||A Review of: Blackbodying
by Gordon Phinn
Almost every writer, upon realising that the much sought after
palace of adulthood, with its glittering prizes of personal volition
and velocity, is actually the first act in a highly theatrical slog
to decrepitude and death, firmly turns their back on the flow of
time and attempts to reconquer the lost kingdom of childhood, where
they were young and easy under the apple boughs.
Most often, this leads to the inevitable spying on progeny from the
prim heights of parenthood and plying the aged with oily interest
and praise, followed by murmurs of assent and a slinking away to
take notes. But the lucky ones can lay claim to the divine gift of
memory and emboss their promise with such translucent prose that
the reader is transported to the once-considered lost with such
vibrant reanimation it would seem that, as the mystics say, all
time is now.
Both Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory and Michael Ondaatje's Running
In The Family come to mind as examples. But sadly, most attempts
to recapture the personal past fall short of their shining mark.
Likewise, Blackbodying is undermined by a lack of maturity and
original vision. Mr. Nasrallah fictionalises the gypsy exiles of
his childhood, mixing memory and desire to frame a series of
alternative narratives, nuanced with the usual convoluted pomo
attitudes and sliding helplessly into the morass of relentless
One might say, should one have the means and motive, that he tries
too hard. One might further assert that his book would make one of
a pair of interesting bookends on the spectrum of CanLit endeavour.
Blackbodying is a fictive memoir disguised as a novel--the one with
all the intricate psychological analysis, microscopic examination
of motive, gloomy existentialism and tortured heroes desperately
trying to make sense of it all. One needn't be an attack poodle of
the reactionary right to find lines such as, "He wonders if
his history has shaped his work, or if his work has shaped his
history," and "In training my mind to remember a certain
way, I thought my fiction, or rather my aesthetics, had changed
me," self-absorbed, pretentious and smirk-provoking.
With chapters such "The Present Together, a Specious Presence",
"Death of the Author" and "The Device And Matter of
Narration", one senses the unmistakable theoretical creak of
the creative writing class, and indeed Mr. Nasrallah has an MA from
Concordia in English Literature and Creative Writing'. If one is
to judge by the number of derivative novels, short story and poetry
collections issued in this country year after year (work not only
crafted but calloused with care and characterised by timid
appropriations of theme and tone, and a distinct inability to fire
up the reader with what one might term the passion of connection),
the effects of such instruction can only be deleterious to the
vitality of a growing national literature. Creative writing can be
taught, but can it be learned? As someone once said, "The next
Alice Munro will never write like Alice Munro."
Although one can sympathize with Mr. Nasrallah's childhood flight,
complete with family from war-torn Beirut, to a sunny, amiable
Athens, and a later divorce-charged disruption, landing mother and
son in the snowy Toronto suburbs, one cannot condone the tenth
generation ruminations on the meaning of narrative and the reliability
of memory. Neither can one wholly believe the narrator's device of
an inexplicable brain malfunction to bridge the unreality of the
various dreamscapes and flights of fancy-the various strands of his
alternative realities. Overheated fantasy lives often provide
sustained relief from traumatised pasts but for catharsis to be
anything other than dryly conceptual, their depiction should at
least rival the buried drama in intensity. Need I say that the
conventions of post-modernism have become trite with overuse? The
thought itself is a clich. One longs for at least a brief whistle
of indifference. It does not happen, and one turns to trill oneself.
For every Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and A History of
The World In Ten and a Half Chapters there are shelves of pallid
impostors. What a high price we pay for the promotion of genius.
"What happens to the writer when the writing is done,"
wonders Mr. Nasrallah in the midst of his textual appurtenances. I
would suggest he write another and another, until the energy for
all self flagellation and analysis is emptied from its vessel and
he can no longer tell the dancer from the dance.