The Mermaid of Paris

by Cary Fagan
ISBN: 1552632326

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A Review of: The Mermaid of Paris
by Michael Greenstein

Cary Fagan never steps in the same river twice: The Mermaid of Paris, his fourth novel, brims with history and surprises from 1900. As inventive as his protagonist Henry Church, Fagan recreates a period piece, unabashedly indebted to Turgenev and Doctorow, among others. Set initially in small-town Ontario, the novel moves at a brisk pace, beginning with the opening bicycle sequence, which features one of Henry's inventions.
Cyclical and seasonal, the novel opens in the spring of 1900 with an idyllic scene in rural Ontario. Henry speeds across his country lawn on his monocycle and immediately crashes into a maple tree, the first of many accidents in the novel. Though the mood is solemn rather than slapstick, farcical undercurrents intrude at times in the narrative. Yet Fagan is capable of Jamesian prose in the description of the serene lawn scene, and more generally in the Victorian/Edwardian atmosphere recreated in The Mermaid of Paris.
Henry's interest in aviation extends to birds as well, for he is an amateur ornithologist who soon adopts a pet crow. Since the crow or raven has by now become a clich of Canadian fiction, it is difficult to determine whether Fagan employs this trickster fixture as a means of parody or as a deus ex machina.
Henry's wife, Margaret, has also suffered accidents. Her brother was killed in the Boer War, and before that she lost her mother in a shipwreck, which she herself barely escaped. Ever since that accident Margaret develops pains in her legs that mysteriously link her to some kind of mermaid status, part of the novel's magic realism and melodrama, as she often takes midnight dips in the river. Henry tries to soothe her by reading Romantic and Victorian poetry to her, but their sexual life together is completely unsatisfactory.
Henry manages his father-in-law's bicycle factory where unionizing forces begin to play a role. One of the political undercurrents in the novel is anarchism, and one of the Italian employees at Dawes Bicycle Manufactury, Giancarlo Caporale, introduces Henry to the works of Malatesta, Proudhon, and European anarchism.
"Summer 1900" opens with the heroic anti-hero speculating on the superiority of inventors over poets, soldiers, and statesmen. He remembers his childhood dreams of performing some heroic act, or "of simply escaping, opening the window and lifting into the air on wings made of paper and wax and feathers taken from pillows." This Icarus levitation in turn opens the door to the appearance of Count Anatole Belinsky, the world's strongest man, also known as the human whale for his underwater endurance. The entire town is mesmerized by Belinsky's performance, and he decides to remain for the entire summer because he is attracted to Margaret.
"Fall 1900" introduces another exotic European figure, Doctor Karl Fruhauf of the University of Vienna, who lectures in Toronto on sexual deviancy. Henry consults this Freudian figure, and when he returns home, he discovers that Belinsky has fled with his wife to Europe. "Spring 1902" finds Henry amidst anarchists down and out in Paris, as he desperately searches for Margaret. To alleviate his despair, he fashions three puppets for a play he stages: The Stolen Wife re-enacts the triangle of his situation in the hopes that it will attract sufficient audiences who will eventually lead him to the whereabouts of his wife and her lover. Purely by chance, Henry discovers that Belinsky is also performing simultaneously "The Mermaid of Paris" at another theatre. Henry challenges the Russian count to an absurdist duel on bicycles.
The novel's penultimate section, "Summer 1902", reveals that Belinsky has returned to Russia while Henry (with his right hand wounded) wakes up in a small French village, where he is tended by the family of Clothilde, his anarchist Parisian lover. Meanwhile, Belinsky's peasants murder him on his estate.
In the final section, "Fall 1903", Henry experiments with a flying machine that crashes. In the twilight between life and death Henry thinks he sees Margaret: "She was not far, on a rock rising out of the water some twenty yards out. The first line of scales began just below her navel. She waved the fluke back and forth." Fagan's novel is filled with flukes, and is on the whole a successful period piece; his sleight of hand avoids being slight of hand. The author's note at the end of the novel freely acknowledges the influence of his betters-Turgenev, Doctorow, Flaubert, and Marquez. Ultimately the novel's greatest mystery is why its author-despite his "mots justes" and adherence to "Mermaid Margaret, c'est moi"-fails to rise to the achievement of these betters.

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