Weighing the Novella

Smuggling Donkeys
David Helwig
The Porcupine’s Quill
96 pages, $16.95


Room Tone
Gale ZoëGarnett
Quattro Books
84 pages, $16.95

“Size matters.” —Anonymous

The Porcupine’s Quill and Toronto’s fledgling Quattro Books have both recently released books that brazenly proclaim their status as ‘novella,’ a form of fiction that John Metcalf describes in An Aesthetic Underground as “dense and rich as Christmas puddings.” If lasting satisfaction is in the meat, not the fat, then a novella with substance will outweigh the perversely emaciated offerings of a blockbuster behemoth. However, the willingness of readers to eat Mrs. Sprat’s portion illustrates what Patrick Crean of Thomas Allen Publishers observed in a recent interview: “[T]he corporatist ethos [ ] is to essentially ‘farm’ humans in order to make as much money as possible.” This bottom-line attitude—where size is deemed a valid measure and bigger is better reigns the ledger—has further relegated books to the status of mere ‘product,’ or perhaps more accurately, fodder. And if it weren’t for a handful of determined presses, the novella form could well be non-existent in this country, leaving readers with an even more limited literary menu.

Smuggling Donkeys is the fifth novella from prolific writer David Helwig, and readers who have enjoyed Blueberry Cliffs, Close to the Fire, The Stand-In, and Duet will find familiarity in its fate-battered narrator, as well as in Helwig’s admirable skill with the form, his sensibilities, and the engaging ‘theatre’ of his prose.

A question—“Who do you talk to when you’re alone?”—launches the story of Warren Thouless, a retired teacher who once aspired to a life of acting, and who now confronts desolation and uncertainty in the wake of abrupt change. His wife has left him, to seek spiritual enlightenment in India: “It started with yoga…I’d find [Laura] on the floor of our little apartment knotted into the lotus position, breathing. She was always keen on the breathing…She said she’s not coming back, but maybe she’ll get bored with Truth. She gets bored with things.” And Warren goes on to recount the days since her departure. He talks to himself, to the gods, to an invisible audience, once in a while to a friend or a new ally. His son thinks he’s losing it, becoming “eccentric”. The local librarian feels pity as he proffers a “god’s-eye view of Warren’s smallness and irrelevance and at the same time his afflicting recognition of absence, his wife lost in some spiritual community…”

Comforted by the works of Shakespeare, Chekov, and other playwrights, Warren identifies with Hamlet’s need to “break my heart, for I must hold my tongue,” while fully realizing “of course, he doesn’t hold his tongue but talks and talks and talks….” At night, in the nude, he recites Hamlet’s speeches in the empty sanctuary of the deconsecrated church he now inhabits. His life unfolds through inner monologue, which becomes, in part, a series of soliloquies: “Awake in the night, my not uncommon state, and more so lately, one of the tricks of body chemistry, a greed for consciousness, now when the existence of consciousness may any day be threatened”…“I talk because I can’t figure out what to say.” He’s a man grappling with his own ‘to be, or not to be,’ on a quest for truth, purpose and renewal. And he comes to understand how engaging an audience, any audience, “is helpful, [their] listening altering my sense of the words.” Acting and action allow him to work his way out of bewilderment and to release the encumbrances of the past, one revelation at a time.

Warren’s ruminations resonate with the dramatic ‘speakability’ of Helwig’s prose. From the start, it’s difficult not to want to read the pages aloud, in character, in order to impart our own nuances to Warren’s voice. It is as if our own speaking and “listening alter[s] [our] sense of the words.” A prime example is the question “Who do you talk to when you’re alone?” which recurs throughout the book, each time with the potential for a different intonation, thus interpretation. And each time, it becomes clear that, as Warren’s life changes, the tone and significance of the question has changed too. The prospect of discovery and the layers of meaning found in the subtleties are some of this novella’s pleasures, and of Helwig’s writing overall.

Familiar themes are revisited in Smuggling Donkeys: failure, loss, abandonment, suffering, alienation and, paramount, reinvention. Of his early defeat in the world of acting, Warren says, “I suppose my will was broken, but as a compensation, I had Laura, our endless and inventive appetites.” Now, he understands that he’s welcoming direction from Tessa, a young, beautiful and talented former student. “Buy the old church and make me a theatre, she said…Yes, I said, yes. I wanted a cliff to jump off and here was my chance…How to start a new world. Wanted to be used. My own kind of asceticism and renunciation, to abandon myself to the whims of a clever woman.” After all, “[w]ho was ever sure if the truth was to be found by a cool detachment or a foolhardy leap?” and later, he acknowledges, “Why did anyone give themselves to such futility? Because it used them more fully than anything else in the world. Had anyone ever explained to him the meaning of his story, of all stories, that we want to be used, used up, consumed, our sexual disasters not accidents but a search for oblivion by fire? Your business is with action alone, not by any means with the fruit of your action.”

