The Antagonist. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
A World Elsewhere. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Tell It to the Trees. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Fathers have a lot to answer for in these three novels. They hector, bully, abuse, and contort the lives of their offspring. It is the work of their children to recognize that the circumstances they find themselves in and the choices they are making are largely as a reaction to their treatment by their fathers. Not all manage to do so.
Wayne Johnston’s A World Elsewhere (the place you inhabit when you have been rejected by your father) is a seriocomic picaresque tale set in the late nineteenth century and told in the third person, largely from the point of view of Landish Druken, the only son of the captain of the Gilbert, the most successful sealer in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Landish is the sole member of the youngest generation in the Druken dynasty of sealers. But he is mindful, not harpoonish. He wants above all to be a writer. Father and son strike an agreement. Landish will have four years at Princeton and then return to take up his life aboard the Gilbert. The story opens after Landish has already reneged on his side of the bargain. As a consequence, he has been disowned. He has also been sent down from Princeton in disgrace, preventing him from finding any scholarly employment. What follows is a string of incidents, often comic, often poignant—such is the storytelling art of Wayne Johnston—that build up the image of Landish as a man who affects a disinterested attitude toward his own fate, but who fails in the process to disguise his concern for others. Johnston gives him the wit of Oscar Wilde, the heart of Matthew Cuthbert. It is coming to understand the abortive nature of his creativity that forms the background of the novel and of Landish’s story.
Landish is not alone in his father-imposed exile and ill-focused creative ambitions. A young man who befriends him at Princeton, Van, has also failed to live up to expectations. As the novel progresses, we follow the lives of both of these young men, each rejected by and rejecting their fathers, each setting out to prove themselves special, to prove their fathers wrong. Into this tale of men not finding their way in life enters a third character, Deacon, a foundling in need of a father. Young Deacon has the frail physique of Van and the bright mind and heart of Landish. The destiny of these three forms the foreground of the narrative.
The title works very hard for this novel. A World Elsewhere reflects the isolation of these three and resonates as we move from one outlandish incident to the next. It denotes unknowable interior lives; the demons of the mind and heart that keep us awake at night and that shape waking behaviours, often to the detriment of self and others. It signifies the two-room attic hovel at the end of Dark Marsh Road in St. John’s that provides the setting for the first half of the novel, and provides a backdrop against which Landish daily fails to fulfil his writing goal. It stands briefly for Princeton, definitely a world elsewhere. As well, it stands for Vanderland in North Carolina, Van’s self-absorbed project and the physical setting for the last half of the novel, a setting based on the 25-room Biltmore estate of George Vanderbilt that was completed in 1895. Vanderland, with its Ozymandianish proportions and attitude, stands as an empty echoing mockery of Van’s creative purpose when set against the teeming creative powers of Landish’s brain. Yet Vanderland continues to grow and ring hollow while Landish works on his book every day, but burning those pages every night.
In A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston has created a wonderfully realized world of fathers and sons and egos trying to, vying to, find a purpose. It is a story of extremes of excess and deprivation, of succumbing to and resisting manipulation. It is a story of innocence and depravity. It cautions against the vibrancy of a lively mind settling into an uneasy alliance with the overwhelming power of wealth and privilege. The result is a book of consequence.
Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist is epistolary, or, given its setting in the twenty-first century, e-pistolary: it consists of a series of e-mails sent to an old friend last seen at university twenty years before. The correspondence is all in one direction, from Rank to Adam. Adam is now a published author and Rank has just finished reading his book, several times, in great detail. It quickly becomes apparent that Rank is very angry with Adam. He perceives himself as a character in Adam’s novel and he is not happy about the way he is portrayed. Rank feels doubly abused by Adam’s fiction. Their friendship at university ended when he was socially abandoned by Adam, and he suffered from that rejection twenty years ago, only to find himself now feeling both abandoned afresh and betrayed because he reevaluates the Adam he knew, university Adam, not as the friend he had seemed, but as a future author mining him for a future text. What follows is Rank’s series of e-mails, written over several months, to set the record straight about just who Rank is and how he came to be that way, and to emphasize just how much he differs from the character in Adam’s book. What Coady is creating here is a character as a writer berating an author.
The narrative that develops through the e-mails, however, is much more nuanced than Rank intends. There is the layer that is Rank’s anger at what he freely gave, his life story, being re-purposed by Adam. Added to that is the subtext of anger at others whom Rank perceives as responsible for the disasters in his life, most notably his father Gord. The Antagonist is above all the story of a son who physically grows so large so young that his size, as far as his father is concerned, dictates his destiny. What else could he possibly want in life than to become a bouncer or a hockey enforcer? As Rank writes to justify himself to Adam, we see a life against his father’s wishes. The parallels between Adam and Gord become apparent. Just as Gord created a role for Rank to play and a narrative in which he was forced to perform, so has Adam in his novel. It helps explain the extent of Rank’s antipathy.
