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A Book Of The Dead
by Carole Giangrande

CONCERN with death abounds in this welltitled novel: the need to come to terms with mortality, the grief and loss it entails, and the long shadow it casts over the dying of ecosystems, whole societies, and the earth itself. It is a book freighted with so many varieties of death and so much passive cogitating that turning the pages amounts to an act of defiance against both the Grim Reaper and Robert Fraser, the novel`s central character. This may have been unintentional, but as a postmodern catapulting out of the text, it works. Fraser, a Toronto writer, starts novels he can`t finish, choked as he is by a rock-hard lump of grief he can only acknowledge indirectly, through professorial musings on many things, including the grievous state of politics, the environment, and modernity in general. Fraser`s temperament is cerebral to a fault, but in many ways understandable. In his late 50s, he`s trying to grapple with life`s painful truths: the loss of friends and of parents (his remote father, in particular), and the recent death of a brother. All of these echo against a world that is changing too quickly, dragging ancestral memory to its death. Faced with such calamity, Fraser writes to find meaning he`s not sure exists. In many ways, Gentleman Death is about the act of writing, and its structure takes pains to make us conscious of that fact. Fraser`s own first-person narrative keeps company with his two incomplete works of fiction, along with frustrated jottings from his notebooks. It`s an agile technique of nudging our preconceptions about truth and fiction, seeded as these fictions are with "spores" (Fraser`s analogy) of his father`s wartime days in Germany and his brother`s funeral. All of these accounts are full of travel (England, Scotland, Germany, New York), a metaphor Fraser uses for the explorations of writing. Yet the multiple texts, deft as they are, amount to a series of mirrors reflecting mirrors: all meaning ricochets off the hard surfaces of language and none of it strikes the heart. Maybe this, too, is intentional: we hear of an unfinished novel by Fraser called The Mirror of Narcissus. The image reflects the man`s character well. Unfortunately, Fraser is too selfinvolved to engage our sympathies. He talks and opines, trying our patience because he does not act. There`s a haughtiness about his intellectual angst, his compulsion to explain and to castigate the world. Fear and grief can immobilize us, it`s true, but we see almost nothing of the brother who died. Everything about him is reported, so that we can`t grasp the depth of Fraser`s loss. Yet his trouble with mortality hides a puritan, suspicious of the flesh. Fraser acknowledges his body only when it aches, when it`s poked and prodded by doctors, a potential victim of pollutants and cancer, never a dwellingplace of joy or insight. This is why living is too much for him. For this reason, also, wilderness sex at the end feels imposed, a wishful Canadian fiction in a novel of the dead.

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