Shani Mootoo sidles up to her story.
Random House Canada, 2014
A novel like Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is more openly preoccupied with questions of grief and loss.
One like Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts explores family relationships and the passage of time in a familiar then/now rhythm.
In Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Jonathan wanders through his memories of Sid, Sid’s own writing, and settles only temporarily in Sid’s environs, all as a means of grappling with mortality, a means of naming his discovery, of rooting his rediscovery.
Directionally speaking, Jonathan is a little all-over-the-place, which suits someone faced with a lot of changes all-at-once. It’s the kind of situation which invites excessive hyphenation and other extremes. And, yet, the novel’s style is neither verbose nor chaotic.
Links between narrative segments are drawn subtly and epiphanies are quiet, sometimes playing out underwater, allowing sensation to be simultaneously more subdued and more acute.
Take this childhood memory of Sid’s, shared with readers almost immediately:
“Zain was quiet for a while. Then, as she slid into the water, she said, ‘That’s a shame, because there isn’t anything crazy about you.’ She swam off and dipped under the water. Up came her feet, toes pointed at the sky. She stayed like that for a good minute.”
A hundred pages later, readers have this passage:
“What might I have become had I not left? Was remaining in Canada an act of courage or was it timidity? I certainly didn’t feel like a returning champ in front of my parents. I slid into the warm water. Keeping my eyes open, I dived under and splayed my hands on the concrete at the bottom. I thrust my feet up, pointing my toes to the sky.”
Zain’s toes and Sid’s toes: both point to the sky, but there is no additional elucidation provided for readers; perhaps the scenes will layer for readers and illuminate a parallel, but maybe the details will slip past.
What is impossible to overlook, however, and accessible to readers whether or not they can perform handstands, is the broader theme of subverting expectations. Jonathan’s journey requires that he face the about-turn in his own identity, as he undertakes to become reacquainted with Sidney, who lived as a woman with Jonathan’s mother in Toronto but now lives as a man in Trinidad.
“All I learned about women and about men, including what I had learned as a child parented by two women, seemed now to be a lie. A wave of nausea crashed through me. I felt myself falling, and the tungsten lighting on the veranda dimmed.”
And, yet, as dramatic as this aspect of the story seems, Jonathan does not attempt to deal with it straight-on but seems to edge up to it, and though occasionally overwhelmed emotionally, he persists, staid and determined.
“As I remembered Sydney’s voice telling me this, I saw that, over time, I had become used to the switches in Sydney’s pronouns when he talked in this ironic manner about himself. Moreover, I had myself learned to be quick and creative in concocting sentence structures – often, I thought now, humorously complex structures – so as to avoid using pronouns when I spoke of his past as Sid.”
This is not a novel rooted in voice, however, unlike Shani Mootoo’s highly acclaimed Cereus Blooms at Night.
Instead, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab is rooted in the process of shifting and evolving understanding and Jonathan lacks the confidence to stake a solid claim on the page that readers of Shani Mootoo’s earlier works might expect.
This is as it should be for a character who is tentatively reaching out to secure connections which have been broken.
Jonathan is a writer, one skilled at adopting the perspectives of others, but that depends upon a certain solidity in his own connection to the world. With his changing perspective on his past, he is not able to write in the same way, neither to write the stories of others nor to write his own.
“Sid, I thought, could tell them stories about me.”
Zain rewrites, edits and revises. He reads, reconsiders and revisions. He moves forward sideways, gradually coming to accept a certain amount of mystery. Tales of transformation are seldom linear, always wondrous, and require space to unwind.
Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab shifts through past and present, Toronto and Trinidad, and love and loss delicately, stead-fastly.
Shani Mootoo will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.
This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.
Next Wednesday, thoughts on Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows.
Readers might expect a retelling of the ancient Greek tale of Paris and Helen to be a bulky, wordy novel as useful for propping up a window on a hot summer day as for entertainment; but Jonatham Bennett’s contemporary version of the story is a slim, polished novel that one would need to lie flat to allow only a finger’s worth of breeze into the room.
The tone is deliberately sweeping and the language determinedly precise in this story of two lovers in an unnamed colonized country who are employed as aid workers in wartime.
