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A review of The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci

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The Origin of Species captured the 2008 Governor Generals Literary Award for fiction (the second such win for Ricci, the first being his 1993 debut Lives of the Saints). It was a well-deserved honour. This dense, multi-faceted, sprawling, and thought-provoking tome explores the ideas of evolution, love, ruthlessness, human nature, relationships, nature, fatherhood, higher education, and postmodernism, among many others, in a provocative, humorous, and often moving fashion.

The primary story concerns the emotional and intellectual maturation of one Alex Fratarcangeli, a graduate student in literary studies at Concordia University in Montréal, during the mid-1980s. As the novel begins, he is emotionally and intellectually adrift, grappling with his unfinished thesis and its seemingly hopeless attempt to connect (post-)modern literary criticism and Darwinism, trying to make sense of his personal life and continued failed relationships, and dismaying at the encroaching materialism of the era. It is at this point that he meets a remarkable individual who will forever change the trajectory of his life: a young woman who will provide the spark that allows Alex to release the emotional weights of the past and allow him to see the world in a new and clear way.

The novel is divided into three sections: the first and third sections follow Alex’s adventures in the environs of mid-1980s Montreal, with flashbacks to 1970s Sweden and 1980s Ontario. The middle section is an unbroken narrative of a surreal Galapagos adventure with a disastrous outcome that provides the clues to Alex’s rebirth.

In the first and third parts, Ricci vividly captures the social and political environment of mid-1980s Montreal: its post-referendum hangover, its under-acknowledged immigrant population (the third solitude, to expand upon McLennan’s metaphor), the newly imposed language laws, and the emerging awareness of large-scale environmental issues. This was also the era in which our current unhealthy and spiritually bereft focus on economic materialism began to emerge: a phenomenon Ricci likely views as the rebirth of some form of social Darwinism.

Much of the novel deals with Alex’s wanderings around Montreal and his interactions with a fascinating cast of secondary characters: the upbeat Esther, a tenant in his apartment building; his thesis supervisor, a cynical and lecherous Eastern European émigré; a group of El Salvador émigrés living on the fringes of Quebecois society; his disinterested psychologist; an ongoing imaginary dialogue with Peter Gzowski; and, obliquely, Pierre Eliot Trudeau.

From this Montreal basis, much of the story is also told in flashbacks: to Sweden, where Alex has an affair with an older woman; to small-town southern Ontario, where Alex grew up and where his family still lives; and to the Galapagos Islands.

Initially, Alex is a difficult character to admire. His personality alternates between narcissistic self-importance and neurotic self-loathing. Yet there are glimpses of a good side that slowly emerges as the novel progresses and he begins his personal redemption.

The counterpoint to Alex pettiness and cynicism is provided in the character of Esther, an effervescent young woman who lives in his apartment building. Her exuberant and relentlessly positive view on life is tempered by a vigorous case of multiple sclerosis, which gets progressively worse as the novel progresses. Esther’s physical decline is contrasted by Alex’s emotional maturation: her deteriorating state profoundly affects Alex, making him a better person and awakening him to the arbitrary cruelness of the natural world. In a way, her decline can also be seen as a metaphor for the eclipse of goodness by 1980s era materialism. Ricci reflects this by documenting the intrusion of neo-conservative metaphors taken from the arenas of business and commerce into everyday discourse, which has ultimately culminated in the current irrational celebration of immoral and cerebrally-challenged CEOs

If Esther represents goodness, then Desmond, Alex’s partner in his Galapagos misadventure, is her exact opposite. Desmond is a vividly-drawn, despicable, amoral, self-important academic of middling reputation. Rude, ribald, and recklessly funny, Desmond takes the young Alex, who is vacationing in the Galapagos, under his wing and into a bizarre and dangerous adventure. Unbeknownst to Alex, he becomes involved a scheme to exact revenge on Desmond’s former mentor by introducing foreign species of hybrid plants into the ecosystem, a scheme that ultimately ends in tragedy.

Ricci has stated that part of the novel can be seen as a repudiation of social construction. Although social construction is a vague term that is used (and abused) in many ways, in its most strict sense it implies the uniqueness of humanity by viewing the world and its creative mechanisms as edifices based on conventional agreement rather than any notion of reality… knowledge, essentially, as a show of hands. In this view, humans stand apart from nature, but what Ricci demonstrates is that humanity is symbiotically linked with the natural world – it is an unseparable part of nature, red in tooth and claw, and to think otherwise is nothing more than self-important anthropocentrism.

