"AMBITIOUS" is one of those kiss-of-death words ("promising" is another) reviewers use about books. It usually means that there's a fatal gap between expectation and performance, between the reach and the grasp. Tom Marshall, who is a fine poet and who has demonstrated that he can also write admirable fiction (such as his 1987 novel, Adele at the End of the Day), bites off a lot in Goddess Disclosing. Unfortunately, it's more than he can chew. This is one of those fictions that fall somewhere between a loosely structured novel and a set of interlinked short stories. The central figure is an unnamed, out-of-fashion actress, who has "lapses" into other times and places. Or perhaps the central figure is Gaia, the female spirit of Earth, who enters, in various mythic and historical forms, into the life of a smalltime movie actress. Marshall teases his readers with this short, evocative epigraph:
Old earth exhaling its histories
like thin, planetary mist around us:
memories, dreams, reflections of Gaia, or
it could be a god dreaming
deep structures of a world.
This conceit gives Marshall the opportunity to do two things: to tell a compelling human story, and to make a plea for the earth. In the end, I don't think he succeeds very well at either one. The book is weakest in its plea for Mother Earth. Perhaps fiction is simply not the right vehicle. As we listen to the sounds of our planet's dying, it may be that parables are not what's needed. From Silent Spring to Earth in the Balance it is by and large documentaries that have hit
closest to home. When Marshall's goddess/actress says "My ozone veil is torn at the poles," the issue is somehow trivialized. It also feels sometimes as if Marshall is just working too hard; our protagonist travels to Norway, where she lapses into the Northern gods, then to China, to Mexico. She comes from and returns to Africa -the Olduvai Gorge to be specific. Her connection with most of the earth's primary mythic sites is a little too mechanical.
And what about the actress? In part two of the novel, when she has decided to pursue her past, there's a good deal of retelling of her earlier years that is wonderfully, unbelievably, melodramatic: abusive but loved father dies in a pool of vomit, girl goes on the streets, falls in love with her pimp, is chosen for a play by one of her customers, and so on. Yet these events are so perfunctorily related as to be drained of emotion. It's like reading the plot summary of a soap opera: melodrama thrives on embroidery, not on economy. Marshall writes a simple, clean prose in compact sentences that at its best works with great power and economy, and at its worst is simply flat:
Rene and 1 sit together, sometimes holding hands. Looking and listening. He is a stranger and he is my man. We have an elemental connection. We are the music. The music has sanity and grandeur, it restores health to our stricken planet.
He fragments so many sentences the reader may begin to suspect parody: "Old Bergen is exquisite. In the rain." The book's opening piece, "The Other Mexico," is absolutely splendid: haunting, open-ended, and melancholy. It is by several degrees the best thing in Goddess Disclosing, though there are flashes of brilliance throughout. It is the novel in microcosm, condensed and poetic. "The Other Mexico" explains nothing; it suggests a great deal - more, in the end, than the novel delivers. So what's going on here? It's almost as if the author, having created this lovely story (it has appeared in Quarry and in 88: Best Canadian Stories), couldn't leave it alone. Sometimes this sort of thing works. W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe is a pretty good novel, though I think it is less successful than the wonderful short story from which it grew. Tom Marshall's "The Other Mexico" is also a glorious short story. I think he should have left it alone.