The Butterfly Chair|
by Marion Quednau
A Spy In My House
by J. Kenneth Langdon
The Blackbird's Song
by Pauline Holdstock
Brother Sebastian's Little Holiday, or How a Pious Monk Becomes a Not-So-Pious Civil Servant
by G.W. Bartram
by Peter Thomas
Post Your Opinion
by Janice Wyk Keefer
Could the Pulp Press three-day novel competition spark some embryonic writer on the road to Ulysses or To the Lighthouse? Yes, but such a writer would never make the deadline
How does one respond to Hardwired Auger (Pulp Press, $6.95 paper) winner of the Ninth Annual Pulp Press International 3 Day Novel Competition, a 113-page story of "a streetwise, drugged-out genius who gains notoriety as inventor of a cell-imitating computer chip and recreational booker wanted by both the Pentagon and men in need of a quick fix"? With amazement that Nora Abercrombie and Codas Jane Dorsey couldn't have come up with a less cretinous text in the allotted 72 hours. If this was the best of the entries, one can only commiserate with the judges echo had to slog through the worst. Or else upbraid them for aiding and abetting this bread-and circuses approach to "literary" production. Under all the trendy paraphernalia of bionic-chips, designer drugs, and bargainbasement sea, Hardwired Angel is an oldfashioned love story in the best tradition of Due Confessions. Anna, ak.a. Angel, is just a poor little smart girl, weaned off mother's milk onto a computer screen; she survives her parents' death in a convenient auto accident and becomes a mufti-millionaire by the time she's 14. (Why not eight? Why not three? John Stuart Mill was that august age when rte was presented with a complete set of Smollett's History of England as a inward fog proficiency in his studies.) Anna-Angel holds her own against the villainous computer barons who want to sell out to the Pentagon: it's not that she's down on people making Star Wars into more than a military-industrial wet dream, but she has more pressing engagements. With the help of her newly found true love, a man with a high-'tech profile who can stilt weep into the croissants and rabbit pate to show how much he really cares, Angel sets out to manufacture artificial brain cells instead of blowing her own. The "hovel" ends with the lovers naked oh a beach, "flowing down and dawn until they were level and pooled together, mixed and sparkling like the ocean." Or like a gin and tonic?
Perhaps, by some magnum mysterium the Pulp Press competition might spark some embryonic writer to start on the road to Ups or To The Lighthouse. Such a writer, however, would become oblivious of the three-day deadline, perhaps working on for three or 13 years to meet the exigencies of the art of fiction. I can understand the authors of Hard-wired Angel tossing off this text for a lark. But to actually allow it to be published and read by their peers? Magnum mysterium indeed.
G.W. Bartram, the author of Brother Sebastian's Little Holiday or How a Pious Monk Becomes a Not-So-Pious 011,7 Servant, In Twenty-Fight Chapters, Comprising His Life at Northanger Abbey, His Travels to the Capital City, His Fateful Meetlng etc. etc. (Simon & Pierre, 160 pages, $14.95), may have taken even longer than three days to compose his text, or at least its title. What begins as an amusing satire on monastic life and the civil service bogs down into a predictable sequence of events: Brother Sebastian's sexual initiation at the hands of a glorified and glorious civilservice secretary, his encounters with stereotyped bogeys - the feminist who swears off men, the bewigged homosexual cabinet minister, the Thatcheresque female prime minister - and his dubious return, no longer a meek monk but a homo erectus, to the abbey. Nothing is as difficult to bring off as social satire, unless it's picaresque narrative, so it isn't surprising that Bartram's novel proves less scintillating than Question Time in the House on a day when Ed Broadbent's off raising his profile in the polls. What really disconcerts the reader of Bartram's novel is that as far as one can make out from the inconclusive ending of Brother Sebastian's Little Holiday, a sequel seems to be in the offing.
Devotees of the thriller may not know quite what to make of J. Kenneth Langdon's A Spy In My House (Goose Lane. 136 pages, $7.95 paper). In a way, the blurb says it all: "This fast-paced spy novel features Winston Spenser. the onelegged ex-schoolteacher tricked by circumstances and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service into acting as 'keeper' for Igor Malenov, a chess-crazed Russian KGB defector." The novel may be short on suspense and about as fast-paced as a one-legged marathon runner, but it's unintentionally hilarious in its portrayal of arch-villain Igor (a "dimpleless" dead ringer for Cary Grant), who appends the riotous exclamation "Ha! Hal Ha!" to every utterance. Cold-Warriors need have no fears of the awesome capabilities of Soviet agents: Igor is supposed to have become fluent in English at KGB college but is capable of such speeches as "I see beautiful city, beautiful country later, when no one looks for Igor .... For now is better Russian bear stay in hole! Ha l Hal Hal"
It's unfortunate that Langdon, "the author of two works of economic and social theory," didn't serve a longer literary apprenticeship: a spy novel set in a seamy part of Fredericton - or better still, scabrous St. John - with a credible plot, competent dialogue, and believable characters could well be intriguing. And it's equally unfortunate that the publisher advertises A Spy in My House as "just right for those cool autumn evenings in front of the fireplace." Fahrenheit 451, anybody?
