Elisabeth Harvor may be Canada's least known literary celebrity. Published in Saturday Night and The New Yorker, her work has received critical acclaim on both sides of the border. Excessive Joy Injures The Heart is a national bestseller; Let Me Be The One was a finalist for the 1996 Governor General Award. Harvor's work has garnered numerous awards and critical accolades. And yet when I gushed about these books to several people whom I consider well read, I was met with "Now, who is she again?" Well, where to begin?
Elisabeth Harvor's prose style is eroticized. This is not to say that she employs a purposefully heightened lyricism so often a coy stand-in for "the act"; Harvor doesn't much go in for "the act". Nor does she go in for lyrical writing. What she does is assume a sexual life for her characters that transcends the need to visit the boudoir, or the poetics of circumvention (i.e. metaphoric sex with lots of pretty clues but no real details). Harvor uses her characters' sexual attributes as writerly conduits for an expansive palette of emotion:
But then she started to feel sexy. It was her nipples, they were feeling shrunken and aroused by the cool breeze from the fan. She tilted her hips and placed her hand on herself as if she were about to take the oath of allegiance, but too far down on her body... she couldn't do anything at all to relieve her condition, it would only compound her feeling of worthlessness. ("The Mad Maze Made By God" p127)
The erotic becomes a clue to the emotional, and the writing hovers tantalizingly just out of reach of both. Harvor's writing gleams with an euphoric shimmer of sex¨sensual nuances suggested by her very vocabulary, by her choice of word combinations, by the thrust of the narrative technique. There is very little concern for conventional plot in the stories included in Let Me Be The One. The fixation is the conflation, or coincidence of memory and event, and even more than that the effect of past events, and the emotional bending that goes on when a character is reminded. While this may appear to be an esoteric form of naval gazing it does not come across as such. Instead, the stories have the unsettling and sometimes comforting effect of mirroring the reader; Harvor's characters, who seem to revel and repulse in a hyper-awareness of their every neural synapse, project themselves onto every nook and cranny of their worlds, are also entirely realistic; they are us. But because they are ineffectually internal, they can never really penetrate the lives of those around them. Their passions are revealed as painful subtext to what dares to come out, or in some brief action suggesting this or that inner truth. There is a lot of passive aggression, not to mention passive seduction. Harvor's stories abound with any number of unexpressed ideals, worked over until they bleed by her protagonists and then quickly hidden out of fear of embarrassment.
I believed in the worst, always, and always believed it would happen to me. Or did I? Didn't I also believe just the opposite? Whenever I tried to answer a magazine quiz about personality types I always scored high for opposing qualities. I was an optimist, but also a pessimist. I had a great need for solitude, but I was also an extrovert. I was poorly organized, but also a compulsive. ("There Goes The Groom", p71)
The characters are so attuned, so sensitive, they often lack clear boundaries. Their stream of consciousness, internal monologue, which is the focus of their reality, rather than any external event that might interfere with that, has a heightened crystalline concreteness, as if neurosis is paramount, as if the neurotic life is the true manifestation of reality. A liberal relativist mindset, the necessity of seeing a thing from every viewpoint, is the tragic flaw of all Harvor's protagonists. In "Love Begins With Pity", Jessie is drawn into a relationship with a young poetry student. She contrives an alliance with him (at least in her mind's eye) which falls short of an affair. He is kind to her but he does little to elicit her behaviour; this stems from an act of pity by him that saves face for her in the classroom and grows parasitically in her mind until it is almost greater than the sum of its parts. It is this spilling out, this crushing inability to contain herself that endears the character to us. Harvor's characters tend to ape our neurotic, spinning fantasies, moving us away from traditional plot and into this other human intercourse that is electric in its connectivity. Plot becomes a spiral of past, perception of past and a collage of what all that means in terms of present. That Harvor accomplishes this is testament to her great talent.
In her novel Excessive Joy Injures The Heart, Elisabeth Harvor examines the themes of compulsive behavior, well, obsessively. Claire, a secretary for an allopathic medical doctor seeks help from a variety of alternative healers in the hope of curing her insomnia. Her inner life takes over; she is drawn into the New Age sub-culture in a way that suggests cultish brain-washing. Declan Farrell, her chosen "healer" is a lapsed medical doctor with a penchant for border-line quackery. He seeks to heal the whole person by using a variety of peculiar, yet strangely compelling, techniques that run the gamut from massage to visualisation to primal shrieking. Claire's insomnia never subsides; in fact, her compulsive neurotic thought process is, to some extent, exacerbated as the insomnia becomes a pretext for her visits to Declan and she falls ridiculously and inextricably into an emotional relationship with him that one hesitates to call love as collapsed as it is.
Claire's craving for Declan and the suffering that accompanies it make for compelling reading. This sort of readerly obsession is, in fact, a perverse fascination with the detailed inner workings of another because Claire reflects the reader's own self. What Harvor has created is a closed world between the book (a portrait of just one character, really) and the reader. Harvor has painted the underside of human passion, that careful dressing of oneself, literally and figuratively, in order to attract the heart's desire. She also shows the roller coaster effect one cruel word from that object of love will have on the obsessed. That is all she has done¨no story, no real climax, a paltry resolution, more a dissolution really. This book is instead a spiraling of disappointments and hopes, the debris of a chaotic interior life, and the knowledge that whatever is apparent is somehow beside the point. It is hope that conquers despair, nothing else. And all that is achieved with Harvor's particularly transparent and lucid voice, without melodrama, or even regret, but instead with a light touch concealing a multitude of little bitter truths. Excessive Joy Injures The Heart is an obsession-making, confoundingly un-put-down-able novel; you may experience sleeplessness combined with a yearning, beguiling need to read it all in one sitting. ˛