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by Douglas Glover

I ONCE knew a man in New York who worked as a buyer of rare works of art, whichhe collected worldwide, mostly as a tax dodge for wealthy clients who paid lowprices and then donated the works to institutions at inflated paper values. Oneof his clients happened to be a Calgary oil baron who might have been a modelfor the mythically rich, half-blind transvestite millionaire named Jack Deemerwho narrates Robert Kroetsch`s clever new avantgarde novel The Puppeteer. Jack Deemer is a collector extraordinaire- of people as well as objets d`art. He has warehouses full of the latter, but peoplehe has found somewhat less tractable. His wife Julie, for example, is dead,killed in a mysterious car crash in Portugal four years before, after spendinga vacation in bed with Billy Dorfendorf, Deemer`s collecting agent, and aPortuguese dwarf named Dr. Manuel De Medeiros, who scouted spas for his wealthybut ailing master. Dorfendorf subsequently murders Dr. DeMedeiros in an undeveloped British Columbia spa called Deadman Spring, althoughno body is ever found. Hunted by both the police and Deemer, Dorfendorf hasgone into hiding in Vancouver where he works nights as a, yes,social-worker-cum-pizza-deliveryman known as Papa B. Enter a writer named Maggie Wilder,recently settled in Vancouver after abandoning her icon-collecting husband tohis obsessions in Greece. Maggie plans to hole up in her cousin George`s house(George is a botanist, a collector of rainforest plants that litter the house)and write a biography of her wedding dress, which she happens to he wearing thenight she opens the door to take delivery of a pizza. Maggie`s wedding dress just happens to bethe wedding dress Julie wore when she married Jack Deemer. It was hand-made bya woman named Josie Povich who just happens to work in the pizzeria for whichDorfendorf makes deliveries. Maggie bought the dress second-hand, after Deemerreturned it to Josie the day after his wedding. The dress is the reason Maggiemarried her icon-collecting husband - the dress is a strange and magicalobject, the reason for everything and the object of everyone`s desire. It is not clear why Jack Deemer wants thewedding dress back, but he does. Nor is it absolutely clear why he returned itto Josie Povich after the wedding in the first place. But this is part of thestructural charm of the avant-garde. Motivation, a stalwart crutch ofverisimilitude, isn`t important, whereas coincidence, repeating imagery, andrepeated event are. The Puppeteer is awhimsical tissue of coincidence and repeated pattern (embroidered on thewedding dress is a miniature copy of the wedding dress). At every point itintentionally disappoints conventional novelistic expectation. It leaves itstools in the wall, so to speak. It plays with literary echoes - and is asort of murder mystery (though it turns out there hasn`t been a murder). Thepuppeteer motif brings to mind John Fowles`s The Magus. Deemer is an ancientmagician, an oil-patch Tiresias. And the unexpected shifts of point of view -the novel begins in the third person in Maggie`s mind but intermittently slipsinto Jack Deemer`s first person - look backward to Nabokov or Hubert Aquin. The Puppeteer also relies heavily on setpieceriffs, heavy with implication and connected to the narrative proper by anetwork of analogies and repetitions. For example, there is a lovely sequenceof scenes after Papa B. takes refuge in Maggie`s attic. Papa B. turns the atticinto a Greek shadow-puppet theatre, acting out his version of the novel (likethe dress embroidered on the dress), mesmerizing Maggie, gradually winning herover and luring her into the (shadow)play. This is all splendid fun, a literaryconfection of the first order that is still perhaps an acquired taste (somereaders will balk at giving up their standard plots and emotional hooks). Andit is not without meaning. Kroetsch deploys two of his own early literaryhobby-horses - collecting and spas -as, one suspects, a half-mocking critiqueof white Western civilization. Are we not, he seems to say, dooming ourselves topratfall and tragicomedy with our obsession about controlling material thingsand prolonging life? But such thematic interpretation isperipheral to Kroetsch`s main project, which is really a critique ofconventional theories of meaning and the traditional novel. The book`s finaljoke involves some Greek icons that Deemer is trying to collect (read,"steal") from Maggie`s husband, one of which represents the face ofGod. The substance of The Puppeteer keepsdisappearing as the reader reads, and the ever-beckoning, ever-receding pictureof God is like the meaning of the book, an emblem of all meaning - which is tosay that the universe is a riddle, sure enough, and a bit of a tease.

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