Fat, Fiction, Frogs
- Gary Barwin (Author)
Seeing Stars. Stoddart Kids (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Mario Girard (Author) and Susan Ouriou (Translator)
The Fat Princess. XYZ Éditeur / XYZ Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Roderick McGillis
The covers of these two books are instructive: Murray Kimber’s Magritte-inspired drawing for Seeing Stars invokes modernism in its surrealist form, whereas Barbara Klunder’s cover for The Fat Princess reminds us of a child’s art. Child art and surrealist art cohere in their free-floating images that work by a sort of visual incantation, an intertextual necessity that draws the reader into fiction that refuses to accept the definitions of genre, readership, or verisimilitude. These two novels are examples of cross-writing, that is, writing for both an adult and a young adult audi-ence. Seeing Stars appears under the Stoddart Kids imprint, clearly announcing itself as a book for young readers, and yet the cover-art, by an artist known for crossover work (e.g. Fern Hill 1997), suggests a dual audience. The Fat Princess appears with a cover that suggests a young readership and a title that asserts “A story for grown-ups.” Both books use, among other intertextual scaffolding, fairy tales. These are similar to books by J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman that appeal to both adults and children.
Gary Barwin’s Seeing Stars uses The Wizard of Oz as an intertext to accentuate the theme of home—its loss, dysfunction, and reclamation. The drift between reality and fantasy is also relevant, although in Seeing Stars, fantasy is more of a feeling than an aspect of form. In Seeing Stars, the story of a young girl’s cross-country flight constitutes the mystery that draws fifteen- year-old Alex Isaacson to discover the whereabouts of his long-lost father. The story is familiar to readers of Young Adult fiction—troubled teenager from dysfunctional family finds capable adult to guide him through the rite of passage to maturity and understanding. What distinguishes Barwin’s narrative from the run-of-the-mill fiction for young readers is precisely the feeling that Kimber captures in his cover art. The narrative works on coincidence, picking up the theme of divination from star-gazing. Alex’s mother, known as “Starbright, the star reader,” makes her living by reading the stars for those who call her on the Psychic Phone Network. Mrs. Isaacson also lives in bed. She took to her bed the day her husband left, some twelve years prior to the action of the story, and she stays there, growing fatter and fatter, until she can no longer get up or fit through the door in her bedroom.
Mrs. Isaacson, along with Alex’s wacky Uncle Barnard, the flier Chuck Ambersoll, the redoubtable and irascible Nicholas Copper, and a few others, constitute an eccentric cast of characters reminiscent of the characters who populate Brian Doyle’s novels for young readers. Not only are the characters similar to those in Doyle’s novels, but so too are the cunning and punning use of language and the impish chapter titles. As appealing as this writing is to an adult readership, the story remains that of a young boy’s coming of age. This novel crosses over from Young Adult to main- stream fiction, but only just.
For an adult reader, the more gratifying of these two books is Mario Girard’s The Fat Princess, a novel that reminds me of the intricately plotted and unusually voiced fiction of Laurent Chabin (e.g. Misère de chien, 2000). In Girard’s novel, the narrator is four-year-old Charlotte, daughter of two health-conscious modern parents. Charlotte has diabetes; she is also smart. As Aritha van Herk notes on the book’s back cover, Charlotte is psittaceous; she can repeat just about everything she hears without comprehending it. Her intense, intelligent, and concerned observations are unceasing, meandering, and witty. The slippage between the four-year-old narrator, the book’s ‘Author,’ and its ‘Correctrix’ makes for clever word-play and genuinely sharp ruminations on a variety of subjects ranging from Young Adult novels, to family relations, to sex, to death, to the publishing industry, to capitalism. The novel is a tour de force, and Susan Ouriou’s translation captures its serious playfulness gracefully.
Like Seeing Stars, The Fat Princess is resolutely rooted in the real world, but also manages to communicate the feeling of fantasy. Charlotte’s narration, as she freely admits, is not always trustworthy, and this incorporation of the imaginative with the actual means we can never be certain that what we read is what we are supposed to accept. The same is true of the narrator herself. When are we listening to a four- year-old and when are we listening to Mario Girard? Yes, we are always listening to Mario Girard, but then again we are never listening to Mario Girard. Girard’s achievement strikes me as genuinely original and provocative.
- Home and Away by Annette Kern-Stáhler
Books reviewed: Domesticity, Imperialism, and Emigration in the Victorian Noval by Diana C. Archibald, Passages: Welcome Home to Canada by Westwood Creative Artists, and Destination Canada: Immigration Debates and Issues by Peter S. Li
- Meeting Places in the Network by Hilary Turner
Books reviewed: The One with the News by Sandra Sabatini and Mona Lisa Smiled a Little by Rachel Wyatt
- Love and Work by Joann McCaig
Books reviewed: Larry's Party by Carol Shields
- Sexuality and Identity by Leslie Harlin
Books reviewed: The Euguelion by Louky Bersianik, Soundless Loves by Claire Dé, and A Provisional Life by Andre Major
- Interior Geographies by Deborah Torkko
Books reviewed: Beyond This Point by Holley Rubinsky
MLA: McGillis, Roderick. Fat, Fiction, Frogs. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 96 - 97)
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