House of Anansi Press, 2009
hardcover, 320 pages, $29.95
“Without the reflection of characters scarred by traumatic events, such as war, depression, natural disasters and genocide, to name a few, Canadian literature would lose its essence, not to mention its most celebrated authors.”
That is one of the more harsh and sweeping (not to mention deadly funny and sadly accurate) condemnations of the current state of Canadian fiction I have come across in a while. It is not a Canadian invention, nor do we have any particular monopoly over it, but it does often seem that the Sensitive Person Remembers Bad Things novel is one of our literature’s specialties. As a literary culture, we are the Good Grandchildren, the ones who come to visit, bring treats, and sit patiently through stories of past hardships.
Unfortunately, the assertion quoted above was meant as a compliment. It was written by National Post journalist Katherine Laidlaw in response to Post columnist Barbara Kay, who had complained that the “gushy” profile of Lisa Moore that Laidlaw had written for the Post “smothered – rather than aroused – my interest in reading [Moore’s novel February],” and went on to posit that the book was likely yet another weepy, narcicissistic snorefest.
Kay was pretty funny, harsh, and sweeping herself, writing that the “Giller-endorsed” books she had previously subjected herself to were now “jumbled together in memory” as “feminized paeans to a sepulchral past, mired in poetically lyrical, but navel-gazing narrative stasis.” (That “feminized” is a bit of a giveaway that Kay had more on her agenda than mere literary engagement, and indeed Kay’s hobbyhorse rocks furiously into action with her complaint that such novels depict “men immobilized in situations of physical, psychological or economic impotence… rather than demonstrating manly courage in risk-taking or heroic mode.” It makes you wonder if Kay sees MacGyver novelizations as the apex of literary achievement.)
As for the novel that started this minor hubbub, it is hard to find a better word than “reflection” for the dominant theme in February.
Of course, some characters have more reason to be reflective than others. At the centre of the book is Helen O’Mara, a widow and grandmother in her late fifties in present-day Newfoundland (there are numerous slightly awkward references to the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign to help situate us in time). The traumatic event that scarred Helen is the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig in 1982, roughly a quarter-century before most of the events of the novel. The rig sank in a violent storm on Valentine’s Day, a sickly symbolic date, given that Helen’s husband Cal went down with it. Helen has never fully processed the loss of Cal, feeling it put her “outside” her own life: “By outside Helen meant that there was a transparent wall, a partition between her and the world. She could be yelling her head off – Stop with the goddamn ball – but nobody heard her.”
On top of her grief, she feels guilt that she is still around, still living despite the fact that the husband she loved is gone: “She betrays him in this way, every single night of her life, and it’s exhausting. She denies him, she forgets him. Every time she says no to him in a dream she forgets him a little more.”
The innaccuracy of this notion – that she is forgetting Cal bit by bit – is manifest on almost every page of February. Indeed, on the same page as the above quote, there is this: “She remembers the time he poured boiling water on his foot….”; “She will never forget his face. She won’t forget the green cotton scarf he had.”; “To remember his voice she has to think of him speaking to her on the phone.”; “Helen thinks of Cal on the phone and she can hear his voice perfectly. Or she can remember his voice if she thinks of him singing.”; etc. Helen won’t forget the night of the disaster, either, or the immediate aftermath. She is convinced Cal’s ghost passed through the house that night to say goodbye, and is obsessed with knowing exactly how he spent his last hours, trying to recreate them in her imagination.
If the basic premise of the book – aging widow grieves for long-lost husband – weren’t enough, Moore’s prose style makes it sufficiently clear that this is a novel of remembering, not forgetting. As she did in her two short story collections and her first novel, the Giller-nominated Alligator, Moore employs a style that rarely rests, rarely settles into one smooth, chronological track. It swirls around, moving backward and forward, occasionally from sentence to sentence. Once in a while, this shifting even occurs within a single sentence. (From the novel’s first page: “The [skate] sharpener vibrates the counter beneath her fingers; John had phoned last night from the Singapore airport.”) It is a style reared on minimalism, or perhaps essentialism, one that is more interested in isolated moments than in fleshed-out scenes. It zooms in on one signifcant line of dialogue or single visual image, and then zooms back out again. Such a method can be very effective in depicting the way someone like Helen is perpetually submerged in her own past. All of her memories and experiences are concurrent, and she struggles to stay in the now. In ways like this, Moore is very good at suggesting fictional lives that exist beyond the bounds of the narrative, rather than brought into spontaneous existence at the moment of their introduction.
The problem with the book is that there is so much of this non-chronological swirling around and remembering. It would be priggish to demand that Moore stop monkeying around modernistically and employ what James Joyce derisively referred to as “wideawake language of cut and dry grammar and go-ahead plot.” At the same time, must every single character be so drowned in memory? Must every scene be so thoroughly haunted by the past? Must every paragraph fidget in its seat like a little kid? In some cases, the sudden cutaways from the present come off as nothing short of bizzare. For example: Helen’s globetrotting son John (the novel’s other main character) receives a phone call while in Tasmania telling him that the woman with whom he had a brief fling in Iceland is pregnant with his baby. He tells this to a single mom he happens to meet at a hostel he’s staying at, and she comes back with this: “I’ve been to Iceland, the woman said. I had my throat slit in Iceland. John looked and saw that she had a thick white scar across her neck.” With the very next line, the scene cuts away to John remembering, at length, a dream he had the night before. It later cuts back to the woman with the slit throat, then back to John’s dream, back to the woman, and so on. In the context this feels almost insensitive, as if Moore couldn’t quite bring herself to allow another character’s memories to take precedence, even for a single scene, over those of the two people at the centre of the book. The woman seems to be trying to speak over John’s thoughts, to unintentionally comic effect.
These party-crashing flashbacks also come dangerously close to bringing about Barbara Kay’s dreaded “narrative stasis.” Moore seems to want to tamp down any forward momentum – all narrative streams are dammed and re-directed the moment they begin to flow.
This wouldn’t be such a problem were the material rich enough to sustain this kind of structure. But that is the fatal flaw of the book: beneath all of the tricky narrative back-and-forthing, and despite its many local riches (and there is a lot to enjoy in the book on a page-to-page level, quick characterizations that are spiky and funny, domestic scenes that brim with life), February is a deeply sentimental, even corny novel at its heart. You should never judge a novel by its bare plot, but Moore can’t quite conceal the fact that her novel is about a widow who learns to accept her husband’s death – and even finds new love! – just as her restless son settles into the role of proud father and new life is brought into the world. Making it worse, it’s abundantly clear from very early on in the novel that this is where we are headed, making a lot of what follows feel like a kind of delaying tactic. Most of the book’s third quarter is water-treading, with endless recapping and stretching of themes that have already been well worked over. That the character of the contractor is never fleshed out, and only fully enters the book at the very end – just in time to watch an unbearably symbolic New Year’s Eve fireworks display with Helen before later making love to her – only helps flag him as a mere plot device. The prose may reach for Virginia Woolf, but the emotional and narrative core is pure Harlequin.
Katherine Laidlaw argued that doing away with endlessly reflective characters would be to do away with the “essence” of Canadian literature. From the evidence of February, we could stand to let a little of that essence go down with the ship – er, rig.