collection we have amassed thus far.


Some further resources:

A brief Yiddish glossary provided by the author on his serifofnottingham blog
(Apparently a complete glossary is planned at a later date.)

Barwin, Gary. Pirate stories, Shalom Village, memory and Yiddish. Hamilton Jewish News. April 2016.












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Wiebe, Rudy: Come Back

WiebeWiebe, Rudy
Come Back
Knopf Canada, 2014
HC 268 pages

Western Canadian writer Rudy Wiebe’s latest novel, Come Back is a searing, psychologically rich cri de coeur — an elderly father’s confused, enraged, heartbroken appeal to the universe to find some meaning in his young son’s suicide, and finally, and belatedly, an attempt to address his own sense of inadequacy, its role in the 25-year old tragedy, the accompanying guilt, and to find some peace.

Hal (Helmut) Wiens is, in fact, a character from Wiebe’s first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, an 8-year-old Mennonite boy in that story, but now a 75-year-old retired university English professor, living in Edmonton, Alberta.  His Mennonite upbringing is still a strong influence in his life, and in the story — from the numerous references to Low German, the oral language of his childhood, the deep familiarity with scripture, and the close-knit family structure, to a certain reserved hardiness. Hal has, 7 months ago, lost his beloved wife of 50 years, Yolanda. His grown children, a son (Dennis) and daughter (Miriam) are devoted but separated geographically — one in Toronto and one in Vancouver — with families of their own. Although bereft, Hal seems to be coping, taking refuge in routine structure and, especially, in daily visits to the local coffee shop, the Double Cup, where he enjoys observing the “passing show” of the world outside, and the company of his friend Owl, an indigent Dene man whose opinions and insights Hal has come to respect and value.  Presaged by an unusual gathering of four ravens nearby, which, as Owl observes, is “no joke,” and an image of children vanishing from Hal’s sight along the street, this rickety veil of normalcy is ripped asunder one sunny day in late April when Hal catches a glimpse, through the coffee shop widow, of a tall young man  wearing a bright orange down-filled jacket.  Exploding into the street in excitement and anguish, he races through an intersection, leaving traffic carnage in his wake, in pursuit of the apparition, shouting the name “Gabriel,” but, to his despair, loses the man in the crowds.  Described in short, rapid fire sequences, mayhem erupting on all sides,  his breathless desperation pathetic in the truest sense of the word, this scene reveals Hal’s emotional and physical frailty, and engages the reader in his psychic trauma with remarkable force. The intensity of his reaction leaves little doubt that his relationship with this Gabriel is fraught, and one must radically readjust one’s expectations of the story from, perhaps, a meditation on grief and loss in respect to Yolanda, to an inquiry into this new mystery — one which only deepens and acquires ominous undertones, shortly thereafter, when it is revealed that Gabriel, the man glimpsed in the streets, is a second, long-dead son who, as a young man in his twenties, 25 years earlier, committed suicide at the family cottage.

It is a testament to Wiebe’s skill as a writer that he manages to build so much empathy for Hal within the first twenty or so pages that one now feels a real sense of  dread for his well-being.  The most logical explanation of the events is that grief over the loss of his spouse has unhinged him, that he is experiencing some sort of psychic breakdown, or that dementia has set in.  The presence of Owl however (who, as becomes apparent, represents an element of native spirituality and wisdom) and the unusual concatenation of ravens as a prelude to the event hint at higher metaphysical forces at work.

Whatever the provenance of the apparition, its arrival marks an important turning point in Hal’s approach to his son Gabriel’s suicide.  Although one’s sense of the family is of strength and closeness, there are indications that Hal carries a great burden of guilt about his role as Gabriel’s father — that he fears a lack of alertness, empathy, or a failure of action on his part may have contributed to the suicide.  A thoughtful, educated, and essentially honest man, Hal has no doubt been haunted by these questions for most of his life, but, as one learns early on, he has, since Yolanda’s death, determined to think on them no further.  Indeed, his quasi stream of consciousness musings are peppered with self-admonition, warning his thoughts away from anything that might, by association, lead to the topic of Gabriel. No doubt some instinct for psychic survival has informed him — an intuition that the old grief, and new, together, might undo him.

Reeling from the immediate aftermath of the appearance of his dead son, and the anguished reliving of the moments and days surrounding the suicide which the revenance  precipitated, Hal realizes that:

The Orange Downfill had ripped open what he locked down so carefully every day, every minute — Leo [his Argentinian son-in-law] would call it a barranca. That was it, exactly, a violent chasm torn through the eroded mountains of his life.

To his dismay, beyond the vivid clarity of the initial crisis, he can remember remarkably little about his time together with Gabriel. Had he neglected this quiet, shy child? Had he failed to notice, to guide, to support? Is he failing his child again by willfully ignoring all that is left of him — his true story? Hal interprets the vision to mean that he must, now, before it is too late, confront the truth of his son’s short life, to (as one epigraph hints) come  “face to face” with the enigma of his suicide, to try to understand Gabriel and his actions even if that means confronting his fears as a parent and inadequacies as a person.  It is time, as St Paul, (via the motto of Gabriel’s University of Alberta day planner) admonishes, to find

 whatsoever things are true, [whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise] think on these things.

In practical terms, this means he must descend into the basement of his home to, finally, after twenty-five  years, explore a collection of Gabriel’s diaries and miscellaneous writings, cataloged and stored there by Yolanda. In metaphorical, mythological and psychological terms, this signals a katabasis — a descent into memory/the underworld/the subconscious to rescue a loved one, to find wisdom, and more deeply, to confront the mystery of death and consider the nature of time and the meaning of human life.

And so, the story within the story begins:  Hal’s  trek to the underworld, a confrontation with his shadow which he has been avoiding for twenty-five years, as he forces himself to try to piece together, from the shards of his own memory and Gabriel’s sparse notes, a  belated, but true understanding of his dead son. There are monsters waiting, and (partial and imperfect) understanding is hard-won and comes with pain and regret.  Had he repressed awareness of the potential for suicide? Possibly. Had he missed or misread patterns and signs? Most definitely. Were his attempts to help his son misguided and uninformed?  Often. Was his (self-centred?) engagement with and ease in the outer world a reproach to his son? Maybe. If he had been home that fateful day would his son still be alive? Impossible to say.

In as much as he had allowed himself to consider these things at all, Hal had always identified an encounter between the then twenty-four-year old Gabe and Ailsa, the thirteen-year-old daughter of friends, as the beginning of the troubles that culminated in his suicide.  Described by Hal as “two months a teen” and, therefore,  “unimaginably dangerous,” anxious to explore her developing sexual powers, Ailsa briefly flirted with this shy, older friend of her family, resulting in a disastrous, obsessive romantic fixation on Gabe’s part, which was, ultimately, unrequited and never acted upon.  This situation dominates much of Gabriel’s diary writing thereafter and, within months, he had driven  to Aspen Creek, the family cottage, and asphyxiated himself with carbon monoxide in the family’s pickup truck. One significant realization for Hal is that, although the situation with Ailsa certainly may have initiated Gabriel’s final downward spiral, in fact, the pattern of infatuation with young girls had begun much earlier — in retrospect, had been hiding in plain sight — with boyhood fixations on young Russian gymnasts, which, at the time, Hal had airily dismissed as emotional growing pains. Gabriel, had, however, been acutely aware of the pattern and there is evidence of a heroic struggle on his part to come to terms with himself, to find some workable way to be in the world. Employing strategies perhaps absorbed from his literary father, he had, as his diaries indicate, turned to literature and the cinema, over and over again, in a search of understanding and guidance — the Bible (Songs of Solomon) Rilke (First Elegies) Stendhal’s (De L’Amour) Hardy (Tess of the d’Urbervilles) Donne, Nabokov, and the movie Spring Symphony, are a few of the many works mentioned. In one heartbreaking segment (considering the fact that Hal and the reader encounter it long after the fact of Gabriel’s suicide) he notes:

 I will have faith, not necessarily in any particular future but faith that to remain as I am is a good and worthy thing. Things will work out, life goes on. Caring love survives.

Pedophilia is a radioactive word, and one which hovers uncomfortably around Gabriel’s story.  Tension rises considerably as Hal discovers Gabriel’s accounts of quasi-stalker-like behaviour in regards to Ailsa, (following her home from school in his car, secretly observing her life) and mild sexual fantasies.  Ultimately, however, Gabriel’s infatuation with the girl is never acted upon, and is not even, necessarily, sexual in nature.  Wiebe’s approach to the issue is deeply compassionate, and there is evidence, in Gabe’s diaries, of his struggle to understand himself. At one point he wonders if, perhaps, Ailsa’s fascination can be explained by the associations her age carries with that time in his own life — a time untroubled by self-doubt, depression, failure and “aloneness”.  Gabriel’s sexuality is not straightforward, and never clarified

Slowly, Hal begins to stitch together a picture of a very troubled young man, thoughtful, intelligent, loving and well-meaning, but hyper-aware of, and tortured by, his inability to engage with the world, enervated and depressed, suffering from a pervasive sense of alienation and meaninglessness, self-identified as, not lonely, but “alone,” sensitive about his difference, and his obsessive tendencies but unable to act to change things. Hal, a man with a fundamentally different nature, reading his dead son’s fragmentary thoughts, twenty-five years later, is often only baffled and frustrated by Gabriel’s chronic inability to engage with the world, to act in his own interest, his lack of resilience — Hal’s more dynamic personality continuously finding opportunities, alternative pathways, and positive interpretations where Gabriel, apparently, found none. He does come to gradually appreciate, however, the effort that Gabriel did make, and the grinding exhaustion which eventually led to his refusal to continue.

