Archive for June, 2013

KfC’s 2013 Project: The Studhorse Man, by Robert Kroetsch

June 30, 2013

Purchased online from The Edmonton Book Store

Purchased online from The Edmonton Book Store

When a section of a novel takes place not just in the city where you live, but right at your work site, how can you not read it?

Way back around 1970, that was how I first came to read The Studhorse Man. I was a Calgary Herald reporter covering Alberta provincial politics in Edmonton and became aware somehow (probably a review) that the Legislative Building where I had my office featured in the novel, published in 1969. Here is how author Robert Kroetsch begins that particular section:

He had been carried, under the kind lady’s supervision, into the museum. The provincial museum at that time was housed in the Legislative Building. Even today you can ride an elevator to the fifth floor and examine the room, though now it contains the centennial carillon console and a row of twelve chairs. Granted, the Misericordia Hosptial is only a few short blocks distant, but on that stormy night the streets were nearly impassable. The lady in question made a snap decision.

The “he” of that quote is an injured Hazard Lepage, the studhorse man of the novel’s title. And the “she” is P. Coburne or Cochrane or Cockburn (both Hazard and the biographer who is writing the book that tells his story are uncertain). P.’s specialty is making life-size wax figures of historically prominent Albertans for the museum; the two have sex in “an exact replica of the chief factor’s bedroom as it existed in the “Big House”, the main residence of the Hudson’s Bay post that gave the city its name.”

I walked past that area every working day on my way to the Leg Building cafeteria (as noted the museum had moved to its own building many years earlier) so I was naturally interested. But by the time I got to that section (the quote comes from page 34 of the novel) I was already hooked on Kroetsch’s book. As were others, it should be noted — The Studhorse Man won Canada’s 1969 Governor General’s award for fiction.

So let’s go back to the start and find out how the injured, but still sexually capable, Hazard Lepage happened to be carried into the provincial museum, with its “exact replica” bed.

As the book opens, the studhorse man, devoted to preserving the Lepage breed, needs to get hold of a mare:

He was a truly desperate man. Extinction or survival was quite simply to be the fate of the breed of horse he alone had preserved through six generations; thus, penniless as he was, and he had been reduced to living on porridge for nearly a month, he had hit on a scheme of somehow buying a mare. With commendable determination he found a neighbor who would sell his single remaining horse for twenty dollars — upon closing his fist on spot cash. “No money, no mare,” the unkind neighbor commented to clinch the deal, as if Hazard might not be financially reliable.

Fortunately, the war was in progress; the government was scouring Alberta for bones. BONES FOR WAR, the ads and posters read:

BRING IN YOUR BONES
WE PAY CASH

As it happens, Hazard from his travels with his stud “knew where to find every skeleton of a cow, every buffalo skull, even, it must be added, every carcass of a horse” and he has little trouble collecting $20 worth to sell to the corrupt Tad Proudfoot, source of the ad. The collection area is crowded with others on the same mission and Hazard’s “sale” does not go well when he upsets Proudfoot:

“Okay, okay,” Tad was shouting now, directing his forces, especially the men he had hired to load his mounds of bones into boxcars. “We’ve got to show this yellowbelly.” He waved his cane upright before his own stomach as he led his doughty band. “This pea-soup loafer. This hairy lunatic.” Tad was making the kind of irresponsible remark that absolutely infuriates me. “This maniac who peddles horse cock from farm to farm when nobody wants horses.”

If you haven’t figured it out yet, The Studhorse Man is a comic novel and it soon moves into high gear. The BONES FOR WAR site turns into a mob scene. Hazard manages to escape with Poseidon, his “blue” stallion, and scrambles aboard a nearby boxcar, part of a train he thinks is heading east. Alas, it is going west and when he wakes he finds himself in Edmonton.

Worse yet, he (and Poseidon) are in a slaughterhouse stockyard filled with horses. Lepage is up to the challenge:

It has been argued that to this day a few wild horses survive in the coulees and ravines of the North Saskatchewan River, there in the heart of the city of Edmonton. At any rate, nearly a thousand horses were in the stockpens the morning of Hazard’s arrival, all of them destined for the barrel, can or box, destined to feed the dogs and cats of this fat and ungrateful nation. How many had actually been shot and butchered by noon is undetermined; not more than forty, I would guess.

