Outline. HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Fire in the Unnameable Country. Penguin Random House Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
What makes a story? Is it the intricacy of the plot or the humanity of the characters, or the flair the writer employs with language to tell the tale? Is a narrative dependent on these to succeed? Is a story’s power based on a combination of these elements, or are they ultimately irrelevant? These are questions that Rachel Tusk and Ghalib Islam tackle in two highly dissimilar novels that both question the very nature of narrative.
“I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity,” says the unnamed narrator of Rachel Cusk’s clever, wry, strangely moving Outline, and she is true to her word. While others talk, she listens, saying little, and she seldom does anything. Students of creative writing are told never to use a passive protagonist; Cusk manages, however, to hold the reader’s attention by employing a narrator who seemingly exists only to draw others into conversation. This is a smart ploy on Cusk’s part in more ways than one: the narrator is visiting Athens to teach a writing course, and although it’s fairly late into the novel before we see her actually teach, her entire journey is one long act of creativity. Gradually, she reveals more about herself to us, often unwittingly. Outline is more than an outline; it is a complex tale of lost love and regret in the guise of a simple and simply told story.
The narrative begins on the plane with the narrator chatting to her neighbour, a much-married wealthy man eager to relate the failures and disappointments of his life, and the narrator is immediately ready to edit his tales. After telling her about his first and second marriages, she is unconvinced by the telling:
I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage. It had lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were often incorrect . . . The narrative invariably showed certain people—the narrator and his children—in a good light, while the wife was brought in only when it was required of her to damn herself further.
Everyone in Outline tells stories, and everyone draws conclusions from them. An old friend, Paniotis reminds her of their last meeting in London, at which he took a photo of her and her family, an act she found strange. “I remembered thinking it was an unusual thing to do, or at least a thing I would not have thought to do myself. It marked some difference between him and me, in that he was observing something while I, evidently, was entirely immersed in being it.” A fellow teacher, Ryan, left Ireland for a glittering academic career in America, while his brother left to join the US marines, a choice which leads to psychiatric hospital, and yet “their parents took no more pride in Ryan’s achievements than they accepted blame for Kevin’s collapse. . . . What Ryan had learned from this is that your failures keep returning to you, while your successes are something you always have to convince yourself of.” Another teacher, Anne (a playwright), is disillusioned by the “summing-up” she feels as she begins a new play, which makes writing it meaningless. The choice of Athens is no accident, of course, for it is the birthplace of the Western oral tradition. The voices in Outline make a Greek chorus that is not soon forgotten.
There is a chorus of voices in Fire in the Unnameable Country, a dazzling, dizzying first novel that for all its splendours ultimately cannot support its majestic narrative feats. The novel, part dystopian satire, part magic-realist fable, is a heady postmodernist mix that owes much to Joyce, Borges, Marquez, and Rushdie, but is entirely sui generis. Over several hundred pages in a blend of voices, it tells stories within stories, stories that are interrupted by other stories, and stories that are left unfinished.
The narrative voice belongs chiefly to the Hedayat, born on a magic flying carpet in the novel’s unnameable country, a vaguely Muslim place rife with fundamentalists, occupied by the American army and considering joining the Eastern Bloc. The novel’s locale—a Ruritanian stand-in for anywhere that has once been a colony or has felt the brush of U.S foreign policy—is a postcolonial satirist’s dream, a place of magical happenings and terrorist atrocities, repressive governments and a movie set atmosphere The land is a dictatorship involved in a seemingly endless series of conflicts, a place where citizens are subjected to the whims of a succession of leaders who collect the populations private hopes and fears in “thoughtreels” which are stored in a vast underground Archive. The Orwellian touches are just one of several influences on Islam; the largest shadow that looms over the novel belongs to Swift. The narrative switches from first- to third-person, often in the same sentence, and Islam’s stylistic tics include punctuating sentences with strokes, as you would with lines of verse. Hedayat is a “glossolalist,” a haphazard, catch-as-catch-can, speaking-in-tongues narrator: “Glossolalia. What is glossolalia and what do they say of glossolalia. You may know it as panting keening raise-the-roof kind of God talk, but my automatic tongue was different. I didn’t pray for glossolalia and I fasted because I was hungry, as disobedient children do when they can’t find what they want to eat.”
His narration is akin to Leopold Bloom’s stream of consciousness, and like Joyce’s hero, he notices everything. The owl-like Hedayat often rotates his head one hundred and eighty degrees to take in and narrate his surroundings. There is much poetry in Islam’s language, much of it beautiful, even in describing horrific acts, such as a suicide bombing which results in “grey clotted plumage” filling a room. Alauddin, the magic carpet man asks his passengers how high they wish to fly because “after a certain distance from the earth you feel no fear because it no longer seems real.” Fire in the Unnameable Country has the same quality, and readers longing for something down-to-earth should look elsewhere.