All Thought Up and Nowhere To Go
- Keith Oatley (Author)
Therefore Choose. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Thomas Trofimuk (Author)
Waiting for Columbus. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Greg Doran
Chekhov’s detractors often complain that nothing happens in his plays: people simply talk about what happens. The same comment can be made about Keith Oatley’s Therefore Choose and Thomas Trofimuk’s Waiting for Columbus. In both works, the authors explore large ideas, often to the detriment of other aspects of the work. This approach has produced novels that are more intellectual explorations than works of fiction. In the end, while both are interesting, neither is engaging enough to recommend.
In Therefore Choose, Oatley has chosen the cusp of the Second World War for the setting. The novel focuses on a trio of friends and how each of their lives changes with the outbreak of war. The main character, George, is a medical student at Cambridge, where he meets Werner, a student from Germany. While at school, their friendship grows, and leads to a shared trip to Germany. On that trip, Werner introduces George to Anna, and a new relationship begins. Through these relationships Oatley explores the consequences of George’s choice to return to England at the first stirrings of the Nazi movement. The bulk of the novel, from that point onward, follows George as he debates whether he was right or wrong to leave Anna in Germany, thereby severing their romance. Unfortunately, this focus takes away from several other elements in the work. For example, the characters, with the exception of George, are flatly drawn. The reader never learns why Werner joins the Nazis or what he did during the war. Also, Oatley introduces as George’s lover Bernadette, a former classmate of George’s at medical school into the novel; she voices a feminist perspective on the social situation in Britain at the time. It is unfortunate that Oatley chose to focus on the idea of choice, which is frequently mentioned throughout the novel, for George is an interesting character set in a less-than-engaging novel.
Where Oatley’s approach leads to flat characters, Trofimuk’s intellectual approach leads to a novel without a focused plot. Trofimuk’s work begins well, with the introduction of Columbus, a contemporary man who believes himself to be Christopher Columbus. In the mental institution where he is a resident, Columbus tells his story to Consuela, his nurse. Through the stories, Trofimuk introduces the central idea to be explored: the construction of identity. Similar to Oatley, Trofimuk uses the past as part of his setting, but he brings it to the present by littering it with anachronistic elements, such as Columbus using the telephone prior to its invention. In spite of these jarring moments, Columbus’ stories are the most interesting parts of the novel, as he explains the lengths he went to organize the trip that would lead him to the “new world.” In the telling of these stories, the novel’s strength resides: in its two central characters. Both Columbus and Consuela are fully rounded, and their relationship helps both of them reclaim lost identities. Unfortunately, Trofimuk also includes a series of superfluous nurses and doctors at the institute, as well as a completely unnecessary subplot about an Interpol agent who is overcoming his demons to track down the man who claims to be Columbus. As a result, the novel’s plot is diluted and unfocused, so it takes too long to reach its conclusion, which arrives in a contrived fashion. Unable to sustain all of the plot threads, the novel sheds most of them to concentrate on the truth of Columbus’s identity. As well, the novel’s coda feels tacked on and adds nothing to a reader’s understanding of Columbus. In the end, the strength of the two central characters is not enough to overcome the deficiencies in the structure of the plot.
Recently, in a CBC radio interview, Camilla Gibb described a discarded novel of hers as having too much head and not enough heart. Her comment sums up Oatley’s and Trofimuk’s novels well. In the end, it is hard to recommend either book, for both sacrifice too many elements of fiction to be labelled successful. If you are looking for interesting intellectual explorations, then the novels will satisfy. If not, you will wish that the authors had paid more attention to the elements of fiction. In the end, neither work is a fully realized work of fiction.
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MLA: Doran, Greg . All Thought Up and Nowhere To Go. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #208 (Spring 2011), Prison Writing. (pg. 184 - 185)
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