Graeme Gibson’s first novel in more than a decade extends the frontiers of Canadian literature: if Gabriel García Márquez were to fictionalize Susanna Moodie, Perpetual Motion might be the result. Set in the 1860s and 1870s near the imaginary town of Mad River in southern Ontario, the book is a complex, poetic narrative about a pioneer’s obsession with constructing a perpetual motion machine. It is a fable about man’s struggle to subdue nature and shape her in the mechanical image of his rational mind. In
the process, body and spirit are separated and men are driven mad, leaving only ghosts to inhabit a wounded, avenging nature.
Wind and spirit whirl an endless dance through Perpetual Motion. While plowing his fields one day, Robert Fraser digs up the skeleton of a mastodon—as each bone surfaces a strange sigh is heard, as if nature were crying out at the removal of a tooth. Soon after, Robert and Mary’s first child, Angus, is born—complete with teeth and dark fur—during a storm. And in his initial attempts to power the perpetual motion machine, Fraser tries to harness the wind, while overhead the sky is con-
stantly filled with the rushing wings of passenger pigeons in flocks miles high.
On his way to Toronto to market his mastodon, Fraser encounters Yankees slaughtering pigeons by the thousands with their bare hands. Horrified at first, Fraser’s mind tacks sharply and he decides to go the Yanks one better, engineering his own massacre of an enormous roost to great financial gain. Hanging like a black cloud over this carnage is the reader’s knowledge that half a century later the species will be extinct. Slowly the seeds of Gibson’s imagery blossom, often quite blatantly, into resonant meaning. Fraser now has the money to build the brick house he had promised Mary at Angus’ birth, but the location he chooses forces him to cut down a massive tree which has become an extension of herself. With its felling, Mary begins to lose her mind; the pigeon slaughter has already driven Angus mad, and his eerie songs haunt the surrounding forest.
Perpetual Motion is epic in scope, a tall tale told by a grizzled savant, full of belly laughs and cruel, evocative detail. The grotesque set pieces—Eddie Shantz nailing his palm to the table with a knife and telling how his incestuous uncle’s privates were shorn—are brilliant. Perhaps inevitably, the intricacies of human relationships and individual psychology are oversimplified: the
characters are propelled by nameless fears through their private voids toward collisions, not meetings. There are other flaws too. Unholy marriages between publishers’ cost-cutting and writers’ militancy have left good editing out in the cold. It is deplorable that such fine writing should be marred by careless repetition, wordiness and pedantry—not even James Joyce could have gotten away with “banausic” (“dull,” “materialistic,” according to Webster’s) six times in fewer than 300 pages.
Like Fraser with his mastodon, Gibson has uncovered a buried skeleton— the bones of the Canadian psyche when it flourished in the sunshine of mechanistic Victorian optimism. Fraser is a tragic hero—psychotic perhaps, inhumanly repressed certainly, but one who does not succumb to a hostile nature or the traumatic memory of his suicidal father’s corpse dangling from a rope in the front hall. He is a landmark figure, and his aura is not circumscribed by time and place. Like Joyce’s Dublin and Hardy’s Wessex, Mad River can now be found on the map of the human imagination. -MARK CZARNECKI
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