Thus the incident in the Galapagos can be read as a critique of social construction. Desmond’s scheme to surreptitiously introduce a species of hybrid plants in the Galapagos and later claim them as an important discovery can be seen as a allegory of social construction, and the subsequent discovery of a similar adapted plant as an allegory of evolution. The self-centered and excessively narcissistic Desmond aptly reflects the anthropocentric conceit of social constructivism. Ricci succeeds with this rich and vivid characterization of a truly despicable individual.

This critique of social construction is highlighted by an incident with the Galapagos boody, the bird pictured on the cover of the novel. While exploring the Galapagos with Desmond, Alex sees two birds using sticks to tell stories, an incident which will have a profound effect on his thinking:

In the Galapagos Islands, the masked booby performs an elabourate mating ritual. The male approaches the female and after a series of gestures aimed at attracting her attention … he pushes before he an assortment of offerings. A stick, perhaps. A blade of dried grass. A stone. These items, there is no other way to see them, are metaphors: of food, of home, of fecundity. With them, the booby is telling his prosepective mate a story. “Come with me” he is saying, “and we will have children and live in abundance.” This strange collection of all the essential elements of narrative at the most basic level of nature suggests that this oldest of stories, the happily-ever-after of fairy tales, may be older even than we have ever imagined.

Thus narrative is not socially constructed, but is something that precedes humankind. Stories exist in nature, waiting to be told: an almost Neoplatonic conception of narrative.

And thus the title of the novel. Alex, like Darwin, introduces an innovative and audacious theory based on experiences in the Galapagos. During the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin witnessed evolution around him, inferred something important was happening, but was initially unable to recognize it as such, just as Alex was initally unable to recognize the incident with the birds. This is just one of many sublime parallels between Alex and Darwin in the novel.

Although Ricci addresses many important and varied themes, they ultimately converge on the need for love and the cruelness and arbitrariness of nature. The book is, ultimately, an homage to the remarkable character of Esther.

The Origin of Species is a tour-de-force by Ricci, and one of the finest pieces of fiction I have read in a long time. It is a dense, chaotic, and thrilling intellectual voyage can be enjoyed on many levels, will reward re-reading, and is destined to become a classic in the canon of Canadian literature. Simply put, a masterpiece.

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A review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

There has been a lot of hype around this debut novel by David Wroblewski, with comparisons to the classic American writers of the mid 1900s, and suggestions of the emergence of a new Steinbeck. Unfortunately, the excessive praise showered upon this work create unreasonable expectations that are ultimately not met.

The story centers around a young mute named Edgar Sawtelle. The family business is the “Sawtelle dogs,” bred not for physical featues but for emotional attributes. In particular, a dog named Almondine develops an unique relationship with young Edgar, and the empathy between these two kindred souls is movingly described. The difficult but rewarding family life of Edgar, his parents Gar and Trudy, and the Sawtelle dogs is shattered by the return of Gar’s brother Claude. Soon after Claude’s return, a series of tragedies causes Edgar to go into exile. He manages to subsist in the wilderness with a trio of Sawtelle dogs, but is ultimately compelled towards a tragic homecoming.

There has been much criticism of the parallels to Hamlet. I didn’t mind this so much, as I firmly believe that re-interpretation of classical literature and mythology can result in magnificent work (for example, Eugene O’Neil’s Mourning Becomes Electra). However, this re-interpretation is feels forced and too adherent in many ways, leaving readers familiar with the Hamlet story without a sense of forward momentum. However, Wroblewski succeeds in many places with his magnificent use of imagery – when it works, it works beautifully, as shown in the following passage where owners of Sawtelle dogs and their dogs are described attending a burial.

A man leading a dog. It was Art Granger and Yonder, both limping with arthritis. Then Mr and Mrs McCullough, with Haze, the third Sawtelle dog their family had owned. Then Mrs. Santone, with Dreary. Then a lone woman with her dog, a curve of slack on its leash. A young couple with a boy and their dog. The dog’s exhalations plumed whitely over their heads as they came down the field. For a long time people kept appearing at the top of the path… and [Claude] directed them all down the path until the last of them had passed and they all stood in long arced rows around the birches.