[Hazard turns the whole lot loose.]

It was four o’clock in the afternoon when the main herd of nearly eight hundred hit Jasper Avene at 101st Street [that is downtown Edmonton’s main intersection]; thousands of people were beginning to file into the streets, wondering how best to get home through the drifts piled up by the blizzard. The City Police and the RCMP now recognized the need for immediate action; they began by closing off all exits from the center of the city. And yet, while they managed to contain the horses, they had not the means by which to capture them. The mayor asked the army to move in; troops were camped on the Exhibition Grounds, they rolled down Jasper Avenue in troop carriers.

Escaping that mess is how Hazard ends up at the Legislative Building, only a few blocks from the central intersection. And that exaggerated, fantastic scene had an eerie air of reality to it on my recent reading — while I had scheduled the rereading of this novel more than six months ago, I ended up finally getting to it while “stranded” with Mrs. KfC in Lake Louise, with road closures resulting from the worst flood in a century preventing our return to Calgary. For the first time in the 50 years that I had lived in the city, tens of thousands were evacuated from their homes, the army was called in and troops were camped in the city. Okay, it was water, not horses, but even in Alberta this sort of thing does not happen that often.

All of the above takes place in the first 34 pages of a 204-page book. Hazard Lepage will move from one ludicrous scene to another as it progresses: taking shelter in a nunnery where there is a never-stopping rummy game in progress (he can’t lose a hand and the Superior won’t let him leave the game); getting shot in the butt at a coyote hunt (with an extended recovery scene of several weeks that still makes me laugh out loud); crossing a flooded river (the novel proved very, very topical, I must say) and a host more. It is not a spoiler to say Poseidon goes along with him, although the two are occasionally separated for varying periods.

The Studhorse Man is definitely a comic novel, but it is also much more. In another example of serendipitous timing, just this weekend Edmonton author Todd Babiuk had this to say in recommending it in a Globe and Mail Canada Day feature on books to read if you want to understand various areas of the country:

I once thought Alberta was too new to sustain fiction. This was, of course, stupid. Edmonton has been a centre for trade and ceremony for at least 8,000 years. I was living in Montreal when I discovered The Studhorse Man, a wild and lusty novel that creates an Edmonton and an Alberta of the imagination. The High Level Bridge, downtown taverns, urban forests, even the legislative building are places of mystery and sex and betrayal and heartbreak – as authentic as Saint Urbain Street.

And if you can find a copy of the University of Alberta Press version that I read (it is the one pictured at the top of this review and Indigo.ca says it can get copies within 3 to 5 weeks), you will find a 16-page introduction from Alberta author, academic and critic Aritha van Herk who was a student at U of A, just across the river from the Legislative Building, when the novel appeared (she notes it was the first novel she read in her first English course which was in Canadian literature). (When Hazard departs the Legislature Building, there is an hilarious scene involving Hazard, a truck driver and passing U of A co-eds at the south end of the High Level bridge, literally right below where van Herk’s residence was.) She opens her essay by casting the entire story as a metaphor for present-day Alberta:

These horses, imaginary or real, are the legacy of this wildly anarchic odyssey through Alberta. More than any other novel by Robert Kroetsch, The Studhorse Man explores the principles of restlessness and desire, movement madness so much part of Alberta’s DNA. Innocent contemporary readers may need the precise role of the studhorse man explained; in fact, he is the grandfather of all persistent car salesmen. This novel pretends to be about horses but, surrounded by automobiles, these horses symbolize the cusp between their vanishing world and the current world of thoughtless, gas-guzzling highway transportation, the life-blood of this province.

I’ve offered those quotes from Babiuk and van Herk because when I included it in this project I was uncertain how well this novel would age (or travel) when I read it this time around. Certainly, anyone who wants to understand Alberta and its roots will find it invaluable. And I think the quotes from those two authors illustrate that it would yield results for any reader interested in how “frontiers” (be they Canadian, American or Australian) began developing into the modern, resource-based economic power houses that they are today. For this reader, The Studhorse Man turned out to be one of those very rare novels that had even more to say on a reread forty years after I first read it than it did the first time around. Kroetsch was more prescient than even he might have imagined.

