An Epistolary Tandem
- Richard Wright (Author)
Clara Callan. Harper Flamingo (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Marta Dvorak
Following Ondaatje’s feat to become the second author to win both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction in the same year, Richard B. Wright has been a cult figure in certain circles since the early 1970s when he published his first novel The Weekend Man. His ninth book, Clara Callan, blending the modes of the journal and the epistolary novel, has generated appeal with its portrayal of early twentieth-century small town life. Rather like Bonnie Burnard in A Good House, Wright sets out to construct the chronicle of a society through the family history of two sisters—the elder, Clara, remaining a schoolteacher in small town Ontario, the younger, Nora, moving to New York to become an actress in a popular radio serial. Organised in sections headed by year reminiscent of Burnard and Shields, the author concentrates on the decade of the thirties, and leaps ahead to the end of the twentieth century only in the afterword. The choice of decade and the Canada/ USA epistolary tandem allow Wright to trace the landmarks of North American social evolution against the backdrop of a larger international stage. Geopolitical events from the Depression to the ascendance of Hitler and Mussolini are blended with local events or the advent of new technologies. Certain writers can weave fictional events into such a historical backdrop effortlessly, but with Wright the effect is contrived yet obvious. The afterword with its fast forward into the future (the readerly present) ostensibly to provide a veneer of veracity, with its casual mentions of McCarthyism, the Vietnam War and so forth, adds no depth or texture, and ends on a pat twist which caters to the tenor of the times.
The novel relies on the stereotype, both social—practically all the protagonists are stock characters—and linguistic. Clichés abound, and the narrative patterns are simplistic and predictable. The motifs structuring the novel are quickly identifiable, and just as quickly become mechanical. They include Clara’s struggle to keep the old-fashioned coal furnace going, her attempts to write poetry, her sudden loss of faith, the obsession with the man who raped her, and the heavyhanded parallel made between the "real" lives of the two sisters and the (inverted) fictional lives of the sisters in "A House on Chestnut Street," the radio serial that Nora stars in. Nora’s radio commercials interweave with Clara’s struggles to write, thus foregrounding the Americanization of Nora, and an axiologi-cal gap that, as in a crude fable, goes beyond the individual protagonists and synecdochically evokes the Canada/ USA dichotomy. Clara buys Keats’s letters, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and Heine’s poetry, while Nora buys the novel all New York is reading: Gone with the Wind.
The collusion of different sub-genres is clumsy, the different forms of life-writing overlapping redundantly: Clara inexplicably retells in letters what she has already recounted in her diary, offering no new angle of vision or fresh representation to speak of. The simulated diary style is awkward and spurious: Wright mixes stilted compound sentences containing multiple verb phrases with attempts at the slapdash sentence fragments we write when the text is for our own eyes only, as if eliding the first-person subject in a sentence that is nonetheless properly punctuated and capitalized suffices to produce an effect of improvisatory orality. The desired oral register is rarely attained by a language that remains wooden—from precious questions ("what is transpiring these days in that metropolitan life of yours?") and stilted confidences ("So in my heart I fear there will be war with them one day") to the mechanical use of the rhetorical question and exclamation ("What pleasure we took in each other! Don’t you agree? Please tell me that you were as happy as I was in that cabin last Saturday?") Happily, Wright does make one voice ring true—that of Evelyn, the cynical script-writer churning out her hackneyed stories. Certain meditative passages are remarkably fine: a schoolteacher’s confrontation of the medieval and the modern mind through two quotations from Dante and Pascal, for instance, strikingly calls attention to the power of vision as well as to the ephemerality of our world view. Thankfully, we readers encounter now and again contemplative phrases of an arresting beauty: along with the protagonist travelling over the depths of the sea, we are allowed to glimpse beneath the surface "the abyss that awaits the careless or unfortunate."
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MLA: Dvorak, Marta. An Epistolary Tandem. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 193 - 194)
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