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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Galloway, Steven: The Confabulist

Courtesy of Knopf Canada

Courtesy of Knopf Canada

Galloway, Steven
The Confabulist
Knopf Canada, 2014
Softcover, 301 pages

Martin Strauss’s story does not begin well.  We first meet the protagonist of Steven Galloway‘s splendid new novel, The Confabulist, as he sits listening to his doctor tell him he has been diagnosed with a degenerative physiological condition which, although it will not impair his cognitive function, will gradually interfere with his brain’s ability to create, store and access memories.  As a result, his doctor explains, his brain will create false memories to fill the void, and he may not even be aware of the process. In short, Martin will become a confabulist, the psychiatric term for this condition. If one considers that identity is, really, the story one tells oneself about one’s past,  and therefore, utterly dependent on memory, it’s clear that Martin is about to become a fiction, even to himself. He is, also, about to become the ultimate unreliable narrator.

Martin is ambivalent, at best, about his memories, not at all certain that forgetting  is  a bad thing.  His life has been, he admits, “a mixed bag,” a large portion of it spent trying to rectify a “stupid” mistake made as a young man, and there are secrets perhaps better kept than revealed. In the end, however, he determines that the mysterious Alice deserves to know the unobscured truth, because, he confesses, he was responsible for depriving her of a father.  The immediate juxtaposition of this confession with the further declaration that he is the man who killed Harry Houdini, not once, but twice, invites a somewhat befuddled reader to assume that Alice is Houdini’s daughter, and that Martin’s involvement with Houdini’s death is the mistake which seems to have knocked his life off course.

The premise of Martin’s story, requires, of course, that Houdini himself, join the narrative. It was at this point that I found myself, as a reader, growing testy. Houdini? Again? Really?  Have we not milked this story dry? Can we not let the poor man rest in peace? However, all qualms  dissipated soon after  I (rather grumpily) in the interests of thoroughness, immersed myself in some obligatory Houdini research.  Dead some eighty-plus years, Erich Weiss, better known as Harry Houdini, still stares from his photographic images with mesmerizing intensity, and his story still captivates.  I stand corrected.  Houdini’s mystique, it seems, is infinite.

Through a series of flashbacks, Galloway provides the background of both Martin and Houdini’s story up until the point they intersect.  The essential, known facts of Houdini’s life are used as a framework on which to build an intimate (although fictional) portrayal of his early years as a struggling magician, devoted son and young husband.  With rather miraculous concision, Galloway provides us a portrait of some depth and fascination, focusing, particularly, on Houdini’s tricky, but also devoted, relationship with his wife, Bess, their childlessness, and his determination to fulfill a promise made to his dying father, to provide for his mother.  Of particular import is a fateful day in 1897,  when as a  young magician, Houdini and his stage partner Bess agree to orchestrate a spiritualism stunt which convinces a grieving young father and mother that their dead child’s spirit has survived. Horrified by the results of their deception and the desperate grief they have exploited, the Houdini’s swear off spirit tricks.  Indeed, the real (like the fictional) Houdini became well known later in life as a ferocious opponent of the spiritualist movement, and devoted considerable time and effort to  debunking fraudulent mediums and magicians who implied their powers were anything more than human, a vocation which put him at odds with a number of prominent proponents of spiritualism, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Martin’s early story is somewhat less exalted. He, like Houdini, was quite devoted to his mother, but seems to remember his father as a cold, distant parent, who had little use for children. He suffers from strikingly low self-esteem, professing to be mystified as to what his mother saw in him.  A move to Montreal, to study at McGill, seems, initially, to be a positive step for Martin, whose anxieties seem to lessen as the distance between him and his father increases.  There, he finds a friend and  drinking buddy,  the independently wealthy Will Riley, a circumstance which eventually leads to him meeting Clara, a young woman who (again, inexplicably, as far as Martin is concerned) seems to like him, and with whom he shares an interest in magic, and, in particular, Houdini.  It becomes clear, however, that Martin’s drinking has become more than casual, and that his habit of dissembling may have obscured the real situation. In any case, a much anticipated chance to take Clara to see a performance by Houdini (tickets courtesy of Will) is almost lost to what appears to be a massive hangover, an anxiety attack, or some combination of the two, possibly precipitated by undisclosed news in a letter from his father, a man who “wasn’t one to write.”  Tension is heightened, of course, by the readers’ awareness of Martin’s claim to have been the man who killed Houdini.

