Looking For the Last Big Tree

by Michael Doss
242 pages,
ISBN: 0385250568

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Michael Foss is a British writer with a number of non-fiction works and books for children to his credit. He has lived in North America, with time in British Columbia, the setting for this ambitious novel. It has a number of ingredients that could make for success - wit, learning, stylish prose, cynicism about man's endeavours and dreams - but the material simply does not come alive as fictional experience.
The trouble, I think, is the author's belief that ideas and attitudes alone can make a novel. Certainly there is no lack of intellectual substance here. Foss has set two populous stories in motion: in one we follow the misadventures of a nameless protagonist, an immigrant from Eugland to British Columbia in the 1950; in the other we observe some ingeniously fictionalized episodes of early Canadian history - the beginnings of the European presence along the Pacific Northwest seacoast in the 18th century. These alternating narratives serve as a sort of buffet table upon which the author can arrange his metaphysical disquisitions and heap his profusion of literary, cultural, and mythic erudition. In either time period, the illusion his characters must deal with is "the hope of a new rich life"; in both the result of all human effort is the realization that "we have come at it with too much expectation."
This all just might work if Foss had anything particularly new or interesting to say about his subject. But platitudes, historically costumed or not, are platitudes, and no amount of mannered prose or selfaggrandizing mockery can conquer fictional inertia. Very little happens in Looking For the Last Big Tree; whenever drama threatens, it is quickly frozen by the author's inability to resist showing off his knowledge of the diotionary and encyclopedia and his apparent need to seem superior to his characters arid practically everything else he writes about. The results are neither challenging nor fun, though doubtless Foss meant-them to be.

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