Smuggling Donkeys lacks nothing in largeness of thought or spirit. Helwig’s sense of life’s unpredictability/possibility grows more acute with each new book, and perhaps his novellas demonstrate this best. They are finely tuned explorations of flawed but redeemable human existence, intense and tender, buoyed by gentle humour and hope. And as the storyteller, he is a little like the “comedian from silent film making you laugh and breaking your heart”. As Warren says of his new role in Tessa’s play, “Every single thing he tells the audience leaves out something else that there’s no time to tell them or maybe no way to tell them,” and yet we get it all: “God’s in his heaven, noticing things.” And Helwig, for whom it’s about more than searching, continues to peel back the curtains, so that we too are noticing and truly seeing what’s right under our noses.

Gale Zoë Garnett, author of the novels Visible Amazement and Transient Dancing, is no newcomer to writing or to acting. She has drawn on that latter world for her latest work, Room Tone, which, while exhibiting some similarities to Helwig’s book, proves to be a very different creature.

Where Smuggling Donkeys opens with a question that elicits pause, Room Tone leaps with both feet into the life of Nica Lind, the daughter of a Swedish cinematographer and a French actress: “I fell in love with film because my mother was sleeping with the ugliest man in Paris.” From there, Nica describes how “[m]y father loved making films; my mother loved being desired. They both loved me…” and how she grows up to become a successful actor. But this is where the book doesn’t, and can’t—pardon the yardstick—measure up. Garnett wants to relay Nica’s story from girlhood to about age 38 and is unable to cram it all in without leaving a lot out. And here, less is not more. Our first view of Nica is intriguing, focused and engaging; we want more of it, yet less than thirty pages in, the story jumps forward in time. “As a graduation present, Maman had bought me a contract for a French film in which we would play together”…“The film, Les Deux Médicins Roberge, was a popular success in France, garnering César film awards for both Maman and me”…“the success of Les Deux Médecins Roberge and the twin César awards led to a spate of other French films…I also made films, in solid roles, two of them leads, in Italy and in what used to be the Soviet Union.” This all takes place in the course of the first half of page twenty-eight, and at the top of the next page, we find “My twenties were a good period for me, and for my parents….” One of the distinctions of the novella form is its focus of action, which, according to George Fetherling’s article “Briefly, the Case for the Novella,” “turns on a very tight temporal axis.” The combination of Room Tone’s summaries and unexpected leaps in time makes it difficult to maintain your bearings and easy to feel shortchanged.

It almost seems the original intent may not have been a book, but rather a treatment for a screenplay. Milestones pass in an almost point-form fashion: Nica grows up, survives bullying, finishes school, has lovers, becomes an actor, weathers her parents’ divorce and maintains a loving relationship with each, and earns celebrity in an American television series. A formidable dramatis personae is built from those who walk on and off the stage of Nica’s young life. Much effort goes into naming movies, characters, etc., and providing details of plots and people, most of which don’t seem to lead anywhere. Aside from a lover who marries someone else, and an orgy she reluctantly attends as a favour to a colleague, life for Nica is good, lacking some intense conflict to overcome. Are we missing something, or simply too used to expecting the other shoe to drop?

The passage “Papa says it is important to know what makes you happy. If you know the things that make you happy, you will, even when you cannot have those things, know where to point yourself; when to open out and say, ‘It’s me. I’m here. I’m here to give and to receive and to make use of the things that make me happy’” echoes Warren Thouless’ thoughts on being used fully. In Nica’s hands, an interesting creed comes across as superficial. Another example of this surface-skimming appears after Nica leaves America. She achieves wealth there (an interlude in which old-world snobbery succumbs to its new-world envy) then returns to the familiar comforts of Paris. Garnett captures the atmosphere well—palpable and soothing, though oddly reminiscent of the ‘classic’ girl-survives-hard-knocks-to-find-belonging tale. It hints at a larger idea, but doesn’t quite reach beyond perfect sheets in a perfect bed in a perfect room.

During a visit to the cinema, a young Nica describes “the sound of people in a room, breathing together, safe inside a cloak of both darkness and magical flickering light: an enormous palette made entirely of the colour range between deepest black and brightest white. This light would play on our faces but we did not usually see one another’s faces because we were all looking at the huge wondrous faces on the screen. Alone and together.” Such moments are perhaps the best-written passages of the book, moments where something deeper flickers in Garnett’s writing—quiet; thoughtful; small reprieves from the surface banalities. It’s almost as if it’s finally found its own “room tone.”

As a title, Room Tone is an intriguing entry point, referring to the moment on the last day of filming when the sound director demands silence on the set. Then “the sound of the room, the room’s tone” is recorded, for later use, if needed. Of this, Nica says, “Room Tone is, for a moment or two humans at our best. Quiet. Listening together to the sound of the room—a sound of which each of us is a breathing part. Room Tone is perfect.” But is it? Behind the mask of silence, calm, and belonging, human emotion and grievance still rage. Nevertheless, in these moments of staged communion, when the players become the audience, we again hear echoes of Smuggling Donkeys—we are the actors in the room tone, we are Warren Thouless’ audience of listeners, hovering in the wings of his deconsecrated church-theatre. We are all ears, seeking sanctuary, breathing.

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