The evening begins well.  Houdini’s performance is spectacular, and, during intermission, Martin and Clara manage their first sexual encounter in an unguarded coatroom. Returning to the rest of the performance, however, Martin has a premonition that he has done something that cannot be undone, and believes he can sense a change in Clara.  From this point on the evening devolves into the equivalent of an anxiety dream.   In the crush of the exiting crowd, Martin loses sight of Clara and cannot find her again. Confused and panicky, insecurities never far from the surface, Martin immediately suspects her odd disappearance may be connected to their tryst. Returning to meet his friend at the theatre after an unsuccessful attempt to intercept Clara on her way home, a dejected Martin is twice astounded — first to find Will in conversation with the great Houdini himself, and second, to find that Clara had been there all along, waiting at a prearranged meeting place and wondering what had become of him. As a confused Martin himself admits, “It didn’t make sense completely…”  Just as the reader is beginning to suspect that this first intersection of Martin and Houdini’s histories is a false alarm, Martin, acting on some mysterious impulse, perhaps incited by the reappearance of his father’s letter, strikes Houdini in the gut, without warning. Martin is thrown out of the theatre, retreats into seclusion and, within days, Houdini is dead.

From this point on, Martin’s story becomes increasingly fantastical. Prompted, apparently, by a mysterious anonymous warning, and his wish to protect Clara, he pulls a vanishing act of his own, gone from the city in less than an hour, to lead the boardinghouse existence of an  itinerant casual labourer.  Plagued by anxiety and paranoia, his version of reality grows more and more bizarre, culminating in late night visions of Alice, whom he identifies as Houdini’s daughter, demanding answers, a conspiracy involving Russian aristocracy, prominent spiritualists, international espionage, secret coded messages, and the surprising revelation that Houdini is not dead, but only in hiding. It all reaches a fiery climax when Martin confronts Houdini in his hideout, looking for the answers Alice needs, and, in a life-and-death showdown, as he had earlier insisted, kills Houdini a second time.

Insight into the depths of this remarkable novel is provided in its opening lines, in which Martin describes his condition, likening it to tinnitus — where non-existent sound provides a constant background hum in the ears of sufferers.  Confabulation is not precisely the same, as he explains,

but I have  strange feeling now and then that something wrong is going on in the background.

Readers will experience a similar phenomenon. First, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Houdini story (or access to Google) will be troubled by the fact that, although the particulars of his death seem to approximate the real story, the McGill student who punched Houdini unexpectedly, and perhaps contributed to his death of peritonitis secondary to a ruptured appendix, was named J. Gordon Whitehead, not Martin Strauss.  Even though one knows the account is fictionalized, other details are reasonably faithful to the factual history.  And so, this seems…odd.  Although Martin has explained that he wants to record his history while he is still able, because he owes this much to Alice, it is well to wonder how accurate a judge of his ability he might be.  As Martin himself warns us,

                       I can’t be trusted. None of us can.

As the apparent facts surrounding the entanglement of the two men’s stories become more and more strange, and the reader is able to glean more hints about Martin’s past, one is slowly able to intuit that what is actually going on in the background is the struggle of Martin’s real story to emerge — the one he has hidden, evaded, forgotten, and, finally, falsely reconstructed. This reconstruction, one comes to understand, is anchored by a framework of associative intersections with the Houdini story, a story he was quite familiar with as a result of a childhood fascination with magic. The fact that the truth is always an underlying presence, manifesting in Martin’s mother’s voice, in Alice’s nocturnal visitations, and in secret coded messages from Houdini’s notebook, makes it difficult to define the precise boundaries between Martin’s disease and his denial.

A straightforward revelation of  the “real” situation would make this discussion so very much easier, but the power of this story resides, in large part, in the slow stumble towards clarity that one  experiences as one tries to decide what one can believe and what one must discard, of Martin’s account, and to discover what it is that he is hiding.  In this process, one is forced to stretch for connections, peer into the murk for outlines, perceive form in the swirling fog, until, miraculously, the truth gradually begins to emerge in muted, low relief, like a figure from a vat of melted chocolate.  One comes to see that Martin’s confabulist memory is based, not on chronology and facts, but on symbol, association, and the elision that has occurred in his mind between the connotative cloud of association around Houdini’s life — secrets, magic, vanishing acts, illusion, childlessness and lost children, mothers,  absent fathers,  constructed personae, and deception — and the details of his own history.  Truth and confabulation intersect in the realm of metaphor. Thus, when Martin kills Houdini a second time, he is, in fact, finally destroying his  own inner magician — and confronting the truth of his life.

Ultimately, this tale is an examination of deception in all its multitudinous manifestations, and each narrative thread circles this central concern. There is the straightforward and, as Houdini feels, honest deception of the performing magician, the deceptiveness of memory,  the more nefarious trickery of the sham spiritualists, the high stakes, and shadowy sleight of hand of professional espionage, and the far subtler, and thus more disturbing, art of deception which we, as human beings, practice upon ourselves. Buried in the story, as well, is a profound meditation on reality, our ability to perceive it, and then capture it in memory, and the consequences of this for our identity. As Martin notes,

a percentage of our lives is a fiction. There’s no way to know whether anything we have seen or experienced is real or imagined.

How can we know who we are if we can’t be certain who we’ve been?