“The newspapers from each of these countries, when published in English, bled together over time to read as one bleak story, one political struggle, one act of poverty. They weren’t of course. They all differed, in ways major and minor.”
Readers are meant to reach past the specifics, to something broader and far-reaching, well, mythic. Indeed, quotes from Ovid, H.D. and Tennyson provide the epigraphs to the work’s three parts.
“My child, these are the same ancient songs I’ve passed on to you. They are a part of this story. They are your story, they are part of everyone’s story who is from this country, whether from the South or the North.”
But for those who are familiar with The Iliad and other versions of this tale, undoubtedly pleasures await in the process of comparing and contrasting retellings.
(Readers of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Richard Powers’ Orfeo, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s All the Broken Things, and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles will be familiar with the breadth of possibilities that exist for award-winning novelists in revisiting ancient tales.)
Even for those who are relatively unfamiliar, Jonathan Bennett’s work invites them into the foundation story as well, with the most well-known references to the original being recast just slightly to afford even the allusion-challenged to enjoy the interconnections.
“This story is the oldest story in the world, the one that launches a thousand dark dreams.”
However, readers who have read or reread the original source text will particularly appreciate the variety of perspectives offered on the old tales, in terms of affording “minor” characters a voice in this retelling. Some of these passages seem as though they could be lifted from a wholly contemporary tale.
“Priam was a dedicated family man. I can tell you, as we worked late into the night in the lead-up to a budget or whatever else was the pressing issue for the government of the day, Priam always ducked away for an hour. Got to tuck in my son, he’d say. He was not asking for permission the way some might. He knew where his priorities lay. Of course his son Paris is now a grown man and a notable physician working on the starkest front lines of delivering health care to our world’s most vulnerable populations in deplorable conditions. I spoke to Priam as recently as a month ago, and it was of Paris, and your important work, doctor, that he talked about most. There was never a prouder father of a son.”
Even more broadly, all readers will respond to the homage paid to storytelling in the most general way. This is what makes us human and, of course, what speaks directly to us as readers.
“I will tell it often, and in many different ways, until it becomes a part of you. This is the mother’s way of telling stories. This way is more permanent than writing, which may be lost or sold, or burned by others. This way will make sure that the story is in you, lives as you live. If you choose, you may change it as you like. You may give it away.”
There is a consistent emphasis on connection, not only between people and between places but also between the storyteller and readers who, it is hoped, will find resonance with these familiar themes in the space afforded by the storyteller’s broad strokes of story.
“In the end, if we are each able to find home in some way, a connection to place and country and another person who would die for you and for whom you would die, then that is more than can be hoped for from life.”
This is not necessarily about an intense emotional connection that is felt immediately and intimately, but across time and somewhat removed. “We would be each other’s home.” These kind of statements are sweeping and epic, but they are not intended to intensify readers’ attachments to individual characters.
Readers do not feel this, from either party’s perspective, but they are required to participate in creating that sensation, whether through memory or imagination.
Passive readers need not apply. But readers who appreciate the sense of an ancient and enduring tale will want to check-in to The Colonial Hotel.
I’ve been reading so fiercely this summer, that my notebook was sadly neglected, in favour of backs of envelopes, sticky-notes, and receipts.
It was actually back in June that I scribbled down this quote from Phyllis Theroux’s The Journal Keeper (2010), which I was inspired to pick up because I had been re-reading some of May Sarton’s journals. Have you read either writer’s work?
“I am beginning, by small degrees, to realize how one might eventually become enlightened – not as the result of ‘heavy lifting’ but by quietly reflecting, or coming upon an idea so integral that one is subtly, permanently, changed by it.
There is another note from Alice Walker’s The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers (2013) which contains her recommendation of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Nancy Turner Banks’ AIDS, Opium, Diamonds and Empire: The Deadly Virus of International Greed, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
She says “these three books, read in this order, are a university course in history and present-day reality hard to obtain otherwise. Enjoy! Not because they’re easy to read. They’re not. They are deeply painful. The joy comes from their existence, since our only hope is knowing what is (and has been) going on.”
Alice Walker is one of my MRE (MustReadEverything) authors. Have you read her work too? Do you have a favourite? Do you agree with her assessment of these three recommended titles? I did really admire Isabel Wilkerson’s book.
