Friday, April 13, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 8th post

Badlands was Kroetsch's next novel after Gone Indian.  While some aspects of post modern fiction linger, this is a bit more in the vein of Studhorse Man where some events are outsized, maybe even a tiny bit absurd (shades of magic realism), but we are more in the realm of tall tales (think Paul Bunyan) than Paul Auster.  While the entire novel is initially framed through the perspective of Anne Dawe (the daughter of the main character), we aren't given any reason to think she is playing games with what actually happened or that she is a particularly unreliable narrator.  However, the narrative does shift away from what might reasonably have been recorded in her father's journals and many of the core chapters are written about these past events from an omniscient perspective.  Pretty typical in movies and fiction for that matter: we start in the present going over someone's diaries, then there is a flashback to what "really" happened.  One of the more effective uses of this was in the play Three Days of Rain.


The basic set-up is that  William Dawe lead an expedition into the Canadian Badlands, looking for a dinosaur bones.  While the odds are against him, particularly due to the inexperience of his crew, he makes a major find.  He makes a minor name for himself and begins making annual expeditions to the Badlands.  He essentially abandons his wife and young daughter, only making short visits between his expeditions.  Ten years after his death, Anna, his daughter, starts going through his diary and eventually decides to retrace his first successful expedition.  She runs across the Native American guide (Anna Yellowbird) who helped save her father on more than one occasion.

The bulk of the book is the expedition itself, particularly the inner conflicts between the various team members.  (Often these chapters are framed with William's official journal entries.)  It is hard to imagine a more disorganized crew.  Towards the end, they have to recruit a very young man, who is a piano player in a whore house they encounter along the way.  However, he does have some experience mining, and it is he who (fatefully of course) places the dynamite that they need to uncover enough of the main dinosaur skeleton to dig out the rest of the bones.

There are a few scenes that really do stick out -- the itinerant photographer (in a Model T Ford!) who takes a photo of the crew setting out for the Badlands and assures them they won't make it back out.  The same photographer does take their photo on the way home.  The house made of bones that Anna Yellowbird inhabits for a while.  The ruckus/rumpus that Anna D. and Anna Y. get up to while retracing this expedition.  I did feel sorry for Anna D. when she decided not to go off and sleep with the cowboy under the stars when she clearly wanted to.  Not sure what Kroetsch was up to there.  There are actually some odd parallels with his final novel (The Man From the Creeks) which is about a boy and his mother who go up into the Yukon to strike it rich (in the original gold rush) and he becomes a piano player in a saloon.  He becomes quite old (like Anna Yellowbird) and is another case of thwarted sexuality (like Anna Dawe) where it seems so unnecessary.  He ends up owning a saloon filled with cheap floozies for goodness sakes!  I don't really care how hard you fell for your first puppy-love, over the next 50-60 years, it seems likely that one would indulge in the pleasures of the flesh as it were.  But Kroetsch often writes about people that find themselves in impossible loves and don't try very hard to extricate themselves.

What is a bit different between the books is that while the mania for digging strikes all these characters hard, only a much smaller percentage of people lose their mind over dinosaur bones compared to prospecting for gold.  It's not a bad book, but it isn't one I imagine I'll be rereading any time soon.

This is review 8/13.


Canadian book challenge - 7th post

I wanted to start by acknowledging the very nice set of 4 poetry books donated by Brick Books to the Canadian Book Challenge at the Bookmineset blog.  I was fortunate enough to win the set (yea!), and I will try to review at least two of the books before this challenge closes.