Not only must Hal make personal peace with the past, he must also reconcile his son’s fate with his understanding of the universe. By nature and by upbringing, Hal abhors the idea of suicide. Fundamentalist members of his extended Mennonite family were rendered awkward and uncertain at Gabriel’s funeral — unable to find ways, beyond their simple presence, to comfort one of their own who had, as they believed, most certainly lost his son to the flames of hell. Hal’s approach to religion is broader and more nuanced, and, perhaps, had been somewhat perfunctory during his active, adult years. But now, seated as he is, on the edge of eternity himself, addressing the tragedy of his son’s life and death, he is, belatedly, forced to reconfigure his sense of a spiritual universe. The idea of reincarnation is tangentially explored as Hal looks to his friend Owl for help in interpreting the meaning of Gabriel’s fleeting reappearance in his physical world. Noting that the vision appeared to be a young man in his twenties and that Gabriel was 24 when he died, 25-years-ago, Owl tells Hal of stories, imperfectly remembered from his childhood, of the souls of those who died too young being transferred  to those being born.  He can, however, offer no further insights — this thread of cultural knowledge made tenuous by the cultural upheavals of his own society.  There is, further, a tantalizing correspondence between the death in WWII, of Hal’s beloved older brother,  Thomas, and Gabriel’s birth, 16 years, to the day (January 28) later, but, in the end, nothing further is made of this.  A very practical suggestion from Owl that the North Saskatchewan River ravines that transected the city might be a fruitful place to search for the mysterious young man in the orange downfill leads Hal to reflect on the symbolic idea of “river”

always ambivalent; it corresponds to the creative power of both nature and time. On the one hand it signifies fertility and life, the progressive irrigation of the soil; and on the other hand it stands for the irreversible passage of time and, in consequence, for a sense of gathering loss…

Rivers, in fact, permeate the story, and  Hal and Owl’s descent into the city’s river ravines indicates a move toward acknowledgement and an attempt to reconcile these two fundamental forces of life and lays bare the undercurrents of Hal’s ultimate quest and that of the novel itself. The search proves fruitless and leaves Hal convinced that he need look no further for Gabriel’s reincarnation– that the revenant was not, in fact, physical.

What is one to make, then, of Hal’s vision of his dead son?  His ongoing excavations of his memories reveal that, in fact, this was not the first time that Gabriel had made his presence known in the years since his death — two distinct incidents are mentioned.  The first was a visitation experienced by Yolanda, comforting in nature, in which she felt herself encircled in her dead son’s embrace, and reassured that he was alright. Hal, as well, had a very similar experience, approximately ten years after Gabriel’s death. Both incidents, entirely subjective, are open to interpretation, as is the most recent. However, the fact that Owl also saw a man in an orange downfill on the street that day, and the unusual gathering of the ravens, gives the latest appearance greater portent.  Add to this the fact that Hal discovers the same date (April 28) circled in Gabe’s planner to mark an intended pilgrimage to the Oldman River, which he identifies as the best place to do “it.”  The exact nature of “it” remains ambiguous — perhaps suicide, or, perhaps a quest to rediscover his younger, true and happy self.  Significantly, amongst the artifacts preserved in Hal’s basement is a small shard of pottery, saved by Gabriel from a day spent with his father and a family friend, exploring the Oldman River’s eroded banks, suggesting, as well, the idea of excavation of the past, and of discovery.  Gabriel never made his pilgrimage — opting out at the last minute.  His spectral reappearance on the anniversary of its intended date can be interpreted as a message or plea to his father to engage in the psychic excavation and exploration required to discover the truth of his son’s life, before it is too late.  In the end, Hal does reach a sort of fitful peace with the past, comes to understand the courage of his son’s battle, and, in some sense, the reality of a life lived by one with a nature fundamentally different from his own. Also, and importantly, there is a sense of rightness to Hal’s belated witness to his son’s life, his excavation of his true story.

That Wiebe intended his story to have deeply spiritual and psychological dimensions, and to evoke the mysteries of life, love, and time, is clear from the number of correspondences, portents, signs and patterns that he embeds within it, some of which have already been mentioned. Beyond the wide-ranging survey of significant works of art which have wrestled with these ideas, and the many scriptural references, it is worth noting the strange coincidences of dates and in particular the number 28 (which, besides its whiff of moon magic and fertility, trails a whole host of mysterious mathematical, astronomical, religious and cultural associations)  January 28th, as mentioned, is the day of Thomas’s death and Gabriel’s birth, April 28 the day marked out by Gabe for the abandoned Oldman River quest and, also, the day on which the elderly Hal sees his vision of his son. As well, Gabriel’s sister’s wedding is postponed from September 21st to the 28th, as a result of her brother’s suicide.  Gabriel’s name, of course, carries with it associations with messages and revelations. The ravens function at an intersection of folklore, literature, Native spirituality and Jungian psychology, bringing together the ideas of spiritual guidance,  cosmic messages, and healing,  with those of warning, omens, and of  Jung’s shadow self — the dark side of the human psyche.

Old Man in Sorrow Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Old Man in Sorrow
Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The underlying sense of invisible connections, ineffable forces, and unseen influences, is very effectively supported by one particularly strong resonance: the early description of a Van Gogh painting, Old Man In Sorrow, viewed by Hal and Yolanda on a visit to the Winnipeg Art Gallery the day before Gabriel’s birth.  The sight of the painting caused the very pregnant Yolanda to “gasp aloud” and stare intently.  As Hal describes it:

“The ancient body bent forward into the agony of a question mark, seated in an orange — Orange — chair, worn ragged in blue and thick fingers clawed into eyes. Also named On the Threshold of Eternity.”

Wiebe has threaded the predominant colours in the picture — orange (in the omnipresent down-filled vest) and blue (in Gabriel’s bible, the ink of his earlier diary, and the colour of the pickup truck in which his body was found) throughout the novel — guide wires back to the key ideas of sorrow, age, time, and eternity.  As well, the picture acts as a portent, a cosmic comment on the repercussions of Gabriel’s birth, a sign that Gabe would cause Hal to question the universe and all its workings.  Compare this description of Hal as he begins his exploration of his dead son’s artifacts, in his basement, in his 75th year, to the description of the painting above:

He was alone in his basement. Bent, like a question mark on a worn wooden chair

–a cosmic meme, distilled in the work of a great artist and reverberating in the life of a man.

As mentioned in the introduction to this review, this is an intense work. Wiebe is playing for keeps  — addressing life’s essential questions with clear-eyed ferocity, attempting to come to terms with death and grief, with the idea of life as a procession of losses, with a god who would allow such things, and to take the measure of a human life against all of time, to see life, not through a mirror, but to stare the enigma in the face. It’s depths are hard won.  If one prefers the mirror, pass by.


Further Resources: An interview with Rudy Wiebe on CJSW Radio Writer’s  Block

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You’ve Seen It Before: Predictive Imagery in Michael Crummey’s Sweetland

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2013

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2013

As mentioned in the main review, Michael Crummey’s Sweetland is full of hints and suggestions of another reality beyond what we might consider the normal everyday — places which, as Moses, the protagonist notes, can’t be found on a map.  It is those people whose interaction with average, everyday, civilized life is not precisely average who seem to experience this other world most frequently.  Jesse, who, as Moses has come to understand, has an intensely personal internal existence, a “private landscape that surfaced now and then into the wider world,”  is one example. Queenie Coffin, the agoraphobe, perhaps another, and, of course, Moses himself, in his increasingly isolated and delirious existence on the deserted island.

While Crummey never pronounces directly on the issue, he does support this air of uncanny possibility, which pervades the novel, and unnerves the reader (in a way that promotes empathy with Moses’s experiences) in a number of ways.  One important strategy which contributes to this outcome is the use of predictive imagery — images encountered by the reader which later events in the story will mirror quite precisely.  One’s direct knowledge of key, tragic events, is foreshadowed with imagery.

The two strongest examples of this are the symmetries found, first for the story of Moses’s brother’s (Hollis’s) death — a defining moment in Moses’s life, which contains a key secret which is gradually revealed in the story, and, secondly, in the description of Jesse sleeping, which portends the details of his eventual death.

The Death of Hollis:

His temporary work as a deckhand on a schooner shipping goods along the coast got Moses involved in an unlikely tourism initiative which involved introducing wild buffalo to Newfoundland in the hopes of attracting more big game hunters.  His boat was contracted to move the animals from Cape Breton to the uninhabited island of Little Sweetland.  In the chaotic process of loading the animals, a cow falls into the sea and drowns, her last moments described from Moses’s memory, as he tells the story to Jesse:

She went down slowly at first, submerging like a boat taking on water.  But once she was under she sank like a stone, as though she was on a line and being dragged down from below. That dark face staring up at Sweetland on the surface, eyes wide, bubbles streaming from the massive nostrils. He could see her descending through the clear water for a long, long time (…) Lost sight of her after awhile. (page 38)

Later, on a fishing trip together, Jesse teases the story of Hollis’s drowning from Moses, a subject Moses has been touchily reticent about.  According to this story, Hollis drowned when he fell into and became tangled in a trawl line of a net, heavy with fish, and was dragged overboard.  Moses, in a moment of bad judgement, thinking he needed to release the terrible tension of the rope straining against the net full of fish, within which his brother was entangled, cut the line. In retrospect, it was the worst thing he could have done, as, now with nothing to prevent it, Hollis is pulled, inexorably, down into the depths by the weight of the net. As Moses describes it:

He could see the white of his brother’s face looking back up to the surface.  Hundreds of pounds of fish on the trawl and the weight of it pulling Hollis down and down into that black. (page 134)

Although Moses’s completely understandable comment that, “I’d have done it all different (…) If I had my time back.” is eventually appreciated for its loaded content, this image carries an accurate image of Hollis’s death, as Moses experienced it, and which the readers  have already encountered in the death of the cow.  One can’t help but admire Crummey’s writerly frugality when one notices, besides its predictive function, the beautiful exactness of this description as a metaphor for the way time (the ocean) swallows up a human life.  The dead remain visible, although receding, in the memories of others, for quite some time, but, eventually, all disappear into the past.

