Finding Reality in Fiction

John Bemrose July 17 2000

Finding Reality in Fiction

John Bemrose July 17 2000

Finding Reality in Fiction


Summer Books


John Bemrose

Odd creatures, human beings. They make up stories, then talk about the characters in those

Stories as if they were real people. To many,

Emma Bovary’s death is as real as John F. Kennedy’s, and Raskolnikov’s murder of the old woman is as fresh as this evening’s news. Paradoxically, fiction tells us the truth about life, which helps to explain why so many novels and shortstory collections keep making their way into—and out of— bookstores each season. This spring and summer, a lot of big names have showed up for the literary parade. In Canada, Michael Ondaatje has launched Anil’s Ghost, while Carol Shields weighed in with a new book of stories, Dressing up for the Carnival. In the United States, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, E. L. Doctorow and Susan Sontag have all published new novels. And then, of course, there is the steady tide of literary fiction by less well-known writers. Plow is a book buyer to choose among them all? If you believed the boosterish prose printed on the covers of these books, you’d have to conclude they were all written by geniuses. But the sad fact is, some are as dull as a rainy day at the beach. Here is Maclean’s guide to some of the best literary fiction, so far, of 2000.

Among Canadian writers, Alistair MacLeod is something of a legend: a master craftsman who, at the age of 65, has published only one novel, No Great Mischief ( 1999), and a handful of short stories. Now, all those tales plus a couple of new ones are available in his much-anticipated collection, Island: The Collected Stories (McClelland & Stewart, 434 pages, $34.95). Most of the stories are rooted in Cape Breton Island, where MacLeod grew up, and all have an elemental spareness and dignity informed by the severe beauty of that place. MacLeod can be sentimental and ponderous, but he fully deserves his accolades in a story such as “The Tuning of Perfection,” about a defiant old man living on his ancestral farm. A profound and moving critique of modernity, the tale shows how humanity is abandoning the slow, deep waters of the heart for the sake of efficiency and profit.

Almost two generations younger than MacLeod, 29-yearold Lynn Coady also grew up in Cape Breton, and the characters in her new short-story collection, Play the Monster Blind: Stories (Doubleday, 228 pages, $29.95), have inherited the impoverished, fractured world MacLeod foreshadows. The

Vancouver-based author sometimes gets so caught up in the pleasures of her comically droll narrative voice that she scarcely penetrates the surface of her tales. But when she digs deeper, the results are impressive. In the fine story “Look, and Pass On,” a young man called Alan gives 18-year-old Bridget a ride from New Brunswick to Ontario. In portraying her strange (and very funny) indifference to his advances, Coady creates a memorable portrait of unassailable individuality.

A similar theme, with a darker twist, runs through Katherine Govier’s sixth novel, The Truth Teller (Random House, 403 pages, $34.95). It’s about an eccentric, elderly married couple who for decades have run a small Toronto school for wayward rich children. Conceited and idealistic to the point of absurdity, the pair are close to stereotypes, so their final upending by their truth-telling students feels less disturbing than it is obviously meant to be. Yet Govier has constructed an intelligent and entertaining social comedy that shows how vanity can have its roots in fear.

In her novel Afterimage (HarperFlamingo, 238 pages, $28), Helen Humphreys pumps new life into that rusty old fictional vehicle, the historical romance. The year is 1865, and Annie Phelan, a young Irishwoman orphaned by famine, has just found work as a servant in an English country house. Her mistress, Isabella, is a photographer (shades of Julia Margaret Cameron) who soon starts using Annie as a model. Humphreys’ depiction of Annie’s gradual selfawakening seems schematic at times, yet this novel is always capable of a radical liveliness, especially in the scene when the two women exchange a not-so-chaste kiss.

There’s radical liveliness aplenty in Matt Cohen’s posthu-

mous story collection, Getting Lucky (Knopf, 224 pages, $32.95). Cohen—who died last year at 57, shortly after winning the Governor General’s Award for his novel Elizabeth and After—begins one story with the sentence, “One day I found the word Dostoyevsky parked in my mind like a train in an empty station.” And it just gets better from there: a surreal parable about creativity in which Fyodor Dostoyevsky moves into the young narrator’s house and has an affair with his mother. Witty in the deepest sense, the best of these stories open unexpected secret passages between the funny bone and the heart.

Anita Rau Badami made a considerable splash with her first novel,

Tamarind Mem. Now the Vancouver writer is back with another family saga, The Hero’s Walk (Knopf, 359 pages, $29.95), set in a stiflingly hot seaside town in Badami’s native India. Reworking the central idea of George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Badami shows how an embittered old copywriter called Sripathi is slowly transformed by the arrival in his home of his orphaned granddaughter from Canada. Badami too often describes what she should dramatize. But she has a compelling affection for her characters, and a true artist’s eye for details that bring them alive: Sripathi’s passion for writing letters-to-theeditor wonderfully evokes a soul torn between self-righteousness and an instinct to seek the truth.

Among new American novels, perhaps the best is Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (Thomas Allen, 361 pages, $36.95). It’s about a New England classics professor, Coleman Silk, who is hounded into retirement by unjust accusations of racism. Roth has fashioned a compelling rhetoric

powered by anger and a bitter love, laying bare what his narrator calls “America’s most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony.” The story ventures as well into Gatsbylike territory where that quintessentially American pastime, reinvention of the '= self and the past, leads to betrayal and I violent death.

■s A comparable epic energy runs through

I Joyce Carol Oates’s massive Blonde I (HarperCollins, 738 pages, $41.50), the story of Norma Jeane Baker, aka Marilyn Monroe. Weaving fiction and fact, Oates miraculously recreates the soul of the young woman from California who somehow got lost in a Benzedrine-soaked nowhere land somewhere between her girlish self and the sex goddess she portrayed. In a similar vein, Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein (Viking, 233 pages, $34.99) also fixes on a reallife figure, American educator Alan Bloom. Bellow thinly disguises his old friend (who died in 1992 of complications from AIDS) as Abe Ravelstein, genius monologist, teacher and bon vivant. This entertaining novel is mostly brilliant, wideranging talk, but it’s less emotionally convincing than Bellow’s earlier books.

John Updike, at 68 still the most effortlessly fluent writer in America, has weighed in with Gertrude and Claudius (Knopf, 212 pages, $35), an account of the lives of Hamlet’s parents. It’s really just another of Updike’s suburban romances (“she felt the thrill of deception between her legs,” he writes of Hamlet’s faithless mother) decked out in historical garb. Though hardly a major contribution to his body of work, it amuses mightily. A more substantial offering is Banks in The Angel on the Roof: The Russell Banks Stories (Knopf, 506 pages, $34.95), a selection of 30 years’ worth of short fiction, including nine new stories. As a chronicler of working-class America, the author of the novels The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction knows no peers. There’s something about Banks’s roughedged yet uncannily intelligent narrative voice that makes you trust him utterly, whether he’s writing about a man massacring a bear in anger, or a father buying new skates for his son. In fact, as with the best of these authors, it is easy to forget that he’s writing fiction. ESI