The act of writing is an attempt to find a home in language, to settle its inherent restlessness by cementing a sequence of words. Aritha Van Herk's latest novel, Restlessness (Red Deer College Press, 193 pages, $16.95 paper), addresses this through the narrator's quest to find a home by writing her own ending.
Dorcas is a professional courier and an amateur suicide. Her travels around the world have only exacerbated her restlessness, and she has determined that since "home" is geographically unavailable to her, her only recourse for rest is death. Restlessness is the story of her rendezvous with a hired killer.
The decision of a fictional character to hire an assassin to kill her has the potential to be insurmountably alienating for the reader. Van Herk, however, handles it with subtlety and dexterity. Although we feel an inevitable resistance to this vibrant woman's suicide, we are forced by Van Herk's convincing presentation of her incurable unhappiness to feel compassion and understanding at the same time. "Such terrible hope," offers Dorcas by way of explanation-despair that will not give way to cynicism, restlessness that will not settle into homesickness.
It's not much of a story. Dorcas and Derrick Atman, the killer, meet clandestinely in a hotel room. They go for dinner and walk around Calgary, and she regales him with tales of her travels, like some reverse Scheherazade telling stories towards death instead of away from it. Yet in spite of the story's inevitability, it is breathtakingly suspenseful. The book owes its success in part to the fact that the suspense derives not just from the usual questions, will she? and why?, but also from the more personally disturbing why not?
Van Herk's unsettlingly articulate portrait of despair creates in us an uneasy tension between sympathy and horror. "I cannot escape myself," she complains, explaining that "[m]aking do is not enough". Such straightforward declarations are unnerving, and make us squirm. The narrator's restlessness then is elicited in the reader by this tension and by the form and language of the writing itself. The book is composed of a series of brief sections, between one line and a few pages in length, all from Dorcas' perspective; they mirror her impatience and incite in us a sense of the impossibility of sustainment.
Dorcas's language is similarly restless. "There's no similarity between sex and death," she claims; yet her encounter with her killer is presented as a tryst in a hotel room, and throughout the novel she uses the word "assassin" to represent both her mercenary and her lovers. As well, it is possible to interchange the word "sex" or "love" with "death" throughout and have the novel still make perfect sense. This disturbing possibility gives the book a surreal twist, creating some ambiguity as to what it's really all about.
Restlessness is a brave novel. It tackles an unpalatable subject, and instead of succumbing to sensationalism, it explores it with grace and aplomb and remarkable intelligence. In the midst of an unsettling restlessness, it has moments of humour and of solace. It is a meditation on "home", in both a geographical and spiritual sense, and it offers an anatomy of cities, especially her hometown of Calgary, with the incisive clarity reserved for the perpetual outsider.
Aritha Van Herk's novel is a remarkable achievement. It is an indelible record of a planned erasure, a homage to life written in the vocabulary of death. It is about contradiction, and it is contradictory; it is restless without being relentless. It is disquietingly beautiful and hauntingly articulate about belonging and love, and about the connectedness of stories and writing and life and death.
Alana Wilcox is a Toronto writer.