Finally, Galloway explores the timeless appeal of magic and its relationship to that great, and inconvenient truth — death. Magic is for us, as it was for Martin, the only way around that rather unattractive reality.

This is a dark and complex marvel of a novel, one that will continuously reward rereading.  One can only wonder at Galloway’s ability to control, so deftly, all of the forces set loose in its pages, and to, in the end, create such a truthful illusion.










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Alexis, André: Pastoral

Courtesy of Coach House Press

Courtesy of Coach House PressPastoral

André Alexis
Coach House Books, 2014
Softcover, 162 pages

Newflash! Pastoral is shortlisted for the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

As befits an homage to its literary namesake, André Alexis’s new novel, Pastoral, is replete with shepherds and sheep of all sorts, unfurls in idyllic countryside and is suffused with gently probing meditations upon life, love and death. It is, however, a very modern reinvention of that ancient form wherein country life proves to be anything but simple, nature is a force to be reckoned with, and the sheep bear watching.  It is, as well, an intensely Canadian novel, quietly unassuming yet deeply provocative, as it wrestles with the metaphysics of a landscape as immense as ours,  and the correct relationship between religion, the divine and the land.  Even before the cover was cracked, and with my previous experience of Alexis’s deceptively simple yet penetrating writing in his novel Childhood in mind, it seemed a perfect marriage of form, function and style. It did not disappoint.

Father Christopher Pennant, is, like other of Alexis’s characters, immediately likeable. Ernest, humble, thoughtful and uncertain, a city boy, Ottawa bred and raised, he had dared to hope that his first parish might be located in a smallish city like Peterborough or Cambridge.  It is with some dismay and trepidation, therefore, that he learns he will begin his vocation as a priest in the small town of Barrow, in Lambton County, Ontario, a fictional hamlet with a population of 1100.  Hopeful, however, that he can prove to be an adequate shepherd to this somewhat alien flock, he sets out with what he believes is an open mind, determined to do his best.  Inevitably, if innocently, his ideas of what life in Barrow will entail are coloured by the romantic condescension of the urbanite.  In short, he believes life will be “pastoral,” in the traditional literary sense of that word — simpler, purer, more straightforward. As Alexis succinctly explains,

That this was not true he learned almost at once.

Father Pennant’s new country life is  immediately complicated by the presence of Lowther Williams, a sort of cook and all round handyman, inherited  from his predecessor along with the rectory, whose polymathic proclivities include fine cuisine, the natural world, and large chunks of the English literary canon and who firmly believes that, as a result of a family curse, he will die at age 63. Convinced the day is imminent, the 62-year-old Lowther realizes that it is Father Pennant who will preside at his funeral, and wishing to be sure the priest is the right man for the job, he, with the help of his wealthy, inventor friend Heath Lambert, devises a series of fabricated “miracles” designed to plumb the new priest’s religious sensibilities. Whether all of Father Pennant’s miraculous encounters are the results of Lowther’s machinations, however, remains a debatable point.

Further complicating Father Pennant’s new existence is the plight of Elizabeth , a young parishioner engaged to be married to Robbie Meyers. Elizabeth has just discovered that Robbie, an idealist, it seems, in matters of the heart, has resumed a relationship with a former lover, and, apparently, has no intention of giving up either woman. In the end, it is the women who find an unconventional solution to this unconventional impasse. In addition, the beleaguered young priest discovers that, far from a refuge whose calm simplicity will clarify and reinforce his faith, the countryside is a powerful presence in its own right, and his confrontation with the energy immanent in the Canadian landscape provokes a relapse of doubt which he had hoped he had put behind him in his seminary days.

The story follows the gradual resolution (or not) of these issues of love, life and death, with much intervening (and entertaining) hilarity, mystery, and metaphysical inquiry, unfolding over the approximately six months, from April ’til October, of Father Pennant’s stay in Barrow.

That Father Pennant’s adventures will be fabulous (in its original sense of fable-like) is apparent almost immediately. The peculiar “place out of time,” eternal and unchanging nature of Barrow is established by the fact that its population has been exactly 1100 people for twenty years. Alexis is careful to note that Father Pennant is immediately “enchanted” by the countryside. The sheep,  as well, so necessary for a pastoral, are artfully well-spoken.

The name “Barrow,”  trails noteworthy connotation — the agricultural sense of a castrated pig, but also the sense of ancient hills, and mounds constructed over the bones of the dead.  As well, the hamlet is the home of three “mysteries.”  The first is Barrow Mansion, said to be haunted by the ghosts of two members of Barrow’s founding family, a father and son both murdered by their respective spouses. Barrow Day, the second mystery, is a yearly communal bacchanal, a sort of conflation of ancient May Day rites, the Day of the Dead celebrations, and Halloween, with Kafka-esque undertones, celebrated every June 15, and which involves much public drunkenness, occasional nudity, and a little water-walking.  The third, and most powerful mystery is the “Regina,” the headwaters of the Thames River, a

vein of glass-clear fresh water that sprang from the ground, ran for six feet and returned underground.

and which

ran so fast and constant, it was as if it did not run at all, [appearing] like a solid section of crystal.

