White Gloves of the Doorman Works of Leon Rooke

by Branko Gorjup
ISBN: 1550966111

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A Review of: Edited by Branko Gorjup
by Michael Harris

Leon Rooke's body of work, six novels and seventeen story collections, undergoes cross-examination in Branko Gorjup's fastidious and idiosyncratic retrospective, White Gloves of the Doorman. Rooke's oeuvre, which many have found impossible to describe, is finely (finally) mapped. Along with the broader how-does-it-work type of questions, Gorjup asks what has weighed down Rooke's advancement into Can Lit's hall of fame. White Gloves poses the question and remedy in one-here is a volume of sincere, recuperative criticism.
Twenty-seven Rooke-lovers in all-novelists, poets, academics-are culled by Gorjup, who seems determined to appraise Rooke as though he were a many-sided sculpture; he walks us all the way around. Not surprisingly, the novelists and poets who appear in White Gloves present far more pleasurable (and not less intelligent) vantage points than their academic cohorts. Russell Banks, M.A.C. Farrant and Anne Michaels all seduce. Perhaps it takes an artist to properly love an artist-and White Gloves is an act of love.
We are led around this Leon Rooke, examining him through interview, review, scholarly critique, and gushing personal reminiscence. It's an eerie experience, wading through 400 pages on a man so known for his own voice: how bizarre now to hear others talking back.
Some entries read more like enraptured echoes of that mighty bellow Rooke calls a reading: "Hearing Leon Rooke readis to think of what it must have been like to hear Dickens mesmerize his audience with his recitations of the death of Paul Dombey," relates Janice Kulyk Keefer in her contribution.
"He's a preacher-tornadoIn his fiction he peels back the smooth skin of social convention, lets the wild darkness scream out, then closes up the wound." Yikes. So goes Anne Michaels' essay, "The Incomparable Experience of Hearing Leon Rooke". And, since Gorjup knows the meaning of incomparable, he helpfully includes a 60 minute DVD, Tongue and Groove, which allows the reader to see for himself what all the fuss is about. On screen, Rooke howls. He gulps and cries, and shakes his eyes. Well, Anne Michaels has something of a knack for word choice, and incomparable is the word.
Still, critics will try to have their say. But their efforts are thwarted mainly by two problems. The first is that blasted "incomparable voice" itself-whether in an oral form (as on the companion DVD) or simply as the authorial "voice"; Rooke's stories beg to be read aloud. We taste the immediacy of tongue and teeth as we read them. How does Rooke do it?
The second problem, in some ways the reverse of the first, involves Rooke's narrators-the vocalisers of those frightening, passion-stirred voices. Over and again in White Gloves, writers come back to the intimate (and not a little creepy) contract between Rooke's narrators and his readers. What do they want from us?
Perhaps, "The narrator is as unsure of where he is going as we are," grins Russell Banks in his Foreword to "The Fall of Gravity" (reproduced in White Gloves) and wants our help. This is not to call Rooke a meanderer. No master of the short story could work without a gift for economy. Rather, his narrators wander as we all do-oblivious to the greater story-but that greater story remains omniscient and precise.
The finest example of a wandering narrator appears in Rooke's short story, "The Woman's Guide to Home Companionship", in which, having freshly murdered their husbands, two women decide to write their experience down. The narrator here is once removed-she dictates to her friend/accomplice, Mrs. Vee Beaverdeck. And the pair are constantly derailed from recording what one gathers would be a rather gripping account (double homicide) by far more pedestrian matters.

Mrs. Vee announces she has a cute birthmark the size of a dime on her left inner thigh next to what she calls her "chief asset."

As for yours truly I do not have any marks or disfigurations over the whole of my flesh save those administered in recent times by my objectionable husband.