A long green sticky-note outlines Gabrielle Roy’s oeuvre, which I plan to read for the Book Mine Set’s Canadian Book Challenge. Have you thought of joining or already signed up?
- The Tin Flute (Bonheur d’occasion) (1945)
- Where Nests the Water Hen (La Petite Poule d’Eau) (1950)
- The Cashier (Alexandre Chenevert) (1954)
- Street of Riches (Rue Deschambault) (1955)
- The Hidden Mountain (La Montagne secrète) (1961)
- The Road Past Altamont (La Route d’Altamont) (1966)
- Windflower (La Rivière sans repos) (1970)
- Enchanted Summer (Cet été qui chantait) (1972)
- Garden in the Wind (Un jardin au bout du monde) (1975)
- My Cow Bossie (Ma vache Bossie) (1976)
- Children of My Heart (Ces Enfants de ma vie) (1977)
- The Fragile Lights of Earth (Fragiles lumières de la terre) (1978)
- Cliptail (Courte-Queue) (1979)
- What Are You Lonely For, Eveline? (De quoi t’ennuies-tu, Eveline?) (1982)
- Enchantment and Sorrow (La Détresse et l’enchantement) (1984)
- The Tortoiseshell and the Pekinese (L’Espagnole et le Pékinoise) (1987)
- My Dearest Sister: Letters to Bernadette, 1943-1970 (Ma chère petite soeur: Lettres a Bernadette) (1988)
Technically, I only need to read 13 books to complete the challenge, but some of these are children’s books, so I figure that they should be bunched together, not expected to hold the same weight as the bulk of The Tin Flute, for instance. Have you read any of her work?
I’ve read 74 of the books on the 100 Novels List compiled by the CBC for Canada Day in July, so I’ve jotted down the titles of the remaining 26. All of them except two are already on my shelves, so I’ve been meaning to read them for years, but perhaps a list will get them read sooner rather than later. (Oh, haven’t I said THAT before.)
There are two collections remaining in my Alice Munro Reading Project so I’ve been jotting down a plan to finish reading them this year. But this month has not felt like a Munro-reading month. Which is strange. Most months (maybe even all months) do feel like Munro-reading months. But not this one. It feels like an Alistair MacLeod reading month. Would it be disloyal to consider a detour?
As the year winds down, I’m wondering how well I’ll do with finishing my Reading Bingo columns/lines/grids. I might yet finish the version with adult books, but I am draggingdraggingdragging with the YA game.
I’ve noted some possibilities in my notebook, like Jennifer Donnelley’s Revolution for a Book Set in Paris and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War for Classic YA. Except it’s not so much a problem of not thinking of something to read, more that I’m not reading as much YA as I expected to read.
But a Book with a Female Heroine? That’s easy. Of the nine I have read, all but one would have filled that square (I was aiming for the squares that seemed harder to fill). And then I only have to read a Book Set in the Future to fill a column. So, I’m not cashing in my cards yet.
How about you? What’s in your notebook lately? Any new authors/series you’re curious about? Reading plans or projects? A prize-list you’re smitten with? Recommendations from a writer whose books you enjoy?
David Adams Richards has set many works in the Miramichi, beginning with his classic trilogy (Nights Below Station Street, Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace, and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down), so that the landscape of New Brunswick has become a character in its own right in his fiction.
Doubleday – Random House of Canada, 2014
The cast of Crimes Against My Brother is wide indeed, and for readers unfamiliar with his earlier works, it is difficult to determine which characters are fixtures for devoted readers of his fiction and which are introduced here for the first time.
(This simultaneously made me want to read all of his novels, beginning at the beginning, and made me think that the community is almost too well-developed for me to inhabit it, even temporarily. I did not immediately settle into this story: it took time for me to warm enough to take off my coat and stay awhile.)
The jacket identifies Sydney Henderson as the protagonist of Mercy Among the Children and states that Annette Brideau is new to Richards’ fiction; one might have guessed otherwise, for Sydney’s role is limited (though influential) and Annette’s is as significant as the three boys who are at the heart of the story.
The story of these blood-brothers, however, is actually more about the lack of brotherhood between them. (And as the story spins out, a lack of connection in a broader sense as well.)
