Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Lisa Moore’s Alligator (2004)

When readers look into the eye of Lisa Moore’s fiction, they are changed.

House of Anansi, 2004

“I knelt down near the fence and looked into the eye of a giant alligator that was very near the fence. The alligator did not move and did not move. I saw myself kneeling in its eye and I was tiny and fragile-looking in a long velvet tunnel and I wasn’t ever coming back from there.”

Colleen’s voice opens Lisa Moore’s debut novel, although this passage is taken from later in the story.

Alligator‘s voices are varied and although 17-year-old Colleen’s mother and aunt figure among them, throughout most of the novel readers will believe that what they share is the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Something else these characters have in common is a sense of dissatisfaction with some aspect of their lives.

With some, this is like a paper cut, a small irritation that occasionally smarts; with others, it is like an open wound, infected and raging; in all cases, their motivations and actions are credible and human.

Whether they are Newfoundlanders or come from away, young or middle-aged, female or male, they all experience what Colleen’s mother, Beverly, describes as stillness and chaos.

“She had come to think of life not as a progression of days full of minor dramas, some tragedy, small joys, and carefully won accomplishments, as she figures most people think of life – but rather a stillness that would occasionally be interrupted with blasts of chaos.”

(Doesn’t an alligator encapsulate that dichotomy brilliantly? And did you know that alligators have a lifespan similar to humans, although they have inhabited this planet for approximately 37 million years longer than we? No, I didn’t already know that: Lisa Moore made me want to know it.)

How the characters deal with the chaotic bits varies greatly, as does their perception of the ratio between stillness and chaos (even when they identify these contrasting states differently). Isobel describes the motion beautifully:

“The anticipation of the hurling mass of the next wave, which is cold and mounting triumphantly and about crotch high, is huge, and if this wave hits her she’s getting all the way in. Like the world exhaling. A hammering home of the truth. A refusal to be a wave any longer. The wave accepts the absurdity of being a wave, but also recognizes the beach for what it is: a reckoning. Who said it would go on forever?”

Valentin might not express his philosophy in a similar way, but that could be because there has been little stillness in his life.

“Flexibility meant a prismatic comprehension of all aspects of experience. A burst of intuition that stripped a situation of its complexity and made plain what was most advantageous. What he believed in most was being thorough.”

In his thoroughness, Valentin makes decisions which impact other characters in the novel dramatically.In the context of his own experience, his choices are understandable, but the situation grows more complex as readers become engaged in the story through other characters as well.

(Readers who view characters as likeable or unlikeable are unlikely to find Alligator a likeable reading experience, unless they are preoccupied with language, for the care that Lisa Moore takes with her prose is evident. Consider the stylistic contrast between the two excerpts above and the breadth of word choice, sentence structure even within Isobel’s single paragraph: it’s remarkable.)

Many of the characters have dramatic experiences in this narrative which alter their own understandings of the world and their place in it. (One could argue that the state of stillness really only exists in theory, beyond these bound pages.)

Lisa Moore

“Everybody becomes who they are in a stark landscape of undiluted solitude and bad weather. It’s possible to go through life without becoming who you are, but it is better, in the long run, to come upon yourself in an insanely ordered forest where nothing has been left to chance.”

At one point I put this book down, almost sick with the sense that things were going to end badly; I was overwhelmed with sadness, with the dark thing that one of the characters recognizes in Colleen, that he has seen in other women.

“It was as though all the ugliness in the world affected these women, he thought. They had no way to turn it off. They felt everything. They wanted to save everything. That was it; they wanted to save everything.”

There was no question of my leaving the book aside; I was far too invested in these characters to leave them alone and, even more pressingly, I believed that Lisa Moore wanted them to be saved as badly as I did. (The truth of this statement is neither here nor there, but I believe it still.)

They are tiny and fragile and they are not coming back. And it matters greatly, because there is talk of so many things that readers cannot help but feel between the lines.

One says: “She hated the word wife. It was not a word she could bring herself to say. Husband, too, was questionable. It sounded stout, bifocaled, and involving of a cardigan.”

There is talk of love: “For the rest of her life she would judge every trip against this trip and every love against this love and one would measure up. No love would ever measure up.”

And talk of regret: “What people don’t understand about regret is that it incubates; this was her strong hand. She knew regret and it was a hue in her palette the younger actresses didn’t have.”

And of loneliness:

“They had each felt a binding loneliness as children that they had no words for, nor would they have wanted to articulate it, if they could, because it was shameful and something they would struggle to avoid acknowledging for the rest of their lives. But each boy had felt the presence of this absence in the other and felt a reciprocal and grim admiration because they had both more or less withstood its gravitational pull.”

Lisa Moore hurls readers into the lives of these characters, and the stillness that is left behind, when Alligator is finally set aside, is painful and beautiful and unforgettable.

Project Notes:
Day 20 of 45:
I already know that one of the stand-out bits of this project will be, for me, immersing myself in the works of Lisa Moore. I’ve read some of her stories in the past, and I’ve long been drawn to what she has had to say about the craft of writing, but I had yet to read her novels (and I’d missed some stories along the way too…more about the stories another day).

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8 comments to Lisa Moore’s Alligator (2004)

  • I read this book a in 2011 and wondered why I had waited so long! I love Moore’s way with words – nothing is wasted in her prose, everything is there for a reason.
    http://www.exurbanis.com/archives/3493

    • Exactly: I truly believed that I would like it, but for that very reason I was reluctant to actually read it and now wonder why I waited as well. One certainly does have the sense that each word/image is deliberately placed. Off to check out your thoughts now!

  • Those quotes you pulled out of the text were amazing, and really let me get a vicarious thrill about what is inside this book. It sounds like Moore is a very skilled author, and I am constantly amazed at the variety and scope of your reading choices. I am betting that I would love this book, so I will be looking for it at the library when I next make a trip. Tremendously insightful review today!

    • I really like the rhythm of her prose, the contrasting lengths and sounds of the phrases in that quote about the waves. You can feel the anticipation in that first long, meander-y sentence. If you can’t find this one at your library, I bet you’ll find February, which was longlisted for the Booker.

  • Sandra

    I read this book back in 2006: your review has inspired me to re-read it as well as to have a close look at the Shorter Fiction volume which is on Anansi’s A List. I love Beverly’s quote about stillness and chaos. Also had no idea that an alligator’s lifespan is similar to that of humans. Thanks again for a review that inspires one to read and re-read.

    • If I was going to re-read, I would definitely be looking for more stillness and chaos, as I think it plays out more often than I noted, while caught up in the story this time around. I read another of her stories yesterday; they are very well done but, as you know, it’s hard to read other stories while caught up in the Munro collections. When I’ve read the last story in The Progress of Love, I will delve more solidly into Moore’s collections. Looking forward to it!

  • I’ve been looking for more book from Newfoundland to read – aspects of this one interest me, others have me keeping it away. I’ve seen it around, but something keeps me away, not sure what it is. By the sounds of your review, I’d like aspects of the writing but be unhappy with the characters.

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