Peter Thomas's The Welsher (Pottersfield Press, 166 pages, $14.95 cloth) resembles A Spy in My House in one respect: it has an equally unattractive cover, a combination of synthetic - grape and flesh tones, with less than engaging graphics. Presumably, small regional presses might have better luck in placing their books if they put more effort and talent into design - especially if the text under the jacket is less than compelling. The Welsher is not a bad book, it's just that it's so earnest and determined in its comedy that the reader is hard put to stick it through. Thomas's plot the nightmare consequences of dull, upwardly mobile Anthony having to live up to the sexual prowess his working-class cousin Len attributes to him - works best when developed from the point of view of the cousin's widow, who fantasizes that the baby she's about to give birth to was fathered by randy Anthony instead of suicidal burntout Lennie. Whenever Anthony takes over the narrative, Thomas's language becomes correct and comparatively lifeless. Unfortunately, Anthony does most of the talking in The Welsher, and the reader soon tires of his prim self-righteousness and academic wit. There are some enjoyable moments in this novel, and mimetic accuracy galore, go doubt, but the book lacks the comic energy to come alive; instead of the "carnival of mortal dreams" promised by the blurb, or the comic equivalent of grand opera towards which the text strives, we end up with a competent but ultimately dull parade of all too human errors.
If The Welsher lacks a vital wit and energy, then Susan Mayse's Merlin's Web (Irwin, 298 pages, $19.95 cloth) suffers from an excess of everything imaginable - good guys, bad guys, plot twists, helicopter chases, bomb explosions, double agents, unwitting agents, victims, and near-victims. In a word, overthrill. In the process or reading how a group of Welsh extremists kidnap the seven-yearold Prince of Wales, one learns a great deal about the legitimate grievances of tine Welsh people, but one's kept so busy trying to figure out who's who and what's what that this information comes to seem extraneous. On the other head, a labyrinthine plot does have the merit of distracting the reader from certain problems with the novel's premises: how could anyone applying for the post of royal nanny avoid having security checks performed on her immediate family; would a young and presumably overindulged child really behave so adorably in a situation of extreme stress and deprivation; what pressure group would be so idiotic as to kidnap the nation's blue-eyed boy and distress its blond and beautiful queen in order to win sympathy for its cause? Yet even the sub-plots and coaster-plots of Merlin's Web can't keep us from resisting the double-dyed villainy of a character like IRA Nora, the gunstroking, bisexual nymphomaniac tormentor of children and animals. And it strains credibility more than a jot to have the novel's two sager good-guys, the beautiful Dr. Anna Chernicki and the even more beautiful Madog Sven Nilsson (with whom several of the novel's female characters leap into bed), work for American intelligence. The whole mystery of Madog's involvement in the kidnapping - he is planted among the terrorists, unbeknownst to the British, to make sure drat no harm comes to the prince - is never satisfactorily salved, but this does not intrigue so much as vex the reader. One wants to pat Mayse on the back for having managed to keep this unwieldy mass of ingredients together at all, and to berate her editor for not having insisted on cuts and revisions that would have made this overstuffed and unconvincing book into the best kind of thriller the lean and hungry sort.
Finally we come to two first novels in which the authors' gifts are an impressive match for their ambitions: Pauline Holdstock's The Blackbird's Song (Simon & Pierre. 159 pages, $19.95 cloth) and Marion Quednau's The Butterfly Chair (Random House, 202 pages, $19.95 cloth). Holdstock's beautifully written novel is an account of the horrific flight of a group of Canadian missionaries from Boxer-rebellion China. There are certain structural flaws in The Blackbird's Song- Emily's first-person stream of consciousness, with which the novel begins and ends, is much more effective than the backtracking, omniscient narration of the novel's middle section; the narrative line becomes curiously blurred at the moment of William's death, with the result that the novel's pacing suffers; and finally, the epilogue inevitably seems flat compared to the powerful pages that precede it. But what stays with the reader is the evocative beauty of Holdstock's prose, her skill at detailing gesture, mood, and perception, her gift for creating characters whose relationships ate dramatic rather than static. One wishes that this novel were longer, fuller: we want especially to know more about Martha, the "Crazy Sister" who turns from evangelism to opium to Christ as he can be found in "The Temple of the Lotus at Davm." Holdstock is a gifted writer. The Blackbird's Song, despite its flaws, is a worthy first novel.
The Butterfly Chair is a remarkable debut: writing this accomplished and compelling is a rarity even among muchpublished novelists, Quednau's presentation of "what happens to people when they are caught inside each other," her untangling of the web of love and hate within a "perfect" family of German immigrants to Canada, and her evocation of the process whereby one comes to terms with death, loss, and forgiveness itself, are masterful. At the heart of her novel is the relationship between a father "brutally unforgiving at disappointments," continually disappointed, and Else, the daughter who witnesses his murder of her mother and his own suicide, yet who cannot renounce her love for her father. The discovery that love is "a hard thing and a heavy thing" is as devastating for the reader as it is for Else: the absolute rightness of Quednau's language, the lucid and lucent poignancy with which she evokes the genesis of a Canadian tragedy, makes this an extraordinary novel that beautifully complements its epigraph, one of the most haunting sections of Rilke's Duino Elegies.
So powerful are those sections of the novel that recollect Else's childhood, her affection for her mother, and her mingled fear, resentment, and pride in her father, that the "present-tense" sections that develop the relationship between the adult Else and her would-be husband, Dean, pale in comparison. It may be objected that the wonderful part four of the novel, Else's letter to her dead father, goes on too long and that the flashback in the novel's final section to the summer Else spends alone on a farm in rural Ontario is not perfectly integrated with the rest of the narrative. Yet this novel's strengths - its exquisite rendering of the vulnerability of a child's sense of self and world, of the precariousness of that order and certainty which parents create for their children as a shield against the violent chaos of reality, its acuity in detailing the sense of difference felt by immigrants' children caught between two languages, worlds, and loyalties - override any weaknesses. To read The Butterfly Chair is to reassert Henry James's passionate claim that"art makes life, makes interest, makes importance" and that there exists no substitute for "the farce and beauty of its process."