JOHN B. BOYLE'S NOVEL NO ANGEL CAME (Tellem Press, 176 pages, $15.95 paper) focuses on three weeks in the life of a Canadian painter, Bernard, who travels to Paris and Brussels for the opening of his first major international exhibition. He leaves behind his dying mother and the stereotypically wholesome farmer's daughter he married just a few months before and with whom he lives in a small rural southern Ontario town.
While abroad, Bernard eats and drinks copiously, gets involved in a love triangle with the woman who pours champagne at his Paris opening and her boyfriend, and encounters two fellow Canadians who are playing at being terrorists. When the female of the pair, Reina, says upon meeting Bernard, "Just what I need, another fucking Canadian. God, what a bunch of losers!" it (like much of the novel's social commentary) doesn't ring true. The book's politics are sewn on like patches rather than being integrated into the fabric. The characters -- especially Reina and her partner Arsene -- are about as believable in both action and dialogue as those found in cartoons.
As for Bernard, his most compelling characteristic is his sensory awareness. It is apparent from Boyle's often sensual, evocative descriptions that he himself is a visual artist as well as a writer. The painter's eye is everywhere, celebrating the physical world, "the pink bricks of Niagara, flesh of salmon, of watermelon, ripened peaches, the pink cheeks of young soldiers, young rebels, pushed into the earth." Unfortunately, Boyle is less successful with plot and his attempt to imbue the story of Bernard's trip to Europe with significance. Part of the problem is that Bernard himself isn't particularly likeable, largely because he embodies the stereotype that if you're an artist, especially a male one, you can -- in fact, you must -- permit yourself to do virtually anything, including lie, cheat on your wife, puff up your ego as often as possible, and -- above all -- never feel the slightest regret.
If Marshall McLuhan were alive and inclined to write a novel, B.W. Powe's Outage: A Journey into Electric City (Random House, 324 pages, $19.95 paper) might well be the sort of book he would create. Its first-person narrator, a 40-year-old writer and teacher named (like the author) Bruce, is obsessed by the power of electronic technology
in our lives. We have no certainty, cannot trust our own perceptions; our very humanness is being eroded by an unstoppable "data overdose." And yet we must each find our own "authentic core" and hold on to our internal voice, our quest for personal meaning.
Although it provides an interesting intellectual ride, Outage makes for tedious reading. The novel is too self- conscious and ultimately becomes a book about the process of writing a book: Powe's "assembling of fragments, memoirs, essays, personal testimony, analgams of philosophy, criticism, and history." It lacks both an effective plot and memorable characterization. The setting is, for the most part, Toronto streets, bars, and dwellings; the people are apparitions -- masks, personae, postures -- with no substance, all strut and pose. Which, unfortunately, is what Outage itself succumbs to as a book. Its strength is that it tries to make sense of the world around us as we approach the next century. Its weakness is that it attempts to do this on a purely intellectual level without engaging the emotions of the souls it seems so concerned about.
Much more a novel for the heart is Sandra Gulland's The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. (HarperCollins, 288 pages, $26 cloth), which, despite its unwieldy title, is the smoothly written, engrossing tale, in journal form, of Rose -- better known as Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. This volume, the first of a planned trilogy, covers Rose's girlhood on the island of Martinique (a French colony at the time) where a voodoo priestess prophesies that she will be queen, her move to Paris to marry the influential but eventually beheaded Alexandre de Beauharnais by whom she has two children, and finally her courtship by and marriage to Napoleon.
Gulland's imaginative recreation is utterly absorbing. French history -- Robespierre's Reign of Terror and the ensuing power struggle among Republicans, Radicals, and Royalists -- is more than a backdrop in her capable hands: it is the very air her characters breathe. She shows how history and personal life are fatefully interwoven, how fact and fiction often blend and in the process present a more convincing truth than either could on its own.
Written as a novel-in-verse, Allan Wargon's I Am Come into My Garden (Somerville House, 204 pages, $19.95 cloth) is a case of an author trying to fit a square peg into a round hole: forcing content into a form for which there seems to be no intrinsic need or reason.
The book tells the story, in three parts, of a lonely man yearning for and finding a woman with whom to share his life on a farm. The first part chronicles his solitude. The second describes how Esther, in her mid-20s, fulfils the narrator's longing by becoming his wife, a relationship fraught with both desire and resentment. She is much younger than he is, so much so that he feels the gap between them "might appear unseemly to her friends." The third section deals with Esther's pregnancy and the narrator's handling of it (part of which includes a sexual encounter with one of the nurses at the hospital at which Esther is giving birth).
Throughout the novel, the narrator proclaims his love for womankind in general:
When I think about my ideal woman
I see her as caring, passionate,
and good to look at -- and the last is
because I like to take pleasure in what
He also obsesses continually about what he calls "the futility" of his "unconnected life." Puerile? Superficial? Both?
And finally there is Wigger (Arsenal Pulp, 96 pages, $10.95 paper) by Lawrence Braithwaite, a novel hailed by its publisher as an "incendiary work of fiction" that "confronts the demons of the modern world in its searing depiction of urban gay youth, who seek redemption through postures of violence and sexuality." Unfortunately, the only thing incendiary about this book is the paper on which it is printed. For all its effort to be trendy, all it succeeds in being is banal. And worst of all, it is barely readable:
IN A BOILER ROOM... -
... You f-cker... -
Vernon plays w/ Brian.
-You f-cker/you little f-ck--
He has him sitting on the floor,
Brian's clothes in a pile w/ papers and
books, in the comer of the room, not
neatly folded, but tossed lightly, one
on top of the other.
(Vernon backhands him in the face)
(He shoves his motorcycle boot
dead square in his face)
Vernon leaves his boot there.
--... fifty bucks. I expect more, you
little sh-t, sock cooker
Imagine suffering through a whole book of this! (And why bother to delete the vowels?)