Douglas Fetherling’s first novel opens with a warning: “This is not what happened. It’s only the story of what happened.” Slightly more than 200 pages later, the final sentence of the last chapter contains the word “exophthalmically.” Physically, The File on Arthur Moss is small and slim, but a breezy little page-turner it is not. Fetherling, who is a contributing editor at Saturday Night magazine and the author of Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties, has produced an edgy work of fiction that is by turns stunning and baffling.
THE FILE ON ARTHUR MOSS
By Douglas Fetherling (Lester, 210 pages, $22.95)
Arthur Moss is an introverted Canadian foreign correspondent and the son of a prominent Toronto financier. The book begins in 1970, when he is returning to Saigon for a second stint of covering the Vietnam War—hardly his idea of a dream assignment. It is not the incessant carnage or personal danger he dreads, but the necessity of spending time with Americans. He cringes at their table manners and “trailer-park dialects.” As well, he freely and contemptuously describes the United States as “a place where history has no consequences.”
Through a spooky U.S. government
flack, he meets the enigmatic Jemmie Ramboulin, a Canadian who is making a documentary film in Vietnam. A few years later, when Arthur has returned to Toronto and Jemmie has become a famous actress, they commence a skittish romance via correspondence. In the course of the story, which spans the 1970s and is told by several narrators, mounting evidence suggests that Big Brother resides south of the 49th parallel and is watching Arthur Moss.
This scenario is bound to strike some readers as paranoid: it is arguable that the usual American reaction to Canadians is not wariness but indifference. In other regards, the book veers between incisive, complex beauty and pretentious opacity. The U.S.-born Fetherling, who came to Canada in 1967, is a gifted phrasemaker who has succeeded in creating vivid characters. His novel is also a fascinating meditation on the elusiveness of truth. But often he seems to be trying too hard to dazzle with intellectual bravura: the concluding chapter is as accessible as VCR programming instructions written in a secret code. In one of her letters to Arthur, Jemmie observes that “a lot of books by men are just elaborate games or model kits, sometimes brilliant, often dreary.” She is a very perceptive character.
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