André Alexis concludes his Quincunx series with this fifth book (though numbered volume three), Ring. Like the other four, it is set in Ontario, balances lofty but explicit allusions with slyer, closer-to-home winks and nods, and blends the fantastical with Socratic dialogues in casual dress. Also like those other books, Ring includes guest appearances by characters (humans, dogs, sheep, actually living Canadian poets, and gods) and explores the meaning and weight of tradition, whether social, cultural, or familial.
Having dealt with such genres as the pastoral, the fable, and the ripping yarn in the previous books, here Alexis offers a pastiche of the Harlequin romance, with a gainfully employed professional young woman facing that perennial dilemma, the two-suitor problem (it turns out they’re both really sweet guys!). This runs a number of risks—among them a patronizing satire—but just at the moment when the reader contemplates stepping out of the sticky morass, the plot twists. The Danielle Steel Effect (Alexis lists one of her books as background reading) does not simply shut off, however, but, more perversely, becomes entwined with the big questions that the Quincunx books all address. At one point the heroine, Gwenhwyfar (seriously!), provides a Steeley plot summary when the discovery (a surprise to her alone) that her beloved is rich “made the trajectory of her last few months even more odd: meet a man, fall in love, inherit a magic ring, change the man, lose a finger, then find out the man that you love is insanely wealthy. God, what was next?” (193). Right? It’s, like, so unbelievable. Parenthetically she wonders: “Was it wrong of her to feel intimidated by his wealth? It was too late to change her feelings, if so” (150-51).
The novel’s title refers not only to the question of marriage, which gradually grows from being simply an inevitable conclusion of such fiction to a theme of much deliberation, but to a ring passed from mother to daughter, bestowing three wishes. All three wishes must pertain to the man the ring-bearer is to marry, but—another surprise that is not a surprise—the wishes must be chosen carefully because changes to him will be matched by changes in her. That is to say that Ring is a fairy tale about reciprocity.
The secret to Alexis’ simultaneous success as both genial storyteller and formal experimentalist lies, I think, in the freedom he affords his reader. The reader who wants the thrills of the marriage plot, updated for today’s mores and problems, may rejoice in them, while the puzzle-cracker who wants to catch the allusions and discern the various constraints undergirding the writing will find much to ponder—and best of all, the reader does not have to choose between these pleasures. By the same token, one may read any of Quincunx volumes without the others, or in any order one chooses. This, too, constitutes a ring of reciprocity.
Though marriage is all very well, where would fiction be without adultery? When they are not studies of faithless men, Keath Fraser’s stories zero in on adulterated language and assorted kinds of betrayal. In “Memoir,” the narrator’s daughter “has taken the vow of singlehood” based on her “conviction that husbands kill their wives—dump on their scruples, treat their friends coolly, expect submission, dole out the silent treatment if we don’t get it, and, offered the least encouragement, screw around” (396). The stories gathered in Damages give no reason to fault her decision.
Diminishing echoes of mimicry are the stuff of Fraser’s stories. In “The Anthologist Takes a Holiday,” the disaffected NGO worker Eddy Atwal ponders something a woman asks in the opening sentence: “If a man is alone in a forest talking, and no woman hears him, is he still wrong?” (45). He first “miscopies” this witticism as “If a woman is alone in a forest talking, and no man hears her, is she still wrong?” (46, emphasis original) and then sulkily thinks, “Of course the man is still wrong: he was wrong before he left home” (47). In “Foreign Affairs,” the disaffected former diplomat Silas approximates Nehru’s voice: “You are a veddy veddy young woman” (255, emphasis original). He then repeats this “veddy veddy” formula to his Indian doctor without concern whether “the doctor thought he was mocking him. He made himself speak” (262). “As a mimic,” comes the explanation with the third iteration, “he seldom spoke without the fluency he’d lost” (274). Both of these instances are illustrative not just of a structural device but of an anxious focus on the male voice and its prerogatives.
Amid all the refrains of jokey male guilt (one narrator makes strictly rhetorical asides to “Your Honour”) is the title story, narrated by a woman. Her version of this guilt manifests as anxiety about libelling herself and the distance of the stars. “I love songs,” she admits. “I love the way a singer trusts a song, the way she trusts a stamp not to poison her when she licks it” (362). This in a world that she finds rife with distrust and disappointment.
Sometimes spotted with questionably placed Anglicisms such as “an unwelcome bloody analyst” (57) and “a ponce friend” (363), Fraser’s prose produces amuses-bouches like “noisomely young” (102) but also the occasional oddity like the statement “[u]nlike men in her firm, who could be told nothing they didn’t already know, Michel was different” (479): I remain uncertain as to whether that sentence lost its way or some confusion of mind is being attributed to the female protagonist.
Damages comprises twenty-two stories written over thirty years but, frustratingly, this collection gives no indication of when/where each story was written or published. Nor is any editor (or “selector” named, though John Metcalf provides a needlessly bloviating introduction of over forty pages with lengthy quotations from the stories that follow. While it’s great to see Biblioasis launching this reprint series, it would be nice to include some more explicit sense of the history of those texts.
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