||States Of Disgrace
by Ann Diamond
I READ When Things Get Worst with the Overwhelmingfeeling that it was not about what it claimed to be: a first-personaccount of the life in hard times of a young woman living in southwesternOntario. This is a novel that, whatever other criticisms may he levelled at it,leaves a strange residue in the mind.
It put me in mind of a hitchhiking trip Itook to Niagara Falls, Ontario, with my boyfriend back in 1972. It was a tripthat changed my life, because it taught me that there is much in our so-calledcountry that remains unspeakable and unspoken. There is even, in Canada, anundercurrent of "evil" that rarely surfaces in the publicconsciousness. True evil is also in short Supply in Canadian fiction, asif it were someone else`s problem. But I think all that is about to change.Despite the efforts of certain judges, evil is creeping into our nationalconsciousness.
Evil is, after all, contagious. Afterreading this novel, I felt an irresistible Compulsion to get friendly with theauthor. We met furtively in a bistro on Toronto`s Bay Street, and I sawimmediately that Barry Callaghan is the kind of guy who wears sunglasses whenentering a restaurant at night.
Our conversation was also shady. I askedhim why he wrote this novel in thevoice of a young woman named Anne, who is married to a man named"Evol." Is Evol evil, or is lie "love" backwards? Is thatwhy Anne`s perspective on the world grows our of shattered innocence` Is italso why she speaks in a tide of imagery owing much to Pentecostalism,describing a world of complete hopelessness and desolation!
Religion is the oral literature of thePoor, but these days even the poor have stopped believing in it. Callaghanclaims he has always identified with people who desperately want to believe insomething. In Anne`s speech we hear dim echoes of prayer and confession. Allthat`s missing is the exhortation to come home to Jesus. In fact, however, thisnovel is really a kind of poetic crawling back to a female Christ. You couldsay that Our heroine discovers she is Christ when she picks Lip a rifle andpoints it Lit the other man in her life, the religiously inspired Lure, shortfor Luther, who is about to blow tipa dam and inundate her family. Thespiritual revelation, if there is one at the end, is as dark as the scenariothat preceded it. One reviewer has said that the book suffers from a poverty ofspirit," but I disagree. Thisis a spiritual book about poverty.
It`s Only fair to mention, as Otherreviewers have, that Callaghan has trouble with plotting. He often writesbrilliantly, but having exhausted 11is feelings for a character lietends to lose interest in what happens next. Perhaps that`s why this darklylyrical jeremiad seems toswirl in a profusion Of public stillbirths, headlong acts, andmeaningless deaths: what. Callaghan himself calls "the reverse of themystical ascent."
Here`s a guy who believes in nothing, forwhom women are gods in human dress. Remember "Crow Jane" in The Black Queen Stories? A clear-cut case ofvoice theft. Appropriating a voice that he churns dictated the book to him at therace track, Callaghan comes on I like the Virgin Mary with armed response.
Between the lines, though, its At"Give up, go home, have a good cry, the race is over, there`s nothing leftof the human enterprise." In other words, friends: repent. And kill thatvulture circling Our heads.
"When things get worst (pines Evol,"how are you "` Adding later on, "The more sin grows, the more(mice abounds." This is a spiritual viewpoint, not to be confused with aliterary posturc or a mere imitative nod to 20th-century nihilists likeLouis-Ferdinand Celine. It`s not about vilification, either, but rebirththrough a process of "swallowing the darkness whole."
Outside Quebec, few Canadian writers haveeven tried to enter this terrain. I can see why Barry Callaghan hangs Out in acertain Bay Street bistro, disguised as an Irish gangster and surrounded by French-Canadianwaiters. What better place to practise his secret religion?