Photo by:  Kerry Riley, 2014

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2014

Jesse’s Death:

In a second striking example of this predictive imagery, Moses takes a moment at the end of a visit  to check in, tenderly, on his sleeping nephew, whom he finds, fast asleep, in a pair of old pyjamas, far too small, but which he has refused to give up:

The pyjamas made him look hopelessly vulnerable in his bed, his limbs like pale shoots growing out of the fabric, the smooth expanse of his belly exposed.  The little well of the navel a thimbleful of darkness.  Jesse’s face was turned toward the door but angled unnaturally up toward the headboard.  He looked like he’d fallen from a height, dropped from a rooftop or a headland and come to rest in that mangled posture.  Sweetland wanted to ease the boy’s arms back down at his sides, to straighten the leg crooked against the wall.  He wanted to lie down with the boy awhile and listen to him breathe. (page 126)

In the frantic search for Jesse, who has gone missing after it becomes known that Moses has capitulated to the relocation, his mangled body is first seen by Moses floating like flotsam, crashing against the rocks at the base of an ocean cliff. Barry Priddle, of the Priddle brothers, and Moses manage to scrabble down the cliff because of a precarious ladder  drilled into the rock, an artifact from an old landing pad, but they cannot lift Jesse’s body back up to the top.  Moses is left tied to the ladder, cradling Jesse’s body protectively while Barry races for help. (pages 154- 157).

The past and the future are linked through imagery, and both Moses and the reader have foreseen this tragedy.

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Crummey, Michael: Sweetland

Sweetland CrummeyCrummey, Michael
Doubleday Canada, 2014
HC, 318 pages

Michael Crummey, now firmly established as one of our pre-eminent Canadian writers, has, throughout his career, explored, with extraordinary depth of perception, the peculiar and particular emotional ache that arises from our human awareness of the passage of time, and the eternal sadness of lost things.  It is not nostalgia, precisely; it is far grander and deeper than that. It encompasses not just the yearning for a particular time past, but all times past, and, not just the yearning of an individual but a sort of collective regretful reverence, tied inextricably but not necessarily straightforwardly, to our own individual sense of mortality, and the weirdness of possessing a consciousness that allows us to contemplate it.  This connection between our own mortality, and our relationship to, and acceptance of, the inevitable cycles of birth, life and death is explored in Crummey’s latest novel, Sweetland, in which the end of an individual life (that of Moses Sweetland) and the end of a way of life (in Newfoundland’s outports) brilliantly coalesce in a splendid and sombre story.

Moses Sweetland, irascible, taciturn, stubborn, loyal and heroic, is sixty-nine years old, and on the cusp of his seventh age.  An elder of the tiny (population ~90) Newfoundland outport community of Chance Cove, on the island of Sweetland, named after his ancestors who arrived two centuries ago,  he is in the difficult position of being forced by life to contemplate not only his own denouement, but that of his community as well.  His life story is the story of his place, Newfoundland, picking up it’s history from about the time that Crummey’s last novel Galore (a Canadian masterpiece!) left off, and carrying into the present day.

The early death of their father left Moses and his brother Hollis struggling to support the family with subsistence fishing.  There is the obligatory youthful trip to Toronto in search of “good money” which ends catastrophically in an industrial accident which disfigured Moses, and sent him back to Newfoundland, where he worked as a fisherman until the 1992 moratorium on cod. This was followed by a period as a lighthouse keeper, until that was automated, at which point he drifted into retirement. Inexorable change, it seems, has been nipping at Moses’s heels all his life.  Never married, he lived with his mother until her death nine months prior to the opening of the story, surrounded by a family and community shaped and, in some cases warped, by the exigencies of life in the outports.

Moses’s immediate community includes his blind brother-in-law Pilgrim, who lives with his daughter Clara (Moses’s niece) and her possibly autistic son, Jesse. Other notables include Queenie Coffin, the chainsmoking, serial-romance-novel-reading, agorophobe, who plants a flower garden each spring by dumping a packet of seeds out of a window into a plot below, and Duke Fewer, who set up a mostly imaginary barbershop business in town after the cod moratorium, where a perpetual game of chess plays itself out over the course of the story.  There is Moses’s hopelessly hapless neighbour Loveless, who can’t take care of anything, including himself. Loveless’s sister Sara, although deceased, still makes her presence felt, as does Ruth, Moses’s sister and Clara’s mother, deceased as well.  The Priddle brothers, albeit somewhat peripheral characters, are nonetheless sketched impeccably — a pair of rogue bachelor brothers most often making big money somewhere “away” and living wildly but returning sporadically to disrupt the community and whose essential natures teeter precariously and unpredictably between dangerous and heroic. Crummey’s approach to characterization might be described as “compassionate hilarious,” and he is unparallelled in his ability reveal characters from the inside-out,  with extraordinary economy, who, once encountered by the reader, become permanent acquaintances. In the process, the essential heroism of the characters’ wry stoicism in the face of life’s tragedies, is celebrated — wryly, and without pretension or caricaturization.

The story opens with the little community facing a death blow.  The government, a gimlet eye on unsustainable costs, has offered a relocation package to the residents of Sweetland: a minimum payment of $100,000 per family to relocate anywhere in the province, the only catch being that acceptance of the deal must be unanimous. Everyone must go. A government man appears at Moses’s door in a blinding blaze of morning light, like an angel messenger from the future. The intruder reveals his alien nature immediately by knocking at the front door, and the metaphorical distance between Chance Cove and the mainland is established with a few words about tea:

“Cup of tea?”

“You don’t have coffee by any chance?”

“I got instant.”

“Tea is fine.”

The agent has arrived to inform Moses that one of the three remaining dissenting households has capitulated, leaving only Moses and his neighbour Loveless obstructing the deal. The news is clearly a blow to Moses. Loveless, as his name might suggest, and whose peculiar nature is ascribed to a pint of kerosene he drank as a baby, can hardly be considered an asset in a battle against the forces of change. Predictably, Loveless does not hold out long. The now ironically named Moses stands as the last obstacle on his people’s path to the promised land.  The deadline for a final decision is September. The outcome is never really in doubt.

Moses is under considerable pressure to accept the deal both from community members and his immediate family. He has, apparently, been finding mysterious, anonymous, threatening letters in his home, the messages amateurishly cut and pasted from magazine text, and there are rumours of threats to burn him out.  When Keith Priddle, one of the aforementioned Priddle brothers, notes that “The old man says he’s going to cut off your nuts with a fish knife, you don’t sign,” it is treated as a joke, but there is an element of real threat. Perhaps most eerily, Moses begins to find mutilated rabbit heads — first nailed to a tree near one of his snares, and later, nailed to his stagehead (a sort of fisherman’s dock) which does, later, mysteriously burn.

Stubborn and independent, but not stupid, Moses is rattled, but not swayed by the pressure. He has his own reasons for wanting to stay, which mostly have to do with loyalty and an only dimly perceived need for meaning in his own life.  On a larger register, he feels a deep sense of attachment and reverence for the island, its history and the lives of the people who have lived there, and is resistant to the idea that they will just disappear in the rush of time.  Approaching his eighth decade, his own life history is more closed allied with the dead of the island than the living, and with no children to connect him to the future, the meaning of his own life resides in the history of his place. He worries about the graves of the community’s ancestors and the inevitable disintegration and dispersal of the island’s collective memory that the relocation will bring.  As Crummey has taken some pains to establish (not the least that the island shares his name) in many ways Moses is the island, not in a geological sense, but in a human, historical sense. Not particularly emotionally self-aware, it is Moses’s tragedy to be struggling to come to terms with the meaning of his own life at a time when the place where he has built this meaning, and where it most securely resides is, itself, dying.

There is one tenuous connection to the future which almost allows Moses to move forward, and to carry his story to a new place and this is his young grand-nephew Jesse, with whom he has developed a special relationship. In a moment of rashness, however, he promised Jesse that he would never have to leave the island as long as Moses had anything to do with it, and, initially, it is loyalty to this promise that further fuels Moses’s determination to defy the government offer, and community pressure.

But, as Pilgrim puts it rather bluntly to Moses:

You’re an old man …And what’s Jesse going to have here once we goes?… Clara’s going to be left alone with the youngster is what’s going to happen.  She’ve got a chance to go somewhere with a bit of money to see the boy looked after. And you’re going to fuck it up.

Forced to the realization that he is not acting in Jesse’s best interests, Moses, does, finally, capitulate and signs the agreement.  This flicker of future possibility, however, is dramatically crushed almost immediately by a tragic accident, perhaps precipitated by Mose’s decision, which claims Jesse’s life, and in a strange and sad way, achieves Jesse’s goal of not leaving, and, darkly fulfills Moses’s promise.  Free now, of any external obligations, Moses’s allegiance lies firmly with his island, and the past, and, somewhat impulsively, but nonetheless ingeniously, he extricates himself from the relocation without jeopardizing it for the others by faking his own death and secretly returning to Sweetland.

In a brilliant evocation of the essential situation, and presage of what is to come, Mose’s. returning home one evening, from efforts on behalf of Loveless’s cow,

turned to see the cove glimmer in the last light, houses and windows glowing faintly orange and red, the colours fading and winking out as he watched.  There was no stopping it, he knew.  Days when the weather was roaring outside his mother would say, Stall as long as you like, sooner or later a body’s got to make a run for the outhouse.  The whole place was going under, and almost everyone it mattered to was already in the ground.