“So the idea of being blood brothers had unravelled, it seemed, without Ian or Harold or Evan doing anything to unravel it. Not an ill intent had been formed to make ill intent blossom. Not a hard feeling existed before hard feelings swept them all—and none of them believed in anything but themselves.”
Ill intent or hard feelings, a lack of brotherhood or a lack of belief: the storyteller’s voice does not make clear pronouncements.
This is not a world of black and white, but one of endless shades of grey, increasingly so as the story develops and the lifeblood begins to fade, not only for many individuals but for the land itself.
“Like Ian and Evan, he believed Lonnie Sullivan was the cause of his trouble. But if truth be known, Lonnie had really done nothing to them; for each of them in their own way had had many opportunities to escape, to say no. And yet, now each of them was plagued by this man—and each of them, while disbelieving in the Divine, had in fact attributed much divinity to this man who they all secretly feared.”
It is not even simple to lay blame on the corporations who might be said to embody evil, foreign-owned businesses which have moved into the region to strip it of its resources, for they are staffed by Miramichi men and other woodsmen.
“Mr. Ticks was from Maine. He was a woodsman, like many here. And he was a good woodsman—and he walked the cut in his heavy boots, and with a knapsack to have lunch—and soon he realized what Helinkiscor was planning for the wood—and within eleven months he was disturbed by what was happening.”
The personal devastation is echoed in the environmental devastation and a sense of hopelessness pervades the narrative.
“’You are in despair,’ Annette said. ‘Yes, I have heard of men falling into that—despair.’”
At times the story appears to be relentlessly grim, but whereas the brotherhood of one group of boys disintegrates, another flourishes.
“Pint was so skinny his socks would fall off his feet, so Liam made small pins to hang from his shorts, and attached thread from these pins to his socks. Pint and Frazer were five, Gordon was six, and Dan and Brad were eight. These were his friends from those summers long, long ago. Brad and Dan were the ones who helped him search the dump for old computers, and Brad was the boy who helped him with his bicycle.”
It is clear from the opening pages that Crimes against My Brother intends to explore deeply resonant psychological and philosophical questions, and this continues throughout. One character declares: “I need only to forgive and in turn be forgiven. And if that was the case, none of us would ever need a psychiatrist—would we?”
It is appropriate for such a challenging work to be presented in a questioning perspective, in the voice of a writer who can openly question the way in which the story is presented and received.
“And something else bothered him. Is this part of the main or secondary story? I have not decided. Perhaps it is part of both—but it fits with a logic that is beyond us all.”
But this voice of indecision is not immediately engaging. Like Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao and Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors, David Adams Richards’ new novel requires that readers adjust their pace to the rhythm and style of the storyteller.
Sentence structure, vocabulary, the density of the prose: each element reflects characterization and setting and demands a certain receptivity on the part of readers, for this dense prose cannot be rushed.
And, yet, there is one aspect of the story which seems more akin to a page-turner than a moral conundrum.
“’It is a burning question,’ Markus Paul said to his mentor and friend, John Delano, in the snowy cold winter of 1995. ‘And the burning question is this: how does a man slip and hit his head on a dry floor when his body is found two body lengths away from the narrow bench he supposedly hit? What I am saying is, he couldn’t have fallen like that. If anything, the body should be facing the other way—if he hit the bench like the report says.’”
This character obviously appears in one of Richards’ earlier novels, and when he appears in the narrative, it’s tempting to pull Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul from the shelf to see if it contains any clues about this investigation, which has considerable import for the lives of the characters in Crimes against My Brother.
Ultimately, however, readers will not discover a tidy resolution, either within or between novels, for these novel’s characters. It is unlikely that readers will agree on even the basic tenets of the story, for there is an argument for its being saturated with despair and sorrow and an argument for it being redolent with resilience and redemption.
Although unlikely to attract new readers to David Adams Richards’ fiction, Crimes Against My Brother is a rich and challenging work and the burning questions raised are worthy indeed, if unanswerable.
David Adams Richards will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.
This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.
Next Wednesday, thoughts on Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab.
The dedication to Padma Viswanathan’s second novel: For the lost, and for the living.
Random House of Canada, 2014
Therein, the reader haa a clue, for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is equally preoccupied with losing and living.
