Meaning in Excess
- Jason Anderson (Author)
Showbiz. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- B. Glen Rotchin (Author)
The Rent Collector. Véhicule Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Ronald Granofsky
What these two otherwise very different books by Canadian authors have in common is an interest in excessive meaning, but while one successfully ironizes that concern, the other is weakened by it. Glen Rotchin’s book portrays the world and mentality of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish rent collector and his obsessive search for and perception of divine meaning in all things. Jason Anderson, in a more entertaining if perhaps less profound fashion, delves into the murky world of conspiracy theory, where the paranoid frame of mind distorts significance into a predetermined meaning. Both books finally and inevitably conclude in indecision, although Anderson’s ironic distance from his meaning-seeking protagonist seems preferable to Rotchin’s tendency to inhabit his.
It is Anderson, in fact, who deals with the idea of one personality taking over another—a possible reference to the writing process itself—in a conscious and explicit manner. His character Jimmy Wynn is a thinly-disguised version of the real-life Vaughn Meader, whose meteoric career as a John F. Kennedy impersonator crashed and burned in Dallas in November 1963 (displaced by Anderson to New Orleans in August 1963). Wynn impersonates the President (here called Teddy Cannon) from the inside out, so to speak, intuitively understanding his every move and expression to the extent that he creates a void within himself that the President’s persona can inhabit. In the course of this relentlessly plot-driven and funny novel, there are so many instances of disguise, mistaken or secret identity, ambiguous motives, so many layers of conspiracy or putative conspiracy that by the end it is impossible to know who did what to whom and why. Even the possibility that Cannon himself took advantage of the cult of impersonation surrounding his image to avoid assassination by using a decoy is tantalizingly broached. Hot on the trail of Jimmy Wynn in time present is Nathan Grant, our protagonist and narrator, an enterprising if self-deprecating young Canadian journalist trying to break into the tough New York journalism market by interesting the Betsey, a journal devoted to Cannon fodder, in his story about the long-forgotten Wynn. As Grant moves ever closer to finding the elusive erstwhile impersonator, the plot enters the territory of Pynchonesque paranoia and develops a satire on the entertainment industry. Anderson even imaginatively resurrects Lenny Bruce, who famously brought down the house shortly after the Kennedy assassination by proclaiming “Is Vaughn Meader ever screwed!” or words to that effect. Just as Wynn once strove to enter the personality of his meal ticket in the heyday of the early 1960s, Grant must try to imagine the thinking of his quarry the better to track him down, while shadowy and menacing figures follow him in turn. We have, then, multiple levels of perspective, identity, and meaning, and it is a neat trick to pull this off as successfully as Anderson does.
The Rent Collector, by comparison, is intriguingly short on plot. Its detailing of Montreal’s garment district brings to mind Philip Roth’s evocation of the Newark glove trade in American Pastoral, while the structure it adopts somewhat resembles Primo Levi’s memoir The Periodic Table, where chapters are keyed on argon, hydrogen, zinc, and soon. Where the chemist Levi’s thoughts and details of his past life are fittingly concentrated through the focus of chemical elements, Rotchin’s structure is locative. The focus here is a Montreal address. 99 Chabanel is a building housing mostly garment businesses and owned by Sholem Stein, a Holocaust survivor and father of Gershon, the perceiving consciousness for most of the novel. Gershon Stein is a likable man who wants to do the right thing above all. Rotchin describes his marriage with Ruhama and his relationships with his father and brother as well as two crises in his life: his strong infatuation with Michelle Labelle, a mysterious woman who works in the building, and his father’s stroke.
As Gershon goes through his day-to-day chores, we get a picaresque view of the characters inhabiting the building, but the narrative is keyed on the building itself. Thus there are chapters titled “Electricity” and “Basement.” The device works reasonably well at times to suggest a universe in which all things are related because they emanate from one divine source, at least in the mind of a believer, but the connections can also seem forced. In the chapter “Plumbing,” for example, there is an implied correspondence among the building’s plumbing system, the human digestive system (one of Gershon’s children is being toilet trained and is frequently constipated), sexual withholding (Gershon’s obsession with Michelle leads him to ignore his wife in bed), crying, and watering plants.
But the larger significance is never clear except as a reflection of a way of thinking. At worst, the method descends to ponderous metaphorizing seemingly for its own sake. But the greatest weakness in the novel is its wobbly focalization. Gershon’s point of view (and occasionally that of other characters) is adopted through the liberal use of free indirect discourse, among other methods. However, problems arise when what are clearly supposed to be the thoughts of a highly religious businessman sound suspiciously like those of a secular writer preoccupied with words and concerned that his readers understand his meaning. This occurs mostly when Yiddish expressions or religious concepts are explained at times when we are supposedly following Gershon’s train of thought and he would have no reason to explain these things in his own mind. At times the protagonist comes across more as Gertrude than Gershon Stein; he is obsessed with words and their origins in a way that suggests the poet-author of the novel rather than the character in it. The novel is poetic and thoughtful, but its fictiveness is undermined at times by those very qualities, as metaphor implies a burden of meaning the text does not support and character gives way to an unconsciously intrusive narrator.
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- Last Worlds by Russell Morton Brown
Books reviewed: In the Place of Last Things by Michael Helm
- Making Associations by Jennifer Andrews
Books reviewed: Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King and Crazy Dave by Basil H. Johnston
- Into the Wild, Again by Suzanne James
Books reviewed: The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel by Drew Hayden Taylor, Borderline by Bonnie Rozanski, and Gemini Summers by Iain Lawrence
- A Book of Mornings by Marlene Goldman
Books reviewed: Taken by Daphne Marlatt
MLA: Granofsky, Ronald. Meaning in Excess. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 122 - 124)
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