HELEN TURNER's A Fragile Respectability (Nimbus, 442 pages, $16.95 paper) is a lengthy fictionalized memoir and the sort of novel you pray will be good -because if it isn't it's bound to be excruciatingly slow. Turner's heroine, Philippa Jerrold, looks back over many intrinsically interesting experiences, but unfortunately none of her memories really comes alive on the page. The author hasn't discovered the knack of converting life as lived into fiction. Instead the first-person narrative, relying heavily on short paragraphs, artificial-sounding dialogue, rhetorical questions, and sentence fragments, simply processes clusters of events one after another and comments upon their significance. A writer of the Danielle Steel romantic-saga school might have shaped this material into a pageturner, but A Fragile Respectability misses out on its possibilities and remains inert for long, long, long stretches.
Ann Decter also takes on the task of turning the elements of autobiography into art; Paper, Scissors, Rock (Press Gang, 192 pages, $12.95 paper) goes about its business diligently if a bit stolidly, and by the end it won my respect. Decter's heroine, Jane Cammen, is spending the summer clearing brush at her family's neglected cabin on a lake near the Ontario-Manitoba border. Her parents (mother of Irish rebel stock, and a social activist; father from a Romanian Jewish immigrant family, a surgeon) have recently died. Jane's two brothers are elsewhere, leading their lives; she herself is at the tentative beginning of an affair. The novel focuses on the period (four years earlier) of her father's dying, and moves rhythmically back from there to her grandparents' days and forward to current events at the end of the 1980s.
What the novel does best is create a sense of a family in a place - in this case Winnipeg (here called Muddy Water) a family neither wholly perfect nor hopelessly flawed. Much of the story and most of Decter's insights are predictable, politically correct in the old-fashioned sense of that phrase: liberal and humane, just and honourable. She has chosen to present her material in a clipped, elliptical prose that at times seems to be torturing words and phrases into affectation. In the early going the effects tend to mind-numbing obviousness, but as the characters take hold, the style establishes itself and becomes less obtrusive. "Silent and graceful like a beaver on a northern lake. Float. Peaceful. At peace. Rocks quiet. Weightless, drifting, not home but free. This body, this sky, adrift." Readers comfortable with such writing will respond positively, as I eventually did, to Paper, Scissors, Rock.
Cairo's Power (Lakewood Press, 236 pages, $5 paper), by Michael Gripp, is certainly lively enough, but that's no guarantee of success either. This is an adventure story - something about loutish university students, international terrorism, archaeology, and the curse of the pyramids - that makes the Indiana Jones productions seem, for coherence and subtlety, like purest Proust.
Gripp's muse must have been Abbott and Costello; the novel is a sophomoric stumble into Saturday-afternoon-matinee territory, complete with adolescent humour, puerile dialogue, and a chaotic plot structure. "W-W-WHAT'S HAPPENING TO ME?" bellows one character. "WAIT! DON'T LEAVE ME HEM TO DIE!" wails another. The reader bellows and wails, also.
Miguel Lamiel's Mercurial Doll (Pyropress, 255 pages, $14.95 paper) is just about as scrambled, but it has the virtue of some authentic-seeming geographical and cultural detail. Set chiefly in the Canary Islands, the story involves a body dropped from an airplane, Freemasonry, Canarian nationalism, drugs, sex, and exploding dogs. All the characters are bizarre, and the prose is psychedelic; "their eyes softened like well-aged Camembert" is a not untypical turn of phrase. The book hardly makes much sense - it reminded me of Cheech and Chong in their less lucid moments - but it isn't exactly boring. Neither, I hear, is sunstroke.
Bir Bara (Lugus, 324 pages, $12.95 paper) has terrorists, too, but they remain in the background in Margaret Landry's fast-paced novel about anti-Semitism. A middle-aged Canadian woman, Elizabeth Holly, on a spiritual pilgrimage to Israel in 1987, falls seriously ill. Her daughter, a famous dancer, is taken hostage on an airplane hijacked by Arab extremists. As Elizabeth waits for news, drifting in and out of feverish consciousness, she relives in flashbacks her life as the child of a Latvian immigrant Jewish father and a Toronto WASP mother. The novel effectively presents Elizabeth's "unresolved memories" - chiefly her failure to acknowledge her mixed heritage through a series of sharply focused snapshots of prejudice, Southern Ontario style, from the 1930s to the present.
