The Big Why

by Michael Winter
ISBN: 0887841880

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A Review of: The Big Why
by Lisa Salem-Wiseman

Michael Winter's 2000 novel, This All Happened, chronicled the life of a young writer named Gabriel English as he attempted to write a historical novel about the year that Rockwell Kent, the illustrator of Moby Dick, spent in Brigus Newfoundland. Kent, born and formally educated as an artist in New York City, moved first to Moneghan Island, Maine (1905), and then Brigus (1914), in search of adventure and raw landscapes to paint. The Arctic explorer Bob Bartlett was also living in Brigus, and it was a meeting with him that had led Kent to the seaside community. After just sixteen months in Newfoundland, he was driven out of the province under suspicion of being a German spy, a perception he himself apparently encouraged by singing German songs and professing his admiration of the culture. This was just one episode in a life that included adventures in Greenland, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Brazil, three marriages, five children, countless extramarital affairs, membership in the Socialist Party, testimony before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, the U.S. government's refusal to issue him a new passport due to his political activism, and the Soviet Union awarding him the Lenin Peace Prize.
Certainly such an eventful life would seem to be the ideal subject of an historical novel. However, Gabriel never finishes the novel. Instead, as Winter explains in his foreword, "he writes a collection of daily vignettes over a full calendar year." These vignettes comprise the novel, and in them, Gabriel "discusses his friends, confesses his failings, copies overheard drunken conversations, declares his dreams, reports gossip, and charts the ebb and flow of his love affair with the people and geography of Newfoundland." In other words, the dusty old past is superseded by the more vital present. Gabriel's loss of interest in his historical narrative is prompted by his frustration with the artificiality of the structure he is attempting to create; he complains that his novel "is all plot and action. And invented. It doesn't interest me." Bogged down by the details-the "who" and the "what"-of the past, he discovers that his novel lacks insight into human behaviour and character-what one might call the "big why." Gabriel's abandonment of his novel in favour of his compulsive, dynamic portrait of the daily lives of his friends is framed, not as an artistic failure, but as an acknowledgement of the limitations of the historical novel as a genre and an embracing of a more fluid, organic mode of representation.
Thus, many were surprised when it became known that Winter was planning to follow This All Happened with a historical novel about none other than Rockwell Kent and Bob Bartlett in Brigus, Newfoundland in 1914. Did this mean that Gabriel was a failure? Was Winter going to write the very plot-and-action-driven historical novel that his own creation had abandoned? The answer to both questions is, happily, "no." Instead, Winter has breathed new life into a genre that has, in some readers' minds, become a clich. Too often, readers associate the historical novel with a blatantly nationalistic agenda; we assume that between the covers of an historical novel, buried heroes will be unearthed, and the heroism of ordinary or forgotten Canadians will be revealed. Recently, in the Globe and Mail (January 6, 2005), columnist and novelist Russell Smith confessed to habitually avoiding the genre because of his tendency to "automatically associate the historical novel with the three-generations-of-women-facing-hardship clich." After reading The Big Why, which he did only because of his admiration for Winter's writing, he was led to conclude that his initial bias was wrong, and that The Big Why "shows that a historical setting can make for a hard-edged, totally contemporary novel." Indeed, despite the historical setting, the tone, the characters, and even the events of the novel are remarkably similar to those of the contemporary This All Happened: Rockwell Kent and Bob Bartlett drink, talk, and sleep with women in Brigus in 1914, just as Gabriel English and Max Wareham do in St John's in 1999. Rather than attempting to dust off a historical figure and place him on a pedestal, Winter presents us with a rambling, raw portrait of a complex, flawed, weak and rather unlikable man. Kent's reflections on life, art, women, and his own desires and fears strike one as almost painfully honest and immediate; this is not a life preserved under glass. Winter's technique aids in the impression of intimacy; lines of dialogue are not indicated by quotation marks, and are sometimes prefaced with the speaker's name, such as in a script. Winter used the same techniques to great success in This All Happened; the effect is much like that of overhearing snatches of conversation in bars and on the street.
Among the chronicles of Kent's infidelities and his attempts to rationalize them, Winter provides the reader with many thought-provoking insights into the nature and role of art, and its sanitizing effect on reality. Gerald Thayer confronts Kent about his tendency to idealize the human form:

"Okay, I want some cocks out of you. And filth. You're no stranger. You speak of dirt, but there is no dirt in you. Give me snot. Give me a torn shirt. It's all starry nights and bowsprits and men hanging like Jesus from the crow's nest."
"Me: You're talking woodcuts. You have to reduce the real to its strongest elements in a woodcut. You have to have things lit from behind. That makes them monumental. As though you were looking at a slide photograph."
"But the flaws are what are important. That's what's human. You draw gods. "(p72)

In such exchanges, Winter not only reveals character, but provides a rationale for his own art: his characters are anything but "monumental"; his Rockwell Kent is certainly not a "god". One of the most interesting exchanges in the novel occurs between Kent and Bartlett, just before Bartlett's death, and concerns the writing of memoir and the difference between the "public story" that is polished and packaged for public consumption and the "real, deep-down personal, gut-truth story" that rarely reaches an audience. Readers will have the impression that this novel is Winter's attempt to tell the latter kind of story, to reach beneath the veneer which preserves our past and to pull out the guts of Rockwell Kent's experiences, desires, and regrets.
Readers who prefer to be led along on a constantly moving wave of plot may be frustrated by The Big Why. Here, Winter takes a decidedly different approach than that favoured by his American counterparts such as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, who celebrate plot-driven fiction and who, in novels such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Fortress of Solitude, joyfully graft that most unbelievable of narratives, the superhero plot, onto the urban American past. While such writers glory in the mythologizing effects of memory and narrative, Winter is notable for his unapologetic refusal to construct an artificial overlay of plot. The Big Why contains no heroes and no villains, no monumental obstacles and heroic surmounting of them. His characters drift, his dialogue meanders, and while events do occur, the novel is driven by character, motivation, and ideas, and not by plot. The question, as Bob Bartlett offers to Kent many years later, is not what happened, who loved him, or whom he loved, but, rather, "did you get to be who you are. And if not, then why. That my friend, is the big why." This novel may not answer that question, but it is valuable for at least raising it.
With The Big Why, Winter has written a historical novel that will appeal, not only to those fans of period details and past lives, but also to those whose sensibilities lean more toward the contemporary. In this powerful, lust-filled, earthy novel, Winter fulfills all four artistic criteria identified by his fictional Rockwell Kent: "Art, I said, should be three things: full of sex, in a surrounding different from your own, and imbued with an unexpected intelligence. And there should be something unscripted in it." Gabriel English would approve.

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