Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Carol Shields' Swann

I liked the impetus behind Carol Shields' 1987 novel, Swann. A kid glove satirical jab at silly, pretentious academics who opine on the poetry of an obscure poet brutally murdered by her husband, it had the potential to comment on academic careerism, the ambiguous nature of art, and the vicissitudes of celebrity within the arts community. Unfortunately, though Shields scores a few points from these ideas, the novel's focus is on dull character sketches and unfunny dialogue.

Swann is divided into five chapters. Each of the first four concentrates on one of the main characters; the final chapter, reminiscent of her later Larry's Party, brings these and other characters together in a symposium supposedly shedding light on the life and art of the titular victim, but instead "exposing" the shallow, pompous, petty, and/or narrow-minded attributes of the attendees. The scare quote in the previous sentence is so because the point has been made redundant long before the conference. It still would have been OK if the final scene had provided some laughs, but it doesn't, and the uninteresting subplot "whodunnit" is even less thrilling.

The only parts I enjoyed were most of chapter four in which Frederic Cruzzi, the contrasting sympathetic character, was visited by a pitiable Swann the day before her murder, as well as the subsequent emotional incident with his loved and loving wife. That still doesn't make up for the excruciating chapter three (and parts of the last chapter) wherein a shy, reclusive Rose Hindmarsh is allowed to expansively ruminate on a fascinating life between library and night-reading in her rented suite.

The regularly displayed poetry of Swann is perhaps, in a postmodern smirk, meant to get the reader going on subtlety and genuine emotion vs derivation and cliche, the more heavily invested of us finally realizing we're the butt of the joke. But because academics are frequently made to look silly (when anyone cares to pay attention) doesn't render useless exegesis and evaluation. Shields' novel of "ideas" would have been a lot more interesting if she took a stand on that issue. Better poems would have been a prerequisite for that kind of exploration, though.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Essay and Review

My essay on literary readings has been online at Canadian Notes & Queries for two months:

I also have a review of Grant Buday's memoir, Stranger On A Strange Island, in subTerrain's latest issue, #60.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rohinton Mistry's Such A Long Journey

Rohinton Mistry spent his first twenty-two years in India before settling in Toronto, long enough, obviously, to remember the colours, sights and sounds of his initial neighbourhood and outlying communities. Such A Long Journey, though, his 1991 novel set in 1971 Bombay, provides the reader with an emotional and moral adventure, not a memoirish curio as a travelogue substitute. In Gustad Noble, Mistry has created a fascinating protagonist, an angry yet loyal man, besieged by working poverty, political danger in a secret plan gone awry, tense relations with his eldest son, the sickness of his daughter, infelicities from his friend and work associate, a permanently damaged hip from saving his son's life many years ago, and the mundane yet soul-grinding daily problems which always arrive as emergencies in his household and compound. Noble's transformation is not only filled with emotional layering (narrated at a leisurely pace, but in tense fashion), it is believable and unpredictable.

I appreciate that Mistry didn't shy away from Indian regional dialect, and that the objects and emotions those words referred to were necessary, enlightening some element of plot or place.

The book is at times repetitive and awkward in tone and phrase, and in this, it reminds me of Theodore Dreiser's great An American Tragedy. It also shares with that classic a powerful narrative drive. Compromising elements of a novel are as nothing when the positive elements are at a high level, and numerous. (Moby-Dick breaks all the boring rules about "tightness of plot", but the novel doesn't thrive as a well-made craft-rectangle in a workshop window.)

The novel's ending is superb. It takes a lot of guts to write about characters earlier depicted as comic fodder in such a vulnerable and sympathetic manner. And the final subplot, or denouement (the fate of the art on the compound wall, and the transient artist who created it) is handled deftly, with classical scope.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces

Garnering polarizing responses from its readers, Anne Michaels' 1996 Fugitive Pieces is a Vox Dei novel (the people may as well be from a different universe, novel characters or readers). Precious, obscurely suggestive, hightoned and flatlined: these and many other dismissive adjectives can be applied to the book, but what really made me, by turns, laugh or groan was the unnecessary historical and archaeological detail. Pages of dry sourcebook ruminations on limestone and flora and bioluminescent gardens are included, of course, in an attempt to comment on the protagonist's submerged flickering-light soul struggles. Metaphor has rarely been this ambitious and abstract. The other reason for the geological main hall lectures? Well, after all that background reading, whether from personal interest or from necessary planning from a novel outline, it's tempting to brag to the readership that you've browsed more than a book or two, maybe even thought about its contents. Novel concept!

The instruction isn't always about sea foam and gypsum blossoms, though. Bare names are splashed across the page as if by their solemn intonation alone they conferred upon their author an open-ended gravitas:

"There were many volumes of poetry, more than I remembered, as well as Athos' lessons: Paracelsus, Linnaeus, Lyell, Darwin, Mendeleev. Field guides. Aeschylus, Dante, Solomos."

One character in the entire book -- Alex -- remotely resembled a human being. The others were eidolons, in both main meanings of the word. With that in mind, the sex scenes between Jakob and Michaela were hilarious, unintentionally so, because nothing in this book is meant to be funny, not even the dialogue puns. Body parts are touched in amazement: hands, arms, skull, femurs, sacrum, sternum, ears, feet, forehead, damp hair, hipbone, calves, eyes, wrists, pelvis. But no cock! (This is narrated by a man.) His selflessness is not only unbelievable, it's offensive. Who would want to make love with an out-of-body soul-merger? The foreplay? "I hear her small voice -- long phrases of music and stillness like an oar balanced in its arc above the water, dripping silver."

At least suggestion and self-importance in poetry is over in 90 emaciated pages. It's not as if there's a narrative in Fugitive Pieces that has to be filled in.