The Late Great Human Road Show|
by Paulette Jiles
Sitting in the club car drinking rum and karma-kola:
A manual of etiquette for ladies crossing Canada by train
by Paulette Jiles
Post Your Opinion
by David Helwig
In two books by Paulette Jiles - one a post-holocaust fable, the other a fanciful 'bit of fluff' - new circumstances demand new, sometimes bizarre, responses
In 1971, House of Anansi published a book: called Mindscapes, a substantial collection of material by four young poets. Susan Musgrave, Dale Zieroth, Tom Wayman, and Paulette Jiles. Of the four, Paulette Jiles was, in the following years, probably the least visible, but just recently she seems to have broken out in all directions. She won the 1984 Governor General's Award for poetry, has published stories in all manner of magazines and in the 1985 New Press and 1936 Oberon best fiction collections. Now comes the more or less simultaneous publication of two books of fiction.
The Late Great Human Road Show is perhaps best regarded as a fable, "ordinary people in the last days," to borrow the title of a poem by Jay Macpherson. The book takes place in the Cabbagetown area of Toronto after some disaster, presumably a nuclear war. Most of the population has inexplicably vanished, but here and there human beings; remain, mostly those who were in a deep sleep or unconscious at the time of The Event.
Toronto is full of wrecked and abandoned cars, streetcars, trash. There are constant storms of glass as the huge windows of the high towers come loose and fall to earth. There is a ceiling of low cloud, occasional moments of "piss-yellow" sun. Through the nuns move perhaps a down men, women, and children and a cow, - a substantial and determined Holstein who is a wonderfully vital (one almost wants to say human) presence in the book.
The best thing about The Late Great Human Road Show is the precision and skill of its prose. ("The cow was black and white with an aluminum ear tab, and the grace of a circus tent, which is act without grace.") The empty city is imagined with a consistently sharp sense of detail. Those ominous cascades of glass become a central image of dangerous, half-beautiful deterioration. One feels vividly the empty streets, the animals from the little tame Cabbagetown farm wandering at large, searching for food.
In this bizarre and yet familiar landscape, we see human beings behaving in remarkably human ways. The first half of the book is largely about the why the few living souls adapt, or fail to adapt, to the new set of circumstances. Two middle-class young couples simply go on with their domestic lives, pretending that it hasn't happened, waiting for someone in authority to arrive and put things is order. Even the end of the world is not enough to break down their habits and assumptions, and their persistence is both fatuous and oddly sympathetic. There are worse things than superficiality.
One of the worse things is paranoia. Hidden away at the Cow House at the old Riverdale Zoo are two political fanatics and a couple of hangers-on. The suspicion and hatred of Matt, the journalist, we are led to believe, reflect the fanaticism that has led to nuclear disaster. One of the book's themes is that the anticipation of violence is, in part, a love of violence, a longing for it. Matt assumes that the children will turn feral, will hunt in gangs, that men and women will become maddened, cannibalistic. In fact most of those wandering the streets are sensible and straightforward, and it is Matt's projections that lead to insanity.
In the second half of the book, the violence that Matt prophesies and desires is gradually brought to cant, but by then we understand that all the characters are going to die anyway, of radiation poisoning. No happy endings here.
The book is thoughtful and cleanly constructed, but there is same sense of philosophical disjunction or incompleteness. An acceptance of the ordinariness of ordinary things, an attempt, to reject melodrama - these make the first part of a moral statement, but none of the characters has the strength to go beyond this. The band of children watched over by the drunken Roxana is slightly sentimentalized. There are lovely moments when the children's reaction to Cow, their dumb love for her animal warmth, makes a statement against the force of death, abort the goodness of merely living, but these moments are undermined by sentimentality and the presence of too many characters who seem to be constructed to allow the author to grind knives.
In Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma Kola, Jiles creates something a good deal less serious, but more completely successful. Her story is articulated as a sequence of short prose passages, each with its own title, each having its own shape. They are inventively and elegantly written, and they are assembled to tell a story that is in part a fantasy, in part a game with certain storytelling conventions, in part a fragmented character study. Our heroine (named only Our Heroine) gets on a train in Vancouver, setting out for the East, dressed in the style of a 1940s movie star. Behind her, in Seattle, she has left a huge credit card fraud with a life that she needed to abandon.
Just into the mountains, at China Bar, a mystery man gets on the train, probably the detective who has been sent to find and capture her. In an Ironic imitation of as oldfashioned detective story, they meet and become lovers. The train moves on. Half the width of Canada passes by outside the windows. Observation, wit, reflection -- the story glitters with all these, and ends, in a new beginning, with a young woman is a Northern Ontario airport, waiting to depart and reading Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma Kola. "A bit of fluff," she calls it and in a way she's right, but if the book is slight, it's also beautifully realized at its own fanciful level.
There are worse things than mere highspirited fun.