While in no way a veritable picaro (literally, Spanish for "rogue"), Andrew Halfnight, the shy, selfconscious, and very unrogue-like protagonist of Eric McCormack's new novel does fulfil two basic requirements of the picaresque hero: Andrew's round-the-world adventures do bring him into contact with a variety of social classes and personality types, and his story does get relayed to the reader episodically and in the first person. From his birth in a small Scottish village right on through to balding middle age in middling Camberloo, Ontario, Andrew faithfully recounts his life of mostly continuous, almost comical misfortune: his twin sister's unintentional homicide at the hand of their tragically crippled (handless) father; the grieving father's suicide over the guilt of the inadvertent infanticide; his adored mother's slow, tubercular wasting away; his Aunt Lizzie's gleeful bludgeoning of his Uncle Norman with a piece of lava from his uncle's adored potato garden; his subsequent adoptive family's total annihilation by way of a sinister storm; and so on. Don Quixote, that greatest of picaresque heroes, has nothing on Andrew Halfnight when it comes to well-travelled misadventures. To pay him the highest of picaresque compliments, Andrew has been around. And then some.
As Andrew gets passed along from one adopted family to another, he begins to have a recurring nightmare about falling into a great black pit (or being pushed into it) in spite of his desperate efforts not to, a pit probably not unlike those that dotted the small mining town he was born in, Stroven. With age and the onset of supposedly respectable adulthood (he owns a travel agency, Xanadu), the dreams get worse, insomnia becomes a nightly companion, and Andrew takes to hard drugs and nameless sex in an ultimately futile attempt to be "as happy as anyone had a right to be." At one point Andrew describes how he had lost his "taste for any kind of travelling. From then on, I stayed home in Camberloo. I stopped using my car. My world became the few miles around my apartment. My appearance changed as the years passed. In bodily terms, I matured. My hair thinned, my waist thickened. When I contemplated myself in the mirror after a shower, I used to think how much I looked like the man in the photograph in my bedroom. This plumpish man of average height was the reflection my father used to see." Ah, yes: the familiar literary search for present-tense meaning through the probing of one's past. You may not be able to go home again, but home (in whatever form you can find it) is probably where you'll end up finding yourself. Simple-and in our hyper-ironic, causally-skeptical, postmodern age, maybe even a little clichéd-but the successful narrative formula for more than one praiseworthy novel nonetheless.
Except that Andrew, being a sort of good-boy picaro, seems to just float through his life (and the novel), more a mystified witness to it than an actual seeker after the truth of his disturbing dreams and diminishing selfhood. In the span of three pages early in the book, for example, he states: "I didn't know what to say"; "I couldn't think of anything to say"; "I didn't know what to say." Granted, he is just a boy at this time and is talking to Harry, a philosophy-spouting bibliophile sailor, but the remarks are symptomatic of Andrew's character throughout the novel. For the most part, he is like most of us, I suspect: a little bit confused, a little bit unhappy, a little bit committed to getting at the root of what it is that makes us tick (or not tick), but, in the end, not all that willing to undergo the kind of unyielding self-examination that Socrates insisted was necessary to the good life. Which is fine for us poor unhappy humans, but not so fine for characters of fiction.
Most readers like to feel as if the people in the stories they read are actively attempting to understand themselves and the problems and conflicts that beset them. Passivity in the face of the sort of big metaphysical questions McCormack is wrestling with in First Blast of the Trumpet is something we can accept from our neighbours and maybe even ourselves, but not from the protagonist of a novel as ambitious as this one. The puzzle of personal identity; the nature of love, solitude, and the role faith plays in each of these; the interchangeability of past and present; the interplay of dream and reality; the very nature of reality itself: these and other weighty themes are smoothly woven into the story McCormack tells of Andrew's life. But because of the episodic character of the picaresque form he has chosen to tell it with, they are mostly only suggested and never wholly pursued.
This question of inappropriate structure aside, McCormack's prose, on a purely sentence level, is always unerring, often stunning. A single sentence like "Most of the mines are closed now; but at one time they bulged at the edge of every little town, like a tumour" are rare enough in any kind of fiction, but especially so in the sort McCormack is renowned for. Like Borges, with whom he has been not unjustifiably compared, he often works in that awkward grey expanse that exists between dream and waking, night and day, madness and sanity, in the process encouraging us to ask of ourselves which is which and if we ever really knew the difference. Travelling in such murky literary territory demands the utmost linguistic precision. To allow the reader the opportunity for genuine existential empathy and, as a result, a chance at actual participation in the mysteries being mined, the language must never become as opaque as the subject-matter.
Flannery O'Connor pointed out that "the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein-because the greater the story's strain on credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be." When Andrew reflects how "those first days of my life hiccup through my mind like an old black-and-white movie," we are infinitely closer to approximating an understanding of the ephemeral nature of time and memory than we could ever be by struggling through an Henri Bergson essay on the same subject, no matter how cogently written. As O'Connor simply put it, "Fiction operates through the senses." We might say the same thing of the truth. First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (the title refers to another nightmare Andrew has of being reunited with his mother) is a novel that expertly sets its sights on an impressive assortment of truths, even if not lingering over them as long as we might expect, or examining them as closely as we would like.
Ray Robertson is the author of Home Movies (Cormorant).