Ends of Days

  • Yann Martel (Author)
    Beatrice & Virgil. Knopf Canada
  • Douglas Coupland (Author)
    Player One: What Is to Become of Us. House of Anansi Press
  • Caroline Adderson (Author)
    The Sky is Falling. Thomas Allen & Sons Ltd.

The threat of nuclear annihilation exerts life-altering influence in Caroline Adderson’s coming-of-age novel, The Sky is Falling. In particular, naive Russian literature sophomore Lisa Zwierzchowski’s stroll past an accommodations board results in fateful cohabitation in a house of radical anti-nuke students. The impact is so profound that she’s still experiencing fallout two decades later.

Opening in 2004, The Sky is Falling introduces Lisa Norman, an affluent housewife and occasional copy editor with a troublesome maid—and anxious dreams about a terrible week in 1984 that are triggered by newspaper headlines about political activists newly released from prison, her former housemates.
Flashbacks to that formative time comprise the novel’s crux; and Adderson’s depiction of her protagonist’s transformation from unworldly wallflower to ambivalent participant in anti-nuclear actions is captivating. From the fraught household meals to Jane’s romanticism and her earnest donning of contradictory viewpoints and identities, the novel ably captures the volatile dynamics of personality evolution. The addition of comic elements—reminiscent of the ludicrous squabbling activists of Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle—is a welcome counterbalance to the build up of interpersonal (ideological and sexual) conflicts.
The shorter sections in 2004 are less satisfying. A privileged saved adult looking back at her ruined past, Jane’s not terribly sympathetic. Nor is she interesting: rich idle women complaining about the domestic help are a tough sell.
When Jane decides to visit Sonia, one of the activists who spent years in jail for a failed bomb plot in 1984, she journeys to the metastasizing suburbs—a decrepit area of boxy rundown rental apartments where the cars and their drivers are wrecks—and meets Sonia’s prison-forged girlfriend Brenda: Muscular, T-shirt so tight across her biceps the tattoo looked like it was being squeezed out. Half pit bull, half dyke. Retreating to her comforts while wondering if she would have ended up in Sonia’s living hell had she made a different choice decades ago, Jane’s gated-community smugness strips her of humanity.
Speculation about the end of the world has been a hallmark of Douglas Coupland’s fiction since 1991’s Generation X. His characters being speculative at that end have been likewise prominent. Featuring five introspective types experiencing a colossal global meltdown, Coupland’s Player One: What Is to Become of Us, the print version of his 2010 CBC Massey Lectures, encapsulates the author’s stylistic and thematic signatures.
The Novel in Five Hours begins in the manner of a creaky joke: Five people walk into a bar, and the bartender says to the priest . . .  Set in a cocktail lounge in the Toronto Airport Camelot Hotel—an achronogeneritropic space: a nowhere/everywhere/timeless place[], as defined in Future Legend, the novel’s glib Generation X-referencing final section—Player One quickly disgorges the troubles and ruminations of the lounge’s occupants; each of the novel’s five one-hour segments dedicates a chapter to scrutinizing an individual’s hand-wringing.
Between Hour One and Hour Five, alienated and adrift protagonists Rick (bartender), Luke (pastor), Karen (secretary), Rachel (rodent breeder) and Player One (disembodied and allusive, recalling a Greek chorus, Our Town’s Stage Manager, and Avatar’s avatars), interact and grow pensive as they drift between hopefulness and despair.
Action changes with panicked news anchor announcements of soaring oil prices (followed by the abrupt cessation of all broadcast signals minutes later as the world tumbles into crisis). As they tentatively band together, the characters remain fond of frequent mental pauses, echoing Margaret Atwood’s Crake as they draw conclusions—and drift between hopefulness and despair: I’m not even going to single out human beings as the Number One disaster on this planetš I’m going to single out our DNA as the criminal. Our DNA is a disaster . . . And this is what it gets us in the end. Bar mix. Blindness. Toxic snow. A dead energy grid. Phones that don’t work. We’re a joke.
In keeping with a so-so joke, Player One has sporadic effervescence with a fleeting shelf life. It’s fitfully intriguing but easily forgotten. As a work purporting to explore the crises of time, human identity, religion, macroeconomics and the afterlife, its willful lack of substance and its resolve to focus on ideas for just fractions of a page render it oddly redundant: these characters, these ideas, and this trademark style have been in wide circulation since 1991.
Like The Satanic Verses, it is difficult to read Beatrice & Virgil with no awareness of the slim book’s brief media saturation: prepublication hype for Yann Martel’s first novel following the Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi highlighted its extravagant advance and murmured of enduring conflicts between Martel and his publisher; soon after, attention turned to the many blistering reviews it received in North America and the U.K.
Lauded as the would-be genius publication of the spring season and, weeks later, widely decried as a pretentious . . . shoddy piece of work (as The Spectator claimed) or so dull, so misguided, so pretentious that only the prospect of those millions of Pi fans could secure the interest of major publishers and a multimillion-dollar advance (The Washington Post’s summation), the novel managed to become notorious for its reception rather than for its contents.
Sadly, that reviewer’s ire  had greater clarity than the novel. Progressively confusing, emotionally uninvolving, and seemingly incomplete as a meditation on the Holocaust, Beatrice & Virgil is a curiosity, an ambitious but baffling and failed experiment.
The novel’s beginning, autobiographical if told with fable-like simplicity, describes the life of Henry, an author whose second novel won him prizes and fame and whose unorthodox third book (the form: an essay and a novel conjoined; the subject: a new way to represent the Holocaust, the theory literally sewn to the practice) lands him in hot water with his bean-counting publisher.
Henry subsequently ceases to write and moves (wife in tow) to an unnamed storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves, and launches into a dilettante lifestyle—taking music and Spanish lessons, joining an amateur theatre group, working part-time in a fair-trade cocoa cooperative/cafe, and answering letters from ardent fans of his exquisite earlier novel, which had helped them pull through a crisis in their lives.
And then one winter day, a package arrives that pushes Henry’s life—and Beatrice & Virgil—into Bizarro World. The package contains a copy of Gustave Flaubert’s 1877 fable, The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator, which the novel replicates over twelve pages of paraphrases and odd excerpts (e.g. . . . lake . . . beaver . . . his arrow killed it . . . ); there’s also a violent two-act play titled A 20th-Century Shirt, starring two animal protagonists, Virgil and Beatrice.
Martel dedicates fifty-nine pages to reproducing parts of this lengthy unfinished play, written by an elderly taxidermist (named Henry) who has apparently memorized reams of Samuel Beckett and is obsessed with allegorizing the Holocaust. Once the Henrys begin interacting in person, antagonism culminating in a Grand Guignol finale is a matter of course.
In the hospital afterwards, Henry (the best-selling author) begins to write again. With such an ending, Martel ends up emphasizing the overcoming of writer’s block. As for the lofty ambitions relating to Art and the Holocaust, they’re subsumed by a perplexing tale with little sense of purpose.

This review “Ends of Days” originally appeared in Prison Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 208 (Spring 2011): 126-128.

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