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From Dunking to Plunging
by Gideon Forman

The engaging thing about this novel of teacher-pupil romance is not the main event, the love story-which is largely standard and familiar-but the background and peripheral stuff.

A good deal of the book is set in Mexico but it's not the sex in "dense and tropical" air that grabs you; it's the suggestion in passing of local brutality, the fourteen-year-old girl who carries a "tiny gray coffin wrapped in plastic, no more than a foot and a half long."

The forty-five-year-old Otto Guest meets the nineteen-year-old Simone Paris when he takes up an assignment as art teacher in her small town of Rupert. Although initially cool to her work, he is soon drawn to her, and their relationship rapidly grows sexual. Simone is attracted by the older man's worldliness and by what she considers his intriguing intellect and fresh vision. She also sees him as a conduit to the universe beyond her cabin home and life of safety. "Not for you the constricted world of my parents," she thinks to herself. Over her father's protest, the pair set off in Otto's truck to Mexico, there to rent apartment space and pursue their art. Problems emerge: to his partner's dismay, Otto proposes they spend time apart; Simone imagines her lover having sex with another woman; the pair have a near-death experience as an oncoming bus almost sends Otto's truck over a cliff. Perhaps most troubling for her is the fact that he visited the town they're staying in, San Patricio, sixteen years earlier with his wife, Carmen. Now follows the standard litany of jealousies, panic, and threatened break-ups. It sounds like anybody's unhappy, dysfunctional relationship-and it is.

We've all read, heard about, or lived through these sorts of ordeals. An old girlfriend of mine once fell for a guy like Otto and nearly sliced her wrists when he married another woman. These are the loving partnerships in which an ingenue shacks up with an pretentious, charismatic artist and becomes his little helper-neglecting her own work and living fearful of the master's fluctuating moods. All day Otto cloisters himself in his cathedral-like studio, while Simone (in much more modest premises) reads, prepares their lunch, and waits for him to finish up.

I suppose it's just tiresome to hear of yet another selfish male artist who finds commitment so terribly difficult. "You'll be incredible when you're older," Otto says to Simone at one point. "I envy the guy who hooks up with you in ten years." Far more engaging and surprising would be his embrace of freedom understood not as leaving whenever he felt like it, but of freedom understood as some of the philosophers know it: the capacity to act out of duty. Giving Simone the care that was due her would have proven more liberating, in a profound sense, than simply splitting when he needed space.

About two-thirds of the way through the novel, the power balance shifts somewhat. Simone asserts a greater independence, attending a party on her own, and failing, with little guilt, to meet Otto at the appointed hour afterwards. He had encouraged her to attend the gathering solo, but when she didn't show up as planned he panicked, revealing his own immense neediness.

Shortly after this episode, he leaves her in San Patricio and, her dread notwithstanding, heads off to Mexico City by himself. Ann Ireland sets up the scene powerfully, beginning the departure chapter with a flashback to Simone and her family viewing a solar eclipse from the roof of their cabin.

Initially Simone thinks she won't be able to function now that her "sun" has been blotted out-"How could I see?"-but in time discovers the separation is beneficial. She returns to her own drawing-"to some essential activity, natural as breathing"-and begins to develop a style with a realism that is at odds with Otto's abstraction. His massive influence and weight are beginning to lift.

Otto returns from Mexico City with Carmen (they'd been separated, not divorced) and his son Kip in tow. Otto's bond with his wife is still strong, leading Simone-anxious to feel connected with her man-to try to share his passion for Carmen. "When I see you hover behind her... I too am inhaling her scent, hypnotized by secret longing. I too want to dive into that hair with my face and cling to it...." This strategy of Simone's to see Carmen as someone whom Simone and Otto hold in common, rather than as a divisive force, is intriguing and deepens the novel's dissection of relationships.

But much of The Instructor's ending is predictable: the revelation of further infidelity on Otto's part, his terrible vulnerability and need for Carmen, his resort to Simone as a source of emotional support.

More exciting for me are things like the book's nod to Michael Ondaatje. It's not just that Ireland has a character called Kip-there's a person by that name in The English Patient, of course-or that Ondaatje is read by Simone along with Beckett and Pound during the couple's drive to Mexico. (The Booker Prize-winner does not seem out of place in this company; we're witnessing his passage into the twentieth-century canon.) It's also that Ireland has a woman fall off Toronto's Bloor Viaduct. The reference to Ondaatje is unmistakeable: In the Skin of a Lion has a nun fall off the same bridge. (Which bridge is becoming a landmark in Canadian literature.)

This leads to the recurring theme of falling and jumping that begins with Simone's dunking in the lake at age nine and includes her sighting of local boys hurling themselves from atop cliffs into water and Kip's drunken plunge during the Mexico trip. It is fascinating that these events are often accompanied by Simone imagining the participants' death and her explanation of the circumstances to family members afterwards. She casts herself throughout the novel as the last person to see dead people alive. After imagining Kip being thrown from a horse, Simone pictures Otto asking her to give details, "For I possessed his final minutes in this world, and over and over you would beg me to tell it again...."
But Simone does not portray herself simply as this powerful, controlling witness. She also imagines herself as saviour: the lifeguard set to raise a sinking boy. Which is not to say she actually saves anyone; she seems incapable of turning intention into deed. At one point I thought she might be something of a Holden Caulfield, the Salinger character who, though troubled himself, wants to protect others, wants to catch children before they fall off the edge of the rye field. But Simone's thinking is largely selfish: she wants to rescue the submerged Kip not primarily for the boy's sake, but to impress Otto and bring him back to her.

This is a book that sometimes stoops to cliché ("My heart was racing..."; "bone-chilling fear") and would occasionally benefit from more suggestion, less blurting ("I'm desperate"; "I won't let you go."). These points aside,The Instructor is graced with vivid description and sensual detail. "I lingered there, where the skin is so thin and soft, feeling the pulse and flicker of your eyeballs beneath," thinks Simone on first touching Otto's face. "I thought of newborn birds, their membranes thin and transparent." Around the edges of an ordinary story lie fearful undercurrents; we're impressed with how easily life can be snuffed out.

Gideon Forman is a Toronto writer.


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