The novel opens in 2004, on the precipice of the trial which was to address the 1985 fatal bombing of Flight Air India following its departure from Vancouver.
Ashwin Rao lost his sister and her two children on that flight, and almost twenty years later the loss is still fresh.
In her 2013 book of poetry, Children of Air India: Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections, Renée Sarojini Saklikar introduces readers to the subject like this:
“This is a lament for children, dead, and dead again in representations. Released.
This is a series of transgressions: to name other people’s dead, to imagine them.
This a dirge for the world. This is a tall tale. This is saga, for a nation.
This is about lies. This is about truth.
Another version of this introduction exists.
It has been redacted.”
Speaking directly to readers, the poet immediately draws attention to the central issues which revolve around this disaster: loss and grief, witnessing and enduring, denial and betrayal. The collection makes a poignant companion to Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.
Ashwin Rao is a psychologist, but being able to rhyme off the stages of grief does not lessen the difficulty of living through them. And he lives them every day. Not only in his own person, but in his work collecting and documenting the experiences of families who are still grappling with the loss also.
“We can start wherever you like. People often want to talk first about the early days, when you found out about the bomb. I would like to know that, as a sort of baseline. And more about your family.”
Often his own personal connection with the crash is unremarked upon in these interviews, but he is struggling.
“Daily life depended on the suppression of a person’s worst fears. Bereavement kicked open the doors to let the demons swell, stretch their tongues, show their fiery eyes.”
A series of questions remains unanswered as his work continues:
“How long till the vanished became invisible?”
“How many generations does it take to achieve fluency in the language of grief?”
“The past has as few certainties as the present. Who knew?”
Ashwin does not articulate these all-in-a-row, but they surface throughout the story. It is as though the novel is immersed in them, even before they are identified. His grief is almost overwhelming; it has deep roots and is seemingly endless.
“I am a man thrice-struck by lightning. The first strike, the pogroms, came close. The second, the bombing, struck home. Somehow I’d expected the third to come soon after and to kill me. Why think that way? It’s lightning—nothing personal, even if I seemed to attract it. I waited seventeen years. Finally, the third bolt had struck, but at a distance. It didn’t kill me, but it deadened me, for about fourteen months.”
But these are the questions The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is made to explore, not resolve. Padma Viswanathan’s style is perfect for such ruminations.
Her prose allows the reader to settle in, like an easy chair. There is a sit-by-the-fire feel to the story, like than inThomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Maria Dueñas’ The Time In Between (Trans. Daniel Hahn, 2011), and Rumer Godden’s In this House of Brede. These are novels which feature characters who are pressed inwards by events which have knocked them off-kilter, forced them to reconsider and redefine essential elements of life.
This is a prose style that cannot be rushed. In as much as it reflects Ashwin’s state of mind, it must unfold in its own way. Just as Ashwin has withdrawn, Padma Viswanathan’s novel requires that the reader reach out.
“I started to pull away from my work, which was all I had. No close friends, no family. No work. No love. Limbo. Drift. And then I got word of the trial, and bought a ticket to Canada. You know the rest, dear reader. Deadened and then galvanized. This was the work of the third strike.”
There are aspects of this situation that Ashwin is not prepared to confront, at times not even prepared to identify, not only for the reader but for his own protection. “I, too, may have a linearity problem, and must admit now to a small detail I have so far failed to include in this narrative.”
Just as he retraces his steps, and slips between times, the reader gradually assembles an understanding of Ashwin Rao; this is neither seamless nor complete.
The process of his resurfacing appears to be instigated by his interactions with a family he interviews. (His encounter reminds me a little of Nora’s with the Shahid family in The Woman Upstairs, which also deals with loss, but of a different sort.) This connection simultaneously invites interaction and remarks upon the futility of truly connecting.
“It struck him as marvellous and frightening how little we can know of the lives of others, even the closest, hours and hours in each day when they are out of our sight and we are out of their minds, leaving them to wander in mind and spirit to lonely places.”
He marvels at the capacity of the Irish people who received the mourners and the seekers in the days following the crash.
“But in a place where everyone had tragedy mapped on the palms of their hands, where every family tree was torn by civil war or emigration, famine or sudden squalls at sea, here, they knew how to address themselves to death.”
