Lynda Barry says a “happy ending is hardly important, though we may be glad it’s there”.
But there’s more to it, she says: “The real joy is knowing that if you felt the trouble in the story, your kingdom isn’t dead.”*
If one reads a lot of literary fiction, ambiguity in an ending begins to look like optimism; if one were to adopt Lynda Barry’s perspective, knowing that the kingdom isn’t dead could be a sombre story’s silver lining.
The cover of Nino Ricci’s Sleep offers readers a dramatic warning: a sedate and controlled colour palette and scene is not what it seems (Alex Colville’s “Pacific”, 1967).
Immediately we wonder if this established Canadian author will follow Chekov’s advice and have the gun fire, shattering the stillness captured in the cover image.
It seems inevitable, but the use of the word ‘trigger’ on the novel’s first page is not relating to a firearm but to the onset of a medical episode.
So, if the weapon is not concrete, then perhaps the threat of death is something else as well.
“What he was afraid of, when Marcus was born, was himself. Not Julia’s deadness but his own, the sense of having been stumbling forward like a sleepwalker, wandering deeper and deeper into country he hadn’t the vaguest notion how to find his way through.”
David’s story is preoccupied with layers of awareness: the “secret lives” of one’s waking self, the “unholy zeitgeist triumvirate” of drugs, the “death-in-life” of a failing marriage, and that moment when a thing is “just pure possibility”. Wife Julia and son Marcus float in the miasma of David’s life, the story truly David-soaked.
The pace of Nino Ricci’s novel is relentless, David’s experiences disconcerting and off-putting. The trouble in the story keeps readers off-kilter throughout.
Although not on the cover, a gun makes an appearance in the early pages of Libby Creelman’s Split too. It is drawn in the wild, surrounded by cranberry bogs, in a scene involving twin sisters with their parents and a man who has been working as a doctor in a rural community in 1960s Massachusetts.
There is a split in the family and it is unclear where the division falls and whether the gun is fired. The narrative slips across time, so that readers only gradually come to understand the circumstances which preceded and followed that scene.
One of the twins, sixteen years old in 1975 in that opening scene, remains at the core of the story in 2008; Pilgrim has journeyed back to the community, where her mother is suffering from dementia, and is compelled to wander in memory too.
“Mom had always been able to tell us apart, even when she couldn’t see us. She could identify us by our voices, our cries, our smell, our footsteps. ‘Just any little thing,’ she would say.
Unlike our father, who often remarked that listening to us chattering away in another room was like listening to one girl questioning and answering herself.”
Sisters are not split where one might expect. Countries are split in ways one might not expect. Watergate and the Civil Rights movement expose alignments and fragments, unions and tears which mimic the cohesion and destruction of a family and a community.
The lives of every individual in that clearing will split on that day. “On that day, I popped open like a jack-in-the-box. Like I had never before felt curiosity or anticipation or attention to anything new.”
In both Sleep and Split, individual family members do not find the connections which they hoped to find at home. Meaning is something which characters either only glimpse from a distance or struggle to reassemble in the wake of tragedy. Sleep feels like an irreversible trajectory, Split feels like a set of deliberately orchestrated detours: both are stories saturated in painful memories and realities.
If there is no happy ending for those who dwell in kingdoms of unconsciousness and backwood realms, none awaits the residents of Kate Walbert’s The Sunken Cathedral either.
All three novels pleat their narratives, characters’ consciousness slipping in and out of focus, so that any intimacy between them and their readers is largely constructed by the readers’ investment. (Pilgrim pulls readers closest, although one could say that readers become all-too-close to David, so suddenly and overwhelmingly that retreat is the natural response to his spiral into darkness.)
Kate Walbert’s characters remain at a distance, partly due to the structure of The Sunken Cathedral, named for the Debussy prelude (La cathedral engloutie) which was inspired by an ancient Breton myth. It is delicately arranged as a series of echoes, inherently embodying the power of art to stir our hearts, expansively, wholly.
Those who gathered to hear Debussy’s program piece could imagine the mythical city swallowed by the ocean, while listening to the sound of bells and instruments. Readers of Kate Walbert’s novel can imagine the organ music and the chimes, while reading about the lifelong friendship between Simone and Marie, two elderly women struggling to keep their heads above water in New York City after their husbands have died.
“The people on the screen fade in and out, disintegrating, reappearing: a crowd jostling and pushing their way onto a boat only slightly less shaky than the boat they’re already on; it’s a turbulent, black-and-white sea. A few slip and bob in the waves – who is there to save them?”
Brake lights pulse in the darkness, television reception clears and fuzzes, memories surge and fade: The Sunken Cathedral is filled with stops and starts, including structural interruptions (or embellishments, depending upon one’s perspective) in the form of footnotes, some of which are so long that readers could mistake them for the narrative proper.
“Does everyone else have a composed life? Is everyone else sure of how things should be? The choices they’ve made?”
The lives of Kate Walbert’s characters cannot be confined to a conventional narrative; there are truths and observations which insist on making an appearance below, below the surface of the narrative in a note. Sometimes these bits feel like the most important part of the story, even though the act of stepping outside the chapter to read the additional material does introduce an element of distance, as though readers must remain on the shore, peering below.
The characters in Perrine Leblanc’s The Lake (2014; Translated by Lazer Lederhendler 2015) are not so much below the surface as floating around the more substantive events.
The core of this narrative is the loss which resounds in the wake of a deliberate and brutal death (there is more than one death, but to avoid spoilers, let’s leave it at that).
This Quebecois scene is not unlike the setting of Louise Penny’s Gamache mysteries: a cozy (stifling) community, neighbours who are engaged (interfering), in a sedate (sterile) environment. But Leblanc’s style is spare and deliberate (her nomination for the Françoise Sagan Prize was appropriate, as there are some stylistic and thematic similarities between some of Sagan’s novels and The Lake); you could fit three or four of The Lake into a Three Pines crime novel.
But Perrine Leblanc does play detective, as she examines the dangers to which vulnerable young girls can fall prey. Whether in the woods or between four walls: there is a menacing force which lurks beneath this stark prose.
“Her steps were in time with the incessant throb of blood against her temples. She stopped halfway and leaned against a tree planted by the founders of Malabourg that was marked with a commemorative plaque. A stitch in her side was slowing her own, and she drove her thumb into her flesh to dislodge the pain. Then she doubled over and vomited the raspberry juice that she’d gulped down before going out. She had been falling since she’d entered the woods.”
The Lake is divided into three parts, which take place between 2007 and 2012, but despite the seemingly chronological structure, there is a sense of suspension in the story, as various players bob to the surface and offer another perspective on the tragic events which have unfolded in Malabourg.
Marie is correct in The Sunken Cathedral: there is nothing composed about a life, although other people’s lives can seem more orderly than our own. But ordering is the stuff of writers, the delicate arrangement into story which invites readers into curated compositions.
Nino Ricci, Libby Creelman, Kate Walbert and Perrine Leblanc create credible and detailed kingdoms and populate them with the near-living; readers can take pleasure in the telling, despite the trouble in the stories which they have told.
These readers’ kingdoms are not dead.
*Lynda Barry’s What It Is Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2008.