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Doing the Heart Good

by Neil Bissoondath
328 pages,
ISBN: 189695135X


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Scrawling Out of Death's Way
by Sam Ajzenstat

Socrates is supposed to have said that wisdom is learning how to die. Alistair Mackenzie whose attempt to size up his life makes up Neil Bissoondath's quietly but deeply moving new novel, Doing the Heart Good, wouldn't have much patience for that idea of wisdom. A widower and a retired (and exclusively Anglophone) English professor in his early seventies, he has been forced by the burning down of his house to move in with his only child, Agnes, her French-Canadian physicist husband, Jacques ("Jack" to Alistair) and his grandson, Frantois, who speaks only French. For Alistair, living not dying, is what counts. Death is annihilation and it is to fend it off that he sits down to "scribble" the story of his previous selves in his daughter's house. Since there is no world but this one, he writes, "what does disturb me is falling into a void in this world, turning to nothing in this world." Mackenzie is writing to keep alive, especially for his grandson, the accumulated experiences that add up for him to what he is.
Writing one's life to preserve it is, of course, an old idea. What gives Bissoondath's narrative its extra depth is his uncanny ability to make his first-person narrative say something more richly paradoxical than its presumed author is aware of. We can see that what Alistair Mackenzie thinks is a holding on to life is actually a letting go of it, and that letting it go returns it to him more truly than he ever had it. Mackenzie can grasp the reality and preciousness of this world and its inhabitants only to the extent that he is no longer quite part of it. Only to the extent that he is becoming nothing can he tell the story that will keep him and those he has known from becoming nothing. Holding on is thoroughly intertwined with letting go. So learning how to die turns out to be wisdom after all. But not because life is worthless. On the contrary, the ironies that emerge are not used, as irony so often is these days, to show people up as less than they think they are, but to reveal Alistair Mackenzie and those he is remembering as infinitely more than they think they are and in rather surprising ways.
To Alistair what I've just said would be pretentious mystification. Though he has some of the more adventurous attitudes of an academic, he's also a shy, unsophisticated, unimaginative and somewhat stuffy, or¨to do justice to his presumably Presbyterian origins¨somewhat dour, man. How often, after all, do you run into an English professor whose favourite author is Dickens?
So when at the very end he asks "Have I learned anything through this long life of mine?" his answer is only that he has learned to put "a certain measure of humility" in place of the unconscious sense of superiority that made him condescend to French Canadians. This answer doesn't seem to have much to do with my claim that he has been learning how to die, and neither is it one that does justice to most of the slightly crazy people he's been telling us about. Not only that. To be told that tolerance and humility are nice doesn't seem like a huge epiphany. We already know. And knowing doesn't seem to help any more than "Can't we all just get along?" If Bissoondath had gone to the trouble of burning down Alistair Mackenzie's house and moving him into a new French-speaking milieu on page one only in order to teach him more than 300 pages later that the difference between "mister" and "monsieur" isn't worth getting mad over we'd have a right to be disappointed. But one of the small miracles of this book is how Bissoondath's resonant sentences¨poetic without ever deserting the canons of straightforward prose¨provide the map we need to trace a path for ourselves from that over-simple story back to complexities that Alistair is hardly aware of.
Bissoondath surrounds Alistair's newfound tolerance with a narrative that doesn't let us take it for granted. Niceness may be much less rare than some people think. Even so, why it happens needs explaining. And the closer we get to understanding it the more of a mixed bag it may turn out to be. What really is it that has made Alistair more open to others? Using the data that Bissoondath has supplied we find an answer more poignantly ambiguous than we might have expected.
King Lear can serve as a reference point for exploring what lies under the surface of Doing the Heart Good. Alistair Mackenzie is a low-key Lear. This Lear only has one daughter and luckily she's Cordelia. Furthermore, since he's an English professor not an absolute monarch, he rages much more quietly against the dying of the light. Yet Bissoondath is wonderfully able to bring alive in this "ordinary" life the fundamental Lear experience of becoming nothing in all its devastating variety, while at the same time allowing his hero the luxury denied to Lear of being able to watch it reflectively from a distance because it mostly happens to other people.
Bissoondath accomplishes this by structuring Alistair's recollections as a series of short stories rather than an unfolding beginning-middle-end plot. Some people, like his wife, Mary, and his sister Ruth-Ann are constants, who turn into nothing, each in her own way, only near the end of the story. But many others¨the writer Dan Mullen, Mary's friend Martha, Alistair's colleague Thrush, his student Elliot, and the refugee boys he encounters¨put in brief appearances then more or less disappear. Thus they become a set of variations, wonderfully diverse, on the single theme of our comings in and our goings out. Through these people Mackenzie gets to experience, even if indirectly, an astonishingly full range of what we find in Lear¨dementia, the loss of eyesight, injustice, betrayal, humiliation, suicide, political torture and destructive pride.
But even more extraordinary is what Bissoondath accomplishes by showing us these people solely through Mackenzie's eyes. Instead of being reduced to a collection of puppets, in Alistair Mackenzie's little fantasy theatre they take on a dignity that comes precisely from his recognition that he cannot get to the bottom of them. His genuine academic stance of being increasingly a fly on the wall of even his own life makes it possible for him to acknowledge that he has never entirely understood any of the people he is telling us about but that their very opaqueness has kept them real. The resulting insight that one can love (and perhaps only love) what one does not fully understand is what makes possible the widening of his affections in the closing passages of his memoirs.
It's no accident that one of the first stories Mackenzie tells us is about his short episode of completely unnecessary jealousy of his wife early in their relationship. Much as she loved him, she never quite let him forget the childish dishonesty that his failure to possess her entirely had produced. The real lesson that he finally comes to, it seems to me, is just this early lesson of Mary's. As the world begins to gently detach itself from him, he becomes better able to let it do so and oddly enough becomes better able to reach out to it less self-centredly than before. That's how what he sees as learning to be more tolerant of his French-Canadian neighbour is revealed in the largest context as a learning how to die.
This comes through most poignantly after an argument with his daughter, Agnes. Alistair is most deeply like Lear in that he no longer lives in his own house or his own world, but in hers. How she treats him is a matter of life and death. But can father and daughter, Alistair wonders, really love each other when they understand each other so little? Thinking about Agnes and Cordelia together helped me see both of them more clearly. In effect, how much Agnes and her father stand outside each other in two solitudes has little impact on that cooler, more objective love which is, as with Cordelia a matter of her bond of obligation to him. Anything else, those moments of spiritual merging that Alistair and Mary undoubtedly had, is a bonus.
None of this is to say that Doing the Heart Good is remotely a new-age tract to the effect that letting go of distinct, combative identities is a way to solve our political problems. Mackenzie's vision of those around him remains a paradoxical double vision. What his letting go reveals to him about the people he has known is the extent to which they have remained what they are by not letting go, by standing on their pride even when it kills them. Political conflicts and the particular identities that cause them are things we have to stay with until we are fully ready to die. What Alistair Mackenzie has really learned is that the things we care about are as completely essential as they are utterly unessential. Neil Bissoondath's novel articulates that paradox so richly that I wanted to start it again the moment I got to the end. It truly does do the heart good.

Sam Ajzenstat recently retired from the Philosophy Department at McMaster University where he won the President's Award for Excellence in Instruction and the McMaster Student Union Lifetime Award for Teaching.
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