There are many passages in this book that incur a strong debt to magic realism, both in good and bad ways. There is also an excessive attention to detail that is sometimes fascinating, but often just distracts from the narrative.

Overall, I felt that this book required a stronger editor. It is too long by at least 200 pages, and the prose has a tendency at places (particularly early on) to be bogged down by too much detail and excessive use of metaphors. Nevertheless, Wroblewski is a fine writer, and this is a good, if not great, first novel. In particular, if you are a canine aficionado or have a strong interest in dogs and dog breeding, this novel may provide a great deal of intellectual stimulation. However, readers should be sceptical about all the hype – this is not Steinbeck, not yet.

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A review of Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City by Mark Kingwell. Viking Canada: 2008.

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The latest book by noted philosopher and public intellectual Mark Kingwell is an unique examination at how the structure of the modern city moulds the conscience and its interactions within society, and likewise how the modern city can be represented as an extension of the consciousness of its citizens (a reverie made concrete, if you will).

The book reads like a collection of thematically linked essays, which can be roughly grouped into three sections. The opening chapter on concrete stands alone (and was originally published as an essay in Harpers magazine). Chapters on New York City and Shanghai bookend and complement a discussion on public spaces, providing diametrically opposed examples of the effects of architecture and planning on civic discourse. The latter half of the book examines philosophical issues of mind and body, of boundaries, and of our sense of place within the city.

Concrete Reveries begins with an irreverent overview of its titular subject matter, concrete, that much-maligned substrate of the much-maligned modernist city. Despite its very real associations with the brutal and the ugly, Kingwell demonstrates that in many aspects it can be both humane and (yes) beautiful.

The narrative then gathers steam with a discussion of public spaces and their effects on social and political life. This begins with an examination of New York City, the canonical city of the twentieth century, then considers the critical role that citizens and the structure of the city play in civic discourse and democracy, and concludes with an examination of the Shanghai, the oft-described “city of the twenty-first century.”

In the chapter on New York, Kingwell aptly captures the vitality and spirit of this thriving metropolis. Central to this chapter is an examination of two experiential senses of New York: the orderly Cartesian grid north of 14th Street, and the chaotic Byzantine labyrinth south of 14th Street.

The orderly grid of north Manhattan forces its citizens into a fixed rhythmic cadence, where one is always properly oriented and has an exact sense of place. Exploring the northern part of the city by foot quickly becomes mechanistic experience, as the regularity of the grid orders, structures, and thus subtly controls the citizens who navigate it. The pedestrian experience of lower Manhattan is quite different. There, the chaotic mish-mash of streets forces citizens to into closer contact with one another as the metronomic regularity of the north Manhattan experience breaks down. It becomes easier to get lost or disoriented, there is a sense of discovery, of the unexpected, of surprise, even of danger. The citizen is forced out of reverie and called upon to think actively, to make decisions, to take chances. This is the Piraeus where democracy happens. Like the experience of navigating lower Manhattan, the experience of democracy is messy, inefficient, frustrating, and resistant to order; it is humanistic, not mechanistic, and thrives in synonymic environments.

By contrast, the description of Shanghai leaves one with the impression of a cold, soulless, postmodern Hell, an aggressive affront to democracy by the malignant communist-capitalist Janus that is twenty-first century China. Like the worst corporate blandscapes of American suburbia, where citizens avoid deserted streets in favour personal vehicular fiefdoms, there is a gaudy shallowness to Shanghai that the no amount of glitz can mask. This horrid amalgam has become the playground of the new wave of utopian architects, a clean slate where they can build fantastic structures untrammeled by the messiness and inefficiency of democracy. Kingwell summarizes this trend with the following prescient truism.

Utopian visions of western architecture can only be realised by the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes of the east.

What does this say about architects themselves, and their work? Modernist architecture, in its genesis, was intended to serve democracy (so mentions many a modernist manifesto), but the associative impulse of modernism, in architecture at least, tends towards what Kingwell calls a “latent fascism”. Architects openly bemoan the compromises required by active democracy, but in Shanghai they have found a willing and subservient pawn for their delusions of grandeur.