Here, in this passage, lies the essence of the book: a sharp appreciation of beauty, a blunt acknowledgment of truth, and a defiant humour. Although a hardy Newfoundland outporter, better equipped than most to survive in difficult conditions, at sixty-nine, Moses knows he’s going to die, and, on a deserted island, in winter, bereft of the most basic amenities, no doubt sooner than later, especially after, in an ill-considered moment, he jettisoned his boat, believing this would make his disappearance more believable.  But, like so many tragic heroes before him, he enters a beautiful, impossible battle, with courage, resourcefulness and dignity.  Moses’s decision to stay with his dead on the island  is not suicidal — he fights very hard for all of his allotted time.  It is, however, the beginning of a process of passing over, a relinquishing of the physical world, and the approximate last half of the book is devoted to the haunting realization of one man’s passage from a physical to a spiritual existence.  Like much of Crummey’s writing, this section has the air of close observation, as opposed to invention, and it was, therefore, not so surprising to learn part of the inspiration for Sweetland came from his experience watching his father succumb to terminal cancer (1).  We, here on this side of the divide, have names for Moses’s deterioration, as he tries to live alone on the island — delirium, bushed, cabin fever — indeed, the idea is part of our Canadian mythology, but whatever the genesis, it is clear that those in the process of cutting ties with the living spend more and more time “somewhere else.”  Early on, Moses begins to experience small slippages and inconsistencies in chronology, and forms attachments, and carries on conversations, first with the animal world, and then with the dead — bringing a portrait of a long dead uncle into the kitchen for company, and talking with his dead grandfather. His experiences become increasingly fantastical — he sees spectral lights in the deserted Coffin house (as did Jesse before him) believes that someone has resumed the game of chess still set up in Duke’s old barber shop, and is saved from being lost at sea in the fog (in an old boat of Loveless’s that he has resurrected) by ghostly music emanating from the boarded up church. There is a gradual and seamless incursion of mind and memory into the physical world until it is unclear, both for Moses and the reader, where the story resides. Moses reaction is stoical:

he held to what he’d chosen and managed to make a sort of peace with the bizarre incidents that had become a feature of his days, accepted the fact that some of the world he lived in couldn’t be found on a map

This “other world,” of which Moses finds himself increasingly an inhabitant, can be interpreted as the reader sees fit.  Crummey, however, very effectively creates an atmosphere which allows for the uncanny, without pronouncing upon it.  It begins as small  inconsistencies (with easy but unprovable explanations) — the provenance of the threat letters is never established, Jesse (symptom of his condition?) talks regularly with Moses’s dead brother Hollis, and conveys messages which Moses finds quite unsettling. Moses comes to recognize that Jesse has an intense internal reality which is inaccessible to others.  Crummey also uses imagery brilliantly but subtly to foreshadow key events in the story (more on this in a subsequent post) leaving readers with an unsettling sense of deja vu when the actual events are encountered.  And, always and everywhere — the ocean — it’s unfathomable depths and uncharted mysteries, dwarfing the doings of man.  There is a palpable sense of a reality far broader than our every day perceptions can encompass, although we sometimes catch a glimpse of it, and a fascinating evocation of the dilemma of having your perceptions and, therefore, experience, for whatever reasons, fail to align with your idea of the possible. Crummey makes you understand, through Moses, just how easy it might be to get lost, and how delicate a thing certainty is.

One lovely consequence of Moses living increasingly in his own mind and memory is that the reader comes to learn the stories of many of the characters introduced in the first half of the book in a far greater detail — including that of Moses himself, and his complicated relationship to his dead brother Hollis, and sister Ruth — lives of apparently simple people, which on the surface might seem easy to dismiss or categorize, but, in fact, contain astounding depths of perception, complexity, weakness, strength, emotion and endurance.  In a strange way, these musings, shared in the book, accomplish the fictional Moses’s aim — they deeply regard, honour and memorialize, in other words, give meaning, to the lives of those involved.  And, in this way, Moses jumps out of the story, and does the same for a lost way of life, and the very real people who lived it.

Close attention to the evocative, deeply sensate opening scene of Sweetland provides a succinct guide to the themes to be found therein, and presages the ending. Moses, on a trip to the mainland to gather firewood, has, on his way home, has been stranded on the water in fog.   His sight temporarily disadvantaged, he has cut his engine to drift awhile, every other sense keenly alert to the possibility of approaching vessels, but there is

just the lap of the waves against the hull for the longest time.  The wail of the foghorn on  Burnt Head

He heard them before he saw them. Voices in the fog, so indistinct he thought they might be imaginary.  An auditory hallucination, the mind trying to compensate for a sensory lack. The way a solitary man will start talking to furniture, left alone long enough.

Spooked him. Miles out on the water and that voice seeming to rise from the ocean itself.

The voice was, in fact, the desperate cry for help from a lifeboat full of abandoned Sri Lankan refugees, adrift on the ocean, which Moses, in his role as leader, protector, preserver, rescues and tows to land.  So, here we have, from the outset, the idea of a quest for, and the meaning of, home, of concealed realities, of beginnings and endings, the mind versus the external world, the skim of life across the surface of reality, and, all rolled into the ocean — deep time, existence, and the cycles of life.

Crummey is an adept at teasing out the points of intersection between the universal and the particular and personal, and has done so again, the Sweetland, with extraordinary effectiveness.  Within the intersecting portion of a Venn diagram composed of the circle of Crummey’s own experience with death, and that of the universal experience of time and mortality, lies the story of Moses Sweetland, and the island that bears his name.



Further Resources:  Crummey, Michael: How I Wrote Sweetland

See also:

You’ve Seen It Before: Predictive Imagery in Michael Crummey’s Sweetland

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Unwin, Peter: Life Without Death and Other Stories

9781770862432Unwin, Peter
Life Without Death and Other Stories
Cormorant Books, 2013
Softcover, 180 pages

Peter Unwin is a writer for whom I had developed a deep and enduring admiration on the basis of one story alone, read a number of years ago. Attracted, initially, by the title, “Whistling Down the Lights,” I was, in very short order, charmed and intrigued by this deceptively simple and compassionate story of disconnection and regret, its melancholia, its deep sense of a loss that can be felt yet not articulated,  so expertly matched to the twilit isolation of a CN passenger train car, hurtling through the timeless northern Ontario landscape. As I mentioned, however, this was a number of years ago, and, although I have remained somewhat haunted by the story, for whatever reason, I subsequently lost track of both it and its author. It was with some delight and anticipation, therefore, that I noted Unwin’s new publication, Life Without Death, earlier last year, and the inclusion, amongst its story collection, of the memorable “Whistling Down the Lights.”  Although its presence is basis enough for a recommendation, there is, happily, no need to restrict our praise to one story.

Life Without Death is a collection of stories about nothing and everything, small, passing moments which somehow illuminate life’s underlying energies. The stories follow, roughly, an unfinished arc through a life, from conception through childhood, young adulthood to maturity.  Beautiful, dark-haired women flit through the pages like omnipresent life forces, while, contrary to the title, death prowls the periphery, also omnipresent. The stories are often, on the surface, enigmatic, but with that unmistakeable tug to them that is a sure sign that they are tunneling their way into your subconscious and rearranging the furniture.

Unwin’s milieu is the working class world of ordinary people. His stories deal, for the most part, with the quotidien struggles of everyday lives — a husband feels threatened by another man’s attentions to his wife, a high school cool kid goes wrong, a child must begin to relinquish childish certainties and negotiate the complications of the wider world, skirmishes between idealism and pragmatism are lost and won. His wit, of which there is plenty, is dry and commonsensical, and he has a deft way of knocking the pretension out of things.  Take, for example, this wry comment from the opening story, “Circumstances Surrounding My Birth,” in which a potentially destabilizing disparity in  intellectual curiosity between a husband and wife is solved by goodwill and true feeling. The wife (soon to be the narrator’s mother) is a working class housewife with a love of learning who has set aside two hours of every afternoon, during which, as the narrator describes it,

[she] set out to learn everything. She did this, [the narrator continues] at the local library or in the kitchen of Stella Davenport, who had a B.A. in English literature, and was putting it to use raising twins.

One has to admire a sentence which accomplishes so many things at once — establishing the mother’s innocence and uncomplicated enthusiasm, precisely placing the family within an intellectual hierarchy, illuminating the uncomfortable choices available to women of the time, daring one to condescend, while at the same time throwing the choice between idealism and cynicism back at the reader.

For those, like myself, who take delight in the alchemy of words — how, placed economically in just the right order, with just the right rhythm, a series of words can be, sometimes simultaneously (and that’s the best) breathtakingly funny, profoundly insightful, deeply mysterious, and utterly correct —  there is much to enjoy in Unwin’s writing.  The phrasing is straightforward and deceptively simple, a clean, easy read, yet peppered with little, often hilarious, profundity bombs, the power of which only becomes apparent, when, long after the laughter has died, you realize you are still thinking about them.  Take, for example, a slightly tipsy, under-performing writer’s  tidy appraisal of his relationship with his  academic wife from the “The Story I Would Write”:

she’s got a Ph.D. in linguistics so I barely get a word in edgewise.  With her it’s all phonemes and anemones.

or, from “Out West” this lovely depiction of a young woman’s laugh:

it sounded like a trout stream that still had trout in it.

All the stories in this collection are strong, but standout personal favourites include the aforementioned “Whistling Down the Lights,” as well as “Halloween,” “Innocent,” “Nuptials,” and the story of the title “Life Without Death.”  The first two, although dealing with widely disparate subject matter, share a similar quality, one which pervades Unwin’s writing in general.  In both, the superficial situation is quite simple — a narrator shares a train ride through nighttime Northern Ontario with a disparate group of travellers; a community of mostly youngish parents interact while supervising their children’s trick or treating — but there are, beneath the surfaces, significant undertows.

“Whistling Down the Lights,” is a tiny perfect gem of a story with a simple and classic premise: a small group of travellers snake through the darkening northern Ontario landscape aboard a CN train, the dimly lit observation car a small bubble of modernity juxtaposed against the timeless immensity of the Canadian north.  Everyone is drunk including a young native man who confides to the narrator that he is on his way to Kingston to visit his sister.  It soon becomes clear, however, that he has never visited a city before, has no idea where his sister lives in Kingston, and has not been able to contact her to let her know he is coming.  In fact, every detail about his quest is vague and uncertain. He is lost and being whisked towards a new environment with which he is ill-equipped to interact.

There is a clear sense of isolation from the land through which they are travelling, the train moving inexorably through time, southward, away from the wilderness, its passengers helpless in the face of relentless change.  As the narrator notes,

I’m left with a sense of things evaporating into time, things that are no longer what they were.

Although their mode of transportation is a miracle of the modern industrial age, the men on board very soon capitulate to the ancient urge to share stories, and the narrator notes that beyond a few inconsequential temporal details, they were re-enacting a ritual almost as old as our species.  The talk turns to the northern lights, and the narrator, who (he candidly admits) likes to affect a closeness to the land, explains that the aurora have a characteristic sound, although, in fact (as he also admits) he has never actually heard them. The native man trumps this bit of nature lore with his own observation that it is possible to conjure the lights at will by simply whistling.  The narrator is simultaneously intrigued and skeptical:

He says this to me as though offering a piece of canonical wisdom that has been passed down to him through the generations. But there’s something mocking in his voice, as if he knows this wisdom is corrupted now and exists only because of a white man’s need to hear such things. There is something sad and hopeless about this state of affairs, but I can’t put my finger on it and neither can he.

but admits that,

I also knew that one day I’ll try it. (…) I’ll invite the world to jump into my lap like a puppy. Nothing will happen. (…) and  I’ll tell myself that this whistling down the lights is a Native matter, like dropping bone ashes or tobacco into the teeming rapids at Lachine to calm them. It won’t work for me because I’m not a participant in that dialogue.