He struggles to address himself to death. And this sort of struggle is the stuff of fiction and poetry. There are nearly twenty books cited as important to Padma Viswanathan in her research too, as well as several articles; a reader can find any number of ways into the story, but they all lead to unending songs of loss.
Renée Sarojini Saklikar’s Children of Air India: Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections adopts this struggle too:
“Count: eighty-two under the age of thirteen.
Before breath, and after, what lies underwater,
one unending song — June 23, 1985.”
Nonetheless, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao leaves the reader with quite another feeling, emerging from this harrowing place, yes, but something beautiful and resonant.
On a commute during which I know I’ll have trouble concentrating, I pluck one of the mysteries from the stack.
Quercus, 2009; 2014
I’ve been discovering Peter May, Jeffrey Deaver, and Robert Galbraith this month.
Beginning with The Black House, The Bone Collector, and The Cuckoo’s Calling. Respectively.
And followed by The Lewis Man, The Skin Collector, and The Silkworm.
I didn’t intend them to be read in pairs (actually the Peter May titles are part of a trilogy), but they make a terrific combination.
They have complementary styles and varying emphasis on setting, plot, and character (also respectively).
In more contemplative moments and moods, I might reach for Brick magazine, #93 with Mavis Gallant’s handwriting on the inner front flap.
There is also an interview with Aleksandar Hemon with Eleanor Wachtel, a conversation between Madeleine Thien and Obi Nwakanma, poems by Sharon Olds and an article I’m currently reading, about E.M. Forster by Damon Galgut, whose latest novel considers the novelist too.
Standing in a line somewhere, I could browse a catalogue of interest, for instance the latest from Caitlin Press (a gift for landlovers, Pacific Coasters, feminists, and poets or the July/August issue of Quill & Quire. Sometimes I start making a TBR list from a catalogue and it ends up being a copy of the catalogue’s index because every single book looks interesting. The fall titles from both Caitlin Press and Q&Q are like that for me.
I like carrying this issue of Q&Q around because it has Carrie Snyder’s smiling face on the cover; I so loved Hair Hat, and then The Juliet Stories, and I guess I’ve been secretly waiting for her to appear on the cover of my favourite magazines for years because when the issue arrived in my mailbox I actually crowed in excitement. (The cover story is written by Stacey May Fowles, another fine author, of Be Good and Infidelity, among other works: good company.) No, I do not make a habit of crowing.
Q&Q’s fall preview is always exciting, and this issue contains a focus on Goose Lane as well, who published one of my favourite novels of this reading year, Tamai Kobayahi’s Prairie Ostrich.
But The Walrus is a favourite in my bookbag too and the September issue just arrived on Monday, with an article by one of my favourite writers, Michael Crummey, “The Circus Comes to Charlottetown”, on the “accidental birth of a nation”. But even when I don’t think an article in this mag is going to interest me, it nearly always does.
Coteau Books, 2013
Looking for short works like this essay, I also might read one of the short stories in Lisa Bird-Wilson’s Just Pretending. They are usually between 8 and 12 pages long, perfect for my average commute. And the collection fits with my Summer of the Canadian Short Story reading; I wonder how the other participants are doing. This will be the tenth collection of Canadian stories that I’ve finished since June 1st but although I am reading two others I think Just Pretending might be the only one that I finish this month.
Or even shorter? Maybe one of the poems in Janet Marie Rogers’ Splitting the Heart, her debut collection, which was described as throbbing “with the vitality of a Native drum” and wailing “with a warrior’s wisdom”. I was intrigued by this collection because it comes with a CD and ten tracks, which reminded me of Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love, which I read and loved earlier this year.
Or maybe I’m craving pictures as might as either words or music, so I might read a few pages of Max Brooks’ The Harlem Hellfighters, a graphic depiction about the experiences of the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit in WWI, and the discrimination its members experienced at “home” and abroad, war zones over here and over there.
Maureen Corrigan brought the book onto my reading radar and because I can’t recall her having reviewed another graphic story, I was immediately curious and now I see why she found it so powerful; I usually read about 20 pages and then set it aside for a spell. Essential reading. And Canaan White’s illustrations are mesmerizing.
