This novel won the Pulitzer in 1995. The author is Canadian. My poetry professor in college recommended me this book 15 years ago. That’s everything I knew about this novel going in. It’s a good novel. It really is. It’s kind of a novel’s novel. What I mean by this is that it focuses on the small events of a family’s lifespan. It involves multiple narrative techniques. It has themes. It has some pictures. It has some humor, some weirdness, and it’s a little over 300 pages. It’s also a very 1990s novel. It’s the story of a 20th century life, but not really a specific plot.
Late in the novel, we have the main narrator/main focus of the novel talk about contemporary North American life. It’s not that it seems quaint, but it does feel slightly outmoded in terms of our proximal concerns in the US, but not necessarily our ultimate ones:
“When we say say a thing or an event is real, never mind how suspect it sounds, we honor it. But when a thing is made up–regardless of how true and just it seems–we turn up our noses. That’s the age we live in. The documentary age. As if we can never, never get enough facts. We put on the television set and what we hear is the life cycles of birds. The replaying of wars. Interviews with mass murderers. And the newpapers know nothing else.
A Canadian journalist named Pinky Fulham was killed when a soft drinks vending machine overturned, crushing him. Apparently he has been rocking it back and forth, trying to dislodge a stuck quarter. Years ago Pinky Fulham did Mrs. Daisy Flett a grave injury, so when she hears about his death she can’t very well pretend to any great sorrow.”
This focus on facts is not at odds with our current sense of “fake news” or “feelings creating reality” but instead is worried about the flattening of a lived life. Think more so about the tension of fiction posed as nonfiction or nonfiction with anything pointed or missing or exaggerated. This tension is about what is lost in the retelling of a story or a life or what happens when narrative time pushes past the every day. This focus was a very 1980s and 90s consideration in some academic circles like anthropology, history, and creative writing.
The narrators tells early on: “The recounting of a life is a cheat, of course; I admit the truth of this; even our own stories are obscenely distorted; it is a wonder really that we keep faith with the simple container of our existence. During that twelve-year period it is probably that my father’s morning porridge was sometimes thin and sometimes thick. It is likely, too, that he rubbed up against the particulars of passion, snatched from overheard conversations with his fellow workers or the imperatives of puberty, or caught between the words of popular songs or rare draughts of strong drink. He did attend the Bachelor’s Ball, he did shake the hand of Lord Stanley when the old fellow steam-whistled through in 1899. My father was not blind, despite the passivity of his youth disposition, nor was he stupid. He must have looked about from time to time and observed that even in the dea heart of his parents’ house there existed minor alteration of mood and varying tints of feeling. Nevertheless, twelve working years passed between the time he left school and the day he met and fell in love with Mercy Stone and found his life utterly changed. Miraculously changed.”
This spirit does capture the frustration and the motivation that this novel seems to want to narrate. We have the entire life of character parceled out in big chunks, but the novel is only 360 pages. There are huge gaps of time. So instead we have thematic categories of existence that each small section covers. In those sections we also have myriad kinds of storytelling, from letters, to pictures, to journals, to direct narration, to indirect narration. The total picture then is incomplete, but satisfying because it covers the multiple modality of a life. And at the end, we still don’t know any more of how to make of it, than do the people left behind, picking through the artifacts.