Brett Josef Grubisic and Sharon Butala offer us protagonists facing old age and retirement in contrasting ways. Grubisic’s dark vision of the near future in Oldness has satirical and dystopian elements; Butala’s Zara’s Dead is a mystery about a forty-year-old murder, and it is also about a quest for self-knowledge.
The unidiomatic stiffness of the term “oldness” in Grubisic’s title gives an indication of what is to come: Marcus does not let readers or anyone else into his life easily. The language of Marcus’ story is thickly layered with polysyllabic, Latinate terms such as “coruscation,” “microaggression,” and “encomiastic,” normally better suited to the corporate university where Marcus teaches than to narrative fiction. That language is also Marcus’, and it reveals—or, more likely, conceals—who he is. Marcus is good at concealing things, particularly from himself. He has no inner life. No wonder he regards his looming retirement with dread.
He has spent his life teaching popular culture in what was once a Department of English but which has recently been reconstituted as “Integrated Humanities.” He is contemptuous of his students; he has dutifully published books, but seems indifferent to the demands and pleasures of scholarship. Never married and childless, he has one brother with whom his relationship is distant. He joins an Internet dating site to look for companionship, but the effort leads nowhere. The humanities have not enriched his life; instead, he resorts for guidance to an artificial-intelligence device. When he overhears his departmental enemy Judaea referring to him as “a fossil,” we assume she means he’s out of date (he might be better off if he were), but we may also recall that a fossil is once-living tissue that has turned to stone. That’s Marcus, all right—turned to stone. His future in retirement will be just as bleak as his fossilized present, and so, we assume, will the future of “Integrated Humanities,” the university, and society as a whole.
Butala’s novel takes her retirement-age protagonist, Fiona Lychenko, towards self-knowledge and renewed vitality, a direction which Marcus seems unable to take. Fiona, recently widowed and relocated from a Saskatchewan farm to a Calgary condominium, once wrote a book on the unsolved long-ago murder of her high-school friend Zara. In this regard, the story is based on one aspect of Butala’s own life; in 2008 she published a book, The Girl in Saskatoon, about the murder of her former classmate Alexandra Wiwcharuk in 1962 and her unsuccessful attempt to get to the bottom of it. Fiona, however, has some new evidence mysteriously thrust in her way and resolves to figure out what it means. In the process of the story, she does figure it out, and a lot of other things too. What she discovers is not only the identity of the murderer but also an alternative universe, an alarming, dangerous, corrupt reality that lies just under the ostensibly dull and innocuous surface of rural and small-city Saskatchewan life, a surface which is often mistaken, even by the people who live there, including Fiona herself, for the whole picture. In this regard, the novel has links with the Gothic tradition in fiction.
Fiona learns that the long failure to solve the case is the result of a network of powerful people acting to preserve their own privilege. She also unexpectedly finds out things about her late husband—that he knew things about the case which he never told her when she was doing the research for her book, that he had taken money to conceal what he knew, that he had had adulterous affairs of which she knew nothing. She also acknowledges that she had failed to face things she should have faced. This is the key movement of the book—a discovery, late in life, of something about herself. Having done these things, having penetrated to a previously unsuspected reality, Fiona finds she can affirm her own eagerness to live the rest of her life as fully as possible. Unlike Marcus, she will be no fossil in old age.