How about you? What’s in your bookbag? Or what’s holding your attention these days?
One might say that Medicine Walk is a novel about the disconnect between a father and a son.
McClelland & Stewart, 2014
“Eldon Starlight. Franklin Starlight. Four blunt syllables conjuring nothing. When he appeared the kid would watch him and whisper his name under his breath, waiting for a hook to emerge, a nail he could hang context on, but he remained a stranger on the fringes of his life.”
One might say that it is a story about the disconnect between the son and the other boys.
“He was the only Indian kid and they didn’t trust him. He didn’t hold out much trust for them either. They were mostly town kids who’d never gutted a deer or cut a dying heifer out of a tangle of barbed wire. They lived for games and play and talk, and the kid was used to being talked to and treated like a man.”
And one might say that it is about the disconnect between that father and the land, between those boys and the land.
“It was opening your eyes on a misty early summer morning to see the sun as a smudge of pale orange above the teeth of the trees with the taste of coming rain in his mouth and the smell of camp coffee, rope, gun powder, and horses. It was the feel of the land at his back when he slept and the hearty, moist promise of it rising from everything. It was the feeling of the hackles rising slowly on the back of your neck when there was a bear yards away in the bush and the catch in the throat at the sudden explosion of an eagle from a tree. It was also the feel of water from a mountain spring. Ice like light splashed over your face. The old man brought him to all of that.”
But while Medicine Walk is about all of these things, the heart of the novel resides in passages like this, which reveal that it is as much a novel about connection as disconnection.
In itself, this passage about connection is powerful. But within the passage, stark moments of simple beauty are almost overwhelming.
There are no games played with vocabulary or sentence structure, but the use of the words ‘teeth’ and ‘light’, combined with a few sensory details bring this scene to readers in an inescapably bold sweep of emotion.
Many aspects of this story are painful. The father’s experiences with the war are particularly brutal, in an up-close and suddenly life-changing way.
‘The war became the knowledge that life can strip you raw, that some holes are never filled, some gaps not chinked, some chill winds relentless in their pitch and yowl.”
And there are agonizing long-spun-out brutalities here too.
“’Well, whisky keeps things away that some people don’t want around neither. Like dreams, recollections, wishes, other people sometimes.’ The old man turned on the stool and set the milk pail down on the floor between his feet. ‘Things get busted sometimes. When they happen in the world you can fix ’em most times. But when they happen inside a person they’re harder to mend.’”
But there are moments of great beauty too.
“Then he said that she brung him to life. Said he was movin’ through his life by recollection until she come along and showed him how to look at things again.
“ ‘I got bigger on accounta her.’ That’s what he said. ‘I got made better.”
There is respite. Kindness. Resilience.
“Stories were his wound. When he came to think of them it wasn’t for the glimmer of worlds spun out of darkness and firelight, it was for the sudden holes life can sometimes fall into.”
This makes it sound like a deliberately constructed exchange, and that’s not entirely untrue. There is a sense of balance to Medicine Walk, a deliberate movement, though as often backwards as forwards.
But the twinned intensities are not joined hand-in-hand like schoolchildren. Even if one might draw out the extreme emotions in the story like a diagram in high-school English class, with a fulcrum between polarities, Medicine Walk does not feel like a novel which can be broken down, piece by piece, into components.
It feels pervasively sad, and pervasively beautiful, all at the same time, and all the way through.
“Down the one side was a tangle of lilacs, un-pruned and ramshackle, old and uncared for, scraping against the side of the house, and there was only one bloom. It sat high at the point farthest from the house. A small dab of colour. It made the house more sullen, bleaker, and the kid wanted to pluck it and carry it somewhere where it would not feel alone, save it maybe, in a jar in the sunlight, and he felt the tears come until the old man walked back and put his arm around him and they made their way back to the barn where they’d left the horses.”
Medicine Walk feels like Richard Wagamese plucked that dab of colour and held it in his hands until it soaked into his skin, un-pruned and ramshackle, out from the land and into the being.
It feels like he plucked it and saved it at the same time.
It feels impossibly right.
Richard Wagamese will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.
This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.
Next Wednesday, thoughts on David Adams Richards’ Crimes Against My Brother.