Coady has Rank keenly aware that he is now the author writing his own work: “This is where I, the all powerful author, get to explore my exciting new character” (Adam, of course). At one point he declares, “Let’s press the pause button here. An omnipotent narrator can do that sort of thing.” But like so many first-person narrators, Rank is unreliable. He does not remember the past as clearly as he thinks and, as he rehearses his own story, he comes to recognize his own unreliability. Through that recognition, he begins to have new insights into his own experience. As Rank writes about, rails against, Gord and Adam, he becomes aware of two aspects of the writing process that he hadn’t been considering. He finds that his narrative is taking on a life of its own and he finds himself deviating from the record and embellishing, both of which improve the story. He is creating fiction. Through this process, Rank has the revelation that Adam may have been carried away by the pen as well, thus accounting for the gap between Rank’s sense of self and what he reads in the character based on him in Adam’s novel. When Rank recognizes this aspect of the creative process, he realizes that he is not the story and his tone toward Adam shifts.
The e-mails’ content does not follow a chronological sequence. Some revisit the period in Rank’s life when he was at school with Adam, some reach further back in time to his childhood, others fill in details about his life since university, and some describe events in the present. Rarely are these events described just once. With each new e-mail, Rank rehearses the story of his life elliptically looping out and returning again and again to specific incidents, each time advancing his narrative and adding new details that extend a bit further until finally a whole flower has been transcribed and all the petals are in place, allowing the full picture to be seen. Coady’s sophistication and nuance in putting together the narrative is breathtaking. As the details build, she withholds two key points until very close to the end of the correspondence, revealing both in tandem in a tour de force of narrative structure and timing.
It is difficult to know how to engage a review of Anita Rau Badami’s Tell It to The Trees, a book that is so finely written and well-structured but so unsettling, so uncomfortable, as the narrative unfolds. It is primarily the story of systematic abuse through three generations of the Dharma family, but it is also a mystery novel. To write about the ways the novel explores generational abuse would be to reveal the mystery. To write about the book as a mystery would be to do a disservice to the psychological drama that Badami has so carefully wrought. The novel opens with the discovery of a woman frozen to death just outside the family home and the unanswered question, “How did this happen?” Anu Krishnan is the victim, an aspiring writer who wanted seclusion to work on her prose. She had taken a twelve-month lease on a one-room furnished cottage behind the Dharma house, a house the Dharma grandfather had built in a remote mining town in the interior of British Columbia, “on a road that goes nowhere, in a place where nobody cares what happens behind the closed doors of a house. Where family business is the business of the family.” Or as Varsha the thirteen-year-old daughter of the family says at the end of the first chapter, “[T]ight as a fist, we are, and as hard if you get in our way.”
Three generations live in the Dharma household. Grandmother Akka is an invalid who never leaves a room off the kitchen. Her son Vikram is the current head of the house and has one daughter, Varsha, with his first wife. Suman is his second wife with whom he has a seven-year-old son, Hemant. We only know grandmother Akka and father Vikram through the interior monologues of the rest of the family and through Anu. The story of the Dharma family unfolds predominantly through the voices of Varsha and the stepmother Suman. Through a series of interior monologues that go back in time as well as responding to the present crisis, Badami introduces us to the events that have shaped the family dynamic and shaped the characters’ behaviours and personalities. The interior monologues also provide intense introspection about the psychological processes that have shaped these children and their stepmother. All three must assess each move they make in relation to the reaction it may elicit from Vikram, who combines obsessive jealousy with a distorted sense of male honour and family honour. Suman, who entered the family as an adult in her thirties straight from her family home in India, cowers in fear and does everything she can to appease her husband. The children, each born into the family dynamic, know their father is abusive, suffer at his hands, but also know their family life as their norm. Varsha, for example, is very matter-of-fact as she takes her beatings. Actions have consequences.
Tell It to The Trees is emotionally intense without being emotionally manipulative. Badami achieves this intensity through her demonstration of generational abuse: abused children becoming abusers in turn as a coping mechanism and as the only model they know. Even as you read of the horrors revealed in the minds of these victims, and see what they are capable of thinking, planning, executing, you can find sympathy for them because you see how they have been shaped into monsters. They excite both sympathy and revulsion. Gothic horror in this remote setting also shapes Badami’s narrative as the reader is confronted with the rising unease of the family’s recurrent misreadings of Anu’s intentions, even as her benign nature is revealed through her own interior monologues. As with the other two novels under consideration, the sophisticated and powerful use of structure drives the narrative rather than merely delivers it.