Muriella Pent

by Russell Smith
ISBN: 0385259786

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A Review of: Muriella Pent
by Michael Carbert

For all the comic and satirical wit to be found in the work, Russell Smith's fiction remains among the bleakest in Canadian literature. Largely misunderstood as a celebrant of all things cool and trendy, Smith in fact celebrates little of anything in his novels, a fact largely concealed by how funny they are. While not lacking a moral core-all satire is inherently judgmental-the work holds out little in the way of redemption. The best Smith's characters can hope for are the fleeting pleasures to be found in such things as vintage wine (alcohol is an important element in all of Smith's books), the touch of lace or silk, the sound of a well-made violin, the beauty to be observed in an antique paperweight or in the gingerbread ornaments on a Victorian house. For Smith these are not frivolous preoccupations but instead the profound pleasures to be gained from an intense engagement with the physical world. Human relationships, however-in contrast to the dependability of a twelve-year-old single malt or a Brioni suit-are invariably disappointing.
The protagonists in Smith's first two novels, the much lauded How Insensitive and the strangely under appreciated Noise, are frustrated young men trying to establish themselves in the big city. For them, Toronto is a place of unfulfilled desires and empty promises. Success and satisfaction, like the half-dressed women everywhere, are maddeningly just beyond their reach. Worse, on the rare occasion when they get what they want, it fails to live up to their expectations. The cumulative effect of rereading these two books is not to have a sudden urge to buy some expensive clothes and hang out in swanky bars in downtown Toronto, but instead to see city life as one crushing disappointment after another, an experience that will efficiently rob you of whatever ideals you possessed when you arrived in the big city. There's nothing that keeps its promise. The glamorous job that beckons to you from a shiny office tower is a soul-sucking dead end. The thumping music in the night club full of gorgeous women (who are not so gorgeous when you take a closer look) gives you a paralyzing migraine. The important people at the party ignore you; your best friend is secretly having an affair with the woman you're in love with; the sexy Goth girl with the piercings and beautiful breasts turns out to be frigid. If we expect Smith's plots to follow a conventional route, with the protagonist improbably finding in the end both success and love, we will be disappointed. Smith is very much of his time: success is something held for ransom by ageing baby-boomers who refuse to retire, and love? Love is for suckers.
This is especially the case in Noise, where virtually every relationship is defined by the degree of disappointment it brings. At book's end, our protagonist finds neither romance nor success. The only victory is that James, a tabloid journalist doomed to feign enthusiasm for all things "cool"-celebrities, clubs and "underground fashion"-finally finds the courage to write instead about his secret, nerdy passion: classical music.
But the fact that appreciating classical music has become such an uncool thing only highlights the deteriorating condition of our culture, a theme Smith reinforces with his faithful depictions of our urban landscape:

The factories and warehouses passed, long, flat, windowless buildings, all in the same corrugated white material. Miles of parking lots, the same signs in every strip mall: McDonald's, Petsworld, Adults Only Video. Occasionally there would be a Lighting Unlimited or an Arby's, but on the horizon, approaching, would always be a McDonald's, a Petsworld and an Adults Only.

Smith's satire packs its most telling punches in such straightforward descriptions and their power comes from the fact that Smith rarely editorializes or passes judgement. He simply presents both cityscape and human behaviour (often hilarious human behaviour) and allows us to draw our own conclusions. Underneath the comic surface, this can be pretty grim stuff and it says much about Smith's talent-his eye for detail, the crispness of his dialogue, his impeccable timing-that he can keep us laughing through much of it. But this is why Smith will continue to be an important writer; he is a keen observer of his time and place, his depiction of the absurdity of contemporary life undistorted by any overt agenda.
Smith's new novel, Muriella Pent, while a departure in many respects, only deepens the theme of despair and pessimism running through his work. This time however the sense of hopelessness is something both more subtle and more emotionally affecting, tempered in part by the use of a restrained, less ironic narrative voice. As well, in place of another young man having his aspirations and illusions destroyed in front of him, we have Marcus Royston, a middle-aged Caribbean poet whose ideals were burned away a long time ago. Thus the novel's pessimism is worn lightly, more elegantly, distilled down into Marcus's quiet sighs of resignation and boredom, or merely suggested by his ever-present glass of whiskey or wine.
We gain a sense of this in the novel's opening scene where we find Muriella Pent-a respectable, affluent widow-nude and entangled on the floor with Marcus Royston. In the afterglow of afternoon lovemaking, nothing this nice Canadian woman says pleases Marcus. In response to her chatter, we hear him sigh-repeatedly, sadly. Then, for no discernible reason, Marcus haltingly recites the opening stanza of Louis MacNeice's poem "The Sunlight on the Garden."

