One of the characters in David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion speculates that the world might be the first crude effort of an infant Deity, or of an inferior Deity whose work is ridiculed by his superiors, or of a superannuated Deity in his dotage. A similar conceit informs Nancy Huston's latest novel, for it is narrated by a somewhat fallible creator of the universe who is mischievous and contradictory. This creator-narrator (gender unspecified) is proud of having invented something as "unpredictable as mankind." She takes particular pleasure in watching her humans search endlessly for something to believe in, and try to impose meaning on their predicament. At times, she gets so engrossed in watching their antics that she imagines they control their own destinies.
On the other hand, the creator confesses to being an inept story-teller. From her point of view, human lives are chaotic with no tidy endings. Moreover since she invented it, all time is simultaneously present to her, and chronology is useless as an organizing principle. In spite of these limitations she tries, as if she were God composing the Bible or St John composing his gospel, to assemble her own scriptural text.
Passing over major historical events, she plumps down on a gathering of ordinary people in a small New England college town, using them as a microcosm of her world at the end of the Twentieth Century. Her cast of thirteen characters comprises a rough cross-section of mortals, representing various classes, ages, professions, and ethnic backgrounds. Ironically, none is a theist, most of them wavering between agnosticism and atheism.
Professionally, they include artisans and artists as well as those who earn a living by trying to understand or alleviate the pain of the human condition. There is a baker, a housepainter, a secretary, a prostitute, and a lawyer, as well as medical doctors, writers, and philosophers. The presence of professors of literature and poets allows her to indulge her interest in human beings' curious confidence in the power of language. The predominance of this theme in the novel is signalled by the epigraph. It is a quotation from a Ted Hughes poem "Crow's First Lesson," in which God's efforts to teach Crow how to talk ("Love," said God. "Say Love.") serve only to illustrate the instability of words. As the narrator observes, "A devilish clumsy tool, language..."
The occasion for the gathering, as in the Platonic dialogue on love, is a dinner party. In spite of disclaiming formal storytelling arts, the narrator follows Aristotle's prescription by charting the action during a twenty-four hour period. The day includes the preparation of a Thanksgiving dinner, the arrival of the guests, the meal with its progression of courses, conversations and altercations, its after-effects, and when an unexpected snowfall maroons the company, their bedding down for the night.
Because of the representative nature of the guests, the momentous events of the western world in the twentieth century are embedded in their consciousness. Hence the Holocaust, the pogroms in Russia, Apartheid in South Africa, slavery in the United States, the war in Vietnam, the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, and the conflict in the Middle East are deftly woven into the the story by means of interior monologues. Besides the political upheavals there are personal preoccupations¨addictions to alcohol, drugs, and food, illnesses such as heart failure and¨the reverse of flights of memory¨the oblivion of Alzheimer's disease. Between the thirteen sections describing the Thanksgiving day, the narrator in her omniscience inserts thirteen alternating chapters describing the characters' futures, and the causes of their eventual deaths.
It is evident from a summary account that the novel is a technical tour de force and that its scope is broad and ambitious¨covering many aspects of life in the western hemisphere at the end of the twentieth century. It is also evident that attempting such an ambitious project within the confines of a relatively short book carries certain dangers, chief among them being that of over-schematization. And indeed, the subtlety of the conception contrasts with a certain sketchiness in the execution.
On the subject of atrocities, for example, the various examples are set out and balanced a little too neatly, "Man hands on misery to man" being weighed against "as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods." Thus, a girl whose perverse sexuality includes incest and the ritualistic torture of birds turns out to have been sexually abused; the participant in gang-rape and murder is a shell-shocked soldier who goes temporarily insane in the jungles of Vietnam; a white South African (himself a refugee from persecution) is a passive observer of apartheid until his daughter's activism and the screams of a necklace victim shatter his detachment. Obsessed as they are with formulating theories, humans elevate the brutality of the century into academic disciplines such as Holocaust Studies. It is a tendency the characters themselves ridicule by making jokes about offering a B.A. in Torture, an M.A. in Genocide, a Ph.D in Advanced Slavery.
Similarly, on the subject of race relations and anti-Semitism, the representative cases seem too contrived, the checks and balances arranged too neatly. A black guest's estrangement from his white wife allows for observations on "mixed marriages" from Othello and Desdemona to the present day; a Jewish character has a Zionist mother, but her views are balanced by his own criticism of Israel; a hostile exchange between the African-American and the Jewish character stands for (and grossly simplifies) the historically complex relationship between American Jews and African-Americans.
One problem with the novel is that neither the descriptions of atrocities nor the colossal tragedies that befall the guests in their past or future lives make a strong impact or engage the reader as profoundly as one expects in a work of fiction. But perhaps it is unfair to apply the usual expectations to a work that has so much in common with a philosophical dialogue. After all, we are less concerned with the personal lives of Socrates and Alcibiades than with the ideas they toss back and forth.
Similarly, any criticism of over-schematization is deflected from the start by the novel's opening premise. Traditionally, the disingenuous narrator makes fun of literary conventions by playing fast and loose with them. Hence a bungling narrator who is also the God of Creation might be excused if she treats her characters as marionettes and moves them about like chess pieces on a board. After all, she did confess that storytelling wasn't in her nature, admit that she selected the group because of "minor coincidences and unexpected undercurrents" and warn that "there's no point looking for reasons."
There is, of course, much absurdity in this creator with her all-too-human frailties. And there are other comic moments such as the Chaplinesque scene in which an Alzheimer's sufferer goes back and forth in a fruitless effort to deliver a wrongly addressed letter to a neighbor who is already dead. But, on the whole, comedy is not part of Huston's considerable arsenal of talents.
She is more successful with lyrical passages. The most moving of these is the sublime moment in which the characters' preoccupations with past miseries dissolve in their shared awe for a spectacle of natural beauty as they look out at the landscape shrouded in snow. (The use of this obligatory sublime moment to relieve tension just as the horrors are piling up is another of the narrator's lapses into standard storytelling). On this occasion, the mortals' instinct for imposing a frame of reference on their experiences, leads them to search for literary analogies. One recalls a story by Tolstoy, another by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and yet another muses at length on the brilliant conclusion to Joyce's "The Dead".
The "Snow and Song" section and the final section "Dreaming" in which the assembled company wakes to a new day, are especially fine. They are the parts of the story that justify the narrator's designation of her opus as a poem. Yet, in the best post-modern manner, she has created a protean work that could be placed in any number of philosophical and literary genres. By doing so she nudges her readers into aligning themselves with the characters in the endless (and perhaps fruitless) desire to categorize, analyze, and formulate theories. And that is her most mischievous trick of all. ˛