Landry handles her painful subject, and her fairly complex structure, expertly; occasionally she can't resist preaching, but such lapses are brief. The novel's prose is often a bit breathless, even telegraphic, and the dialogue sometimes seems overblown. In fact the whole book is quite talky. But the novel works; the issues are real, the characters are believable, the insights are intelligent. Bir Bara will hold a reader's interest; it gained this reader's respect.
Terrorists once again in The Pagan Wall (Talonbooks, 304 pages, $15.95 paper), by David Amason; this time they're scarily on stage, and put to the set, vice of a sophisticated, allusive thriller whose literary and philosophical resonances are elegantly tuned. Amason's protagonists, Richard and Lois, have come to Strasbourg for a year's sabbatical from Winnipeg, he to write a book on Martin Heidegger, she to study French or cooking or whatever comes up. It's a recent second marriage for both; their prospects - for love, work, simply getting along together - are mildly unhappy, and the reader senses some ominous pressures developing.
On a brief holiday tour, Richard and Lois witness the aftermath of a murder, or what seems like a murder, and they're quickly drawn into a web of conspiracy and deceit. It involves Druidism, a rightwing secret society, international armstrading, and the ambivalent legacy of Heidegger himself -profound philosophy joined to documented Nazi sympathies. There is an enigmatic Alsatian police inspector (working with French Intelligence), a cheerful Canadian CSIS operative, and a gorgeous German au pair. Everyone seems to be groping in the dark, with uncertain motives. Richard begins a novel about the Canadian military experience in France; Lois starts drawing small sketches of street people, and does well enough to have a gallery exhibition. Both begin extramarital affairs, both have their lives threatened.
The Pagan Wall clearly has a workable, intriguing plot; what makes it a delight is the writing. Alternating the point of view
between Richard and Lois, Amason employs a slightly flattened, at times depressingly grey prose to reveal the couple's emotional weather and their surroundings. The language gradually colours and fleshes out as circumstances gather and tension builds; as the mystery deepens, Amason's seamless, hypnotic narrative lets him do with the reader what he will. Philosophical debate, Canadian history and myth, "new" literary theory, a rich sense of place - these blend to provide layers of interest, layers of possibility. Nothing is overstated, and there are some nice small touches (such as a faceless pair of Canadian accountants/arms merchants named Hutcheon and Fawcett). The only objection I have to the book is that it ends, and as with many fine mysteries the ending turns out to be not quite as accomplished, nor quite as much fun, as the getting there.
In Brud: A Parable (Little, Brown, 383 pages, $24-95 cloth), Kenneth J. Harvey embarks on a risky voyage into contemporary allegory. His Brud is a young mentally disabled man - "simple" would be the traditional adjective who, upon the death of his father, must leave the family farm (potentially a source of great wealth for him) and move to the city. There he encounters, one after another, the ambiguities and pure evils of an environment he has previously been sheltered from. Brud, who initially "saw only the purity of his surroundings," becomes involved with, and deeply affects, several people who exemplify the forces of this complex new world: the humane but troubled lawyer who tries to look after Brud's affairs; the vindictive policeman (the lawyer's brother) who hunts for him when he flees his apartment and goes uderground; the ruthless land developer who wants the farm; the homeless street-child who becomes Brud's guide through his urban Hell.
Parables, by the nature of their ambition, risk portentousness. William Golding's Darkness Visible (which Bntd in places echoes) achieved much pomposity. Though Harvey doesn't avoid stereotypes of behaviour and event - he isn't really trying to - he usually manages, by attention to tone and point of view, to keep the focus on Brud and the other characters as characters and not on the weight of the meanings they must represent. This strategy - call it a gift - is the same one that made Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage so satisfying; Brud is a completely different experience from Findley's book, but many of the ultimate effects are similar.
Harvey's book is occasionally rather slow-moving, it preaches too much - in spite of itself - and it exhibits some slight awkwardness of phrasing and imprecision of vocabulary (weaknesses a stronger editorial hand might have corrected). But on the whole it realizes most of its ambitions. There are numerous powerful, elemental scenes; there are images of great beauty (as in Brud's memory of an earlier, simpler time: "The smell of air after dark, the cold chill of the breeze stroking each moonlit tip of grass, brushing along the field until it touched him where he stood on the steps of the farmhouse with his mother and father sleeping upstairs").
Like Brud himself, the book is an oddity, an innocent voice protesting among the wreckage; on balance it's a thoughtful and provocative novel, even when the reader becomes impatient with it.