Issuing from a vulva-shaped cleft in the earth and suffused with libidinal associations, the Regina stuns Father Pennant with its beauty and is clearly a well-spring of the mystical life force, nature’s spiritual font. By dipping his hand in its waters, the young priest makes contact with primordial natural energies.

This novel is triumphantly and exuberantly Canadian on many levels. Firstly, it is unapologetically and unmistakeably situated in Canada — Lambton County, in rural southwestern Ontario, is a very real place.  Petrolia, Oil Springs, Sarnia and Ottawa make guest appearances or receive honourable mentions. It is also quiet, self-effacing, gentle and polite — qualities which should never be mistaken for shallow, simple or unsophisticated, as Father Pennant soon comes to understand.  The drop-dead gorgeous and beautifully apt cover illustration is a photo of a painting by Nova Scotian artist Lindee Climo, entitled The Lady Sheep, gleaned from the Dufferin County Museum and Archives. Kudos to Coach House Press for so successfully mining the potential of the book cover as an integral part of  literary art. Anton Piatigorsky, a Canadian writer whose work addresses many of the questions raised in Pastoral, is also referenced. Most significantly, though, Alexis’s story addresses, deliberately and directly, the great Canadian metaphysical dilemma:  what to make of nature on the scale of the Canadian landscape, its undeniable immensity and power, and, yes, enchantment, and how to integrate it into one’s world view, particularly if one’s world view is Christian, with its attendant assumptions of dominion over nature.

As Don McKay has discussed is his fascinating essay, “Great Flint Singing:  Reflections on Canadian Nature Poetries,” in The Shell of the Tortoise,  there is a power, a “pristine other” in the natural world which exists beyond the realm of time, reason or language, terrifying in its uncontrollable and unfathomable otherness, but which resonates deeply within our animal selves.  Muted by centuries of European civilization, weak emanations of this power were the catnip of the Wordsworthian Romantics, whose ideals shaped the sensibilities of so many of the colonial immigrants to Canada.  Arriving as they did steeped in Romantic notions of Nature the mild and nurturing mother, source of comfort, and inspiration for faith, the immense, immutable beauty, and often fatal reality of the Canadian wilderness demanded a radical reordering of their understanding of the divine.  Some identified the energies as menacing and evil, satanic in their provenance, and sought only to push Nature back with advancing civilization, Christian missionaries prominent amongst these front line forces. The careless, foolish, or naive did not survive. Others were utterly seduced, entranced, enchanted, some to the point of madness.  In any case, the attempt to come to terms with Nature on a Canadian scale has been a longstanding Romantic dilemma, and a persistent thread in our literature, one mirrored with much thoughtful humour in Father Pennant’s adventures in Barrow.

Alexis states explicitly that Father Pennant has become disenchanted with cities, Ottawa in particular, as lonely and oppressive, and had come to feel (most Romantically) “that any place that covered the earth with tar and concrete was a place where [God’s] presence was bound to be muted.” Further, and despite warnings from the town curmudgeon, Tomasine Humble, that he would be wise to confine himself to matters of the soul, he hopes that his close study of the southern Ontario countryside, and its flora and fauna, will show him a “way back to the feeling of closeness with God, a way back to the fount of his own spirituality.” As readers soon see, he gets far more than he bargained for, falling under Nature’s spell almost immediately, and discovering, at the Regina, the fount of a force which he intuits may predate, supercede and encompass that of his God. As he struggles to ascertain the nature of this force (sanctified or evil?) and a correct relationship: Nature within God, or God within Nature, and deal with the implications of any rearrangement, he comes to understand that the more sensitive one is to the natural world, the less need one has for God. Understandably reluctant to give up on the idea of heaven, however, he finds himself one day (rather incongruously) imploring a talking sheep (which, to be fair, he assumes is another of Lowther’s shenanigans) to “teach [him] to be satisfied with the world and everything that’s in it.”

There are, in addition, innumerable sly references to Romantic precedents, in particular Wordsworth and Hardy, an added pleasure if one, like myself, enjoys a literary treasure hunt.  Heath Lambert, Lowther’s  friend, has a name which brings to mind Hardy’s Egdon Heath, that “great inviolate place,” of pagan energies (and barrows).  Pastoral seems to owe a particular debt to Hardy’s novel, The Return of the Native, which also features a  love-triangle, an examination of man’s place in nature, and a character named Thomasin, played out against the backdrop of the heath.  Wordsworth’s father’s employer (the Earl of Lonsdale) was named James Lowther, Heath sends Lowther a postcard while on a trip through Cumbria, in Wordsworth’s beloved Lake District, which is also, it turns out, Robbie Meyer’s ancestral home.  Cartmel Priory, featured in Wordsworth’s poem “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peel Castle”, is also referenced as is St. Mary’s — both an island in Windemere Lake, favoured by Wordsworth, and the name of Barrow’s church.

