Popular Anatomy

by Keath Fraser,
584 pages,
ISBN: 0889841497

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First Novels - A Stay-at-home Travel Agent
by Eva Tihanyi

Every once in a while, a book comes along that astonishes the reader with the sheer enormity of its scope. Keath Fraser's Popular Anatomy (Porcupine's Quill, 584 pages, $24.95 paper) is such a book.

Fraser, whose last published volume was the award-winning story collection Foreign Affairs (1985), has spent the last decade creating what is in some respects really three novels in one, a literary triptych where each part is separate yet connected to form a larger "picture". The novel as a whole spans three hundred years of imagined time (back to 1886 and forward to 2091) but is set primarily in a four-year period in early-eighties Vancouver. Inflation is running rampant, and computers are on the verge of running everything. The "modernness" of the modern world is everywhere evident. By focusing on the lives of a few particular people as they operate in this time frame, Fraser gives us a microcosm that reveals much about the larger reality in which it exists. His formidable intellect, his grasp of culture, history, and the human spirit, infuse the book at every turn, and the result is a virtuoso performance.

Book One, aptly titled "Against Nature", is the story of Dwight Irving, owner of Herodotus Travel and husband of Reesa Potts, a TV personality. Dwight is a somewhat unusual travel agent: he hates to travel, feels that "real travel is more artificial than anything he could dream up at home." When his wife drags him on a holiday to Hawaii, he spends most of it criticizing the phoniness of the travel industry, dismissing, for example, the exclusive Hyatt Regency as "a disgusting simulation of Paradise." He's an armchair tourist turned entrepreneur, a man who "would never think of sending anyone anywhere unless he had thoroughly imagined their destination."

Book Two, "The Life of a Tuxedo", is the story (in the first person) of Dwight's streetsmart foster-charge, a punk rock orphan from Bombay. Aloysius is an exploiter and a manipulator immersed in an illegal refugee operation that nearly lands him in jail. He's a clever sham with big ambitions, a Canadian appropriation of the American Dream gone awry.

Book Three, "Bones", is narrated by Bartlett Day, a doctor of chiropractic and housemate of the Irvings. Bartlett sees his profession as fraudulent and, by extension, himself as a fraud. He wants to abandon his profession but can see no way out, especially because of his financial circumstances. These become worse and worse because of the assistance he gives Dwight when his friend's heavily leveraged business falters. Bartlett, like Dwight and Aloysius, is caught in the trap of his own life and doesn't see a way out.

Obviously, Popular Anatomy is far too complex and densely layered to be summarized. It is a demanding book, one that rewards a slow reading. My only criticism is that at times it is unwieldy and might have benefited from more stringent editing. This, however, is a minor point and in no way diminishes the magnitude of Fraser's achievement.


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