Thursday, May 2, 2013

6th Challenge - 21st review - Galore

I have such mixed feelings about Michael Crummey's Galore.  I thought it missed in a lot of places, but it was ambitious, and I usually award a few points just for that.  The ending is especially audacious, and while it doesn't really work for me, I can see some people would really dig it.  I'll get around to that after the appropriate spoiler warnings.

Anyway, it is hardly a spoiler to say that a whale plays a huge role in setting off an unlikely chain of events, given that one graces the cover.  I alluded elsewhere to Tarr Bela's film Werckmeister Harmonies, which also features a whale washing up on a lightly inhabited coast.  I really have to find the time to watch that soon.  I tried to put in a jump to the Book of Jonah at the bottom of the post, but I couldn't get it to work, so scroll down all the way down if you want to go to the original source material (and yes, a man emerges alive from the belly of the whale in the opening section of Galore).

I'm not sure whether it should count as a spoiler or not that the family tree reveals quite a number of odd pairings.  It also omits one marriage with subsequent offspring, so perhaps Crummey thought that that should not be spoiled -- or that the couple were essentially outsiders to this fairly closed community.

Going by the family trees, there are two main families in this desperately poor fishing community Paradise Deep, Newfoundland (it's hard to say just how far it is from St. John's, but some of the community end up there when life gets too hard in Paradise Deep, though the really ambitious end up going to New England).  King-Me Sellers is a semi-prosperous merchant who owns much of the land, and the Sellers tend to be on the snooty side.  The Devine clan are much poorer, generally just scraping by, but they are much closer to the heart of the village and are generally are the most successful fishermen and so forth.  Devine's Widow is an old, wise woman often considered to be a bit of a witch.  I'll circle back to her after the spoiler warning.  Anyway, according to the genealogy, Seller's daughter Lizzie ends up married to Callum Devine, and on the next page, we find that their daughter, Mary Tryphena couples with her first cousin, Absalom Sellers.  So clearly there will be some juicy goings-on in this novel.

The novel is heavily, heavily reliant upon Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude to the point one might call it a kind of cod magic realism (sorry).  Things that sort of made sense in the hot, florid jungles of Marquez's imagination do seem a little off in the cold, near arctic waters.  I think I could have swallowed Jude being rescued from the whale, but then the fact that he never lost the stink, even after 50+ years?  Or the fact that the whole village could see the ghost of this jealous husband?  Or some of the other odd goings on, that insisted that some kind of magic was taking place?  Overlaid on top of this was a bit of a treatise on inter-church politics, which really felt out of place.  I guess he wanted to write a book rife with magic realism, but drawing more on the wondrous nature of early, quasi-folk religions (but again the ghost and some of the other doings just seemed out of place). Crummey over-stuffed this novel, and indeed, many times the characters didn't have believable motivations but were moved about like pawn pieces (or maybe just checker pieces) primarily by King-Me Sellers or Divine's Widow (who most of the time came out on top).  Ok, that's probably enough before the spoiler warnings.


In general, epic multi-generational novels end up not being able to go deep into that many characters.  Another problem is that the focus has to shift at some point from one of the older generation, to a newer generation.  Crummey switches from Mary Tryphena (in my eyes anyway the focal point of the first half) to an outsider doctor in the second half (shades of Northern Exposure perhaps?).  Maybe it isn't a complete surprise that there is just slightly a change in tone and fewer miraculous or semi-miraculous things happen in the second half.  Of course, Crummey may also be making a point how the modern world was catching up, even in the remote parts of Newfoundland, and certainly a number of men and boys are caught up in the War (this must be WWI).  Technological progress was slow in coming to Paradise Deep, but it was coming, though as far as I can remember radio hadn't made it into the village and it was far too small to have a working cinema.  One recurring event is the Mummers going around to each house (around Christmas and before Lent) and that was pretty much the height of amusement in the village. And of course gossiping about other villagers.

One of the main problems I had was just how inconsistently religion seemed to be treated.  The Widow Devine was a wise woman/witch (basically just any woman with more than the usual amount of common sense), but in her private thoughts (not that often expressed in Galore), she viewed herself as just a regular Catholic, but then her other actions (like invigorating some heathen practice of passing babies through a mystical tree and imagining some cosmic bond between Jude and her grandson Michael that made her sacrifice her granddaughter) made little sense.  The only religious figure that Crummey seems to have any affection for is a wild Catholic priest who turns up periodically in the first half of the book.  The other priests start sectarian fights that deeply divide the village, and in the second half of the book, the Catholic bishop acts decisively against the villagers' self-interest by trying to forbid them from joining unions.  Perhaps this is historically accurate (in many ways the Catholic church has been fairly parasitical upon lower-income immigrant communities), but it did come across as somewhat jarring and maybe unnecessary in this book, which already had plenty of conflict within its pages.  Anyway, the Devine clan try to drive out the official Catholic priest (from Italy!) and when that fails, basically they all turn Methodist.