As the talking sheep indicates, Alexis’ touch is both playful and profound. The land is often depicted as incarnate, a stream described as “a strand of clear muscle.” Observing it, Father Pennant feels he could lift “the brook out of its channel, as he would ligaments and fascia from an animal he had dissected.”  The landscape watches its inhabitants and often expressing its moods through weather, as on one particularly blustery day when a

succession of black clouds crawled above Barrow [and] small things and bits of paper were taken into the air, held, then tossed, as if Lambton County were sullenly looking for something it had lost.

The author himself makes a cameo appearance as St. Alexis (a beggar with a book) one of the four obscure saints (Abbo, Alexis, Zenobius and Zeno) depicted in the Barrow church’s stained glass work, referencing the Greek letters alpha (Α)  and omega (Ω) a Christian appellation for God, but also suggesting that Barrow’s cosmology is all-encompassing. As Alexis notes, “there was something about these little known saints that suggested the great range of sanctity.”  It is also probably worth noting that Alexis makes a point of stating that the nave of the little church was “barely deep enough to accommodate the font”.

In typical low-key Canadian fashion, there are no grand epiphanies here, no absolute truths or certainties. Things work themselves out to varying degrees of satisfaction, and life goes on. There are, however, the most beautiful final lines that I have yet to encounter in Canadian fiction, ones that rival Fitzgerald’s boats and Crummey’s whale, and so I leave you with this:

As he walked into Barrow, somewhere around seven o’clock, evening was in the early stages of suffusion. The world was not yet dark. It was beautiful: a hint of winter in the air, the lights of the town turned on — one by one, it seemed — as its inhabitants, each in his or her own time, became aware of the coming darkness.

in the hopes that you will concur that a story worthy of such an ending must be very worthwhile indeed.

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Nasrallah, Dimitri: Niko

Niko Dimitri Nasrallah Vehicule Press, 2011 Softcover, 235 pages Niko, the second in our Argo Bookstore, Montreal series, could not be more different from Peter Dubé’s The City’s Gates. Whereas Dube’s writing is atmospheric, esoteric, and darkly surreal, Niko is a linear narrative told with straightforward and transparent simplicity. Each is memorable in its own way. Six-year-old Nakhle Karam, Niko for short,  is anxiously awaiting the birth of a sibling, hoping against hope for a younger brother, but willing to be happy with a sister. Life as an only child has become irksome since the violence of the Lebanese civil war has rendered outside play with friends in his Beirut neighbourhood impossibly dangerous.  Granted, the extra attention he receives from his father Antoine, also more or less confined to the family apartment after his camera shop was destroyed in a bomb blast, is a bonus, but overall Niko’s horizons have narrowed and ennui has set in. The eventual resumption of school routines  is, therefore, for Niko, a very welcome development. It is a cruel irony that his first day back, which began with such pride and optimism, ends in utter catastrophe — his expectant mother killed by a bomb blast — and events set in motion that will define and utterly reshape his life and that of his father. With an already impossible life in a bombed out apartment deteriorating rapidly, the danger of their situation becoming increasingly untenable, and the future of his young son foremost in his mind, Antoine makes the critical decision to leave.  Opportunities to flee are limited and transient, and when an opening presents itself, Antoine must act quickly, with little time for planning.  Within twenty-four hours, taking only what they can carry, Antoine and Niko are sleeping under the stars aboard a ferry bound for Cyprus, enacting  a leap of faith into the world and an unknown future, the flashes of gunfire and “fiery orange balls of smoke” over the city of Jounieh receding into the dark “like a bad dream.” What follows is a story of what it is to be adrift in the world, to lose one life, to pay the cost of finding another, and the capacity and limits of human adaptability. Antoine is an extraordinary, ordinary man: kind, affectionate, thoughtful, honest, humble and hardworking, and able, under tremendous strain, to keep his wits about him.  While it is possible, of course, that his fate and that of his son might have spiraled downwards more quickly if he had not possessed these very admirable traits, in the end they seem to do him little good. Faced with a series of impossible situations, in which there seem to be no correct choices of action, or, at least, no way in which to ascertain them, Antoine’s quest to keep family together is defeated in a heartbreakingly short time, and he is forced to send a very young Niko, alone, on a plane to Montreal, Canada, to live with a little-known sister-in-law Yvonne and her considerably older husband Sami. It is an act of desperation, a seed sent out on wind currents in the hopes that something might survive. It will take nearly twelve years for them to be physically reunited and the father eighteen-year-old Niko finds in Valparaiso, Chile is a shadow of the man he last saw at the departure gates of the Athens airport. My ancestral myth of immigration had its origins in Ireland and England of the 1800’s, and our collective family memory of this time is lost — replaced by new myths of adventure and survival as pioneers in what is now central Ontario.  I suspect, though, that the stories told of that diaspora were also of adventure, of quick wits, and intrepid survival.  The nature of these stories suggests that those with wit and resilience, and the courage to believe in the beneficence of fate, will find a “happily ever after.”  This is a youthful outlook, and probably a necessary one. Without it, who would ever have the strength to go?  The essential components of the myth are closely guarded — tied, inextricably, to our sense of identity as hardy survivors, a source of pride, and, a perhaps more dimly perceived talisman against what might come. Conversely, amongst those who have left a homeland under duress, there is a competing myth, the auld lang syne of what was lost — ancient blood ties, traditions, land, (the Ireland of my imagination) — the true home. In Valparaiso, Chile, the city in which Antoine’s quest to reunite with Niko ends, there is a small, expatriate Arab community. The bonds which the second generations share are linked to a land they have never visited, but which lives in their imagination as the enchanted kingdom, the fairytale home. However, as one leader of this group explains it,