I am returning to Robert Kroetsch for the next two reviews.  This review will cover Gone Indian (and is review 7 of 13).  Gone Indian is arguably Kroetsch's first "post modern" novel, sort of foreshadowing What the Crow Said, Alibi and above all The Puppeteer.  What makes a post modern novel?  I'm very rusty on my literary theory, but generally it means a many-layered story (maybe with more than one framing device) where the core events are not "stable" -- in the sense that they may be viewed or described from many perspectives.  That in itself is not unknown in conventional literature (Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is a classic example, though at least a few critics have said that it is in fact a proto-post modern novel or rather a suite of novels), though post modern novels usually take it further and events may be completely reversed when told and retold from these varying perspectives and it is unclear what actually "happened" (very much in the spirit of Rashomon, and there is certainly a case that Rashomon is also post modern rather than high modernist art because it refuses to posit one of the narratives as the "truth").  Post modern novels usually take the concept of the unreliable narrator to extremes.  The Studhorse Man certainly has an unreliable narrator (who writes from his bathtub in a mental institution!), but Gone Indian does raise the bar since there are basically two unreliable narrators that are attempting to converse or at least make connection throughout the narrative.  It is very unclear how the chief narrator (Dr. Madham) could know most of the events in the novel (as it seems unlikely that the second one would have actually committed so much to tape), so the reader is left wondering how much has simply been invented and filled in.  One of the downsides of post modern novels is that they tend to be so intent on cleverness and game-playing that the characters are more obviously pawns being pushed around than in conventional fiction where the reader is expected to care about what happens to them.  It is not uncommon for characters' motivations to be unclear or unstable in post modern fiction.  I definitely feel this happens in The Puppeteer (which I am wrapping up now).  Perhaps the best known example of post modern literature is Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Gone Indian begins with a letter from Professor Madham to Jill Sunderland.  It explains that Jeremy (the main character of Gone Indian) was a doctoral student out east who headed to Alberta to try to wrap up his dissertation.  The rest of the book is sort of compiled from notes, letters and cassette tapes that Jeremy used for dictation and mailed back to his wife and/or Dr. Madham, though it should be noted that Madham pops up from time to time, adding his observations to the action.  However, the tone is completely reversed from the conventional wrappers around works like Dracula or Frankenstein for instance.  The Professor admits flat out that he disliked Jeremy and call him a terrible student.  He then goes on to admit he is sleeping with Jeremy's abandoned wife!  What an opening.

The action as related to the Professor begins with Jeremy heading off on a job interview.  He is bringing his dissertation with him in a desperate attempt to finish it somehow along the way; thus proving to himself, if not the hiring committee, that he isn't a total failure.  He often addresses the professor directly (through the medium of the cassette tapes) and sometimes insults him back and sometimes just seems sorry for himself.  In any event, Jeremy's suitcase has been switched with Roger Dorck's.  It also so happens that Roger Dorck was the reigning Winter King of the Notikeewin Winter Festival.  He also went out on the fresh ice on a snowmobile, crashed through and is lying in a coma.  Without thinking about it too much, Jeremy decides to take over Roger's role, though it isn't exactly the case that people think he is Roger.  It can be a little hard to follow exactly why they let him take over as Winter King and judge the beauty pageant (this is probably the best set piece in the book).  Later, Jeremy seems to want to take on the role of a Native Indian.

He takes up with several women throughout the course of the book.  If I am not mistaken, he seduces or is seduced by both Roger's mistress and her daughter.  But he tries to escape (on a different snowmobile) with yet a third woman.  I suppose this demonstrates to me one of the drawbacks to postmodern fiction -- the stakes end up being lower and you often can't recall the plot even only a few months down the road.  It's an interesting read, but it does pale in comparison to The Studhorse Man.  Johnny Backstrom, MLA makes an actual cameo in this book when Jeremy and a few others crash at his funeral parlor and start up an epic card game (epic card games are definitely a recurring theme in Kroetsch's work).  Johnny offers to let Jeremy sleep it off in a coffin, but then midway through the night he needs the coffin for Roger.  At least Jeremy didn't end up buried alive.  It might be after this "rebirth," that Jeremy decides to turn his back on his old life for good, setting up the ending when he tries to escape into a blizzard.  At least that's how I remember it now.  ;)

Gone Indian