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A Far Time

by J.A. Wainwright
198 pages,
ISBN: 0889627584


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Traversing A Cultural Era
by Raj Mehta

A Far Time, Wainwright's second novel, is anchored in a romantic relationship between Jake and Karen. There are other intimate interludes, but it is Jake's rankled fascination for Karen that comes to forge a link between his desire, and over the course of the novel, his faded past. Jake's a young writer and Karen is a seventeen-year-old Leonard Cohen enthusiast at the beginning of the novel. They meet in London, lead a seemingly Platonic relationship and separate when Karen returns home, via Paris, to begin freshman studies in California. A year later Jake ventures out to Big Sur to hook up with Karen. The encounter is riddled with ambiguity and Jake returns to Toronto. Eventually he becomes a teacher and writer while Karen marries and turns her tracks to Central America.

Wainwright's language belongs to that incandescent genre that revels in "the dTcor of travel" (to borrow a phrase from Paul Fussell), the tone of which is set in the panoramic first breath of the novel: "In the Avila town square, the tourists sipped their cafTs con lechT, and turned their faces to a sea breeze that barely rustled the leaves of the plane trees." The narrative weaves back and forth, interspersed with letters and moments of recollection. Wainwright's novel is an eye's blink of sorts, a snapshot of rutted trails through the fields and sierras of Castile, the fierce north coastline of Arcata, the emerging bedroom communities and multicultural quarters of Toronto, the alluring beaches and esplanades of the Aegean islands. There is a maddening shift of place and time here¨excursions, diversions, separations and wistful flashbacks¨all of which leave one feeling at times like an asphyxiated passenger on an aimless journey. Wainwright's impulse here is meant to unravel the seductions of passage, to trace the distortions of time and memory to the sites at the beginnings of a cultural era (that this is ambitious one ought to concede). And so it is that the usual icons are all here: Dylan, Byez, The Troggs, Hendrix, Joplin. But so also is the political backdrop: the military coup that seized the government and suspended the constitution in Greece, the October Crisis here at home, the battle between U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese Army in Ia Drang Valley. Strangely enough, a sensibility, a maudlin languishing, does surface in the novel. It is that plight of decamping across borders in the 60s and early 70s and the attendant nostalgia for fateful moments. But the protracted flow of itineraries and confidants, the lack of linearities in the plot, the layers of geography and pop culture, though circumscribed, are disappointingly prosaic and parenthetic to the flow of the narrative: they signify but do not allow the characters to drift through the spirit of a culture.

Nonetheless, it is against the overtones of the period that locales come to mediate desire and memory: "Sex went with the territory, didn't it?" Jake muses at one point, defining to be sure the masculinity of his mobility, but significantly also the sessility of the female. At another point we read:

The sky was enormous, and the lake a giant finger that stretched from north to south between granite cliffs. They fucked everywhere but in the cabin¨in the woods, in sandy inlets, in the canoe by an island that kept disappearing into the mist. He said her name over and over until it became part of the landscape, like a tree or rock. When she had gone, he stayed behind and wrote in a fury he had never known before, as if to keep the name in place, as if he owned it and her and the lake he gazed at through the cabin window. The work won a literary journal prize, and he included it in a poetry collection a few years later.

The passage reveals the topography of the novel: the blurred border between life and art, and the complexities and variations of mythos. But the novel is charged with the reigning agency of masculinity, and Karen becomes vital to Jake's stake in his seemingly illicit affair with himself as a writer. Karen is invoked as a loadstone of sorts and serves Jake's artistic will power. Other women and relationships become conflated with Karen's absence and united in Jake's poetic voice.

Some two decades later in the novel, Jake, by now in his fifties and living in Montreal, writes to Karen about the "incantations of youth and landscape." In the intervening years since Big Sur, Jake's nascent need for a kind of poetic justice¨a need to fulfill the wet dreams that Karen has come to serve over the years¨manifests itself as the impetus of a story, and Jake announces that he has completed a novel, a novel about her (or rather about Karen as his muse). Jake tells Karen that some of the episodes about California in the novel are made up, and the reflexive moment here twists us into the gnarls and false coloring of memory. Indeed, at the very end of A Far Time, we are left with the very possibility that the narrative voice speaks ultimately as a projection conjured up in Karen's mind, not Jake's. The story thus becomes a countenance to her unresolved desires. It is really on this level that Wainwright's novel unfurls a surprising and subtle entangling of the two main characters. Jake never sends the letter to Karen. It is Karen that all along has been navigating to Jake. The musical overtones by now are Coltrane, Ellington, and Pepper¨more hauntingly jazzy, and evocative of more perplexed and nebulous memories. ˛

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