many of them prefer it that way. To visit the lands to which they belong at this point would ultimately disappoint them, as they would have to take down the elaborate portraits of villages they’ve conjured from their parents’ or grandparents’ stories and replace them with a drab and conflicted reality

I bring up these points in an attempt to elucidate the overall effect of this novel, which, in defiance of its superficial simplicity, carries a persistent, though ill-defined, rumble of disquiet. The story, it turns out, has a significant undertow. The source of this unease seems most closely linked to the ways in which the simple story subverts the essential components of our mythologies.  The reality of Antoine and Niko’s situation, and its outcome, bear the same relationship to our myths of diasporic adventure as the real “drab and conflicted” hometowns do to the villages of the expatriots’ imaginations. And, in the end, perhaps we, also, would prefer not to know. Antoine, measured by my family standards of heroism, would seem to have all the right stuff.  In the midst of extremity and sorrow, he is still bold, resilient, resourceful, persistent, courageous, and honest, able to act quickly when necessary, and always focused on his son’s best interests, and the goal of preserving the family. His decisions always seem to be the best that can be made under the circumstances.  He never loses his humanity. Yet he cannot succeed. He seems to be stuck in the wrong story.  Fate stubbornly refuses to cooperate; the narrative veers  from the prescribed arc. Persistent in his attempts to find his way back to his son, he finds passage from North Africa working on a freighter bound for South America, only to be shipwrecked, and nearly drowned. Surviving by clinging to a piece of ladder from the ship, he is comatose when finally rescued, and as a result of the ordeal, loses the memory of his former life. Thus, all is lost, and at this point, little gained. Myth is eroded, and with it, identity and confidence.  With the exception of First Nations peoples, we North Americans have all, in our family history, a relatively recent story of immigration.  Embedded somewhere within it is the (unexamined?) assumption that our ancestors succeeded because they had the right stuff.  That’s the story.  And, it necessarily follows, we also carry in our genes what we need to face the future with confidence.  Antoine and Niko’s experience attacks this sustaining myth, suggesting that adherence to heroic ideals will have little bearing on outcomes, and that, in fact, life is not a story, but random, disinterested, and quixotic. In the end, Antoine, failed in his quest to rebuild his old life in a new country, and to keep his family together.  And yet, in a configuration he could never have imagined, he has provided Niko with a new life and a new story.  Nearly drowning himself, he has taught his son to swim, and it is Niko who manages to effect an eventual reunion with his father. From a multi-generational perspective, fate has shown itself to be unpredictable and exacting, yes, but, ultimately, humane. Another significant triumph of Nasrallah’s deceptively transparent writing is the power with which the utter isolation of displacement, and of what it means to wander amongst people with whom one has no standing and no history, is communicated. In his travels, Antoine meets a few scoundrels, and at least one saint — on average, human behaviour is neither utterly despicable nor overly praiseworthy, but the story is haunted by his loneliness,  the loneliness of an outsider whose worth cannot be known, and, therefore, has no currency.  The reader, who has come to know Antoine well, feels the weight of the injustice, and, thus, comes to better understand some of what it is that Antoine has left behind. The ultimate tension in this story, as in other recent stories exploring the immigrant experience (David Bezmozgis’ The Free World, Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13) is the conflict between what is lost and what is gained, between personal authenticity and adaptability, and the weight of the decision, to stay or to go.  Despite this rather lengthy analysis, I still find myself compelled to re-examine each of Antoine’s decisions, each made in extremis, and wonder, which one was the mistake, the failure of wit and resourcefulness which precluded a happy ever after. Old myths are hard to shed. But, as Antoine’s story illustrates, sometimes it is not the decisions, but the world in which they had to be made that is mistaken, and as Sami Malik, Yvonne’s husband, and Niko’s stepfather, of sorts, notes, in the closing passage of the book,

This is why people are designed to carry mistakes, and this is why people should keep a room in their souls for what they might have done differently.

