A Celestial Hierarchy
Reviewed by Barbara Pell
Near Water, the twelfth and final novel of Hugh Hood’s epic series The NewAge/Le nouveau siècle (1975-2000), marks the end of the most ambitious and impressive literary project ever undertaken in Canada. While the first four volumes of this roman fleuve (indebted to Marcel Proust and Anthony Powell) garnered considerable critical interest and approval, the later books have received little attention. This monumental Christian allegory has always frustrated the critics because of its unfashionable narrative genre and its demanding theological allusions. Depending on one’s perspective, Near Water is the best—or the worst—of the series.
In this final novel, on a mid-summer day in the second decade of the twenty-first century (The New Age), the narrator of the entire "periplum," Matthew Goderich, dies in his early eighties of a "cerebrovascular accident" (a stroke: coincidentally and poignantly, the cause of Hood’s own death just one month before the publication of this volume). This Book of Revelation consists of Matt’s twenty-eight-hour stream-of-consciousness before death; it represents an extreme example of all of the idiosyncratic features of the previous eleven volumes. There is practically no plot; for 250 pages we are immersed in the theological meditations of a highly intelligent, pleasantly charming and decent, but oddly pedantic narrator. Hood clearly demonstrates here that he is not writing modern realism or postmodern metafiction any more than Homer, Dante or St. John of Patmos was— this is apocalyptic eschatology:
Novel turning into allegory from Homer to Dante, the greatest of endings, the essential arrival, SAFE AT HOME! [. . .] The deepest narrative of all with the supreme usefulness of high allegory. Safe at home in Eden, [. . .] the history of our salvation, peripluml
At the beginning of Near Water, Matthew Goderich ("God’s kingdom" from the Old English) returns to the family lakeside cottage (from Volume II, A New Athens) to await a reunion with his estranged wife Edie (who represents the lost Eden). After one-third of the novel, Matt has a stroke lying on a recliner by the shore; the rest of the book consists of his laborious attempts to fall out of the recliner and crawl across the ground and up the nine stairs to the porch where he dies in an old swing (completing the circle begun in Volume I, The Swing in the Garden, with symbolic allusions to the Fall and the Cross of Christ). Matt has spent his life as a near-celebrity: son of a Nobel Prize winner; husband of a popular painter; father of an astronaut; friend of a famous actor. His final reflections and memories embrace all the major characters of the series in a benediction of hope and love. But the majority of the book is an allegory of faith structured (with a couple of Hoodian revisions) according to the standard fifth-century textbook of mysticism, The Celestial Hierarchy by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. The nine chapters parallel the nine ascending orders of the angels that mediate between God and humanity: Angels, Archangels, Powers, Virtues, Principalities, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim. Matt’s passage from physical suffering to spiritual transcendence is marked by his progression through the "triad of triads" toward knowing God: philosophy, theology and narrative; discipline, reason and suffering; and finally, divine action, thought and love as he enters into the "Divine Presence."
If you haven’t read any of the The New Age novels, don’t start with this one. But do consider reading, or rereading, the first four. Then go on to the end, knowing that this series, finally complete, is one of the most significant—both unique and challenging—literary accomplishments in the Canadian canon. You may even find yourself caring that, at the end, Matthew Goderich has found his salvation.
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MLA: Pell, Barbara. A Celestial Hierarchy. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 157 - 158)
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