DONNA O'SULLIVAN's In 1980 Sartre Died (Primary Press, 399 pages, unpriced) comes close to being totally unreadable. The book is printed with inadequate margins, and paragraphs run on for dozens, even scores, of pages. There are too many undeveloped, undifferentiated characters and unexplained point-of-view shifts; there is too much clumsy, turgid writing. What is a reader to do with "He loves me she thinks awkwardly," or "And Claire does have great feeling for Molly I know that I muse"? What might these utterances mean? Where was the editorial staff? There's a novel, possibly even an intelligent one, buried somewhere under all this landfill (a few shards of clear prose and perception do turn up), but I don't have the patience, and I doubt anyone else will, to dig it out and assemble it.
Sylvia Night's Taugon on Red (Vantage, 178 pages, $15.95 cloth) is unsatisfactory, too. The plot is romantic wishful thinking, based on an unlikely plot premise; the writing mixes incomprehensibly odd narrative with unreal dialogue. Sample - love scene: "My backbone, my spine, weighs against his vigorous thorax." Sample - conversation: "'You should get out of those wet clothes,' I repeat. 'You can spend the night. You are welcome to use my convertible sofa-bed, in the den upstairs."' The review copy I was sent had numerous blank pages. Not nearly enough.
A Murder of Crows (HarperCollins, 221 pages, $26.95 cloth), by Margaret Haffner, is a rather unthrilling thriller set in a fictionalized Kingston, Ontario. Someone is killing off, one by one, the surviving members of a close-knit group of old friends - as in "a murderer walked the streets of Kingsport." The manages to combine an impossible motive and an improbable plot with such obvious clues that 1, the world's least astute reader of mysteries, figured everything out halfway through. My conspirator in this column got it right after about three pages. She also observed that the writing was dull and the dialogue clunky. Agreed.
In Stupid Crimes (Anvil Press, 178 pages, $10.95 paper), Dennis E. Bolen works over some gritty terrain - the life and times of a parole officer in Vancouver - with much skill and insight. The writing is occasionally a bit rough, but it's also unpretentiously vivid, and the voices in Bolen's tightly constructed arrangement of multiple narratives almost always ring true. His hero, Barry Delta, and the ex-convicts he tries to help all talk tough and reveal their inadequacies - humorously, pathetically, frighteningly. This is a no-nonsense, thoroughly fascinating picture that humanizes an underclass most readers will know only from newspaper statistics and television "special reports."
We follow Delta through a couple of years with his caseload (which includes a seasoned armed robber, a bungling petty disrupter, and a psychotic serial rapist), and through his attempts to work out and maintain some sort of a personal life. He comes across as a dedicated, inventive, talented man whose professional frustrations drive him, and eventually his lover, toward despair. The characters Bolen creates, the mind-spaces his prose fills in, project an existential futility; the novel as a whole leaves the reader saddened by the wreckage of so many hopeless lives, on the right as well as the wrong side of the law.
The Lions (Orca, 245 pages, $16.95 paper), by Paul S. Sunga, tells the interlocked stories of two young men excluded because of their race from the shared assumptions of traditional English- and French-Canadian experience. Conrad Grey is a Native, born in Vancouver of people displaced from the North; Jaswant "Jassi" Sijjer, born in Toronto, is the son of immigrants from Punjab. Grey has grown up a virtual orphan, leaving a foster home at 15 to work in the mines in Manitoba. Sijjer overcomes a wrecked family (his disturbed, abusive father drives Jassi's mother away, takes a new wife, and sinks into silent rage) to achieve success in school, university, and career (scientific research) and find happiness with a wife and small son. Both characters attain a stability they do not expect and cannot cope with; both watch their lives disintegrate, for reasons they can neither understand nor control.
The novel is ambitiously organized and written. Sunga sets up the connection between his two stories in a short first chapter, follows Sijjer for some 90 pages, then reunites the pair for the remainder of the book (including a 20-page narrative, in first person, then third person, of Grey's ordeal by bigotry in the mines). There are psychological and thematic parallels between the lives, and human touchpoints; the most problematic of the latter is Sijjer's wife, Karla, whom Grey comes to love and whom Sijjer eventually cannot live with - or without. Sunga's prose moves with a seemingly natural eloquence; now and then it lacks polish, but it's capable of wit, of great emotional force and sensitivity, of unselfconscious storyteller's energy.
The Lions offers clear and detailed accounts of versions of life that we rarely read about. Though it doesn't romanticize them - or de-romanticize them, for that matter - it encompasses the spiritual as well as the material features of the two
men's lives. Moments of the supernatural -omens, auras, legends, dreams - infuse days of drunkenness, poverty, and pain. The bleak loneliness Grey and Sijjer endure is lighted by hope; their hopes are ultimately poisoned by misunderstanding, bad luck, and - saddest of all - by the inescapable imperatives of deracination. What redeems the tragedy is Sunga's integrity of purpose in writing so lucidly about it.
Douglas Cooper's Amnesia (Random House, 214 pages, $16.50 paper) is a dark and troubling story, too, with an equally important thematic centre. A series of narrative meditations on memory and forgetting, the novel finds its energy source in domestic disintegration; around the tale's specific events lurks the enormous memory-shadow of the Holocaust, modem history's most infamous example of family destruction. We forget what we can no longer bear to remember, Cooper suggests, personally and collectively. Either way is trauma; either way we suffer.
The novel is set in Toronto, in the present and the recent past. It opens with the narrator, a municipal archivist sitting in his office just before he is to be married, confronted by a spellbinding stranger named Izzy Darlow. Izzy, like the Ancient Mariner, talks; the archivist, unlike the Wedding Guest, never gets to the wedding. What Izzy talks about is his city, his family, his friends, his love, his obsessions. Gradually Izzy's story takes over the archivist's; narrative consciousness begins to merge, memories overlap, events slide together, elements of the supernatural transform the temporal and local.
A reader may occasionally protest that the author is indulging in too much self-conscious mystification, too much self-conscious profundity. The novel seems to unfold rather slowly at the beginning, and shut the door rather quickly at the end. But on the whole Cooper controls his material successfully. His imagery is scary and erotic; his prose is low-keyed but suggestive. In the end, it's his imagination of the borders between the real and the magical, the sane and the psychotic, that gives the novel its considerable power to unsettle. If we still ask of fiction that it create a world whole, and wholly believable, on its own terms, then Amnesia does the job with convincing skill. The questions Cooper raises are serious, and the disturbing implications of the story will stay with a reader; one blackly funny scene which gives new resonance to the phrase "broken home" - should win the Magic Realism Award for 1992.