Where Crummey really lost me as a reader was when the Widow Devine seems to be working out these deals with various town officials.  So the rumour is that she manages to keep Jude from being hung, but only by marrying him off to her granddaughter, Mary Tyrphena. And later she cuts some deal with the Catholics that involves the wild priest being excommunicated and driven from the parish.  And then a final deal has Jude sentenced to life in a mental institution.  But while witches may have had some clout in a village like this, it was more of a negative power -- avoid her or else -- but it just strains credulity that she could work out these political deals with the powers that be.  Anyway, I didn't buy any of it, and I found it unlikely how she could keep outmaneuvering King-Me Sellers -- and quite odious how she would force Mary to get married to this stinking, mute fish-man (Jude).  I think she was only about 16 or 17 at the time!  I guess you don't have to like the people in fictional stories, but I sure lost sympathy for the characters right about then and never really recovered it.  I also thought it was a bit of unnecessary, if perhaps latent, sexism that Crummey threw in a few comments about how Mary forced Jude to sleep outside in a separate cabin, but every now and again she would have this craving for his huge member and have sex with him, hating herself afterwards.  (She also seems to really hold it against him when, late in life, she learns that he could write (but still not speak) but never told her (or rather notified her).  As if she had actually fallen in love with him and didn't understand why he wouldn't share his private life with her.)

I guess it isn't a huge surprise that King-Me Sellers and the Widow have quite a back history.  He brought her over from Ireland as a servant and fell in love with her, but then she wouldn't marry him.  Then he banished his daughter when she fell in love with the Widow's son.  And then down the chain a bit, Mary Tyrphena had a one-time fling with her cousin, Absalom Sellers, which produced a fairly hopeless lad, Hensley Devine.  Hensley's main part in the story is to further divide the Sellers and Divine clans, but also to produce a son (Harold) with the child-bride, Bride.  Bride shows flashes of the Widow Devine's competence, though they aren't actually related.  After Hensley's death during a fishing trip, the doctor manages to convince Bride to marry him and apparently they have a few children, who are not part of the main story at all.  They are reasonably happy and content, and thus aren't part of the overall narrative.

It is with the 5th generation that Crummey brings up homosexuality, as if it would only come up once the story hit the early 20th Century.  Anyway, Eli Devine is a bit of a closet case, being more than a little in love with his second cousin, Harold Devine.  They have some schoolboy trysts, which Harold outgrows.  Eli never does.  I didn't think this was handled terribly, but again it just seemed like a bit too much for a story that was already over-detailed.  Eli does eventually marry (later in life) and produces Abel Devine, but then falls hard for an older man, who happens to be the union organizer, and more or less abandons (emotionally at least) his wife and child.  Harold has a more conventional marriage and produces a daughter, Esther, who goes off to Europe and is an opera star for a while, before her voice gives out.

Esther returns to her home village and is everything you would expect of someone "ruined" by decadent Europe -- basically a drug addict who can barely get out of bed.  Abel (10 or so years her junior) is tasked with looking after her and getting her cleaned up.  I guess they are also second cousins (hard to tell).  He falls in love with her, and she lets him.  They do have a brief affair.  Then he is guilted by his mother into dropping Esther and by his father into signing up as an enlisted man in WWI.  (There is some extraneous business about how the union was trying to keep its members out of the war, so they needed some volunteers/sacrificial lambs.)  Anyway, after drawing a bit on Findley's The Wars, Crummey has Abel coming home to Newfoundland on a troop ship, thoroughly shell-shocked and more or less mute.


Now things get really weird.  I hadn't quite realized what Crummey was up to, but he was planting these hints that Abel looked like the spitting image of Jude -- and that like his grandfather, Patrick, when he got upset, he gave off a terrible odor.  Well, sure enough, now that the war has caused him to lose his voice and temporarily the use of his legs, a great big whale turns up and opens his mouth, and Abel goes forward (in a wheel chair over the railing) to meet his destiny.  I guess it is supposed to be this big Mobius strip where Abel is actually his great-grandfather Jude.  And perhaps the baby Abel plants in Esther is the original Devine (and the Widow was correct about the cosmic bond).  I couldn't quite tell if Crummey wanted this to be literally science fiction a la Looper (or perhaps the more humourous backstory of Lister in Red Dwarf) or he was just commenting on how legends have to operate in closed worlds -- and that the legendary aspects of life in Paradise Deep were coming to an end with the arrival of modernity.  So what better way to keep the legend going by folding it over onto itself?  (One thing I forgot to mention is that Jude one day simply disappears from his cell in the mental institution -- duh duh daah -- so he is sort of this endless loop in the narrative.)  It was really a disconcerting ending, though I will say it was kind of audacious.  I don't think I'll easily forget the book, but I wasn't really satisfied with it for various reasons I have outlined.

This is my 21st review of the 6th Challenge, and it will probably be my last.  I have a list of very long, non-Canadian books coming up for summertime.  I don't think I will be back to reading Canadian lit. until late August or even Sept., when I should be able to tackle MacLennan's Two Solitudes and Roy's The Tin Flute as my first reviews of the next Challenge.


Jonah Book 1:

1 Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,

2 Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.

3 But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

4 But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.

5 Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.

6 So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.

7 And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.

8 Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou?

9 And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.

10 Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

11 Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.

12 And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.

13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.

14 Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.

15 So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.

16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.

17 Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah Book 2:

1 Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly,

2 And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.

3 For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.

4 Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.

5 The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.

6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

7 When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.

8 They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.

9 But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.

10 And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

This is from the King James Bible, which remains the most poetic version.  At one point, I took a "Bible as Literature" course at university, but for some odd reason the professor insisted on using the Revised Standard Version, since it was a better and more reliable translation.  That should have been my tip-off that he took the Bible far too literally.  The whole point of studying the Bible as literature would be to use the King James version, since that is what roughly 80-90% of British and U.S. writers would have drawn upon, and those are the connections that matter, not what a truly "accurate" translation says.