It would have been interesting at this point to have a comparison between Shanghai and Pyongyang, a city that Kingwell (oddly) never mentions. Both are quasi-artificial realizations of oppressive anti-democratic regimes (one of old-school Stalinist communism, one of new-school communocapitalism), both represent a disturbing dystopic vision imbued by their corresponding strident ideologies, and both are bleak and depressing results of modern architecture’s shameful subservience to totalitarianism in order to achieve its artistic ends.

Kingwell succinctly describes Shanghai as “sometimes beautiful, often strange, and always oppressive.” If Shanghai represents a vision of the future city, then this vision is a terrible dystopian nightmare worth fighting against.

The subtitular chapter Consciousness and the City considers how civic architecture, and its dynamic with consciousness in space and time, relates to notions of free will and determinism. Kingwell provides two paradigmatic examples from western literature, from the dramas of Sophocles and the poetry of Robert Frost. The story of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is one of fate (determinism): he is fated to kill is father and marry his mother, and this fate is represented by the spatiotemporal convergence of three roads where Oedipus unknowingly murders Laius. The three roads converge into one, and there is only one way forward for poor Oedipus (and hence no free will). Conversely, the story of Frost’s The Road Not Taken is not one of fate but is one of choice (free will): the protagonist is offered choice between two paths in the wood (and two paths in life). Here, the single road diverges into two roads, and he must decide whether to take the easy road (and its implicit shallow rewards) or the hard road (and its implicit greater rewards).

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Fascinating, you may say, but how does this relate to the modern city? Consider the earlier discussions on New York and Shanghai. The chaotic city, represented by New York (and in particular lower Manhattan) reflects the idea of free will, with its non-deterministic structure offering many divergences and spatiotemporal paths. This is democracy concretized. On the other hand, the ordered modern city, represented by Shanghai (and by modern suburban sprawl), reflects the idea of fate: all roads lead to their respective teleological ends, chaos and divergence have been subsumed by technological determinism. This is autocracy concretized.

The latter half of the book expands on the ideas of the city and consciousness by delving deeper into a philosophical overview of the mind/body problem. The narrative becomes a bit dense here, with many philosophical asides that can be somewhat confusing. It helps if the reader has some background in philosophy, but these asides may still be enjoyed by the attentive reader, and difficult sections passed over without losing much of the epistemic import (after all, how much Lacanism can one really stomach?). The central notion that Kingwell wants to establish is that of an embodied mind (contra Plato and Descartes), and how the mind, situated within and shaped by the body, is also shaped by the environmental situations of the body (and, being embodied, of the mind as well). That is, the city can shape our cognitive scaffolding. Returning to the earlier civic exemplars, this is reflected in in the latent fascism concretized by the streetscapes of Shanghai that stifles the creative impulse; likewise, it is reflected in the accidents and chaotic beauty that nourish the creative impulse concretized in the streetscapes of Manhattan.

Concrete Reveries is a fascinating and thought-provoking examination of the issues of the city and consciousness from a fresh perspective. Problems with narrative flow and obtuse digressions are overcome by the many imaginative sparks that result from the issues it presents. It is a book I found myself thinking about long afterwards. And for this reason, I highly recommend it for anyone seeking a different slant on architecture and urban issues.

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A review of Atmospheric Disturbances: A Novel, by Rivka Galchen. Harper Collins Canada, 2008.

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This debut novel by Rivka Galchen opens with the realization by the middle-aged psychologist Leo Liebenstein that his wife Rema has been replaced by an identical double:

Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.

And so begins the strange and quixotic journey by Leo to recover his wife, whom he thinks may or may not have been abducted by a secretive society called the 49 Quantum Fathers (a sly allusion, perhaps, to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49). Given this premise (and the blurbs on the jacket), one may be lulled into thinking that this is an unusual tale of speculative fiction. But is soon becomes clear that the substitute Rema is the real Rema, and that Leo is suffering from some type of delusion. And as Leo falls deeper into this delusion, he becomes convinced that an elusive meteorologist named Tzvi Gal-Chen holds the key to the disappearance of his wife. Throughout the story, Leo seems oddly aware of the possibility of his own psychosis, and this realization, along with his self-diagnoses, propel the narrative of much of the book.

