Feed My Dear Dogs

by Emma Richler
ISBN: 0676976719

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A Review of: Feed My Dear Dogs
by T.F. Rigelhof

"Jude always said a kid is supposed to get acclimatized to the great world and society and so on, and just as soon as he can bash around on his own two pins, but the feeling of dread and disquiet I experienced on leaving home in my earliest days was justified for me again and again on journeys out, beginning with the time Zachariah Levinthal bashed me on the head for no clear-cut reason with the wooden mallet he had borrowed from his mother's kitchen. It did not hurt much, as I was wearing my Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat with both ear flaps tied up neatly in a bow on top, providing extra protection from onslaught, but I must say it struck me . . . "

Feed My Dear Dogs is big, bold, brave, brilliant and very, very funny-a formidable literary achievement that from the get-go puts readers inside the magical hyper-realistic world of the Weiss family as perceived by Jem, a highly sensitive narrator who knows how to use more than a deerstalker hat to ward off dread and disquiet. Words are her real armour and she uses them fiercely, passionately, ingeniously, profusely to recount what really happens to her as she moves from a rambling childhood in England to the confinements of a dodgy adolescence and self-enclosed womanhood in Canada.
Because Knopf Canada used a smaller than usual typeface this time round, Emma Richler's first novel ends up effectively three times the length of Sister Crazy, her story collection of 2001 that introduced Jem and the Weiss family to the public, and twice as long as most literary fiction these days. Too long for a coming-of-age tale that is strong of character and short of plot? When Feed My Dear Dogs (the title comes from the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton's final instruction to the men he left behind at his base camp) was released in Britain in January, some reviewers thought so. Quoting the narrator's words from the end of the book-"Forgetting is exile. I remember everything. I will not be a stranger in a strange land."-the Guardian's reviewer, Elena Seymenliyska, accuses Richler of recycling, padding and remembering too much: "At its worst, it is logorrhea gone rampant." There have been echoes of this in Canadian reviews as well, even among admirers like the Globe and Mail's Gale Zoe Garnett: "Richler's novel is too big for itself. The over-layered clutter causes it periodically to collapse like an old roof under snow." Reading such comments brought to mind what John Updike once wrote of J.D. Salinger: "the refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all." That's particularly fitting in this case because Emma Richler is following both in Salinger's footsteps and her father's.
Sister Crazy began where most good (and Emma Richler is very good) fiction writers do, close to home. It dug deep into the lived experience of childhood and was a riskier business for Emma than for other writers because her territory overlapped that of Mordecai Richler, the most trenchant and seriously comic novelist this country has yet produced. Readers of St Urbain's Horseman, Joshua Then and Now and the children's series of Jacob Two-Two books had already met some fairly close relatives to Emma Richler's Weiss family: a mechanically maladroit father with unruly hair and rumpled clothes who writes for a living, cares passionately about professional sports and classic movies, smokes small cigars, drinks single malt scotch, jokes with his unusually bright, perceptive children, who are obsessive and impulsive in various artistically anarchical ways, and adores his wife, a beautiful former model who inspires awe with uncanny, conjuring abilities as gardener, cook, and mum.
Jemima (Jem) Weiss is the middle of the five children. Like her older brothers, Ben and Jude, and younger sister Harriet and brother Gus, Jem is the product of a mixed marriage and a muddled background. Frances, her English and Christian mother, is a foundling. Yaakov, her Canadian sportswriter father, has lost much of his Jewish heritage. Sister Crazy was aptly titled; Jem is suicide-prone, a slasher, a self-mutilator-and Emma Richler brought Jem's torments to light as an accumulating darkness through a sequence of seven comic monologues that are so theatrical the punctuation is scored more for the ear than the eye. That book reflected both its narrator's capacity for self-dramatization and its author's background in theatre. In Feed My Dear Dogs, Jem is nakedly literary as befits an author who has become far more adventurous on behalf of her readers. The darkness takes longer to accumulate and is much broader in reach: as she recollects her childhood in England and coming of age in Canada in a context of analysis and therapy, Jem characteristically oscillates between tragic and comic as she battles against the polarities of normal and abnormal, ordinary and extraordinary, talentless and gifted, healthy and ill, that bifurcate both her familiar world and the alien one beyond it.
Like Salinger in his Glass family stories, Emma Richler uses immediately recognizable settings and colloquial speech to create a deceptively realistic surface that masks a fundamental fantasy as rich as the Greek myths about return from the underworld or the escape from the dark forests of fairy tales. Readers both know and don't know exactly where we are in such stories: everything is over-observed, over-the-top, rendered larger than life can ever be actually lived by being reduced to minutiae, obsessively collected and compulsively collated. Feed My Dear Dogs is wonderfully specific as it summons up Jem's childhood in England and the comedy of her convent school days:

"Three types of shoes. And then come rules. Shoe rules: Do not wear plimsolls outdoors. Even in sports. Do not wear Clarks Commandos indoors. Do not wear indoor shoes in gym (unless you have forgotten your plimsolls) and definitely not outdoors where they will get ruined and become perplexing, unfit for indoors or out. No where shoes. If you have the wrong shoes, a nun will get flustered and usually call upon Mean Nun to sort out the bad situation of the wrong shoes. Mean Nun has an eye out for crime."

Emma Richler seems to want to rival and surpass Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in both the force and passion of her summoning up of life among nuns, and then sock it to McCarthy for her reduction of Salinger's Glasses to "the good people against the stupid phonies." I could be wrong. Her intentions might not be that specific and could well spring from a more general antipathy towards any writing about the lives of girls and women that like McCarthy's is doggedly personal, direct, tough, cutting, ferocious, spiteful, egomaniacal in its pursuit of candour through confession. The Weiss family is nuanced in ways that both recalls the Glass family (and the debt Salinger owes to Kafka's "The Hunger Artist" that Janet Malcolm noted in her tide-turning reassessment for The New York Review of Books) and moves well beyond it through the flexibility of Jem's voice, which goes from childish prattle to adult stream-of-consciousness. What Garnett called "over-layered clutter" are in fact superbly controlled patterns of literary allusion-Le petit prince, Sherlock Holmes, Oliver Twist, Torah, The Wizard of Oz, The Lives of the Saints, Ben Hur, Le Morte d'Arthur, Blake, Shakespeare, Shackleton among others high and low-voiced by Jem as jokes, facts, dialogues, tags, aphorisms, quotations that are designed to take readers well beyond the simplistic pieties about family values mouthed by the Christian right and the reductions in Feminism perpetuated by the rhetoric of victimization. "Nostalgia," as Jem says, "is a malady from a Greek word meaning pain." Feed My Dear Dogs is a deeply existential novel about the gulf within a young woman's experience of herself that must be recognized, plumbed, and mourned before it can be honourably bridged even in the best of circumstances.
Emma Richler is brave and bloody-minded to create a narrator who is easily confused with herself and characters who can be misread as simulacra of her family by nave readers. Unlike Jem Weiss, whose brother Jude implores her "to stop making everything to do with us. . .. the Weiss family are not the world . . . . you can't stay in your family forever," Emma Richler has made her way out of her family and into the world with success as an actor in theatre, film, television drama, and BBC radio. In taking up her father's craft, she is rapidly proving herself to be Mordecai Richler's daughter in art as well as name with this difference-there's less hedgehog, more fox in her.

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