The conjuring of this scene, the mixing of details of light, speed, change, ancient ritual, the mysterious landscape, with the train (that great Canadian symbol of colonial triumph over the land) illuminates a sense of unease, of distress even, over our increasing disconnection from nature and the land, and our growing sense that we, ourselves, are racing, with unstoppable acceleration into an unknown future with which we may, also, be ill-equipped to deal. It crystallizes a vague sense of loss, nostalgia for a different way of knowing, a different magic beyond the reach of the logistics of language, which, somewhere at the periphery of our gaze, we know we are losing. Briefly, it makes us aware of the cost of our modern existence.  The Native man peers into the dark, eager to speak for the land,

‘This is beautiful land. I know this land, we used to come here.’

but words fail in his attempt to communicate what he knows of the land,

he wants (…) to touch what’s going on outside the window with language and with his fingers and give shape to it, but he can’t.  It’s not the words that defeat him, but the country, the land itself.

One feels the aching stretch of sinew, and, then, the final snap of connections breaking, the known world receding, irrevocably, as we all hurtle, untethered, and at an ever increasing speed, into the unknown.

“Halloween,” although examining a different sort of conflict, succeeds in similar ways. Once again, ancient ritual and pagan sensibilities are juxtaposed with the surface banality of modern existence, in this case, a suburban Halloween evening. The innocence of children and the triteness of this tamed and timid shadow of pagan ritual, are expertly played against the sexual energies bubbling, sulphurously, just beneath the surface of the adult interactions.  The eternal destabilizing power of a beautiful woman, in this case, the alluring “young Mrs. Riordan,” as she shepherds her children through the neighbourhood, stirring libidinal desires wherever she goes, acts as the catalyst for an exploration of that seemingly unsolvable human dilemma: the competing allures and demands of security, family, and community and free and creative self-expression — the old war between the artist and civilization, the greener pasture, the gulf between what is and what might have been, and the question of where one’s loyalties should ultimately lie.

The majority of this discussion occurs in the wry and regretful mind of Martin Skidmore, a self-identified artistic failure, whose plight is economically, and hilariously, outlined in the following passage:

Recently, and with noticeable relief, Martin had come to admit to himself that he was a total failure. A washed-up writer of passionate historical articles that had once appeared in numerous magazines but were now appearing for free on the Internet, and without his permission.  His books were remaindered before they made it out of the boxes.  Only recently had his agent stopped muttering darkly about what she called “the death of the book,” but instead was now making desperate and unconvincing pleas for what she had started to call “the resurrection of the book.”  His editor, a young woman with fine instincts for prosody in general, was in hospital in serious condition after getting struck down at a pedestrian crosswalk by a sixteen-year-old girl driving her father’s car and texting her boyfriend at the same time.

During the interval in which his own wife leads their children on their trick-or-treating adventures while he mans the candy dispensary at home, Martin, not immune, himself, to Mrs. Riordan’s charms, takes stock of his own choices in life, wondering just what his inability to mount an effective bid for her attention has cost him in terms of life experience.  He wonders, as we all do, if his perceived “failure,” is a result of a lack of courage, or of ability, or both, or neither.  These musings lead to wider considerations, and a survey of other members of the passing community parade, who, collectively, offer a reasonable summary of possible approaches to life, and potential outcomes.  At one end of the bell curve of choice, there is Matthew, “a bearded, sessional professor of linguistics with a passion for Scottish dance and inexpensive rum,” and “his permanently indignant wife, with the tight bun of grey hair, hover[ing] next to him furiously handing out candies,” and at the other, “Marianna Scolla, … the Argentinian stunner who had buried two husbands and was now living with a man half her age,” and who, “at the ripe age of seventeen … had found herself sitting on Dizzy Gillespie’s knee at an after-hours club in Rochester.”  Further reflection on Martin’s part leads to an epiphany of sorts — that we all, at a pitch determined by our natures, search for “sweetness,” That “every zombie, every vampire, every transgressive female hip-hop superstar look-alike was marching up and down, door to door, in search of sweetness.”  And, that the universe’s response to this request, from failure to success, catastrophe to miracle, was apt to be quite random — a trick or a treat.

One sees, upon closer scrutiny, that Mrs. Riordan and her bickering, strangely (in the eyes of the community’s males) unappreciative husband  Toby, are not really of this world at all.  In fact, their children are described as “angels.” Male and female principles incarnate, their chaotic energies have broken through the veil between this world and that, stretched so thin across the threshold on Halloween.  This explains Mrs. Riordan’s detached reaction to the attention showered upon her by the mere mortal males of the community.  As Martin explains to us,

because Mrs. Riordan was who she was, she would make a pretty and indeterminate expression with her lovely face and break into an enormous smile and say, ‘Oh thank you,’ as if this was the first time in her entire life that a man had thought to compliment her on her good looks.

Her role, clearly, is not to be affected, but to affect. Similarly, Toby, the only male in the community, it seems, immune to his wife’s charms, is presented as

a premature drunk who would rather watch naked women squirm around in a vat of Jell-O instead of reading The Berenstain Bears to his children.

The story opens with the narrator noting that Halloween seemed to accentuate these archetypal aspects of the Riordan’s  characters, and that this would, more likely than not, end in a spat. The story closes with Martin’s wife’s excited reportage of an epic spat, “an all-out screaming foul-mouthed fight on the corner of Galley and Spenser with the kids in tears, and her screaming in his face and him looking at her with that stupid grin of his and saying yeah yeah yeah,”  as the streets quickly empty and normalcy settles back over the community like a blanket. The conflict has bubbled to the surface, the tensions released, and thus, once again, ritual has fulfilled its purpose.

The titular “Life Without Death,” tells the parallel life stories of the young poet narrator and his  ideal better half, photographer Frank Cole, and represents yet another skirmish between pragmatism and idealism.  Although their lives only actually intersected briefly in their student years in Ottawa, when they were both in love with the same girl, Frank continues to inhabit the periphery of the narrator’s consciousness throughout his life.  Even through the blinkers of youth and sexual jealousy, the narrator has recognized something superior about Frank, an intelligence and depth and generosity of spirit which set him apart.

A few short years into their respective endeavors, the narrator is confronted with evidence of Frank’s artistic vision and power — a series of black and white photographs of an elderly man in the early stages of death being exhibited at the Harbourfront gallery in Toronto. The narrator has been working menial jobs, living in hovels, and, therefore, he felt, suffering appropriately for his art. As he (in his maturity) admits,

I was not pleased to see them. They made me feel that I had fallen behind, that as I stood waist deep in a brown sea of soybeans downbound from Thunder Bay, I was not furthering my art in any way that I had presumed I was.

Not willing, at the time, to entertain the possibility of a disparity in talent/vision/dedication between himself and Frank, he further explains that,

I rejected them right there on the spot.  I rejected them because I was young, I rejected their elitist presentation. I rejected the focus, but I was troubled by the extremity of their formal power.

Twenty-five years later (a lifetime, really) the narrator, who has, as we all mostly do, gradually acquiesced to the demands of an ordinary life, is confronted with further evidence of Frank’s artistic vision and genius — his documentary film called “Life Without Death,” chronicling an indeed death-defying pilgrimage by Frank through the Sahara Desert.  The narrator’s now middle-aged, ordinary, comfortable-life response is one of caution — a need to have warned Frank that,

sometimes what we believe in, what we know to be right, will take us to places that are very far away, dangerous places. You need to be careful Frank, we all need to be careful.

His warnings would, it turns out, have been  entirely apropos, as a short while after the screening of his masterpiece, attempting to relive his travels in the Sahara, Frank is murdered by bandits, his bludgeoned body found tied to a tree near Timbuktu (the name itself redolent of the impossibly exotic, the unreachable place).  Musing over the detail that Frank’s dead body had been tied to a tree, the narrator briefly indulges in the fantasy that this had been necessary because Frank, in his relentless pursuit of his art, had somehow solved the problem of death,

He had achieved life without death. Even with his skull bashed in, he would not give up; he rose repeatedly from the sand and in a civil and firm voice demanded that his assassins return his Bolex cameras and film canisters. They had no choice but to tie his restless and dead body to a tree.

It becomes clear, of course, that Frank has defeated death in other ways — that one solution to death is to stare it straight in the face, and then proceed without fear — understanding that this might very well be the death of you. Much like the Riordan’s in “Halloween,” Frank is a force — in this case, the pure, truth-seeking, creative spirit in all of us, expressed in various degrees, according to our natures and abilities.

The conflict in this story is one which bedevils most thoughtful people, and, perhaps, the artist most of all, most particularly in middle age, when some stock-taking is inevitable. It is the huge question of how to live one’s life in a meaningful way, and the difference between one’s youthful but largely theoretical idealism, and that degree of idealism which life has demonstrated you actually possess.  Did one come to terms with reality or sell out? Should one devote oneself to one’s inner passion, or to the competing demands of family, community, and security?  There is also the sub-question (explored elsewhere by Sheila Heti in her recent work How Should A Person Be?) of how much sacrifice your personal allotment of talent might justify — the terrible fear that one can’t buy brilliance with sacrifice, that no matter one’s sacrifice, the result might be entirely mediocre, which raises the inevitable question: was its pursuit, then, just selfish and silly and wrong? The story presents no pat answers, but one does sense, by the end, that the narrator has made his own peace with the question.