The Studhorse Man marks the halfway point in KfC’s 2013 project of rereading 12 Canadian novels that influenced me in my youth — and also the end of Phase One of the project. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I met or interviewed the authors of all six of the novels that I have read so far (you can find links to reviews in the right sidebar). Starting next month, we move into more traditional Canadian classics. First up will be Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. Ironically (or perhaps a reflection that I chose well), it too was featured in that Globe article on books to read if you want to understand Canada — author David Bergen (who won the Giller Prize for The Time In Between) says it is the novel that best captures Manitoba.

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NW, by Zadie Smith

June 14, 2013

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Let’s start by considering the “London” that author Zadie Smith has chosen to make the centre of this novel. I am a Canadian, but I have visited London many times and consider it my favorite metropolitan city. Having said that, I have never set foot in the “London” that is portrayed in this book — that confession is not a criticism (except of my own lack of curiosity) but rather a positive nod to the author’s goal.

Smith’s London is Willesden, up in the NW sector. In fact, to be even more specific, it is the area around the Caldwell council estate, one of those characterless, spiritless, multi-storey collections of structures (with elevators that don’t work) that show up fairly often in both British fiction and television (think Luther on that front) when creative spirits want to explore what is going on with the under-classes.

Smith’s interest is in both the addictive “power” of that world, but even more important the forces it exerts on the people who are born and grow up there — they live and are influenced by a set of rules and principles that are foreign to those of us who have never been there. The author offers a hint of these in a scene where a doorbell rings in a Caldwell flat and Leah, the first important character we meet, leaves her “garden” to respond (“The back door leads to a poky kitchen, tiled brightly in the taste of a previous tenant. The bell is not being rung. It is being held down.”):

Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries. She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence. She arranges her face to signify compassion. Shar closes her eyes, nods. She makes quick movements with her mouth, inaudible, speaking to herself. To Leah she says

— You’re so good.

Shar’s diaphragm rises and falls, slower now. The shuddering tears wind down.

— Thank you, yeah? You’re so good.

The scene will provide a delineation that extends through the novel. For those who live in the Caldwell Estate, the place is like a magnet that both repels and attracts — on the one hand, supplying a force that impels people to do all they can to escape it; on the other, exerting an even more powerful attraction to keep them there.

Leah’s “escape” notion comes in the form of her relationship with Michel, an Algerian-born hair stylist whose principal goal in life is to get out of the estate and into a “real” life of accomplishment somewhere else. Shar, the doorbell ringer, is a Caldwell-native druggie with a story about her Mom being taken to hospital — she needs cab fare to get her there and “takes” Leah for £30, a “loan” that will remain unpaid (and the source of a number of conflicts) as the novel unfolds.

Leah’s story is one of three that author Smith uses to define the “NW” world that supplies the title to her novel. A Caldwell Estate native, she can’t avoid the desire to escape that Michel represents — but neither can she deny the power of community that says she has to support people like Shar.

Felix is the second character who is used to define the neighborhood, by this time even more specific: NW6.

The man was naked, the woman dressed. It didn’t look right, but the woman had somewhere to go. He lay clowning in bed, holding her wrist. She tried to put a shoe on. Under their window they heard truck doors opening, boxes of produce heaved on to a tarmac. Felix sat up and looked to the car park below. He watched a man in an orange tabard, three stacked crates of apples in his arms, struggle through electric doors. Grace tapped the window with a long fake nail. ‘Babe — they can see you.’ Felix stretched. He made no effort to cover himself. ‘Some people shameless,’ noted Grace and squeezed round the bed to straighten the figurines on the windowsill.

If Grace is Felix’s motivation to get out of Willesden, his new trade as a “mechanic” is going to be his means — although it may be just the latest in a lengthy series of false starts. The author sketches Felix’s story in a couple of excellently-done set pieces that physically “bridge” NW London with Central London. Felix negotiates the purchase of a rundown MG Midget from a rich toff a few blocks away from Oxford Circus. And then he heads off for a goodbye visit with a semi-retired prostitute friend in Soho. Unfortunately, the set pieces are so well done (they are hilarious) they ended up making Felix less of a character, rather than more of one.