There are several things one immediately notices about this fascinating and unconventional novel. One is Galchen’s moulding of the normally rigid discourse of science into the metaphoric discourse of creative writing, often in very clever and poetic ways. For example, she refers to the Rema situation as “the Initial Value Problem”, and chapter titles include “Measured radiances at various frequencies” and “A method of calculating temperature, pressure, and vertical velocities from Doppler radar observations”. Along with the scientific metaphors are actual excerpts from published journals, along with photographs of Tzvi Gal-Chen and his family (which, it turns out, is the author’s family). The clever use of language is prominent throughout, and things are often described in multiple ways. For example, Rema is never just described as Rema by Leo; instead, he randomly describes her as the double, the simulacrum, the doppelganger, ersatz Rema, and the blond, among other qualifiers. This is not calling things by their proper names! These postmodernisms may turn off some readers, but Galchen is selective and not too overbearing in their use, and they complement rather than distract from the narrative.

Another pleasing aspect of this book is the ambiguity of the narrative. There is ambiguity in remembered details: a sweater described as orange in one part of the narrative is described as blue in another. There is ambiguity in characterization: Leo’s patient Harvey seems real in the early part of the book, and perhaps not so real in the latter part; likewise, Harvey is undoubtedly described as a male character in the first half, but displays strangely feminine characteristics in the second half. There is ambiguity in the narrative: Leo’s interactions (at a distance) with Tzvi seems appear real at some points, then appear to be fabrications at others; likewise, the story of Rema’s mother and her past also becomes gradually ambiguous as the novel progresses. The effect of all this ambiguity is a skillful blurring of reality and delusion, particularly during the latter half of the novel.

However, it is during this latter half that the narrative begins to lag a little. It would have been nice to see a more balanced interplay of reality and delusion here, and a bit more ambiguity concerning what was real and what was not. But this is a minor complaint, and does not detract from the overall positive impression of the book, which despite its fascinating handling of philosophical and psychological issues such as identity, reality, and delusion, is ultimately a story of love, and of love and abandonment. Atmospheric Disturbances is a compelling, quirky, and frequently humorous study of encroaching psychosis and its effects on the mind, love, and relationships.

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A review of Cockroach by Rawi Hage. House of Anansi Press. Toronto: 2008

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Rawi Hage’s second novel Cockroach takes place during a frigid Montreal winter and details the picaresque adventures of an unnamed protagonist, a recent immigrant from the Middle East and self-professed thief who often envisions himself as a giant cockroach. Hage is the recent winner of English literature’s richest prize, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, for his debut novel DeNiro’s Game (which I did not read); as such, there has been a considerable degree of anticipation for this new book.

There are two narrative arcs in this novel. The primary arc is a first-person description of the protagonist and his interactions within and without the shadowy émigré community of Montreal. The secondary arc provides the backstory of the protagonist’s family history in the old country as detailed to his government-appointed psychologist.

Hage writes with an almost relentless forward momentum, and the prose quickly takes hold of the reader by providing an intimate depiction of the protagonist’s underworld. The tone is persistently nihilistic (particularly in the first half), cynical, and dark. This is reflected in the actions of the unnamed protagonist, who breaks into the homes of his acquaintances for petty reasons (or none at all) and sells drugs to shallow and self-obsessed young Quebecois. These young cocaine-addled materialists who live “expensive apartments with faux shantytown architecture” are viciously described by the protagonist, who recognizes their implicit acceptance of him as nothing more than their latest exotic fashion accessory, another acquisition from the savage East. The following passages illustrate this gleefully sardonic tone (and there is much of this in the novel).

All of her friends, too, lived in a state of permanent denial of the bad smells from sewers, infested slums, unheated apartments, single mothers on welfare, worn-out clothing. No, everything had to be perfect, every morsel of food had to be well served — presentation, always presentation, the ultimate mask.

 … They were corrupt, empty, selfish, self-absorbed … I despised them; they admired me.

This unrelenting nihilism, untypical in many ways of Canadian literature, is coupled with a fascinating use of imagery. It is this imagery that has the greatest impact upon the reader. As the title implies, the protagonist views himself as a giant cockroach, quick and agile, feeding off the detritus of civil society, thriving in the dark and recognizing no boundaries and barriers. He comes to identify with the cockroaches infesting his apartment, to the point of conversing with a giant albino roach. He exists on the edge of madness, for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses.

