Five Legs, perhaps surprisingly, is a novel of two — not five — parts.

1969; House of Anansi, 2012

The first is in the voice of Professor Lucan Crackell.

Take “stymied creativity” and a “failed imagination”: an “amiable hypocrite who consoles himself with power in the institution, getting drunk with his students, and small-town Little Theatre”.

Then, take the “fleeing trajectory of the creative spirit” which is embodied in Felix Oswald.

Picture him: “tongue-tied and shaggy but with an x-ray vision that sees through every posture, including his own”.

These summaries are drawn from Sean Kane’s introduction to the House of Anansi A List edition of Graeme Gibson’s classic novel.

Now, put these two voices in a car together, travelling through a snowstorm on the backroads and city streets of Ontario, making their way to a classmate’s funeral.

“Rough winter winds impatient at the window; rattling southward over evergreens and through the wretched branches of a thousand naked towns. Great, just great. As if this stinking morning and funeral aren’t enough.”

Sean Kane’s introduction is tremendously helpful, as the bulk of Five Legs is not written with such a clear, direct style.

For instance, a similar idea is later described as follows:

“Wind and these driving clouds, Susanna Moodie longed for the formal world, for. London’s parlour light as desperately, foreign in a forest land, they cleared for sun. From the north, where the wild fish blow, and it tempted Louis Riel, it whispered to D’Arcy McGee. Strong and free. Gusting now against my car as I drive through layers of time to Stratford.”

(Does it get much more Canadian than that? Moodie, fishing ballads, Riel, D’Arcy McGee? It’s as though one of my oversized history scrapbooks — if you studied history in a Canadian high school you’ll know what I mean — collided with my copy of Sound and Sense.)

And far beyond this quintessential Canadian feel to it, the novel is considered “important”. (Quite likely the sort that appears on curricula, though it never appeared on those of my English classes.)

The Canadian Encyclopedia describes Five Legs as a “complex, intertextual modernist work that exhibits Gibson’s thematic concerns with mortality and writing as it surveys the cultural malaise of its time”.

(That is exactly the kind of description that sends me scurrying from a work, but the A List edition had already caught my attention before I understood its literary significance, and I do adore Gibson’s books on birds and beasts.)

Anyhow, there are other sources, like Rob McLennan’s 2009 interview, 12 or 20 Questions, which offers another perspective, the sort which always piques my interest in a work:

Graeme Gibson

Graeme Gibson

Five Legs, which was my first book, changed my life because in desperation I had started another novel while it was being rejected in sequence by a Canadian, an English, and finally by an American publisher before the House of Anansi took it on. Then when Five Legs was published and sold out the first printing in less than two weeks, I experienced the seductive spasm that accompanies notoriety, and my fate was therefore sealed. I was going to be a writer.”

The novel does not let the reader coast through the prose; it’s a demanding experience, being inside the heads of these characters.

“Lucan Crackell drinks and stretches, rapidly blinking, staring. Got to assert the mind’s control! It’s a most, sip and swallow as he lights a cigarette, a most curious and a vulnerable situation. Yes indeed, oh yes. Ha! Calmly smoke in wreaths about his head. A superficial, but essential order. Yes, that’s the thing. I know she. Likes me. Yes she does! Perhaps she’d…”

Five Legs does have an essential order to it, but it’s not the sort of ordering that we expect to find between the covers of a novel. The characters indeed inhabit a “most curious and vulnerable situation” and readers might often find themselves blinking and staring (at least this reader did, though there was some snorting and smirking too, for there are certainly some humourous bits).

Have you read any of Graeme Gibson’s work?

Project Notes: 
Day 44 of 45: Were it not for reading projects and challenges, my brain could easily sink beneath the surface of the eggnog and settle in the bottom of the glass with the sweetest parts; books like Five Legs constantly give you a boot back to the surface, force you to view the world from another perspective, if only for 268 pages (though, sometimes, lastingly).

What’s the last book that you read which gave you a good kick out of your comfort zone (or drove you deeper into the drink)?