Waiting for Li Ming|
by Alan Cumyn,
by Wendy MacIntyre,
Cape Breton Quarry
by Stewart Donovan,
The Manuscript of Jow Smithwitz
by Monty Robins,
Post Your Opinion
|First Novels - Cross-Breeding Genres
by Gary Draper
STEWART DONOVAN's Maritime Union (Non-Entity Press, 127 pages, $12.95 paper) is subtitled A Political Tale. It is, in fact, a social and political satire, laced with big dollops of farce. The hero, Paul Doyle-Downcaster, is brought back from Vancouver to his ancestral home, the Maritimes, where he is flattered, used, duped, and dumped by every interest group imaginable.
The characters in Maritime
Union are cartoon-like and frequently inconsistent. There are too many of them. They have silly names -the daughters of the local oil magnate are Greaselda, Gassandra, and Oilivia. Moreover, the book is not coherent; it consists of a sequence of very short, often ludicrous episodes, held together by the slender thread that they, improbably, all happen to the central character. But change the names and I might be describing one of any number of great satirical works, including Gulliver's Travels.
So why isn't this great satire? It feels almost like one of those jokes that fall flat, after which the jokester says, "I guess you had to be there." Maybe from within the world of Maritime politics, this is funny stuff. From the outside, it looks like somebody else's party. More important, it may not work simply because making satire effective is harder than it looks. Donovan's caricatures are so gross that they leave nothing for the reader to do. Every joke is telegraphed in advance and bludgeoned to death afterwards. Good satire should look easy; Maritime
Union looks like it's trying too hard.
It's fairly easy to say what's wrong with Monty Robins's The Manuscript of Joe Smithwitz (Pentland Press, 320 pages, $21.95 cloth): just about everything. The book purports to tell the life story of its titular hero, who grows up (or at least older), gets some jobs, loses them has a lot of sexual fantasies, offers his opinions on everything from capital punishment (he's against it) to religious training for children (he's for it), and dies. The book reads like an embroidered autobiography, crudely spiced with some heavy-handed melodrama, and reinforced with a chronology of world events. The narrative lacks any kind of proportion or resonance. Characters disappear without a ripple or trace. The narrator's own character is bizarrely inconsistent. On page 64 he says, "Archie, unlike me, was very much of a loner"; 48 pages later he describes himself as "by nature a loner." The book could serve as a source-book of writing gaffes, of which the following is typical: "Being but 10 years old, the full implications of war made little impact." The story includes a good deal of masturbatory fantasy, with a particular interest in strapping. The book is frequently sexist and occasionally racist. I do not recommend it.
By contrast, Wendy MacIntyre's Mairi (Oolichan, 236 pages, $12.95 paper) is graced by some attractive and compelling writing, including its powerful opening line: "Four days out the child died." The child dies in the arms of the book's heroine, Mairi, a Highland woman who finds refuge for herself on the somewhat outlandish estate of Gregory Treemaster, a philosophervoluptuary who is an intimate of Lord Byron. MacIntyre is both daring and ambitious in this first novel, which is a sort of hybrid mythopoeic psychodrama and historical bodice-ripper. For me this particular cross-breeding of genres doesn't quite take. In large part this may be due to the baldness of the book's symbolic, mythic side. Maclntyre is sometimes so intent on the meaning of her characters that she abandons their credibility. Living in the wilds of the estate, for instance, is a kind of new-age guru called, of all things, Angelica Prophetessa. Late in the novel, contradicting all we've seen of him so far, Gregory Treemaster becomes utterly unhinged after Mairi expresses her preference for the poetry of Keats over that of Byron. Treemaster also sinks under the weight of metaphor: his "gnarled feet were like a tree's roots," he looks "as if he were himself a tree," his hair "mirrored the flowering of the oak."
In part this is a fable about male and female principles, in which most of the women, but especially Mairi, are whole, true, life-giving, and in harmony with Earth, and most of the men, including Treemaster and his horrid friend Dr Codsley, are broken, false, life-denying, and heartless. Codsley has a hard, trim, completely hairless body. He dreams of knives and wants to keep Mairi in a cage. From his name on down, he is a parody of evil masculinity. Maclntyre's conclusions are so evident in her imagery that she doesn't leave the reader any breathing room, and the novel becomes more didactic as it unreels. And it unreels at an ungainly pace. For much of the book I found myself hoping for something - any, thing - to happen, and then with bewildering speed and brevity the book explodes in climax; if this book is a kind of sex act, I think the foreplay goes on too long.
For all my reservations about the novel, Mairi asks and deserves to be taken seriously. Its message would be better conveyed, however, if the author worked as hard at entertaining the reader as she does at instructing.
Alan Cumyn's Waiting for Li Ming (Goose Lane, 274 pages, $14.95 paper) is the one book of these four that seems to come closest to achieving what it sets out to do. Cumyn tells the story of Rudy Seaborn, a young Canadian who goes to China to teach English during the year that preceded the massacre in Tiananmen Square. There are really two stories here. One is the story of Rudy's China experience, now in the past, but told in the first-person present, and the other is the story of his current experiences as a writing student in Canada, told in the third-person past. At the start the two stories are presented in alternating chapters, but the intercutting becomes more rapid and urgent as the parallels between the two narratives become clearer and the divisions blur. Thus described, this may sound like a merely clever mechanical device. In the reading, though, it works surprisingly well, and the suspense of one story helps to fuel -and sometimes foreshadow - that of the other. It also reflects Rudy's experience, since his old life in China is in some ways more intense and immediate than his present life in Canada.
What makes this book such good reading? For one thing, Cumyn has a lot of interesting things to say about contemporary China, so that at one level the book works as the log of a perceptive sojourner. He also has a very keen eye and ear for the meetings - and misses - of the two cultures. When he writes about China, Cumyn has the advantage of a somewhat unusual subject. When he writes about love, and thus lacks the benefit of novelty, he still manages to do a fine job: Rudy's transports of joy, his agonies of misunderstanding, and finally his obsession with his lovely translator, Li Ming, are all very convincing. Cumyn handles dialogue with a sure hand, and the disagreements between Rudy and Li Ming - and, back in Canada, between Rudy and his friend Lou - not only ring true, they say more about the war between the sexes than pages of reflection or theory.
Cumyn is a careful, subtle writer who manages seamlessly to join the literal and metaphorical levels of the story. The tenuous and fragile phone connection between Li Ming in China and Rudy back in Canada increases the tension of the narrative, but also images the nature of communication between lovers and cultures. The fact that Rudy is trying to become a writer, and that Waiting for Li Ming is, in some ways, the book he is writing, allows Cumyn to play a few postmodernish games with the reader. After his first meeting with Lou, for instance, he imagines her as a character in his novel. But for the most part this is an old-fashioned novel, not interested in experiment for its own sake, perhaps even technically unadventurous. Nonetheless, within the limits it sets itself, it succeeds admirably, and as it approaches its double-barrelled climax, it is harder and harder to put down.