The Heavy Bear. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.
It is tempting to approach Tim Bowling’s fifth novel as a semi-autobiographical male mid-life-crisis narrative, complete with a sprightly, quirky, and much younger potential muse. However, that would be to overlook the way it works as a sort of thought experiment concerning the creative process, a meditation on various forms of literary culture and their engagement with mortality and hope, and a loose collection of precisely observed, often moving prose poems of acute observation. Of course, thought experiments make me think of D. H. Lawrence, who gives this novel its epigraph, which is taken from Sea and Sardinia: “Who would be a father?” Yet that epigraph evokes another modernist figure, James Joyce, and his conclusion to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead”—which sets up one of the preoccupations of Ulysses: the father figure and the burden of the past.
Like Ulysses (though also unlike Ulysses), Bowling’s tale takes the reader, through its protagonist’s perspective, on a daylong adventure that begins rather like A Christmas Carol (despite its summer setting), following a ghost through the window. But Tim Bowling (who shares his name with the author) pursues his adventure in Edmonton, where he works as a college writing instructor, accompanied variously by Buster Keaton (whose silent films have had an enormous impact on his own conception of art and artifice), a talking bear-like creature who is such a clear nod to Delmore Schwartz’s poem (“The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me,” which gives the novel its title) that Tim names him Delmore and the bear increasingly becomes Schwartz, and a young student named Chelsea.
Chelsea is interesting in that she is reminiscent of, but not—unlike the others—a manifestation of, a specific cultural figure. Tim compares her to Pippi Longstocking, the resourcefully independent, uneducated, rambunctious, good-hearted eternal child figure of Astrid Lindgren’s novels. Stieg Larsson claimed in a rare interview to have imagined Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium novels as a sort of grown-up Pippi. Chelsea seems not quite grown up, despite her resourcefulness, and in some ways functions more as someone who translates the contemporary world for Tim, who seems to be approaching fifty, living more and more in partly nostalgic appreciation of cultural products of the past, and is someone whose eccentricities take him outside his increasingly conventional habits. Chelsea also instigates much of the bizarre action of the narrative, much of which involves the theft of a valuable monkey and teeters between screwball caper comedy and (eventually) sudden, shocking violence, so that I found myself thinking of Jonathan Demme’s 1980s road movie Something Wild. Though Chelsea doesn’t continually reinvent herself as much as the worldlier Audrey/Lulu, and though the novel (mostly) evades the hornet’s nest of a possible romantic angle, her presence enables the novel’s conflation/confrontation of past and present, of creation and reception.
And in a way, that’s what The Heavy Bear is about: conflation and confrontation, the knife-edge between comedy and tragedy, and the writer’s use of perspective. Its adventure narrates the creative process, ultimately pulling perspective back from the imaginative instigations and cultural knowledge/baggage and raw materials Tim works with throughout his adventure, and suggesting they might yet be put to use, even as mundane “real life” resumes.