Of the three characters Smith uses to triangulate the Willesden world, the one that most impressed me was Natalie Blake (but I’ll admit that is probably a reflection of my own class bias). As Keisha Blake, she was Leah’s best friend during their early school years. The relationship split for a few years in their teens — Nat’s got a good brain to her, she did escape NW for college and ended up with a law degree. She successfully trained as a pupil in a corporate firm near the City, spent a couple years in “community” law, but is now back in the corporate world.

Still, Nat and her husband have chosen to live near Willesden and Leah and Michel are regular visitors for dinner — Leah is convinced they are there only to provide local color and evidence of Nat’s roots. From this reader’s perspective, Nat’s choice of residence powerfully illustrates the “magnetism” of Willesden and the Estate, even for those who have “gotten out”. Smith tells Nat’s story in an unfolding stream of 184 vignettes (she numbers them; I didn’t count them) and they are an excellent example of a superb fiction writer at her best.

In fact, the success of those vignettes might best illustrate the challenge that I had with NW. It received excellent reviews and has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while — simply because I had read a number of “London” books (most notably John Lanchester’s Capital and Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo) and needed a break. NW was shortlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize (it lost to A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven) and that brought it to the top of my pile.

As a final comment, I would note a couple of observations from book discussion forums about NW that were raised by readers when that judging was taking place: As much as they liked the novel when they read it, some months down the road those readers were having trouble recalling it. I suspect that will be my fate as well: I think NW is going to turn out to be one of those books that was much more impressive in the reading than it will be in the remembering. Certainly not a damnation of the book by any means, but a judgment that reflects its limitations.

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

June 3, 2013

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge is an angry, angry woman with a chip on her shoulder that is more log than chip:

It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher, daughter, friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.

Nora’s anger is so deeply ingrained that she manages to see any of life’s curves (the lingering death of her mother, her principal being somewhat remote) as yet another deliberate persecution that adds fuel to her rage. She is warped enough that she manages to abuse even the positive opportunities presented to her so that they become failures that prove the world really does have it in for her.

Alternately…

Nora Eldridge is a gentle, compassionate soul who throughout her life has consistently been dealt a series of bad hands:

That’s why I’m so angry really — not because of all the chores and all the making nice and all the duty of being a woman — or rather, of being me — because maybe these are the burdens of being human. Really I’m angry because I’ve tried so hard to get out of the hall of mirrors, this sham and pretend of the world, or of my world, on the East Coast of the United States of America in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

This version of Nora consistently tries to adapt to circumstances, to find hope and achievement that will turn her dismal life around. And every time she takes that risk, the cruel world finds a way to betray her trust and effort and make things even worse. “I know women like her” will be the response of many who find this version of Nora in the book.

It is to author Claire Messud’s credit that she not only introduces those two possible portraits of Nora in the opening pages of The Woman Upstairs (those quotes come from the first two pages), she maintains them as equally-balanced options throughout the novel — it is left to the reader to decide which Nora fits their own world view/prejudice. Here is the metaphor that she uses to frame both alternatives — note here as well that it is left to the reader to make a choice between “deserving” and “unfortunate” victim:

At the fair each summer when I was a kid, we visited the Fun House, with its creepy grinning plaster face, two stories high. You walked in through its mouth, between its giant teeth, along its hot-pink tongue. Just from that face, you should’ve known. It was supposed to be a lark, but it was terrifying. The floors buckled or they lurched from side to side, and the walls were crooked, and the rooms were painted to confuse perspective. Lights flashed, horns blared, in the narrow, vibrating hallways lined with fattening mirrors and elongating mirrors and inside-out upside-down mirrors. Sometimes the ceiling fell or the floor rose, or both happened at once and I thought I’d be squashed like a bug. The Fun House was scarier by far than the Haunted House, not least because I was supposed to enjoy it. But the doors marked EXIT led only to further crazy rooms. There was one route through the Fun House, relentless to the very end.

