Writing about the past requires retroactive energy¨a gritty force. The past¨lacquered, stuffed into museums¨quickly becomes a stiff code, a rigid set of tics. Historical novels demand density, should bristle with trivial details, situate us. (To be successful, historical fiction¨any fiction for that matter¨must have the fierceness, the irrefutability, the rightness of the real.) A case in point: whatever their shortcomings, Michael Ondaatje's early works crackle with electric vividness, an earthy specificity. As well, they're decidedly contemporary in tone and diction. Which, inferentially, posits the built-in quandary for the writer of historical novels: namely, the adoption of "period" voice. In the case of Howard Norman's fourth novel The Haunting of L, that would be 1927, ineptly, and interminably, delivered in the first person.
The Haunting of L brims with phoniness. Its quasi-Ludlumesque cover (bossed, glossy) should be a tipoff as to the airport bookstore mentality Norman is obliquely pandering to. Beyond that, there's its relentless, silly pretension, its awkward, gimpy style, the pedantic faux-solemnity that lends a canny second-rate gravity to the narrative, which concerns a tangled menage-a-trois. The narrator, Peter Duvett, having accepted a position as assistant to the photographer Vienna Linn (Norman has a penchant for affectedly weird names) in Churchill, Manitoba, immediately falls into a frenzied affair with his employer's wife, Kala Murie; Murie is an expert on "spirit photographs", that is photographs wherein "uninvited guests" (read: the dead) mysteriously appear; she not only lectures on the subject but is also obsessively devoted to The Unclad Spirit, written by her idol, spiritualist Georgiana Houghton, a book chronicling the purported phenomenon. Once installed, Duvett quickly discovers that although supposedly a portraitist, Linn is in fact employed by Mr. Radin Heur, a filthy rich Londoner with a fixation on photographs of fatal accidents which Linn orchestrates and then conveniently happens to be on hand to document.
Metaphysical mystery? For a book laboring so mightily to generate an atmosphere of supernatural, brooding suspense, The Haunting of L is curiously mired in the material: much mention is made of food, clothes, etc. The book bursts with pointless, digressive scenes, is clotted with dopey, baroque twists which only serve to muddle the already pretzelly perambulations of the story. Characters pop up to serve the creaky machinations of the plot and are then disposed of to make way for yet more risible stereotypes: eccentric bush pilot, cynical police detective, etc. Norman even attempts to jazz things up with some disjointed temporal jump-cutting which only serves to obfuscate any remaining clarity. As well, he liberally quotes from The Unclad Spirit: the book-within-a-book conceit has the potential to work if the twinned material is both independently and collectively solid enough to support their interlacing¨however, in this case, it comes across as extraneous, as desperate window-dressing designed to conceal the paucity of the The Haunting of L's underlying premise. Then there's the question of Norman's style. The stolid workmanlike plod of the prose, its virtuoso mediocrity¨leaden; static; inert.
Romance/eroticism? The book suffers from an anemic carnality; Norman writes about sex with the breathless omissions of a horny fourteen-year-old virgin, belying the book's essential, core gutlessness. Another example of this: moral ambiguity is supposedly introduced when Duvett fails to avert an "accident" which kills several locals and seriously injures his beloved Kala. However, once raised, the ramifications of Duvett's complicity are glibly glossed-over, relegated to the status of a minor character blip. Duvett is, in fact, something of a cipher, as are the rest of the cast: rather than a deliberate, resonant plumbing of the enigmas of the heart, its knotty gnarled machinations, this absence of psychological insight comes across as yet another manifestation of Norman's banal and graceless writing. Its tactile, sensory sterility: Churchill's merely a sketchy backdrop (Eskimos; cold) for the melodrama of the sub-Agatha Christie shenanigans at the hotel where the trio live. And Halifax¨where the action later shifts¨is wet and foggy.
Which raises the question of Norman's curious fixation on Canada (all of his three previous novels are set here). In spite of his finicky insistence on geographic pinpointing, Norman's prose is curiously adrift, placeless. Canada as blank palette? Contrast this with E. Annie Proulx's admittedly far-from-perfect evocation of Newfoundland in The Shipping News: if nothing else, she at least betrays a raw affinity, a vital alliance with the physical essentials of the place, as well as the ribald high spirits, the crudely mischievous humour of the Rock's inhabitants. That said, the utter anonymity with which Norman manages to invest real locales could be read as yet further testament to his fundamental wants as an author.
To cap it all off, for a writer so reliant on dialogue to advance the clogged cogs of his plot, Norman is painfully tin-eared: his attempts to mimic the mannered, circuitous circumlocutions of the time consistently come across as subtly yet radically wrong, not to mention unintentionally funny: the arbitrary insertion of the classic Canuck colloquialism "eh" into choice snippets of indigenous repartee is genuinely cringe-inducing. Characters also, on occasion, lapse into a neo-film noir hardboiled terseness, as in the following exchange between Duvett and an Inspector Destouches:
"What did you see when you walked into David Harp's room?"
"He was lying on the bed. There was blood all over his nightshirt. There was a revolver on the floor. Somebody had shot him."
"I know what I saw."
"No, you don't. You only know how to describe what you saw. Mr. David Harp may have shot himself. For instance."
Sadly, one senses Norman genuinely struggling, striving for, craving the rigour of fable, the allegorical weight of a morality play. Instead, clunky and expository right down to the drearily predictable O. Henry "twist" of its finale, The Haunting of L. reads like a rejected "Twilight Zone" script.
So bad I would've sworn, in a blindfold test, it was a Paul Auster. ˛