Despite all the cynicism, surreal imagery, and nihilistic tone (which many have found offputting), the ultimate sense conveyed by the protagonist is a profound sense of loneliness. As he laments to his psychiatrist:

I just wanted to know you, I said. I just wanted to be invited in.

This loneliness is coupled with a deep sense of responsibility and shame by the protagonist at his failure to affect an earlier tragedy. The primary narrative arc of this novel is his attempt to atone for this tragedy. And as such, the novel is ultimately a novel of redemption.

I found it fascinating, a very quick read, and enjoyed the propulsive narrative style. The imagery stretches a bit too far in some cases, and parts of the second half are a bit slow, but these are minor complaints. I look forward to reading more from Hage in the future.

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A review of Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by  Margaret Atwood. Toronto: Anansi. 2008.

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Given the current worldwide economic malaise, it appears rather prescient that the 2008 Massey Lectures address the subject of debt. In these lectures, Margaret Atwood examines of the concept of debt as a motif in human society, particularly through an examination of metaphors of debt in western literature. As such, this book only obliquely deals with personal monetary debts. Rather, the focus is on the more general idea of debt in relation to justice, sin, redemption, balance, and revenge, among other topics.

Atwood begins with the idea of debt and its relationship to fairness, which is ingrained in the psyche of the human race (and other intelligent creatures). In early societies, notions of debt are aligned with justice, which is typically represented by a supernatural female figure. It is the emergence of Greece, and the induction of the court system described in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, that the idea of a female arbiter of fairness/justice (and thus of debt) is replaced, although the feminine image remains.

Next, Atwood describes the links between debt and sin. In heaven, debts are forgiven; in hell, debts are eternally paid back. The character of Satan is often portrayed as a collector of debts, and often described as wielding a ledger. With these notions of debt and sin, the creditor is often seen to be as sinful as the debtor, particularly in pre-industrial literature. Moreover, motifs of debt are always twinned with motifs of credit, one symbiotic with the other.

In the lecture on “Debt as plot”, Atwood examines the characters of Faust (as particularly exemplified by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus) and Scrooge (of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol). In a fascinating passage, she wonders if Dickens wrote Scrooge as a reverse characterization of Faust:

Was Dickens consciously writing Scrooge as a reverse Faustus? … There are so many correspondences it is hard to avoid the thought: Faustus longs to fly through the air and visit distant times and places, Scrooge dreads it, both do it. Both have clerks – Wagner and Bob Cratchit – the one treated well by Faustus, the other treated badly by Scrooge. Marley is Scrooge’s Mephistopheles figure who carries his own Hell around with him… Everything Faustus does, Scrooge does backwards.

As someone who has been studying variations of the Faust legend for over a decade, I found this digression fascinating. The characters of Scrooge and Faust will loom large over the subsequent lectures in this book.

An examination of the shadow side of debt described in the title focuses on the ideas of punishment, resentment, and revenge, among others. The endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge exemplified in the myth of the house of Atreus are shown as analogous to cycles of debt and credit: one is a moral debt, the other a financial one. The solutions to both are laws (as exemplified in the Oresteia) or forgiveness (as exemplified by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission). The shadow side of the debtor is the creditor: hence we have Faust/Mephistopheles, Scrooge/Cratchit, and Antonio/Shylock. It was inevitable that a treatment of the motif of debt would include mention of The Merchant of Venice, and Atwood succeeds with a detailed and trenchant analysis of the relationship between Antonio and Shylock with regards to the debtor/creditor roles.

Payback is associated with redemption, and requires recognition on the debtor’s part of the debt incurred. In the concluding lecture, Atwood returns to Scrooge. Recognizing two archetypes in the Dickens tale (Scrooge Original, before his redemption, and Scrooge Lite, after his redemption), she introduces a third archetype for a new variation: Scrooge Nouveaux. This twenty-first century Scrooge is annoyingly narcissistic, at once astoundingly rich and astoundingly ignorant. He is visited not by the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future, but by the spirits of Earth Day past, present, and future. At this point, the narrative moves into a strong focus ecological ethics and the role of debt. The debtor, Scrooge Nouveaux, is a stand-in for all of us and our negligent razing of the planet, effectively racking up an enormous ecological debt from our creditor. We can either start to pay back through sustainable and ethical practices and receive the forgiveness of Gaia, or proceed with business as usual and face her revenge. As Scrooge Nouveaux begins the new day after the nocturnal visit of the three spirits, he thinks:

I don’t really own anything… Not even my body. Everything I have is only borrowed. I’m not really rich at all, I’m heavily in debt. How do I even begin to pay back what I owe? Where should I start?

