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!