When publishers drop big money and hard covers on first novels, it's hard not to be impressed by their efforts. I suspect that, behind the glitz and bravado, the publishers know that the book-buying reader is the difficult, final judge of whether a novel is "compelling, provocative, psychologically taut, powerful, edgy, unsettling, dark-humoured, dazzling, accomplished, astonishing, impressive, graceful, melodic, gritty, evocative", and, oh yes, "surprisingly restrained".
These epithets are lifted from the modest publicity blurbs that accompany two much heralded hard-cover first novels: Crossing the Distance (McClelland & Stewart, 373 pages, $29.99 cloth) by Toronto media prince, Evan Solomon, and Lost Girls (HarperFlamingo Canada, 357 pages, $27 cloth) by genuine articler, lawyer-turned-writer, Andrew Pyper.
In Crossing the Distance, Solomon writes of two siblings: Theo, an eco-terrorist, and Jake, popular host of a Jerry Springer-style television talk show. When Jake's lover, academic and reluctant pop culture sibyl Rachel Poiselle, is brutally attacked, the media frenzy begins. Solomon's novel is a complex wiring of harrowing plot, disturbing and cynical commentary on the self-centred world of North American media, and a compelling, if not entirely successful, exploration of the soul's journey through the morally uncompassed landscape of human affairs at the end of the twentieth century.
Solomon's novel falls short as a literary achievement. A colloquial voice pervades the book, leading to many passages of flat writing. However, when Solomon is good, he is very, very good. His dialogue can be witty and charged with the twisted electricity of serious power-mongering.
In his creation of the character of Tasso Darjun, Solomon shows the depth of his talent. Tasso's early life in Goa, a former Portuguese colony on the Indian sub-continent, and his present life as a television network librarian about to be "decruited" are finely drawn. It is with his description of Tasso's final moments, as the newly fired librarian is consumed in an eerie conflagration, that Solomon crosses the distance as a novelist and gives us a sample of new fiction worthy of careful attention.
Andrew Pyper's Lost Girls is written with the bar raised just a tad higher. Pyper's personal decision to abandon a career as a lawyer and pursue his vocation as a writer translates into fiction that is clearly focused and the result of a single-minded apprenticeship. The book reads like a plot-driven murder-mystery-a literate and moody murder-mystery, mind you; but there are moments when Pyper's background as a student of English literature seems at odds with the need to succeed in the publishing industry.
Thus we have, as a central motif, a mysterious "Lady in the Lake" who may or may not be the cause of the disappearance of two young girls from a small Ontario town. Barth Crane is the tortured soul and big-spending, cocaine-imbibing Toronto lawyer hired to defend the local high-school teacher, Thom Tripp, who is charged with murdering the "lost girls". The obvious link between the "Lady in the Lake" and Arthurian romance, pre-Christian mythology, the Lorelei, Homer's sirens, and a host of other literary and mythological references cannot be ignored, although Pyper almost studiously avoids them. What Pyper does instead is to create a Dickensian cast of memorable secondary characters whose movements, habits, speech patterns, and obsessions are drawn with a sharp eye and an even more merciless tongue.
A man's first novel is often, by default, a coming-of-age story or, if the author has left the manuscript in the sock drawer for a decade or two, an account of a middle-aged crise-de-pénis. Stephen Zeifman's The Family Man (Exile Editions, 157 pages, $19.95 paper) and Stanley Bing's LLOYD: What Happened (Vintage, 398 pages, $21 paper) belong to the latter category, while Vernon Mooers' Briefly a Candle (FPA/Simian Press, 236 pages, no price given) falls into the former.
Mooers has set his book in small-town New Brunswick and it is an undistinguished tale of boobs, beer, cars, hockey, teenage pregnancy, drugs, canoes, and death. Just your regular Canadian born-in-the-fifties coming-of-age story.
Zeifman's Casey Rosengarten is a successful Toronto architect who runs away to Italy after he kicks his in-laws' dog to death when it takes off a piece of his young son's ear. Life has lost its meaning. But the meaning of life can be found in Siena during the week of the Palio, the running of the ritual medieval horse races. The Italian stallions run the races. Casey finds two high-spirited young women to make love to simultaneously. Life is worth living.
Stanley Bing's book is enhanced with clever presentation graphics and a wacky, insider's view of the corporate world. His character, the ever-eager Lloyd, has to choose between taking over the world in a giant financial transaction code-named Moby Deal or.... having a happy life with his wife Donna, the kids, and cocker spaniel. The dog wins. The saving grace for Lloyd's marriage is his ability to handle a major plumbing crisis.
With Alan R. Wilson's Before the Flood (Cormorant, 235 pages, $21.95 paper), Louise Dupré's Memoria (Simon & Pierre, 206 pages, $18.99 paper), and Irene Guilford's The Embrace (Guernica, 150 pages, $15 paper), we move into the numinous realm of books that are, before all else, works of literature.
In Before the Flood, Wilson avoids the clichés of a coming-of-age novel set in a small New Brunswick town. The hockey games are of the table-top variety with an entire season played out in miniature, the six-team league evolving into battles between Sumerian gods from the Epic of Gilgamesh and the usual Rangers, Leafs, and Habs. Ancient and local histories overlap reality in a world about to be changed as construction on the Mactaquac dam begins forty miles to the south.
Ghosts mingle with a host of beautifully drawn characters: the butterfly collector, Silas Templeman; Miss Jonah, albino insomniac, lover of cats, seer; the girl with the flaxen hair, Eleanor Russell; Samuel Macfarlane, the boy-growing-up; and the town of Woodstock, a living force at the junction of the Saint John and Meduxnekeag rivers. With admirable dexterity, Wilson melds astronomy from Sky and Telescope, breast-obsessed boys, 1922 Maxwells, appearing and disappearing canoeists, and even Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake" into a shimmering novel of place, love, and our inevitable histories.
Memoria, by Montreal poet Louise Dupré, is a quiet novel painted on a small canvas with great skill and feeling. It was first published in Quebec as La memoria where it won the Prix Ringuet in 1996. The Simon & Pierre edition is an elegant translation by Liedewy Hawke which preserves the sensuality, the wrenching sense of loss, and the precise language of the French original. In the novel, Emma, herself a translator, deals with her doubled sense of abandonment as a long-time lover leaves her abruptly and memories of her sister, who disappeared twenty years earlier, expand into an open wound of revisited grief.
Any immigrant's kid, and I am one of those, will recognize the characters and situations in Irene Guilford's The Embrace: the uncles who were once your father's brothers but now are strangers, even to him; the curious rituals of reunion; the mythology of the abandoned country eating into the present; the peculiar exchanges of gifts, more gifts, and inevitable misunderstandings between dumbfounded cousins.
Guilford tells the story of Aldona, the child of Lithuanian parents, and the difficult attempts at reunion and understanding between her father, Edvardas, who fled his wartorn country, and his brother, Pranas, who stayed behind. Aldona must deal with the unrealistic expectations of her father and her relatives, and her own discomfort at being caught between two worlds.
In her now affluent father's house, the only reminder of Lithuania is a plaque depicting the famous knight, Vytis, astride a rearing stallion. Vitys, or Vytautas Didysi, was the king under whose reign, in the fourteenth century, Lithuania stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. "As if a Vytis, a plaque on the wall, could keep us connected," thinks Aldona's cousin, Jurgis, when he visits "Amerika". The land, the Lithuanian forests and fields, and the undefinable sense of home haunt Guilford's story. She ends, musing lyrically:
Home, I say, moving towards this lit shining sleeve of my life, is an imaginary place. A time before our births. A place we can never visit. A land where we wait, arms reaching towards embrace.