Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Flying Troutmans

The Flying Troutmans



I searched my cache for images which evoke The Flying Troutmans for me. One picture of the highway through the Black Hills in South Dakota suggests the glimpse of hope in the distance for travellers in a hostile landscape where walls crowd in and rocks threaten to fall from the sky. The second shot, actually from Washington State, could accompany the newspaper caption "Why aren't you at the beach?" which the children associate with checking their mother in to the psych ward.

Miriam Toews' The Flying Troutmans

The Flying Troutmans


Miriam Toews' novel The Flying Troutmans is the story of a road trip. Hesitant Aunt Hattie Troutman (age 28) arrives home from Paris to help her niece Thebes (Theodora, age 11) and nephew Logan (age 15). The kids' mother Min, Hattie's older sister, is on the downswing of what appears to be an emotional cycling between manic creativity and suicidal depression which has been going on all Hattie's life. They bundle Min off to the psych ward. Hattie decides that she hasn't the skills to cope with the kids' problems with school, relationships, and the law. In desperation, she loads them into the van and heads out on a quest across America (South Dakota, Utah, Arizona, California) following leads about the whereabouts of their absent father Cherkis.

The three main characters in The Flying Troutmans are endearingly quirky; as a reader you don't want to abandon them. Thebes thrives within a sea of arts and crafts supplies; she is obsessed with words and provides running commentary from dictionaries and guidebooks. Logan, a cool silent teen, is preoccupied with basketball and driving, skills which allow him to practise maintaining control. Hattie can't let go of her Paris boyfriend who dumped her (twice) and, in a somewhat desperate attempt to meet another adult, accosts joggers, hitchhikers, stoners along the way. It is easy to empathize with her resistance to the caretaker role, her insecurities with being in loco parentis, torn between two needy youngsters, and her seeming inability to grow up herself.

This is a story about the challenges of living with a loved one who is mentally ill, about the distortions this condition creates in everyone within the patient's orbit, and about the necessity of both love and detachment if caregivers and dependents are to thrive themselves. Telephone calls, former addresses, kite strings, the lines painted on the highway are just some of the organic imagery reflecting themes of connection, boundaries, and control. Wonderful. With only one caution. The title refers to Logan's original phrase, The F'ing Troutmans.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero

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Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero


The first time I read Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero I was disappointed. A Canadian writer with not one Canadian reference, with a story set in California and France. I wondered about his motives. Is he playing up to Hollywood? And who are these characters? What is the story about? It seems to be all over the place. Self-indulgent? Pretentious? Confusing. Certainly not reader-friendly. Is Ondaatje coasting on his literary laurels? Does the Emperor have no clothes?

You know that old joke about the pile of horse manure in the middle of the room? I'm the type of person who believes that there's a pony in here somewhere. More than that, Ondaatje has given us so much already, I'm willing to take another stab at it, to trust the writer wherever he wants to take us. Even if that wherever happens to be poetic sensibility married to experimental novel structure. Poetic sensibility is good.

Divisadero is told in multiple voices. Part 1 begins in California in the 1970s, when a family--father, Coop, Anna, and Clare--is blown asunder by an act of violence. Anna goes into hiding and never returns home again. She pursues her research subject, an early twentieth century poet, Lucien Segura, from San Francisco's Bancroft Library to the house where he lived in France where she develops a relationship with Raphael, a man who knew Lucien. Clare works for a lawyer in San Francisco and goes home to father and the ranch on weekends. Coop becomes an itinerant gambler and when his misdeeds catch up with him, and a beating destroys his memory, Clare finds him and brings him home. Part 2 describes how the three generations of characters arrive at the house in France. Part 3 tells Lucien's story, his lonely childhood, the injury which blinded one eye, his love for his neighbour Marie-Neige, his marriage and daughters, his service as a field hospital worker during WWI, and his poetry. Divisadero goes backwards in time, from the New World to the Old. It is ultimately sad, full of things we do not want to think about like adultery, cheating, drug abuse, incest, theft, violence, and none of the stories end conclusively.


As I was looking for a photograph of a spiral tower like the one in Lucien's story, a picture revealed itself to me--an excerpt from Ilya Repin's grief-maddened Ivan the Terrible cradling his son's body after fatally striking him in anger. This painting is referenced in the last pages of the novel and the instant I saw it I recognized it as the key. Divisadero is a story about the terrible effects of violence on the victims and about how trauma affects everything which follows. That is why the story begins in California. That is why each of the multiple stories is attached to an example of the larger violence in the world, the Vietman War, the first Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq, World War I. The microcosm and the macrocosm. The inescapable reality of violence in the world and of its traumatic impact upon those who are the victims and the witnesses. Perhaps that even explains why there is no reference to Canada; the instances of universal violence are chosen from examples of US imperialism and European madness.

This Ivan the Terrible painting is the key and Ondaatje has hidden it, this clue to the quest for meaning, in the art reference. I think the experimental structure of Divisadero, which suggests a story written on a deck of cards, dropped and picked up at random, is meant to reflect real life, with its many connections, repetitions even, but not necessarily a linear plot. Or like the image he offers of the coloured shards of glass twisted into a beautiful pattern in a kaleidoscope. Yes. The key is in the art and the proof is in the poetry. Ondaatje even hints that we tend to hide in art, especially perhaps if we want novels to suggest that the world is a beautiful sunny ordered place where everyone gets back together at the end and lives happily ever after. Not in Ondaatje's world. As he said of Lucien, he protected himself with words, building art the way birds build nests, with words like sticks, like twigs collected in the field.

He protected himself with words

He protected himself with words like twigs collected from fields - Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Marilynne Robinson's Home

Marilynne Robinson's Home



Marilynne Robinson is an American writer from Idaho, a state which borders on BC. Her first novel, Housekeeping, about a family haunted by an accident in which a train derailed into a lake, was made into a movie filmed in Nelson, BC. Her second novel, Gilead, won the Pulitzer, and this one, Home, the Orange Prize.

Set in a small town called Gilead, Iowa in the 1950s, Home takes place almost completely in one house (plus the porch, the garden, the barn, and a short distance down the road). The house belongs to Robert Boughton, a widower and retired Presbyterian minister, father of six. The youngest, 38-year-old Glory, has returned home to look after her father. They are joined by Jack, the prodigal son, gone for twenty years, and trailing clouds of uncertainty and shame. There is not a great deal of action. People wait, have breakfast, coffee, meals; they weed the garden and work on an old car. They watch the traffic move down the road and listen when a vehicle stops. They buy a television, watch baseball, and news reports of the beginnings of the civil rights movement in the South. This is a story about parent/child and sibling relationships and about friendship. They discuss philosophy and theology, issues such as fate, predestination, soul, and grace. But what keeps the reader going, what you want to know, is what did happen and what will happen, because you care about these people. And you feel the tension, of a home, a family, on the edge.

This novel Home next to Cormac McCarty's The Road is a perfect representation of the House/Horse dichotomy—how women write about houses and security, about coming home, and men write about horses and adventure, leaving loved ones behind. Yet Robinson makes it clear, through plot, character, and philosophical/theological discussions, that whether making a home or escaping from one, we are all on the same road.