These stories and others in the collection have an undeniable mystique, and energy, and thus fascination.  In attempting to parse this phenomenon, I have come to the conclusion that it is, in large part, a feat of visual translation.  Just as one can recognize that certain tableau seem fraught with underlying meaning, be it a brooding physical landscape, an Alex Colville painting, full of portent, or a grouping at a cocktail party that crackles with potential energy, Unwin understands (whether intuitively or in a consciously deliberate way, I’m not sure) the ability of our subconscious to discover meaning in the physical juxtaposition of things, and to find connections, recognize truths and synthesize new understandings, quite apart from our ability to articulate these new ideas. And so, we are presented with scenes in which the essential, although often very subtle, physical elements are craftily emphasized. With our attention thus carefully directed by the writer, the everyday clutter overcome,  significance is revealed to us, and we understand something about the scene and thus about life, although, again, in ways that often defy articulation. There is a constant sense of recognition of things that you somehow already knew that accompanies the reading of this collection. In a funny way, Unwin is using language to circumvent some of the barriers that language itself presents to a holistic understanding of life.

This happy reunion with Unwin’s writing has left me with the conviction that he is a significantly under-appreciated Canadian writer who deserves far wider recognition and a place in our top literary tier.


 A word must also be devoted to the brilliant cover design for this work. Credited to Angel John Guerra of Archetype, I am sure this image  would attract my attention no matter where I happened upon it, but it is particularly well placed as the visual herald for the contents of Unwin’s collection.  Another design coup for Canadian publishing!

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Richards, David Adams: Crimes Against My Brother

9780385671163Richards, David Adams
Crimes Against My Brother
Doubleday Canada, 2014
Hardcover, 400 pages

In his latest novel, Crimes Against My Brother, Richards returns, as is his wont, to the Miramichi River, in his native New Brunswick, to once again cast a gimlet eye on the doings of men. Something of a companion piece to his 2000 Giller Prize-winning Mercy Among the Children, this tale focuses on a new generation in the small mill town, although the history and mythology of the area, created by Richards over forty-some years, inform the story throughout. Sydney Henderson, the protagonist of Mercy Among the Children, makes a number of appearances, as does Markus Paul, from Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul.  The Jameson Mill, immortalized in The Friends of Meager Fortune,
stands in ruin, a signpost to the past, and Good Friday Mountain looms over it all.

The plot is intricate (flow charts are helpful) and told by an unnamed narrator who left the area when he was young and is now a tenured university professor.  He tells the story of three of his younger cousins, Evan Young, Harold Dew, and Ian Preston, who grew up together in the Bonny Joyce/Clare’s Longing stretch of the Miramichi in the 1970’s. Echoing the accepted wisdom of the town, the boys share a contempt for the local scapegoat, the older Sydney Henderson (of Mercy Among the Children) who, in that earlier story, made a pact with God, eschewing violence forevermore, and who insisted on honouring this vow even though the circumstances under which he was compelled to make it were almost immediately revealed to be fraudulent.  Sydney’s rejection of violence, even in defense of his family, is interpreted as selfish and weak, the pact viewed as a smokescreen for timidity. Although, in reality, largely the result of human malevolence, his family’s destitution and persecution are seen as proof of the general uselessness of his God and the simple-minded futility of his faith.

It came to pass (the scope and tone of the story invite biblical diction) that in March of 1974, the three boys, mostly as a result of the negligence of Lonnie Sullivan, a local “wheeler-dealer,” and conniver of the highest order, find themselves trapped for three days on the side of Good Friday Mountain in an ice storm, their survival far from certain. Made reckless and majestic with the knowledge that their lives hang in precarious balance, the boys mock Sydney Henderson’s pact with “a Catholic God they did not know or believe in,” and determine to make their own pact — to “cut for blood,” and become blood brothers. In a scene worthy of any great confrontation with the elemental forces of the universe, against a backdrop of “pulsing darkness,” thunder, pelting snow, and the mesmerizing glitter of a vein of fool’s gold illuminated in the flash of lightning, the boys mix their blood and hurl their challenge into the void,  goading God to demonstrate his power, and exhorting each other “to be heroic and loyal.”

So they agreed, although they might face death right here, this terrible night, or they might come out of it — whatever happened, life or death, pitiless or free, they would rely upon one another and no one else.

Obviously, in the interest of the story, they survive.  The rest of the novel is preoccupied with a minute examination of the various and sundry ways in which the three friends subsequently betray each other, and those around them, aided and abetted by the townspeople, a sort of malicious, dysfunctional Greek chorus, with Lonnie Sullivan as their titular head, always ready to reinforce the darker aspects of the boys’ natures, rationalize a selfish act, encourage ungenerous sentiment, or disseminate gossip. Distinguishing themselves from this general nastiness are several individual characters of remarkable goodness — Sara Robb, crippled as a girl as a result of her heroism in saving her younger sister Ethel (also a force of good)  and Molly and Corky Thorn, Evan’s wife and brother-in-law, respectively.

Almost immediately, the world as it is begins to make a mockery of the boys’ proclaimed loyalty and devotion. Lonnie Sullivan, a trickster-like agent of chaos and conflict, functions as a sort of  traffic coordinator for the various challenges to which the blood brothers’ pact will be subjected.  The first arrives in the form of a tragedy as Harold’s mentally impaired younger brother Glen is killed while filling in for Harold (who was late to work) on a job for Lonnie Sullivan. Harold (no doubt battling guilt of his own) is easily manipulated by Lonnie into believing it was Evan Young who had insisted on going ahead with the job using Glen, when, of course, it was really Lonnie who pushed to have this happen.  As a result, Harold and Evan are estranged. Already on shaky ground, the pact is, in short order, challenged again by those two great human preoccupations, love and money. While at times, as in the case of  Glen, Lonnie’s influence is simply a logical consequence of his mendacious nature, in these subsequent situations his machinations are deliberate and vindictive.  Enter Annette Brideau, an ethereally beautiful but shallow young woman and unwitting minion of her “uncle” Lonnie, who comes between Ian Preston and Harold Dew as they compete for her favour, and for whom Ian will betray his fiance, and Annette’s best friend, Sara Robb.  The Good Friday Mountain pact is delivered a final death blow as a result of a misunderstanding over an inheritance. Joyce Fitzroy, related to all three boys, is a slightly addled village elder and drunk, but has amassed a relative fortune of over $100,000. Speculation over who shall end up with the money is a favourite sport in the town.  Harold is considered the best bet, although Evan hopes to at least negotiate a loan in order to fulfill a dream of resurrecting the old Jameson mill. Both expectations are dashed however, when Ian, who had no real designs on the money, almost accidentally ends up with it under circumstances which lead Evan to believe (erroneously) that Ian deliberately double-crossed him.

The story follows the main characters, Ian, Harold, Evan, Annette, Lonnie, Sara, Ethel, and Corky through their lives, as their fortunes wax and wane, and they struggle with the choices life presents them. Their lives unfold  against a backdrop of financial uncertainty and labour strife, government cunning and ineptitude, and corporate iniquity as a Finnish-Dutch multinational successfully conspires to exploit the last great stand of timber in the area, bilk the government of millions in incentive money, and, in the end, destroy the local mill by shipping the lumber to Quebec to be processed. It is, above all, a tale of betrayals, both personal, spiritual and civil.

Crimes Against My Brother is Richards’ most overtly spiritual work to date — with a clear sense of fate, and of universal justice. Prophecies, premonitions, portents,  inexplicable but provident urges, and supernatural references abound,  and the wind curls, lashes and riffles through it all like the breath of the deity.

Uncharacteristically, for me, when dealing with Richards’ work, I have some reservations about this novel.  All the spectacular strengths of his writing are present — the grand reach, the magisterial rhythms, the minute and often compassionate understanding of human motivation and struggle to be good, the unerring ear for dialogue, unforgettable characters, and the keen comprehension of our multi-layered societal structures.  There are, in short, many reasons to recommend this book. Yet, the parts do not assemble themselves into a satisfying whole in quite the same way as Mercy Among the Children or Incidents In the Life of Markus Paul.  Why? Like so many holistic things, the magic inherent in a masterpiece is not necessarily susceptible to logical analysis, but several issues can be identified which contribute to the malaise of this work.  First, as mentioned earlier, the plot is notably complex, and ideas tend to repeat themselves. The incisive narrative organization generally so characteristic of Richards’s work at times collapses in a welter of detail. Secondly, while Richards is well-known for his criticism of the academic intelligentsia, and outright contempt for a particular type of narrow, self-satisfied academic, the tone here veers, at times, perilously close to peevish. The framing device of the story — that it is being recounted by a professor of social science who had personal ties to the town, and who had subsequently used the story in his course lectures — feels extraneous. It does not seem to serve any essential purpose beyond providing a soap box for rather one-sided anti-academic sniping. At times, the sniping feels uncomfortably personal. In a work already suffering from a surfeit of narrative lines, this one might best have been dropped.

To admit to issues with the book is not to say that it is not still thought-provoking, and at times monumental.  As noted earlier, it is helpful to consider this story as a companion to Mercy Among the Children, in which Sydney Henderson disavows violence in a pact with God and subsequently suffers mightily at the hands of men, before an early, tragic death. Crimes Against My Brother functions as the other side of the dialectic:  life with God (Sydney) versus life without God (the boy’s pact), or the religious life versus secular humanism. Think of it as a sort of Lord of the Flies, with God standing in for the “grownups.” Richards states this idea directly, through his narrator:

Let Syd do as he would; they [the boys] would do as they did, and they would see who triumphed in the end.

The fact that the boys’ determination to be existentially self-sufficient without any need of religion is in tatters in very short order is a clear indication of Richards’s own sympathies.  More prosaic readers might, however, point out that, in practical terms, Sydney’s fate was far worse. This is true. Yet, counter intuitively, in Mercy Among the Children, his son, Lyle Henderson, describes his father’s life as a life of joy.  Furthermore, despite the tragic end which we know awaits him, and his present vicissitudes, Sydney, in this story, is remarkably certain, at peace with life, free of ego, avarice or resentment, and, yes, joyful.   In several instances he offers  clairvoyant guidance or insight to key characters, but to little avail.  Indeed, he seems to have attained the status of a holy man, sage or prophet, able to see, with remarkable clarity, the intricate inter-connectivity of life, and thus, understand the future. There is a sense, as well, that beneath the surface contempt, he is beginning to earn a grudging respect amongst the people, and that, over time, his stature will grow. Although it is true that, for some of the boys, life works itself out tolerably, joyful is not a term that can be reasonably applied to any of their fates.  Both Sydney and the boys suffer at the hands of men, but taking the longer perspective (as Richards inevitably does) it seems a life with a spiritual component is preferable to one without.

