||Checks And Mates
by Mark Levene
THE OTTAWA writer Mark Frutkin has an extraordinary range. The editor of an arts magazine, he has also studied with Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg, and has published volumes of distinguished poetry, notably The Alchemy of Clouds ( 1985). But it is for his gifts as a novelist -Atmospheres Apollinaire (1988), which was short-listed for the Governor General`s Award, and Invading Tibet (199 1) - that Frutkin is most deservedly known. An inventive, graceful writer, Frutkin delights in the twists and shadings of story and deploys his often rich, even arcane, knowledge and his ideas (about art, biography, music) with an engaging lightness of touch. In its fascination with chess, opera, painting, with the baroque and primal recesses of the creative drive, In the Time of the Angry Queen confirms the sense of Frutkin as a genuinely intellectual novelist. But the melding of concept and feeling, of inner text and framing narrative in this book is finally incomplete, irritatingly dichotomous.
A knowledgeable, highly disciplined artist with fewer nihilistic flips than one might expect, Karl Grunfeld lives a complex, rewarding inner life and gives it objective form through the murals he paints for the stock exchange, as well as through a series of chess columns about Morphy and the queen sacrifice, about the Brazilian player Tjupo and chess machines - that punctuate the primary narrative. He encounters two
"queens": Jude, his itinerant lover, who is somewhat critical of his lack of overt emotion, and Elizabeth Hopwhite, the head of the stock exchange, who rages in socialite-genteel fashion at, it seems, the mysterious privacy of his artistic soul. On the narrative board around the queens are the other pieces, more or less recognizable by their behaviour, and the reader has reason to expect an intricate resolution of character and idea, of situation and the paradigms of chess, music, and painting. The novel is at its best when etching the movement from instinct to articulation, from inchoate obsession to formed image. Listening to a jazz quintet, Karl senses a submerged flow from note to line:
Immersion, he decided, was the only way he could work, as if sinking into deep water - no glittering sun, no passing clouds to disturb his decipherments of obscurity, his search for inner coelacanths, those shadows drifting through shadows in his memory.
Just as compelling as the drama of Karl`s creative energy are the evocative details of his densely symbolic mural and the intellectual power of his meditations on still life. indeed, his entire imaginative repertoire is the vitality of the novel. Embracing a homey sort of realism and a personal discourse where hearts "skip" and hands ring "with energy," Frutkin also devotes considerable attention to Karl as lover, son, litigant, and brooding hiker, areas that are either under- or overdeveloped. By itself the ambiguity around Jude would have the appropriateness of a sexualsocial glimpse, a figure in a black jacket entering a bistro or bus depot. Combined, however, with Richard`s faint aura of existential menace and Elizabeth`s oblique spiritual jealousy, these implications become mere absences. Far more present than is necessary in this novel (or any other) is Karl`s lawyer, with his knowledge of liquor, and Karl`s malaprop-inclined mother, with her 1960 Plymouth. These numerous lurches toward friendship and family have a sort of album quality that suggests a slackening of conceptual and stylistic grip. Rather than engaging in a precise endgame of character and paradigm, Frutkin chooses a narrative sacrifice, a submission to a flurry of events parades, self-immolation, arson, gridlock -that diminishes the novel`s intellectual resonance and reveals a narrative at odds with its rich, essential dynamic,