Tragedy bleeds into the everyday, irrevocably staining it. Again, in Rooke's "The Heart Must from Its Breaking", the blood of a martyred mother stains the side of her house and rises through any paint that is layered on top. The story's multiple narrators cannot make sense of this phenomenon-Rooke hardly ever grants omniscience to his players. What would be the fun in that, he seems to shrug.
But these narrators beckon; they curl their fingers at us, in invitation to side with them, rather than Rooke. Thus, the master makes us at once insiders-pained, lost, involved-and outsiders, reading in an armchair, burdened with too much knowledge. In her essay, Keefer worries whether "The Heart" is a narrative like "an onion peeling away to nothingness where we might have expected a kernel." If it really does peel away to nothing, then we have been seduced by the narrator-made unknowing, like them. If "the imperishable bloodstreak marring the fresh white paint" is the kernel we seek, then we are saved-we maintain our status as clever readers. A dangerous game.
The short fiction of Leon Rooke, akin to Virginia Woolf's stories, is fueled more by the rhythms of language than the mundane requirements of narrative. Voice, argues White Gloves, lords it over all else. But whose voice?
In an essay for Brick, published back in 1988, Rooke declared, "Fiction is for the unknown, the unadmitted, the strangers ever at humanity's door, it is about the dead who could not speak for themselves, and the living who have not the opportunity"
In Simone Vauthier's close reading of "The Birth Control King of the Upper Volta", she notes that, while the bumbling Adlai may be the story's over-eager narrator, the real crucial voice belongs to Hedgepolt, the landlady's mute and handicapped son. Rooke bestows the gift of speech on Hedgepolt like a miracle, a firework, near the story's end: "Dad-dee,' he said again. And his arm flopped towards me. Then with more grace than I could believe he swung it around to point at Mergentoire. Mam-mee!'"
Hedgepolt's "cure"-which seems to come from nowhere-heralds what Vauthier calls a change in the narrator's weltanschauung. The power of voice, literally in "The Birth Control King", changes who we are. Think of E.M. Forster's oft-cited admission: "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" Rooke's characters are what they say.
Unfortunately, a favourite voice of Rooke's is given short shrift in this collection-that being the precocious, dark, delicious, voice of "The World's Foremost Authority on Heidegger." What's not to love in a Matilda-esque little girl who complains to her parents, "I can get no purchase on my self. I feel the affliction of a lifetime living with you, and this bears down upon my fat shoulders like a curse." This lover of Heidegger has evolved beyond nicety-she tells it like it is, her child-mind on grander stuff. "Truly," she says to dear-old Mom, "You're such a pill." It would have been a treat if an essay had been devoted to this particular black hole. (Making up for the story's absence in the text itself, an abridged reading does appear on the attached DVD.)
Whether it's via Heidegger, Sartre, or his own manic philosophy, Rooke moves us toward the broadest questions-on being, time, nothingness. In Danile Pitavy-Souques's contribution, "Fabric of Dreams", she grow anxious at Rooke's broadness: "What is a life?" she finally flings out. "What is a human being?" As space-time hurriedly unravels beneath her feet, Rooke (a voice in the firmament) cackles somewhere, look here.' But how do simple stories of children and small-town mysteries call up or answer a philosophical crisis? Even as we flail with "What is a life," a review of the path this Rooke has flown points to reassurances in the daily, the pedestrian.
Rooke maintains a humane respect for those pedestrians, even as he pits them against nasty existential dilemmas. And his respect, oddly enough, allows him to take liberties that other writers shy away from. In his interview with Gorjup (included along with another by Karen Mulhallen) Rooke speaks of the "false guardians" that keep some writers from trying on new or foreign voices. False guardians that Rooke himself prefers to ignore: "Surely there are times when venturing into a culture not one's own is an honourable pursuit, and appropriation' is the last word that should apply." Rooke has made a living trying on voices he's meant to leave alone. "It is a matter of believing one is keeping the faith," he continues when Gorjup prods for more, of "being faithful to the culture entered."
Rooke is speaking there of a novella in progress, set in Glasgow, a city he has never visited. But, then again, Rooke is notorious for what Gorjup calls "theatrical sets". They are "serviceable, convertible and provisional." Are these voices without geography, then? Rooke counters, "Those characters in Beckett's plays, buried up to their necks in sand, where are they? Up to their necks." It could be that Rooke worships voice to such a degree that all else-all these scrims and sets-burn off, collapse, leaving us with the purest act of ventriloquism.
But the thrill of Rooke's ventriloquism sometimes gets lost in the theoretical pyrotechnics of these essays, making it difficult to say what audience will cleave to White Gloves of the Doorman. If Gorjup's hunch is correct and Leon Rooke is about to mount the highest echelons of Castle Can Lit, then this will become an invaluable reference for students and professors. If not, then White Gloves might only enjoy a limited readership.
For those who do take up this rewarding work, however, a fresh vision of Rooke's narrators (and the man himself) awaits. His protagonists may be pedestrian but they are also unlikely and injected with a single element-insight (unconscious, magical insight)-that pumps up each one into a kind of unaware poet-truth-teller. And Gorjup's book will help us to listen.
How miraculous-and reassuring-it is to find the everyday Doorman might wear the startling White Gloves of a magician.

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