There’s been a lot of God-talk, thus far, and I’m acutely aware that, on the surface, without some insight into Richards’ concept of the divine, the plot summary above could be confused with a Watchtower mailbox missive, and is undoubtedly making readers nervous.  A curious agnostic myself, I have no patience with narrow, religious orthodoxies, and any suspicions that Richards was, in Crimes Against  My Brother,  adopting an exclusive, Christian, Catholic viewpoint would provoke an upsetting rift with a writer I have very much admired.  Just these sorts of concerns led me to his earlier non-fiction work, God Is (2009) in an attempt to pin down his position on the troublesome God issue. Written, I suspect, in reaction to some of the more extreme anti-religion polemics from the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, it is, to be sure, a sometimes rambling and confusing work, but one which did clarify many of the ideas explored in Crimes Against My Brother. Although Richards is quite cagey about defining his exact concept of god, often demurring about his own understanding, but then slipping, almost by default, into a comfortable orthodox Christian, Catholic expression, I was convinced by the end, that the divine is, for him, a broad, complex and evolving idea. As Richards himself explains, “[he did] not agree with the faithful (or at least all they said), so much as disagree with the unfaithful (…).”  He comes closest to articulating his worldview, perhaps, in Crimes Against My Brother as Corky Thorn (one of Richard’s innocents: see below) attempts to explain to Ian, that life exists within a shimmering web of interconnected actions, and that fate manifests through these interconnections:

He tried to impress on Ian  that Ian’s sudden and impulsive decision about Sara had caused much unhappiness, and that he was coming to understand how the world was created by such numerous untold events, formed in the vast air about us on a daily basis.  “Maybe even on another dimension!” he shouted, to make himself understood.

Perhaps most pertinent to Crimes Against My Brother  are Richards’ observations that the divine is not to be found externally, but is

the human foundation of knowing in our own heart what is good and valuable in the spirit. What is wrongdoing and what is not.

and that

To not take this [sin, wrongdoing] seriously is in fact to not take anything in our lives seriously.

These ideas were explored somewhat more obliquely in Incidents In the Life of Markus Paul, in which a community’s relationship to truth was minutely examined, and sin identified as an inappropriate stance in regards to it.  In Crimes Against My Brother, they are tackled head on. Each character’s fate is connected to the degree to which they recognize their own inner knowledge of good and evil, and the seriousness with which they attend to this knowledge. Sydney, who has come to understand his own innate divinity, sees clearly how he must act, and is free to lead a spiritually joyful life, aware that while this may not be easy, it is right.  Harold, Evan and Ian, however, in the act of rejecting God, have, in fact, denied the best part of themselves and of others, and are doomed to betray and be betrayed. (Betrayal, or, more broadly, sin, in Richards’ terms, being the defeat, within ourselves, of what we know to be right, in favour of what we think we want.) The  seduction scene between Annette and Ian, in some of Richards’s most powerful and exact writing, at once implacable and compassionate, illustrates this idea of betrayal beautifully, as each character’s understanding of right is defeated in a series of small acts of self-deceit.   Within this small, and very personal scene, Richards seems to be saying, lies the inevitable defeat of humanism. We all try to be good, he says but we all “find, sooner or later, a wall in [our] soul [we] cannot climb.”

Familiarity with God Is provides a number of other helpful insights into Crimes Against My Brother, which, in the interests of brevity, I’ll present in list form:

1. Physical objects often act as sort of spiritual vectors (in an epidemiological sense). That is, they serve to illuminate the interconnectedness of our lives, the fatedness of circumstances, in spiritual shorthand, the presence of the divine. The wrench, the fur hat, the buck knife, the antique trunk, and Harold’s shotgun all serve to highlight for the reader particular paths of connection in a universe of infinite connection.

2. Richards quotes G. K.. Chesterton, who said that “Coincidences are spiritual puns,” which goes some ways in explaining the rather startling number that occur in the story. In fact, for Richards, there really are no coincidences — they are simply a manifestation of  an infinitely complex, divine order in our lives.

3. Richards believes that while most of us embody good and evil in varying proportions, there do exist people who are naturally good.  They have a clarity which is often mistaken for simple-mindedness, but in fact comes from an intuitive understanding of the divine. They tend to be childlike, and exhibit a spontaneous goodness which shows in their faces, making them attractive whether or not their conform to standard ideas of beauty.  Sydney, is of course, the prototype, but in a lesser way, also Corky Thorn, Ethel and Sara Robb, and Ian and Annette’s son Liam.

The reach of this novel is epic — nothing less, really, than a dissection of the human condition.  It will make you think. And, if the reach just exceeds the grasp — well, I do imagine Richards, with a grin and a shrug, reminding us all that, after all, that’s what a heaven’s for.


Newsflash! September 10, 2014:  Crimes Against My Brother being adapted for television.













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Toews, Miriam: All My Puny Sorrows

Courtesy of Knopf Canada

Courtesy of Knopf Canada

Toews, Miriam
All My Puny Sorrows
Knopf Canada, 2014
Hardcover, 321 pages

Newsflash:  longlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize!

Much has already been said about Miriam Toews’ latest novel, All My Puny Sorrows — that it is searingly honest, unbearably sad, funny, extraordinarily personal and perhaps, for some,  uncomfortably autobiographical.  All of this is true. It is all of these things but, also, something more.  Toews herself has made no secret of the fact that the book is a direct response to her older sister Marjorie’s recent suicide (2010), and that of her father, twelve years earlier, and that many of the details of the story closely parallel the facts of her own life.  The protagonist of this story, Yolandi Von Riesen, is a struggling writer, from a prairie, Mennonite background, with a school teacher father, and an older sister who is a gifted pianist.  The father, and later the older sister, commit suicide. The writer moves to Toronto to begin a new life there with her mother and daughter. While Toews’ days as a writer struggling for recognition seem safely behind her at this point, the other details of this sketch do apply as equally to Toews as to her protagonist. Some early response to the book has focused on this aspect of the writing, with some quibbling over whether it would be better classified as a memoir.  One is reminded, vaguely, of the swirl of discussion around Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? which was briefly and somewhat controversial for similar reasons.  There is no doubt, as well, that suicide is a dark mystery for most of us and that any book by an insightful writer which provides such an unflinchingly personal, front line account of the phenomenon holds an undeniable and legitimate fascination, in and of itself.  But, to focus only or mostly on the autobiographical nature of the story, and Toews’ courage in writing it, is to forget that Toews is an artist and that the novel is a carefully crafted artistic response.

Yolandi and Elfrieda Von Riesen are two sisters growing up in the conservative Mennonite community of East Village, in the 1970’s, somewhere “just west of the shield” in, presumably, Manitoba.  Their father, Jacob, is an elementary school teacher, an idealistic dreamer with a fondness for books, characteristics which identify him as a misfit in his community, and, therefore, suspicious. Their mother is a quietly subversive Mennonite wife, a hardy survivor with a (somewhat oxymoronically) weak heart, and unsuspected depths.

As if the six-year gulf between Elfrieda (Elf for short) and Yolandi, does not confer enough glamour on the elder sister in the eyes of her adoring sibling, she is also a beautiful, green-eyed sylph, who blossoms into a gifted, world-class pianist with a very successful  international career.  The family’s early years are sketched out quickly, with much warmth, affection, and trademark Toewsian observational humour.  She wrings much hilarity out of Yolandi’s reactions to her conservative Mennonite community, which can perhaps best be described as deadpan disdain. Although, as a result of their non-conformity, they occupy a tenuous and marginal position in this community (who knew there were degrees of excommunication?) the family itself is a cohesive, loving, supportive unit. However, it is clear early on that there are differences between the sisters, and parents, in personality,  emotional pitch and approach to life  to which, knowing what is to come, one is tempted to assign explanatory power. For example,  in one small but revelatory incident, in which a defective camp stove explodes into flames during a family camping expedition, of those present only the young Yolandi thinks to actually try to put the fire out and take practical, if somewhat misguided action in this regard:

… Elfrieda danced around the fire singing “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks, a song about a black sheep saying goodbye to everyone because he’s dying, and our father swore for the first recorded time (What in the Sam Hills!) and stood close to the fire poised to do something but what, what and our mother stood there shaking, laughing, unable to speak. I yelled at my family to move away from the fire, but nobody moved an inch as if they had been placed in their positions by a movie director and the fire was only fake and the scene would be ruined if they moved. Then I grabbed the half-empty Rainbow ice cream pail that was sitting on the picnic table and ran across the field to a communal tap and filled the pail with water and ran back and threw the water onto the flames, which leapt higher then, mingled with the scents of vanilla. chocolate and strawberry, towards the branches of an overhanging poplar tree.

Here, in a tiny, amusing nutshell, is the map of each Von Riesen’s approach to life and its various calamities.

The main narrative soon shifts several decades forward, to the girls’ adult lives.  Elfrieda is now an established artist, financially secure with an adoring husband and lovely home, a radiantly beautiful performer whose artistic authenticity is beyond reproach and whose concerts are considered international happenings, and which leave her audiences transformed. Yolandi, on the other hand, is struggling to become a writer, eking out a subsistence penning young adult rodeo stories while she works on her “real” novel,  which she carts around in a plastic bag and often misplaces. She has two failed relationships behind her and a child from each in tow.  Rather counter intuitively, it is Elfrieda who wants to kill herself.

We meet up with the sisters soon after Elf’s most recent failed attempt to end her life and learn that signs of trouble had surfaced not long after she had moved away as a young adult to study music abroad — bouts of depression from which it took her months to recover, and a previous attempt to starve herself.  As well, we learn that Jacob, the father, has, in the interim, ended his own life by placing himself in the path of a train. The bulk of the story plays itself out in the excruciating period between this latest, and more aggressive overdose attempt by Elfrieda, and her eventual successful suicide. During this time, Toews takes a very intense and unavoidably personal look at the big questions which surround suicide — the essential betrayal of life and of love that it represents, the limits to which sibling love and responsibility can be stretched, the incomprehensibility, to those not afflicted, of the urge itself.  As a result of Elfrieda’s determination to die, the two sisters find themselves in an unwinnable contest over whose needs should take precedence. After Elfrieda’s first attempt to starve herself, which Yolandi was instrumental in foiling, there is the following exchange between the sisters:

Yoli she said, I hate you.

