||The Vulnerable and the Predator
by Nancy Wigston
Lisa Moore is a highly inventive wordsmith whose talents have earned her a place on the Giller Prize Shortlist for the second time. Alligator opens with an exceptionally vivid scene: Colleen, a teenaged girl in St. John's, views a documentary film her artistic aunt Madeleine made twenty-odd years ago. In front of astonished witnesses, a professional alligator-wrestler in Louisiana just escapes with his life when the beast he knows so well attempts to devour him. The audience is transfixed; the cameraman keeps filming. As Colleen watches this terrifying scene, someone's actual brush with death, her attention focuses on every detail. She is no less riveted after her aunt returns home to announce, casually, that the man survived, and that they "had a little thing" together.
One crowd member in particular, a little girl holding a balloon, seems to be a surrogate for the girl watching the film in the narrative present. "The balloon looks like a hole burned through the sky. There's no wind but the balloon jerks when the little girl shifts her weight. It jerks to the side and settles, becomes still. There isn't a cloud. The little girl's blond hair is spread over her shoulders and bits of sunlight come through it and some of her hair is full of static and it stands up and the sun makes it buzz with light." Disaster strikes out of nowhere on a sunny day, and little girls everywhere can only watch. The magic of this book lies with its incantatory prose, and one can imagine what a treat it would be to hear Moore read in person; the effect would have to be spellbinding.
With prose like this, the very act of criticism can seem reductive, similar to the way a teacher 'explains' a poem in understandable prose for students, who then respond-quite rightly-"Well, if that's what he means, why didn't he just say it?" So, at the risk of trampling on Moore's artistry, here goes. David, Colleen's beloved stepfather, the only father she has ever known, has recently died of an aneurysm. Deciding she cannot sit idly by-her mother is frantic with suppressed grief-she engages in an act of eco-terrorism. By pouring sugar into bulldozers, she tries (and fails) to save the local pine martins' habitat. She is caught and punished. Later, still behaving very badly, Colleen absconds with somebody else's cash and tracks down the alligator man, but the episode seems anticlimactic and Moore kind of lets her go, as if the girl in the film had released her balloon into the sky.
There are many characters and a great deal of heartache in Alligator, and inevitably Moore's characters, carrying their various burdens, bump and collide into one another. The major link between them seems to be the experience of catastrophic loss, which also appears to be part of the modern predicament, or at least of life in present-day St. John's. Aunt Madeleine, for instance, is working on her magnum opus, a feature film (at last!) about old Newfoundland and a certain powerful archbishop. But she ignores her heart condition-and by extension her heart-to her detriment.
Much of this chic, world-travelled woman's mental energy is spent reviewing her marriage to Marty, her ex-husband, whom she left to pursue her career. Men still like Madeleine, who is very funny and knowledgeable. On the way to a younger man's apartment, Moore records these anticipatory thoughts: "She could do savvy and raunchy and acerbic. She could do spiritually enlightened if she had to. Coy she would not do. Girlish she would not do. Tenacious she could do." Being a feminist of her generation evokes moments of hilarity-like the memory of the time in the late sixties when "she had been on the floor of the Women's Centre with twelve other women convulsed with laughter all trying to work a speculum and a hand mirror." Rather than labouring over connections between past and present, Moore simply proffers Madeleine's current vulnerability to sentimentality, while insisting on present realities, which include Colleen's world of "bum-fight videos you can find on the Net," and "articles in Cosmo about winding a scrunchy around your lover's balls to maximize his orgasm." These things are just there, like Oxycontin.
Simply put, this is still no world for idealists and innocents, which brings us to Frank, a young man who has watched his mother die of cancer, valiantly making little jokes with her son, who thinks, "her eyes must weigh as much as transport trucks." Frank's dream is to have a successful hot-dog cart (yes, Frank sells franks). He works and saves and is victimized by villains who sniff out his weakness. His childlike nature is mirrored in descriptions like the following portrait of his new bed-sit, where "water drops travelled in hesitant, zigzagging paths down the plastic shower curtain, and in the window several air bubbles on the stems of the flowers in the Mason jar floated to the surface and broke soundlessly. The breeze nudged the flowers into one another and the stems tippytoed across the bottom of the jar." This may prove too twee for some readers, but not for others. Yet this passage reveals the way Moore's word-enchantment can get in the way of our caring deeply about her characters.
The novel's principal bad guy, a Russian named Valentin, has suffered hideous trauma in his early life, and Moore's portrait seesaws between sympathy and revulsion. Life has taught Valentin to survive at all costs-he moves smoothly, like the predator he is, into St. John's society-so that, for example, while a part of him feels he might be in love with the woman who is starring in Madeleine's film, a stronger part decides it would be an excellent idea to burn down her house for the insurance money. As things heat up in the plot, the vulnerable (Frank, and the actress, Isobel) crumble under the willpower of this nasty Russian. From an early focus on Colleen, Moore switches her headlights onto Frank, the orphaned boy who morphs into a version of the nearly murdered alligator man in Louisiana. Despite an occasional oddness in the book's structure, Moore's rhythmic sentences and powers of description create a strange reality for her readers as she writes of a place and time that is at once modern and mythic, and wholly her own.