________________________ Further discussion from Literary Press Group of Canada (including a Q & A with the author)  http://www.lpg.ca/CDAReads/Day4

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Dubé, Peter: The City’s Gates

Courtesy of Cormorant Books

Courtesy of Cormorant Books

Dubé, Peter
The City’s Gates
Cormorant Books, 2012
Paperback, 327 pages

Review by:  Kerry Riley

The first in a series inspired by a summer pilgrimage to Montreal’s Argo Bookshop to explore new Canadian fiction from a Montreal perspective.

It is late April, and the city of Montreal is gearing up to host the International Economic Conference in August.  The conference, which will bring a cabal of the world’s most privileged and powerful elite together to devise stratagems which will impact the material well-being of millions, is just the sort of polarizing event that tends to throw a society’s fault lines into high relief.  The  weeks pass, and the tension grows, as those invested in the success of the conference (lets call them the international corporatocracy) and those opposed to its ideologies (let’s call them the 99%) prepare for a showdown.

Enter Lee, a young post graduate loner with a degree combining elements of psychology, philosophy and statistics, and whose job, up until a few weeks prior, when he was laid off, involved ill-defined analysis of big data, at the shadowy, and also ill-defined “Centre.” Apparently, he was quite good at it.  Good enough, in any case, to be recalled by the vaguely sinister Director of the Centre, and offered a special portfolio, directly connected to the looming Economic Conference.  The Centre, which seems to specialize in knowing things, and is, one surmises, involved in some manner with conference security, has noted an outbreak of curious, anomalous social behaviour whose nature has alarmed the powers that be. In several isolated incidents, perfectly circumspect, even straight-laced, individuals,  experience attacks of what can only be described as radical truth-telling,  in which the “boundaries of social discretion” collapse, a development which the converging economic powers view as highly worrisome at best. Emergent viruses and new designer drugs have been considered as possible causes, but so far, efforts to pinpoint the exact source of the phenomenon have proved fruitless.  Although Lee’s self-described talent is for detecting subtle patterns in rivers of random data, and he has adamantly expressed his preference for working with data, not people, the Director insists that he is the man needed to take to the streets in search of answers.  Economic expediency dictates that Lee accept the offer, albeit reluctantly.

Lee’s story is, quite literally, over before it begins, as the reader is informed at the very outset that what they are about to read is “a transcription of a series of documents found during the course of a police investigation,” amongst the charred aftermath of a large, suspicious fire in a mixed residential/commercial building in the city. The documents include Lee’s journal entries, spanning several months preceding the conference, various magazine and newspaper clippings, mostly to do with the conference, photos, memos, and other minutiae, which have been redacted (albeit minimally) by the “authorities,” prior to their publication. There is no mention of Lee’s ultimate fate, which remains a mystery.

Painfully antisocial, Lee seems particularly unsuited to a life of espionage and uncertain as to how to proceed.  Early attempts, documented in his journal entries, are random and mostly futile, his auditing of CARP, (citizens against rapacious profiteering) an activist group gearing up for protest at the conference, seemingly going nowhere. A break comes, however, when he meets Roomie (Rumi?) a veteran of the streets with connections to the anti-corporate resistance and other darker denizens of the Montreal demimonde. What follows is the tale of Lee’s adventures as he attempts to infiltrate the city’s myriad subcultures, in search of clues as to the source of the “disturbances.” Acting on a tip from Roomie, he eventually befriends (if that is the correct word) the fascinating Mals, acquaintances who meet at the Ancient Ocean, a bar distinguished by a huge aquarium, and subdued blue lighting. Membership in the Mals involves mannered, even courtly, social interactions, a highly stylized wardrobe,  exquisite attention to personal grooming, and, perhaps most importantly, a mutually agreed upon denial of their mundane daytime existences.

Lee’s efforts, and reports thereof, seem, initially, simply bumbling and hapless, but, as the story progresses, readers have increasing reason to regard Lee’s testimony with ambivalence.  As his investigations take him deeper into the city’s netherworld, his accounts become increasingly surreal. An introduction to a new drug, “windowpane” via a member of the Mals, seems to precipitate a crisis, and the reader learns that he has a history of drug use, and dealing, his own tag (or demonic sigil) … and of fires.  It becomes increasingly difficult to discern if subsequent journal entries are a record of actual experiences, or of a disintegrating mind. Certainly, all the hallmarks of mania, possibly addiction,  and a downward spiraling mental state are there — Lee has not been answering his phone, has been roaming the streets after dark, his personal hygiene is suffering, and he feels increasingly isolated, even in places like the coffee shop, where he had previously been comfortable. He comes to suspect Roomie of covertly drugging him, partly as a result of a revelatory dream.

Our last word from Lee is his articulation of an urge to light a fire. And so, the story comes full circle.

