Eliza Clark's first novel, Miss You Like Crazy
(HarperCollins), was a headlong "road" book about a lovable, but slightly batty, young southern woman trying-as always in such novels-to find a place for herself in the world. Reading Miss You Like Crazy
, I felt that Clark was rather like the engineer on an out-of-control train, hurtling down the track, missing all the traffic signals, its whistle tooting frantically, but meaninglessly. Nonetheless, the novel created quite a stir in the book world, sufficiently so to be shortlisted for both the Trillium Book Award and the Stephen Leacock Medal. This took me by surprise since, while I found Miss You Like Crazy
an endearing effort, it wasn't a novel I could take very seriously. But Clark followed this success with her second novel, What You Need
, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. It was apparent that if I was unimpressed, I was definitely in the minority, and had better have another look.
Now, in Bite the Stars, Clark is gaining control of her wayward impulses, has harnessed her exuberance, her love of `voices' and of unusual verbal connections in an attempt to tell a serious story. This is a narration by a mother about her relationship with her son from his premature birth on page one, immediately after a tornado which killed sixteen girl-children, to his execution in prison more than thirty years later. She tells the story of their life together-not in chronological order, but by moving from anecdote to anecdote, skipping back to fill in more details about this incident or that, then moving forward to bring in a later incident. She does this neatly and without strain, never losing the reader nor the forward momentum of the narrative, bringing us to the son's last years as the book ends with his death, and her meditation on why all of this has happened.
Why does the bad child, the `bad seed' so fascinate novelists? I once kept a list of the authors who tackled this subject, although I was more interested in the novels written about young women gone wrong. Is it merely a simpler way of studying the problem of evil? Or is it an attempt to come to terms with the consequences of the nuclear family which is so rapidly deteriorating into the single-parent family where one parent, nearly always the mother, usually also nearly always ill-prepared, is expected to be breadwinner, both parents, and extended family to her children? It's a task few women are up to, no matter how well-intentioned or how much they love their children, and Grace Larson, the narrator of this sad story, is no exception.
And yet, even though this is a novel about the circumstances of life of a wayward child, and the mixture of bottomless love and anguish of his mother, this is not a novel of character. We get no picture of the son's dynamics from the interior, only a delineation of the circumstances of his life as to why he has gone so wrong-his premature birth, his years living in his aunt's household, his absent father-none of them sufficient to explain his behaviour, since many other children raised in the same circumstances don't turn into self-destructive threats to society. (Can you tell I used to be a Special-Educator?)
The son, Cole James Larson, apparently isn't supposed to be understood; in fact, what might constitute a satisfactory explanation for his behaviour is one of the central questions of the novel. Clark suggests that pull toward a life of crime was caused by his mother's mistaken belief that Cole as a toddler could be better cared for in the stable home of her married sister; she takes Cole back when she discovers that her sister had tied him with a soft cloth to his bed at night to prevent his nocturnal wanderings. But she undermines this as an argument by telling us of the child's extraordinary and insatiable craving for sweets that caused him to tear apart the kitchen every night, forcing her sister to take this step-one which most mothers, myself included, would not regard under the circumstances as beyond the pale. What might a caregiver do for the child's safety? Lock him in his room? Give him tranquillizers? We restrain small children all the time, tying them into car seats and strollers to keep them from being hurt, even using little colourful leashes so they can walk in crowds without having to be closely watched. Of all the incidents that act as critical in the emotional development of a child, this strikes me as bafflingly mild, far too little in the face of the locked-in-closets-tortured-beaten-starved school of child rearing, to carry the weight it is asked to in this novel.
But the child's apparently inborn need for large amounts of sweet food is most unusual and is never explained. Or is this need meant to be symbolic of his need for the mother-love he so desperately craves and isn't getting? The reader is left with the idea that Clark's subsequent out-of-control, illegal, and immoral behaviour must be caused by bad genes, although, certainly, the tornado carries strong symbolic weight.
Clark's characterization of Cole's mother, who is really the focus of the novel, is much stronger. But this isn't a conventional characterization. Clark has fully inhabited Grace, who is presented as all impressions, all sensation, lost and slightly wonky, brainless and ineffectual, and riddled with a helpless sorrow and yearning. This is what sticks in my mind about the book-not attempts at motivation or lack of it, not plot, not even Clark's original use of language. But this is a picture, an image of a character, moving and sometimes brilliant and sufficient in Clark's novelistic world, but not a fully-fleshed human being.
Having said this is not to find fault with it. This novel is really about some other thing than the psychology of a killer and his mother. Among others, it's a lyrical, sensual look at the world, and it's also about Clark's apparent first love, language, and especially these wonderful, slightly crazed voices that she seems to catch riding on the ether and transfers to the page. (That they don't always make sense, or necessarily sound like anything any human being I've ever met might say, is a small defect once inside Clark's world.)
Clark opens each chapter with a paragraph, poetically written, about some fact in nature, usually having to do with an animal, insect, bird or plant. There is even one called "Soil". Each is pointed, precise, has a message to give us. I conclude that they're there in part to point out to the reader how powerful the programming of nature is. So maybe what we're to conclude is that Cole's programming has gone awry, he is an aberration, nature gone crazy. Or perhaps she felt she needed these small paragraphs to tip the story over into mythology. Maybe she's really writing a myth here, and these small pieces are designed to continually remind us of that, to take us out of the particulars into the unending, timeless flow of the universe.
Thus, mother-love has always been; mother-love is so strong it overpowers all defects or strengths of character, a force in itself, well beyond the ability of the mother to control or shape. "It wasn't lack of love," Grace says at the end, and many mothers out there with children who've gone wrong will know this to be true. But what it was, we still don't know. Clark's exploration of the question won't make the psychology texts, but still, it might provide solace.
Clark has indeed a large supply of talent. Her gift for lyrical language and powerful, idiosyncratic voices is rare and precious. But for this reader anyway, confessing first my bias for novels of character and of ideas, these strengths are not enough out of which to conjure a fully satisfying novel. Nonetheless, Bite the Stars is a book many readers will very much enjoy.
Sharon Butala lives on a ranch near Eastend, Saskatchewan. Her latest novel is The Garden of Eden. She is currently working on a non-fiction book called Wild Stone Heart which will be released in 2000.