The sunlight on the garden
hardens and grows cold,
we cannot cage the minute
within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Marcus has come to Toronto from the fictional island of St. Andrew's as part of a Developing Regions Exchange Program sponsored by something called the City Arts Board Action Council. Muriella Pent serves as a member of the council, where she is constantly reminded by her fellow members that she is too white and rich to understand what literature is really all about. In an effort to make a meaningful contribution to the council's activities, Muriella has the apartment in her Toronto mansion made available for the visiting author. She is of course going to get more than she bargained for, but the same can be said for the members of the council, and just about everyone else Royston encounters during his eventful stay in Toronto.
It's hard not to like Marcus. He is world-weary and disillusioned but with an air of repose and keen intelligence. He confounds the members of the Action Council, who assume that a black Caribbean author will of course share their sympathy for "real issues." Instead, Marcus prefers to talk about such boring things as architecture and French poetry. He makes unsettling and sophisticated comments about the nature of literature and art, publicly denounces plans to turn libraries into "community centres," and lectures a feminist on appreciating history. He even dares to hint that, despite our flag and our constitution, Canada remains something of a colony. He openly pursues every attractive woman he meets, drinks far too much, and, in short, raises hell in a way that makes things quite uncomfortable for those who had expected him to behave more like their version of a writer from a "developing region," more like a member of what Harold Bloom calls "the school of resentment."
Finally, to add to everyone's irritation, Marcus appears to have figured out with little difficulty the nature of Toronto's stiffness and timidity:

"There seems to be an understandin' here, I gather this only from the short time I've been here, so please correct me if I'm wrong, please, seriously, please do, but it seems that there is an understandin' here, among all people, that we will only have positive and supportive things to say, that we will agree with everything and support each other. This is very different from what I am used to."

Muriella Pent is also hard not to like, though for different reasons. For many of us she represents a very familiar figure. Earnest and eager to please, she helps raise funds for charitable causes, never drinks alcohol during daylight hours, is of the firm conviction that art must function as a positive influence in society, and makes lists of possible novel topics that include Vimy Ridge, Dieppe and the Riel Rebellion. Recently widowed, bored and lonely, she is ready for some kind of change in her life. While Muriella and Marcus are equally convincing and of equal importance to the story, the novel is named for Muriella because she is the one who evolves, who allows events to transform her. A bland Canadian at the novel's start-in the habit of saying "sorry" for no reason and feeling obligated to take up gardening-by the end she has become something else entirely, something darker and more complex, sensual and dangerous. In the opening scene of the novel it is Marcus releasing sad sighs; by novel's end we hear Muriella's.
But while it's hard not to like both Marcus and Muriella, it would be foolish to envy them, especially Marcus. Having lost all stature and influence in his home country, he is cynical, lost and very much alone. No longer sheltered by a government appointment and with more than twenty years having passed since the publication of his last book, he is a shell of his former self. There is more than a hint of self-destruction clinging to the once renowned author, a fact borne out by the conclusion of a rather sordid party in Muriella's home. A fire breaks out thanks to Marcus's carelessness with cigarettes and the despondent poet can't even be bothered to save himself.
More than in his previous novels, Smith wants to say something about Canada and his older, more complex protagonists serve him well in this regard. It is in the reaction to Marcus that the thinness of Canada's cultural character (or would it be fairer to say Toronto's?) is highlighted. If Muriella can be so greatly and quickly transformed, what does that say about the integrity of her previous self? Similarly, if the members of the Action Council and others can be so keenly disturbed by the statements of a has-been poet, what does that say about the nature of their convictions?
But while the wealthy widow and the ageing poet form a potent mix, Smith makes things richer still by stirring in a pair of earnest university students, Brian and Julia, who eventually become entangled in a game of sexual competition with Marcus and Muriella-a game, that is, for the burnt out Marcus perhaps; for everyone else the emotional stakes are higher. Julia and Brian are closer in age and temperament to the characters in Smith's previous works, and equally convincing, but the main focus of our attention remains on Smith's older characters. We care about Marcus and Muriella; their vulnerabilities and the risks they take win our sympathies. We sense that Smith has invested a great deal in his two ageing protagonists and the investment pays off. These are two of the strongest characters in recent Canadian fiction, making so many Atwood or Ondaatje creations seem like cardboard cutouts in comparison, and serving to confirm Muriella Pent as Smith's finest achievement to date.
And thus, as the novel progresses, the greater is the resonance of the book's opening scene. The coming together of these two flawed, lonely, middle-aged people, spontaneously fumbling around Muriella's stately library like a pair of lust-starved teenagers, is, if only for that one encounter, moving, touching, even fleetingly romantic. Afterwards, lying on the floor together, they sip brandy from the same glass and talk and Marcus recites bits of poetry. The only difficulty is that Muriella knows little about poetry and can't appreciate what Marcus is trying to say. Which brings us back to Louis MacNeice, not surprisingly a rather melancholy poet. "The Sunlight on the Garden" is considered one of his saddest lyrics, moving and beautiful, but sad all the same. It meditates on the brevity of existence, life being a short prelude to death. There is no redemption, no forgiveness to seek. We have, the poem tells us, only momentary pleasures to comfort us. Sadly, Marcus Royston finds few such pleasures during his stay in Canada. On the plane taking him back to St. Andrew's, waiting for the cart with the alcohol to finally arrive, Marcus leafs through the complimentary airline magazine and is struck by "the fanatical blandness" of its content, "the blandness of death." And as the plane banks over the blackness beneath, the vast forests and areas of natural beauty that no one took him to see, he reflects on the fact "that he didn't really know where he had been," because the land below "was not a real place," not "treated by anyone, as a place."
It's a despairing vision, and not exactly new, but still affecting and relevant. We need writers like Smith to remind us of the grim truth of this strange country. Muriella Pent is not just another novel of heartache and disappointment from Russell Smith. It's a funny, poignant, ambitious, and highly entertaining book and the boldest work yet in Smith's bleak oeuvre.

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