To deal adequately with this novel, it seems necessary to consider mood and narrative separately.  The storyline begins in intrigue and fascination, but ends in some confusion and vagueness.  Significant story elements are abandoned along the way, and the approaching conference, whose immanence has maintained tension in a quite satisfying way throughout, comes and goes without the expected climax, Lee participating only peripherally, and the Centre and its concerns receding into the background.  Other reviewers have noted similar issues. Lee’s possibly delusional journal entries continue for a few days past the conference, and then simply stop, and, while this has been accounted for in the original frame of the novel, it is still troubling for a reader in search of some sort of conclusion or understanding.  Of course, one can make the argument that the collapse of order in the narrative simply mirrors Lee’s increasing irrationality, and that in a novel that touches on the futility of a search for meaning in the infinite chaos of existence (more on this later) it is unfair to expect neat closure. One can, one does, and one is still dissatisfied.

In the matter of mood, however, Dubé is masterful. The presiding atmosphere is that of a fever dream, intense, dystopic, and disjointed, with an overarching anxiety, amplified by the growing tension associated with the upcoming conference and attendant clash of ideologies.  To delve into this novel is to step into the textual equivalent of a surrealist canvas, the sense of distortion, of looming presence, lurking menace, of disaffectation, reminiscent of Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans or, perhaps, The Temptation of St. Anthony. Dubé conjures up a city shrouded in a claustrophobic and paranoid miasma, out of which materialize, from time to time, startling images of almost hallucinatory intensity, and which then, just as quickly, recede into the gloom.  The following passage, in which Lee, passing time in a coffee shop, catches his first glimpse of “The Band,” a bizarre group of youth who congregate to participate in a sort of calisthenics of ritualized violence, provides a good sense of the mood:

Out of the night’s long wet, a regiment of youths precipitated from the murk to bang up against the picture windows.

The young men’s hair was white blond and spiked into an unnatural display; tall, pointed, dangerous-looking. Ragged black bars of make-up — masks — were painted across their eyes. Eyes that stared — unblinking — through the plate glass. They splayed their hands on the slick surface.  The ones to the rear slapped their comrades on the back and grimaced, tongues lolling out, at the young man seated right by the window.


The gang taunting him through the window was clad in strange military jackets, heavily decorated with badges and baubles, billowing Aikido trousers and heavy boots.  They jumped and capered. The pendulous moon was over them and as they climbed atop each other’s shoulders– mouths open with muffled words [,] I was reminded of the of the stories I was told as a child, tales of the strange creatures that roamed the darkened s hours.  Goblins, ghasts.  None as agitated as these.

The sense of a dark, amorphous threat is everywhere — whether it be a sudden appearance of the band, shadowy figures  glimpsed slithering in and out of abandoned rail cars, a shark wending its way serenely through the small schools of fish in the aquarium at the Ancient Ocean, bridges and buildings looming over the city’s populace, or industrial land being reclaimed by a patient and relentless nature where “feral cats lay with the moonlight on their flanks, their amber eyes scanning the underbrush for prey.”

Lee’s original occupation, which was to sift torrents of apparently random data for subtle patterns, to search, in other words, for meaning, gives some hint as to the real preoccupation of the novel. Although the work is richly allusive throughout, with much to occupy the lover of the arcane, the predominant preoccupation is with the disintegration of meaning in a world of infinite connections, a clear reference to our new wired world, big data, and our perhaps dim intuitions that endless connection ultimately destroys meaning or certainty. Lee, who specialized in finding pattern in the apparently random, ruminates unhappily on the slipperiness of words, the “infinite ambiguity of some kinds of language,” the impossibility of ever grasping the endless recombinant connotations of which language is capable.  Under these circumstances, the allure of a drug which enabled the mind to encompass the meaning in infinite possibility is obvious.

There is  a strong sense of the impotence or desertion of reason in the face of far more powerful, and darkly Dionysian forces.  Coolly Apollonian statues on the edge of the city’s park have their backs turned to the violence and chaos of the anti-Conference demonstrations, and in a derelict rail yard,  “around the great steel belly [of an abandoned engine] verdant tentacles squeezed with predatory intent.” Throughout the story, there are intimations, of a very Yeatsian sort, that some dragon is rousing, that perhaps the social imbalances, highlighted by the conference, have set some bleak, apocalyptic force in motion, “something dangerous, something unanticipated, that [lies] just out of sight.” As Lee describes it, “the city’s lights seemed suddenly inadequate to the gathering gloom.”

Dubé’s association with surrealism is not new, but in linking this powerful and disturbing sensibility to such easily recognizable current events (the International Economic Conference a thinly veiled reference to the real life G20 Summit in Toronto, in 2010) he has plumbed a strange resonance between the art form and our times. As befits the surreal, the writing brings something dark and dimly familiar to the edge of our consciousness. Although exactly what defies articulation, we recognize something in the writing that expresses our own deep intuitions and fears. It seems rightly wrong.

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