In her latest novel, Tracing Iris (Raincoast Books, 2001) which follows Thrice upon a time (Quarry Press), On the Road, (Oberon Press) and Mating in Captivity (Quarry Press), Genni Gunn confirms her special skill for weaving complex narrative patterns. She provides also a further example of the Šmosaic' nature of contemporary Canadian fiction as well as of its mythical quality. Her use of archetypes rests on the structuralist assumption that a universal system, a common mechanism, governs human action, and that similar behavioural patterns lead to the same results for an individual as well as for a community. Robert Kroetsch among others pointed out the influence of that idea on Canadian fiction, "hybrid, inclusive, the combination of the old and the new, of myths belonging to an ancestral past (biblical, classical, aboriginal) which provide the basis to contemporary living and thinking. The narrative voice builds up a context which echoes voices from an ancestral source."
Genni Gunn weaves into her narrative bits of information, reminiscences, newspaper clippings that cast light on ancient populations or ethnic groups that disappeared long ago: The Anasazi, for example, who lived from 200 to 1300 A.D. in Colorado, left no trace; neither did the Kaiadilt, the Ik, the Tasaday. The parable of their lives may be analogous to that of a single individual: isolation, lack of adaptation, withdrawal due to excessive self-protection may dry up a person's as well as a group's vital resources.
Kate, the protagonist of Tracing Iris, is an anthropologist, so it's only natural that she should take this perspective and outline how the fate of the one parallels that of the many, a single person's destiny with that of whole civilizations. Within that parable she marks four stages which correspond to the four sections of the novel: Extinctions, Adaptations, Isolations, Resurrections. Kate, in a way, is an example of how ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis. Of course the parallels aren't so precise, but, on a broad scale, the main events of her life follow that pattern. The killing of the little Inca girl for sacrificial reasons, for example, corresponds to Kate's infancy sacrificed to a false God. The false God corresponds to the shallow, selfish pursuits in which her mother, Iris, was always engaged, with ruinous consequences for Iris and the family as a whole. The story is one of rejection, abandonment, cut ties, loss and even violence. Everyone rejects everyone else: Joe drives away his wife, her illegitimate child and Kate, too, the rebellious daughter; Kate splits up with her lover Stephen, and is, in her turn, let down by her husband Ray; Ray goes away to Mexico, leaving behind his daughter Patti who gets pregnant, has a baby but then, after quarreling with Trevor, her boyfriend and the baby's father, runs away and dies an accidental death. The flimsy family ties reflect an atomized society, a levelling down, fragmentation, anonymity: "Everything is shifty"¨(Kate) thinks¨ "unstable, like plate tectonics, the side of a volcano, the ocean floor, the Berlin Wall". I'll quote another of the several passages metaphorically hinting at such fragmentation and loss of identity: heterogeneous items are unearthed somewhere in Maryland: "ceramics from Portugal, Italy, Spain, bricks and tiles from Holland, tobacco pipes from England, wine glasses from VeniceÓ", "what surprise could emerge if someone were to sift through the soil¨miners, loggers, ditch-walkers, ranchers, bones, artifacts¨everyone, everything touching" (italics mine).
Kate struggles for about thirty years to reconstruct links, find her runaway mother, piece up the shreds of her life and give it a meaning. She carefully looks through all her mother's belongings kept in several boxes and trunks as if they were archeological sites. All objects are sorted out, classified and even charted. In an attempt at reconstructing an image, Kate even wears her mother's taffeta skirt on most improbable occasions in order Što wear' her identity. Kate's exploration, her agonizing digging up of the past has the same religious intensity as any quest after the truth. "I'm following Iris' tracks"¨Kate muses¨"the foundation of evolutionÓgrandfather, grandmother, Iris, Dad, meÓ"
She finds an unfinished quilt¨hundreds of coloured squares and rectangles¨and starts piecing them together because they are like "a collection of stories" that must be "ordered into a narrative". The unfinished quilt Kate works at performs the same symbolic role as, for example, the unfinished poem in V. Woolf's Orlando or the painting in To the Lighthouse: they are constantly cancelled, reshaped, revised, modified all through the course of the narrative, and they are brought to completion only at the end of the story. Tracing Iris is made up, indeed, of many stories, it's like a tall, many-storeyed building that rests, however, on robust cornerstones, the four-stages of a development proceeding through the four sections of the book. Indeed, no thread is lost, no path left untrodden or character dropped and all details have their raison d'Otre. The book proves to be a perfectly woven, tight piece of fabric, and G. Gunn an extraordinary, post-modern Penelope!
In the early pages Kate returns to her father's home, yet she says: "my coming here has nothing to do with himÓI'm looking for my mother. Homecoming? Alien sounds."
In the final pages her homecoming marks a return after the recovery of Self; she "swings onto the highway, propelled by the spectre of memory." Memory is the key word; it indicates the process that changes a History Book into the Memorbucher, Proust's Temps RetrouvT, a quest fulfilled through confrontations, sufferings, agonizing moral conflicts.
"Black and white moral lessons" fade into a sort of chiaroscuro, when reality is seen through mature eyes and experiences are lived no longer in terms of "DTja vu", sterile repetitions, but in ontological terms as well. It may take a lifetime to exorcise a nightmarish past, but in the end Kate stores away her mother's belongings "as if to neutralize an ancient curse," burns up all letters that "catch immediately," words exploding into "fans of fire." Fire the purifier¨what better end for a story marked by evil and a moral void.
From the point of view of form, it certainly takes a great ability to control all the tesserae, of the mosaic, stitch all the diamonds of the quilt, "compose from the fragments a perfect whole, or read, in the littered pieces, the clear words of truth" (quote from Woolf's To the Lighthouse).
Further evidence of G.Gunn's technical skill is her capacity to draw from the most diverse fictional categories (no less than four centuries of literary traditions), and the way she can use an astounding number of different narrative strategies.
Examples of the most diverse fiction-writing devices can be found all through Genni Gunn's novel, and the careful reader will no doubt be able to track them down. This is not a difficult hunt. What may be more difficult to determine is who is Genny Gunn. Tracing Genny, this protean artist¨novelist, poet, translator, professional musician¨may be far harder than tracing Iris! ˛