Ordure and Ornament
- Lynn Coady (Author)
Saints of Big Harbour. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Thomas Wharton (Author)
Salamander. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Allan Hepburn
Saints of Big Harbour and Salamander define two poles of contemporary Canadian fiction. Coady writes about teenagers in smalltown Nova Scotia in 1982-83. Her characters speak a raw, colloquial English. They are small-minded, brawling, sentimental, banal, alcoholic. They live by rumour and manipulation. In stark contrast, Thomas Wharton uses a textured, ornamental language to describe wondrous experiences in the eighteenth century. His characters travel the globe. They are secretive, robotic, complex, piratical, long-suffering, amphibious. They live by ideas and ideals. Coady’s writing dwells on disjection and excrement. Shit signifies the messes in which her characters live their tawdry lives. All boys are "shit-disturbers." Hugh Gillis’s parents give him "apocalyptic shit" for being charged with assault. Guy Boucher calls philosophical inquiry an "unending ocean of bullshit." Hugh tenders the opinion that "getting the shit kicked out of you together" bonds you with friends for the rest of your life. "Did Jesus pool" wonders Corinne during a religious phase of her childhood. Everything, including language, relates to faeces: "a fat red mail box" swallows down letters in Nova Scotia "and shit[s] them out in America."
But, shit is only one of the excreta that fascinate Coady’s characters. They bleed; they puke; they fart; they piss; they cry. Corinne Fortune, a prevaricating teenager, feels a "surge of mucus" in her throat while talking about men who allegedly stalk her. Alison Mason vomits into an orange salad bowl. While laid up with a bad back, Isadore pees into a jug that he sets beside the teapot. Bodily filth sustains metaphors too. Corinne rubs her temples in order to massage a voice from her mind, "like a blackhead from a pore." For Isadore, talking about his experiences in Toronto was "like picking a sore until it bled." Storytelling resembles "picking an unripened scab."
Saints of Big Harbour belongs to a genre I call "addiction realism," which has antecedents in the naturalist fiction of Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris. In this bleak genre, characters commit acts of gratuitous violence. For this reason, in a Canadian context, addiction realism includes scenes at hockey rinks where men duke it out on the ice to the glee of howling spectators. Violence, we are given to understand, relieves the pressures of poverty and is therefore implicated in class oppression. In addiction realism, the idea of "family" is sentimentally adhered to, even when family members destroy property, steal, harm each other physically, or insult one another verbally. Isadore Aucoin pretends to help his family; in truth he bullies and belittles them. Characters thrive on hatred. Isadore hates television, trendy lighting at the bar, disco music, homosexuals, and himself. In addiction realism, events repeat themselves as patterns. From generation to generation, people inhabit family homes. They binge drink and detoxify in cycles. Characters believe their own lies; Corinne hallucinates male suitors into being. The community, abiding by tribal ideas of justice and belonging, colludes with her delusions. The locals believe that women are sluts or victims, whereas men are aggressors or deadbeats. Gender, like class, is fixed and categorical. Moreover, addiction realism takes place in small towns, which are supposed to be "decent, normal" places, but are in fact hives of vigilante justice and untruth. In this genre, someone invariably lives in a trailer. (In Saints of Big Harbour, Ronald might "retire to his trailer in the woods.") Characters define themselves in terms of catastrophe, whether falling sixty feet from a building as Isadore supposedly does, or getting beaten to a pulp as Guy Boucher is twice. Lastly, in addiction realism, which is unremittingly grim while pretending to be funny, characters drink. They drink until they toss and pass out. They drink to forget their bodies, which disgust them. When they are not drinking, they think about booze. In Saints of Big Harbour, teenagers drink outside school doors. Adult men sip from hip-flasks during hockey games. As a tavern owner says about the people in Big Harbour, "everybody has a drinking problem."
Coady’s characters are oblivious to what happens around them. On three separate occasions, Guy gets attacked from behind: by a hockey mom, by an irate brother, and by his uncle. Within the limited range of consciousness that her characters possess, Coady handles point of view deftly. Chapters narrated in the first person occupy the voice and swampy psychology of one character at a time. The diction of Saints of Big Harbour hardly rises above the monosyllabic. The plot resembles that of a television show about teenage angst. The historical moment at which the novel is set, 1982-83, supplies references to Rocky, AC/DC, Flowers for Algernon, Happy Days, and David Bowie. These references, all external to Nova Scotia, strangely demonstrate the imperviousness of provincial culture to foreign influences. Big Harbour remains a tiresome, small place.
Coady’s novel resembles Salamander in one regard only: both works deal with freaks. Whereas Coady’s characters use the term "freak" to describe their difference from others, Wharton’s characters participate in an eighteenth-century world of curiosities and wonders—freaks who have oddities of the body. After the death of his son Ludwig on the battlefield, Count Ostrov hires a metallurgist to create an automaton as a replacement. Ludwig lives on in porcelain, if not in spirit. Other characters in Salamander have robotic or freakish tendencies. Irena, who nearly dies during a childhood illness, wears a "corset of steel bands, hammered into a poised, properly feminine shape." A six-fingered servant named Djinn works as a compositor because of his dexterity. A story circulates about a tribe of men whose bodies have been tattooed with verse epics and ancient tales. In China, porcelain messengers roam remote roads to deliver emperors’ edicts.
Salamander meditates on the relation of stories to bodies, bodies to labour, and labour to art. Count Ostrov tries to eliminate all servants from his castle by creating machines that perform menial tasks. Consequently, the castle becomes a large gadget with moving parts. Objects and inhabitants exist in a web of relations defined mechanistically. By extension of this gadget mentality, the earth is a "clockwork toy," rilled with ingenious puzzles and surprises.
Like the castle, language itself has hidden workings. The word "salamander," for example, designates the animal that, according to myth, survives fire, yet the word also contains the letters "alam," which is both a Hebrew letter and a Sri Lankan word for father-in-law. Similarly, "Ostrov" means "island" in Czech, and Count Ostrov—like other characters in this novel—lives on an island. Such words are puzzles; each unfolds into a cabinet of curiosities. Words have materiality, even baroque bizarreness, yet they can also represent things that do not exist. They are ornamental yet vital to human intercourse.
Exquisitely written, Salamander takes cues from the stories of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. In his acknowledgments, Wharton thanks Borges for "the novel that he never wrote." Salamander concerns the nature of books and the process of reading, including the interpretation of never-written books. Ostrov commissions Nicholas Flood, ingenious craftsman and printer, to make an "infinite book." This pursuit motivates the plot and provokes speculation about material culture. Is a book a physical or a metaphysical object? Are books the result of technology or a form of technology? Are books sources of, or repositories for, wonder? Do books order or disorder consciousness? Do they tell us what we know or what we do not know? Does reading occur linearly or haphazardly? Abbé de Saint-Foix spends his childhood in a library scanning blank pages in books, believing that all reading is an interpolation into blankness. So it may be.
Wharton posits brain-teasing paradoxes about libraries, lists, puzzles, coincidence, automata, velocity, time, islands, and collections. A magical book, Salamander eschews dreary realism in favour of an aesthetic of enchantment.
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MLA: Hepburn, Allan. Ordure and Ornament. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 122 - 124)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.