I bent to kiss her and whispered that I knew that, I was aware of it. I hate you too, I said.

As Yolandi explains,

It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem.   She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.

We feel Yolandi (the water fetcher’s) frustration with her fierce, brilliant, beautiful sister’s inability to make even the smallest, most mundane practical efforts towards self-preservation.  After Elf has explained that even though she used  “love,” as a mantra, the word itself depressed her, Yolandi’s irritation boils over:

Look, I said, then just stop saying”love” over and over, okay? Just don’t do it. But Yoli, you don’t understand, she said.  You can’t understand. Which wasn’t true, entirely.  I understand that if you say a certain word over and over and it begins to make you feel bad then you should goddamn stop saying that word. Why do we keep having these exasperating conversations? I would ask.

As Elfrieda’s efforts to die become more determined and active, Yolandi’s frustration evolves into something akin to panic, as she begins to intuit that neither reason nor love may be enough to save her sister and she is forced to explore the tricky conundrum of how to distinguish love from self interest.  Can Elfrieda truly love her sister if she fervently wishes to leave her?  If Yolandi truly loves Elfrieda, can she ask her to live on, in anguish?  When Elfrieda begs Yolandi, in the name of sisterly love, to help her travel to Switzerland for an assisted suicide is she being repellently, narcissistically  manipulative, or is Yolandi selfish to resist? Only Toews could find the funny in this — with the hapless Yolandi texting a sort-of, sometimes, maybe (now probably not) lawyer boyfriend in Toronto for information about the complexities of killing one’s sister.

Yolandi’s continued efforts to keep her sister alive, and support her mother, to manage frequent trips from Toronto to Winnipeg,  often on an emergency basis, while organizing the supervision of her two children, trying to work and keep her own life together, inevitably exhaust her, and she is forced to consider another essential question: when is it permissible to cut and run, to stop fighting the inevitable, to bow to her sister’s implacable will? This is, perhaps too raw a question to approach directly, but it surfaces in a family conversation about a Jack London story, in which a dog, eventually abandons its master to his frozen fate, perhaps to try to find help, perhaps in a bid for its own survival. It also dangles in the air when Elf, in a calculated move, declares she is better, ready to leave the hospital, prepare for a performance tour, think about moving to Paris with her husband, in short, make healthy, life- affirming plans.  Neither Yoli nor her mother believe her. As Yoli describes it:

If ever there was a delayed reaction for the ages this is it, a vast, forlorn space like the Badlands, a no man’s land, universes between her words and my mother’s and my response.  My mother and my sister smile at each other like it’s a contest and I freeze.


Really? I say. Paris? That’s so great Elfie. I can’t believe it.

Capitulation to the inevitable begins to take shape in that “vast and forlorn,” space in which Yoli and her mother try to navigate the complexities of love, faith, hope, despair, and Elfrieda’s right to self-agency, and respect.

So, All My Puny Sorrows is, indeed, nuanced, unblinking, courageous and minutely observed reportage from the front lines of the suicide experience, which somehow manages to be funny too. However, as alluded to earlier, it is more than merely courageous reporting.  The blog format is neither large nor deep enough for me to explore the number of ways in which I admire Toews writing but a few aspects of it, apropos All My Puny Sorrows, demand discussion.

First is her ability to express her idiosyncratic tragicomic sensibilities in her images, and to enfold hugely complex ideas into a scene which allows the reader to understand emotionally, almost instantaneously, what might otherwise take some time to articulate, — precious time during which impact dissipates.  Examples are legion. Consider this early instance, where Toews is giving the reader a sense of  the family ethos —  which includes an “extreme hostility to the entire health network.”

When my mother had her lawn mower accident and was lying there in the grass next to two of her toes and the paramedics leapt out of their ambulance and ran over to her she looked at them and said what on earth are you guys doing here?

Visceral abhorrence of disconnected body parts competes ferociously here, with the cuteness of toes, and the overall absurd hilarity of the scene.

Another memorable All My Puny Sorrows image is this description of one of Yolandi’s most anguished moments, as she tries to find her way (another layer of nuance) to a restaurant rendezvous with family. She tries to reason her way through the problem of defining the limits of sisterly love and its attendant responsibilities, vis-a-vis Elf’s request that she help her kill herself:

I closed my eyes and tried to think. What is love? How do I love her? I was gripping the steering wheel the way my father used to, like he was towing a newly discovered planet behind him, one that held the secrets to the universe.

The fragility of the thread that connects us to our world, the excruciating import of right thinking in this critical moment, the sense of being lost in the universe, the weight of the problem, gently funny childhood nostalgia, hope —  all effortlessly inter-fuse in this one  image.

Finally, one must consider Toews opening scene — a simultaneous beginning and ending.

Our house was taken away on the back of a truck one afternoon late in the summer of 1979.  My parents and my older sister and I stood in the middle of the street and watched it disappear, a low-slung bungalow made of wood and brick and plaster slowly making its way down First Street, past the A&W and the Deluxe Bowling Lanes and out onto the number twelve highway, where we eventually  lost sight of it. I can still see it, said my sister Elfrieda repeatedly, until finally she couldn’t. I can still see it. I can still see it. I can still … Okay, nope, it’s gone, she said.

The house was moved after the property was sold to an expanding local business. No one in the family knows its ultimate destination. Before the story has even begun, it is clear that life, as the Von Riesen’s have known it, is over, gradually receding into the distance until it is swallowed by the horizon of time and memory.

There is something vast and glacial about this novel. A sense of implacable fate or time (perhaps they are the same thing) which will unfold, regardless — and against which resistance is futile — blows through it like a lonely wind. As Yolandi comes to understand, to her initial confusion and dismay,  there is no reasoning with what will be. Neither is love an effective antidote. In the foreground this manifests as the here and now story of Elfrieda’s ferocious, relentless determination to die in the face of commanding evidence of the joy and beauty life offers, and the devastation her action will wreak. Rustling and murmuring in the background, however, are the allusions, ideas, and images which place this personal story in the context of infinite time.  Heaven knows, Toews wears her erudition lightly, but it is there, informing and shaping the affect of the story. The spirit of Heidegger (who is referenced specifically, as are Hume, Thomas Aquinas, Dylan Thomas, Shelley, Northrop Frye, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and D.H. Lawrence, among others) permeates the novel, and, indeed, the title of Heidegger’s seminal work, Being and Time,  provides a neat precis of significant motifs.

The key to this novel is a sense of scale — the comparative scale of a human life (the “dasein” (being of a human) as Heidegger would have it) when set against nature and time.  The first indication of this comes, of course, in the title,  All My Puny Sorrows — an allusion to a poem by a young Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who lost his father, early in life, and subsequently, several siblings) written to console a colleague (Charles Lamb) whose own sister was ill.  The key word is “puny.” As a child, the always intense Elfrieda had incorporated this line into a personal symbol — AMPS, with the “S” theatrically enlarged, and although she originally intended to leave her mark on East Village by spray painting it in gigantic red letters on the town’s water tower, she eventually had to content herself with less exalted locations. The puny scope of one individual’s existence is cleverly set against what Canadian poet and man of letters Don McKay would call “deep time,” by the fact that Elfrieda’s original inspiration came from a family road trip which included a stop to see ancient pictographs on the rocky shores of Lake Superior. Significantly, Elf is the only one who braves the dangerous, slippery rocks and manages to actually view these messages from the past and be inspired “by their impermeability and their mixed message of hope, reverence, defiance and eternal aloneness.”  What did she see there and how could one so intent on oblivion be so driven, paradoxically, to leave lasting evidence of her existence?

This sense of individual being juxtaposed against the reach of time, and the presence of forces beyond our ken, is buttressed with numerous references to implacable nature. The last critical period of Elfrieda’s life plays out, in part, against the ice break up on the river, it’s creak and grind the omnipresent soundtrack to the family crisis. Mention is made of the “unforgiving” Canadian Shield, and solar eclipses, and, again, on that fateful road trip, Elfrieda and her father attend campground lectures on the black-footed ferret and dark matter, or as Yoli describes it “invisible forces and extinction.” Perhaps most powerful is an early image of the doomed Elfrieda silhouetted in evening light against a backdrop of the Badlands of South Dakota.

The problem of time, and our imperfect understanding of it surfaces continuously in the story. Elfrieda, in particular, has issues with time.  In the eternal way of the young, she is incensed with the idea of “telling time” insisting, haughtily, that “that’s a fascist arrangement of a thing — time — that’s naturally and importantly outside the realm of categorization or even definition.”  Yolandi and Elfrieda’s agent have an encounter, while visiting Elf in the hospital, with an elderly patient, who clutches a clock and demands to be told the time, although it is far from clear that she can comprehend the answer. When Nic, Elf’s husband and Yolandi make a hasty visit to the basement, to confer secretly about Elf’s home care, Yolandi, spots a single book lying (randomly?)  in the middle of the floor:  The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. As well, (via Heidegger) time presents a potential sign post to the meaning of existence — a big preoccupation for Yolandi, after her sister and father have died. The subtext here is that the length (measurement) of a life is inconsequential — how can it be anything else when placed in the context of all of time? What may be more important is the depth of the experience, the mark one leaves in the universe.

When Yolandi is not busy trying to fathom the meaning of life, she is still faced with the problem of navigating her own.  It is safe to say, I think, that when Toews needs to work through something important, she looks to literature for help.  Fittingly, it is to literature that Elf directs her sister for advice about how to deal with her impending departure, and that of her father before.  In her affectionate, exasperatingly superior way, Elfrieda has chided her younger sister for not having read widely enough — one particular instance being D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. When Yolandi does investigate the work, she finds in the opening paragraph (as I’m sure Toews did) a recipe for survival:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.  The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes.  It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

“The meaning of life and all that jazz” to quote Toews from an earlier post remains as enigmatic at the conclusion of the story as it was at the beginning, is, perhaps, even more so.  Toews has, however, provided us with a wider window through which to view the mystery.

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