Sean Michaels’ prose invites readers to participate in the relationship between sound and shape through the simple but beautiful language of Us Conductors.
Random House of Canada, 2014
His images are simple and fresh, and they are momentarily disorienting – as beautiful things can be.
“I didn’t laugh but you did, a laugh like a tumbling kite.”
That is Lev Sergeyvich Termen who does not laugh. But simply because he appears to be still does not mean there isn’t a current racing through his body when he sees this kite, this dragonfly aloft.
“When it was your turn, you played Mendelssohn. Your bow was a dragonfly. I felt my heart skimmed, skimmed, skimmed.”
Lev has long been fascinated by passion one step removed, an expression of tremendous beauty that is not-quite graspable. His proximity to the intensity changes him, as fascinations often do.
“Professor Vasilyev must have recognized my fascination, because one holiday he let me take a vacuum tube home. I kept it wrapped in butcher paper, strolling with it in my jacket pocket, one hand resting over it, and in my mind’s eye it was an emerald.”
Sometimes the element of sound is also tactile in its presentation: “For thirty-eight days the rails went clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack and then we reached the sea and things got much worse.”
Other times a rhythm infuses the prose with a more subtle energy. “They counted us. They counted us again.”
(And although sound is the sense which pervades this novel, other sensory details enrich the reader’s understanding of the breadth of settings and experiences explored. As when one character is observed “cracking crabs’ terracotta shells with his bare hands, sopping crabmeat in butter”.)
Us Conductors is not only preoccupied by the ways in which the human body can shape and release sound, but also the ways in which it conducts energy, electricity.
“You let your fascination express itself as stillness, steady stillness, like a lake gone smooth. Your violin sat in its case, near the points of your shoes. Only the corners of your lips showed your sparking heart.”
Readers are introduced to stillness and sparking via the secrets of the theremin and its inventor.
“This is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor.”
The theremin might not be as well known as a violin, but its unforgettable sound makes up for its low-profile in the world of musical instruments.
“The sound of the theremin is simply pure electric current. It is the hymn of lightning as it hides in its cloud. The song never strains or falters; it persists, stays, keeps, lasts, lingers. It will never abandon you.
In that regard, it is better than any of us.”
In a novel preoccupied with sound, the corollary of silence is accorded a special status as well.
“There is a simple pause, like the one in Chopin’s op. 28, no. 7, a pause like the passing of autumn into winter, a pause like other pauses I have known, before Red locks the door.”
Not only is stillness relevant in the novel in terms of plot, representing the spaces in which action pauses, but in characterization too.
“She loved my intelligence, my confidence, the pencil I carried in my shirt pocket. She loved the quiet she saw in me.”
This stillness is exhibited in elements of the novel’s setting as well, particularly in the circumstances under which the narrative is being assembled but elsewhere too.
“A depression does not show itself instantly. The banks had not been replaced with soup kitchens. The clock towers had not stopped. But there were more men sitting in the streets, on stoops and curbs, even on that icy Tuesday. Like in the days after the Revolution settled, in Leningrad, weather seemed less important. People walked in the rain. They shivered in the sun. They scanned newsstands’ newspaper headlines with fragile faces, awaiting disaster.”
Historical figures inhabit Us Conductors alongside the main character:
“I taught Somerset Maugham about magnets and Sergei Eisenstein about rust. I served black tea and gingerbread to Maurice Martenot, inventor of the brilliant but capricious Ondes Martenot organ. He asked for salt and pepper. Schillinger lectured on aesthetics and harmony.”
But Sean Michael’s includes a declaration of lies in the author’s note: “This book is a work of fiction. It is full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies.”
This declaration is necessary (and the inclusion of resource materials useful) but readers of Us Conductors will respond viscerally to this work nonetheless. This creation of another version of what has already been, the artistry which emerges when one forgets the history and creates something new with parts of what has been before, is quite remarkable.
“I felt then what I have felt many times since. It is the moment you forget the electricity, the conducting metals and skipping electrons, the tubes and wires and fundamental principles, standing with hands in pockets you forget these things and for a hot, proud instant you think it is you who did this, who made the tubes glow, you clever mouse.”
Sean Michaels: clever mouse: rememberer of theremins.