 Scrooge Nouveaux’s thoughts apply to all of us. Where shall we begin?

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Memory and loss

A review of The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan (2008).

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There has been a recent trend among some journalists in Canada to reflexively dismiss what has been termed, often derisively, as “Canadian gothic.” Although the term is vague and not precisely defined, it is essentially accepted as dark, tragic, nineteenth-century rural Canadian narrative (for example, think Wuthering Heights transported to the Bruce Peninsula). Given this provisional definition, The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan falls into this category, but it would be a mistake to overlook this fine novel simply based on this categorization.

The Boys in the Trees is a heartbreaking tale of a terrible tragedy and how it transforms (and informs) a community, offset with notions of how memory, responsibility, forgiveness, and knowledge shape lives. The story asks the reader how memories of the past affects the life one lives now, how responsibility is to be determined when actions cannot be predicted, how forgiveness is essential to a contented life, and how knowledge about one another, and memory of the past, is necessarily incomplete.

The novel begins and ends (as its title suggests) with vignettes of boys in trees. The trees at the beginning of the novel offer refuge, a safe haven from abuse and despair for a young boy named William Heath, one determined to escape his miserable existence and determined that one day people will know his name. The trees at the end of the novel provide a vantage point another group of boys to witness the final results of a tragic choice.

After the brief vignette in the trees, we next see William as a young man with a family living in England. He is beset by a first brutal onslaught of tragedy that causes the family to flee to Canada – first Toronto, then the fictional town of Emden, Ontario. However, William is unable to escape his feelings of anxiety, despair, and failure that have accompanied him since childhood, setting the stage for a second and even more brutal tragedy. It is this tragedy that is dealt with in the remainder of the novel, with the citizens of Emden reflecting and acting upon their impressions of what happened. Swan is masterful here at describing the ripple effects of a tragic singularity on the lives and memory of those involved with the Heath family.

Swan writes in a resolutely non-linear format that suits her examinations of knowledge and identity. In particular, the second and third chapters are composed in fascinating contrapuntal narratives that slowly converge into their respective tragic conclusions. The remainder of the novel consists of individual non-linear narratives (recollections of the citizens of Emden at various points in time) that slowly offer the reader additional insight into the characters and events of the first three chapters yet leave many questions unanswered, signifying that the causes and motivations behind many events are ultimately unknowable, even by those closest to them.

One narrative follows a young boy named Eaton, a neighbour and friend to the Heath daughters. The tragedy provides a defining point in Eaton’s life, and assigns an infinite value to a secret gift that he will carry with him for the remainder of his life. Questions of guilt and responsibility continue to haunt Eaton even as his memory fades in old age.

Another narrative follows the Robinson family and how the main tragedy relates to and interacts with another within their own family. Again, questions of guilt and responsibility are examined, with a possible answer provided in the notion of forgiveness. Hints at guilt possibly lying elsewhere are suggested throughout the Robinson family narrative, and additional facets of the Heath family are provided by the Robinson women.

These narratives ask us: what can we really know of a person from their external appearance and outward actions? Swan shows that we can only glean facets, glimpses of knowledge that no matter how numerous will never coalesce into a whole, or even a reasonable representation of a whole. And moreover, this imperfect knowledge is ultimately doomed to fade away with the people holding it. Nevertheless, these accumulated facets can provide a rich description of characters and motives, even with many questions remaining unanswered.

This is remarkable debut by Mary Swan. It has been nominated for the 2008 Giller Prize, and in my opinion is the best of the four nominees I have read (having yet to read the Joseph Boyden entry, and not likely to finish it before the award is presented).  I strongly urge anyone interested in the future of Canadian literature to read this book. I certainly look forward to reading more of her work.

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