I’ve finally come to understand that life itself is the Fun House. All you want is the door marked EXIT, the escape to a place where Real Life will be; and you can never find it. No: let me correct that. In recent years, there was a door, there were doors, and I took them and I believed in them, and I believed for a stretch that I’d managed to get into Reality — and God, the bliss and terror of that, the intensity of that: it felt so different — until I suddenly realized I’d been stuck in the Fun House all along. I’d been tricked. The door marked EXIT hadn’t been an exit at all.

Some kids emerge from the Fun House laughing and simply move on to the next amusement. Some emerge terrified, the day ruined and wanting only to get out of the midway for good. It could be argued the same is true of life itself.

The Nora who narrates the novel is forty-two, looking back on a school term about five years back when those Real Life doors appeared to swing open. Those 10 months of life that were so different from the rest of her existence began when eight-year-old Reza Shamid walked into her grade three classroom: “He glows in my mind’s eye, eight years old and a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale.”

Reza is in Cambridge, MA for only a single year. His father, Skandar, is a Lebanese-born, renowned academic on a one-year fellowship. His mother, Sirena, is Italian, an established installation artist about to break through with global recognition for the project she will work on while in Cambridge. The Shamids live in Paris — they represent a cosmopolitanism that is the opposite of the restricted Massachusetts’ world where Nora has spent her entire life.

In high school, Nora aspired to be an artist (and showed talent) before opting (or being forced to opt?) for the much less risky (and less satisfying) world of teaching. She meets Sirena for the first time following a bullying incident involving Reza and suddenly Nora’s world begins to spin more quickly. In virtually no time, Nora and Sirena agree to co-rent a studio space: Nora has found a reason (and apparently a supporter) to return to her artistic ambitions.

It is worth a brief description of the projects that Sirena and Nora undertake because that too illustrates the kind of contrasting tensions that Messud establishes throughout the novel.

Sirena is at work on an installation that her Paris gallery has already booked, a life-size version of Alice in Wonderland built from modern materials (Astro-turf, slivers of mirrors, voluminous ballooning dresses for Alice). Sirena’s claim to fame is that she “extends” her installations by covertly filming people as they walk through and experience them — the resulting videos are screened both as complements to the installation and as free-standing exhibits in themselves. Some visitors, knowing this, come dressed up and ready to perform, eager to become players in part two of the project. Others have no idea that the filming is taking place.

By contrast, Nora’s project involves the detailed construction of four miniature dioramas (literally shoebox size): Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom, Virginia Woolf “putting rocks in her pockets and writing her final note”, Alice Neel’s white room in the asylum and Edie Sedgwick’s room in Warhol’s Factory. For the first time since her student life, she feels inspired. And for the first time, she feels that in Sirena she has a fellow traveler who will support her — although the nature of the two projects and their subjects certainly suggests widely diverging creative interests and inspirations.

We know from that opening Fun House metaphor that this will fall apart — and it does, not just with Sirena, but with her husband and Reza as well. The testimony to Messud’s skill is that it is left to the reader to determine (in his or her own mind) whether the angry version of Nora creates her own disaster or whether Nora is yet again a victim of manipulation and ill-will.

I’ll admit that a third of the way through the book, I was firmly in the camp of “Nora creates her own fate” and finding her to be a most unappealing character. I’ll also admit that it was about at this point another response started creeping into my mind: I was responding in a very male fashion and I could easily see how some of my female reading friends would have a much more sympathetic response to Nora again finding herself in the role of victim.

That self-criticism of my response did keep me going through the book but, in the final analysis, I would still say Nora is closer to version number one at the top of this review than number two. Having said that, I will not be surprised at all if and when conflicting views show up in comments. And I can predict with some confidence that over the next year a number of book clubs will be having exactly the same debate, argued with passion from both sides.

That ambiguity is the greatest strength of the novel — in my defence, I’d hope that even those who sympathize completely with Nora acknowledge she is responsible for at least some of her problems. Having said that, successfully creating that kind of ambiguity is a tribute to any novelist. Whatever I might think of Nora (and however I may have been frustrated, even angry, with her while reading the book), Messud deserves full credit for a work that will provoke such dramatically diverse responses.


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