FOUR YEARS AGO, when Gail AndersonDargatz and her husband were renting a farmhouse in Millet, Alta., ducks would regularly land on the chimney, fall into the flue and land unceremoniously in the basement. Such “stupid duck incidents,” she says, inspired her to use the birds as a comic foil in her most recent novel, A Rhinestone Button. With a dead duck dropping from the sky and a diapered duck waddling around a kitchen, the images Anderson-Dargatz creates border on slapstick. But, as with her best-selling previous novels—The Cure for Death by Lightning (nominated for a Giller in 1996) andA Recipe for Bees (also nominated, in 1998)—these artfully deployed lighter touches do not undermine the new book’s serious themes.
When the duck drops, it strikes Job Sunstrum on the head. Job is a single, churchgoing farmer with an unusually pretty face and an even more unusual sensory disorder, synesthesia. It leads him to perceive sounds as colours and shapes, creating a sense of euphoria which temporarily transports him from the mundane. But when his older brother, Jacob, an unemployed Baptist preacher, returns to the family farm with a shrewish wife and alienated adolescent, Job starts to lose touch with his mystical side, falling prey to guilt and anxiety.
Following his brother’s urging, Job flirts with evangelism, even speaking in tongues in the hope of regaining his sense of wonder. He also develops an appreciation for the awe-inspiring acts of nature around him, and it is this tension between earthly and religious paths to happiness that drives the resolution of the novel.
As with the ducks, Anderson-Dargatz’s exploration of the transcendental also draws upon events close to home. In 1994, doctors removed a large tumour from her husband’s
brain. In the years leading up to the grand mal seizure that precipitated the operation, and during the painstaking recovery that followed, Floyd was unable to filter out environmental stimuli. “Smelling and touching became overwhelming,” explains the 39year-old author. His skewed perceptions often filled him with “a powerfully emotional, profound sense of awe.”
Anderson-Dargatz became convinced that that the ability to sense something beyond the “real” world is “built into our flesh.” She believes that’s why humans created religion. Raised in the United Church near Salmon Arm, B.C., the author (now living on Vancouver Island) also flirted with evangelical Christianity in her late teens. She started questioning her faith at university, but kept her own sense of awe about the world. “It’s hard to talk about without sounding flaky. I’m from a farming family. We’re so grounded we can’t get our feet out of the muck.” Then she takes the plunge: “ I don’t have a belief in God now, but wow,
what a fascinating thing to be alive.”
In satirizing evangelism, Anderson-Dargatz walks a fine line. On the one hand, the passion and rigidity of the born-again make them easy targets. But she remembers how ardent she was during her brush with evangelism, and so imparts some dignity to her characters. While celebrity evangelist Jack Divine opens his Bountiful Harvest Church in a former Safeway with a sign in the parking lot reading “Miracles This Way,” his flock includes people with something more than religious fervour lighting their souls. Still, her criticism of the damage inflicted by a narrow world view ultimately prevails.
A year ago, Anderson-Dargatz gave birth to Graham, her first child; shortly after she put the finishing touches on A Rhinestone Button, then turned to a new novel. “When I was breastfeeding, I was constructing text in my mind,” she says. “Ideas would percolate up, like in the time before falling asleep. That fuzzy head-space—lactation brain, I call it—is the space I’m in when I write. It used to take me two hours to get there; now I just live in it.” Gail AndersonDargatz, it seems, is on intimate terms with transcendence. Hfl
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