Bewilderness

[25 April 2007]

By Simon Williamson

I’ve reviewed a lot of books, films, and albums, but never my favourites. I’ve always felt unequal to that task.

For the most part, I’ve reviewed works of “art” that I loathe, not love. It’s safer that way. So what if my review reveals Babel sucks? Maybe, due to unfairness or incapacity, I didn’t do it justice. Well, no harm done—it was godawful anyway. Its self-harm dwarfs any injury committed by my review.

But when you love a book, a film, or an album, justice must be done. If you do review it, you must capture the many shades, shapes, and textures of its glory. And if you can’t do that, shut the hell up. Because it’s better to say nothing than something wholly inadequate. Such, I guess, is the chilling effect of great art on reviewing. That’s why, when it comes to my faves, I keep quiet.

Recently, though, I reread one of my favourite books, one of the few that’s seeped into my bloodstream. It’s not widely known or widely read, and to me, this seems a terrible omission. So I thought I’d defy my own good counsel, just this once, and review it here. Hopefully, I can persuade at least a couple of you to read it.

The novel I’m talking about was written by a Canadian, Robert Kroetsch. Kroetsch has had a long and distinguished academic career. He’s also been a seminal writer in 20th-century Canadian fiction and poetry, but you’ve probably never read him. In the Australian bookstores I’ve poked through—from brightly lit megastores to pokey grandpa shops where books go to die—I’ve never once spotted one of his novels.

I’ve read three of Kroetsch’s novels. Two of them, The Man from the Creeks and The Studhorse Man, I didn’t even like. I read them only because I loved the third novel so much. That novel, What the Crow Said, is one of the oddest stories I’ve ever read. It’s rude, rambunctious, and totally uncalled for. And if I could write something that sublime, I’d happily draw my last breath.

The pleasures begin early. In the opening chapter of What the Crow Said, local beauty, Vera Lang, is impregnated by a swarm of bees. Yes, you read right. Impregnated. Swarm of bees. At least Kroetsch starts the way he intends to continue. (If readers can swallow that, he probably figured, they’ll have no trouble going along with the rest of the story.) Vera’s pregnancy is but the first of many bizarre events in the Municipality of Bigknife, situated on the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta, where Canadian prairies meet and merge with Kroetschian bewilderness.

Bigknife features, among other things, a chatty, profanity-spewing crow; an impromptu card game that lasts 151 days; a rash of bizarre pregnancies; a local newspaperman who can intermittently “remember” the future; an unnaturally prolonged winter; and a war declared by the men of Bigknife against the sky.

Kroetsch offers up a memorable cast of characters. They’re broadly sketched, but that’s not a defect—that’s simply the kind of novel it is. It’s not an endlessly receding hall of mirrors, with Marquez-like consciousness as its object. Instead it’s a riotous tapestry, two dimensions full of impregnation, elation, and defecation, and lots of other -ations besides. That’s how What the Crow Said, though only short, teems with characters and overflows with incident. Kroetsch hurtles the reader past the people and happenings of Bigknife, documenting epic weirdness in summary sentences that are masterpieces of comic compression.

The characters are suitably askew. There’s the municipality’s priest, Father Basil, who’s under the curious impression that Bigknife’s stuck in endless winter because “the world lacks sufficient centrifugal force to maintain its roundness”. There’s farmer Isador Heck who “argued against the existence of the world beyond the municipality”, but recants after touring the continent as a man fired from a cannon (of course). Looking down as he flies through the air, Isador comes to believe that “On the contrary ... everything existed”.

Then there’s Martin Lang, the no-account husband of Tiddy. He freezes to death early on, but intermittently haunts the municipality as a ghost. Tiddy, meanwhile, raises six daughters—Vera, Gertrude, Rose, Anna-Marie, Rita, and Cathy—who are most notable for the bizarre nature of their pregnancies. (Except for Rita – she remains a virgin, and contents herself with writing erotic letters to prisoners on death row in Vancouver.)

There’s also John Skandl, the local ice-cutter, who trumps rivals in the quest for the widowed Tiddy’s hand in marriage by building a lighthouse made of ice. Skandl’s chief rival, and the closest thing to a protagonist in What the Crow Said, is Gus Leibhaber, the editor and printer of the local rag, the Big Indian Signal. Leib’s convinced that Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press has made memory obsolete. Presumably, that’s why he remembers the future, but has only a fumbly grasp on the past.

The book reads like the outgrowth—throbbing with fecund, foul-mouthed energy—of pub bullshitting sessions. You can imagine the bullshitters, propped around a table, beery and bleary, contradicting, confirming, and elaborating on each other’s tales—and, in so doing, piecing together an oral history. Kroetsch takes this humour, hyperbole, and abuse, and fashions from it a community, a narrative voice, and a novel.

Few writers match Kroetsch’s flair for mining the comic potential of degradation. When Cathy Lang’s Cree husband, Joe Lightning, falls from the sky (it’s complicated), he lands in a toilet pit behind the Church of the Final Virgin. Joe survives the fall, but drowns in sewage because the watching churchgoers don’t want to muss their Sunday best. It’s absurd, and it’s foul and funny, but there’s bared teeth in all that laughter. Kroetsch’s humour often carries a caustic edge, obscured though it may be by deadpan hyperbole and droll non-sequiturs. For example, when Leib—who remembers the future long enough to predict an imminent flood—gets trapped in the river beneath the hull of the boat he’s building, the results are a hoot but also humiliating.

But don’t be misled by the absurdity and the fascination with bodily functions, What the Crow Said is unfailingly smart. Kroetsch dallies with post-structuralist ideas; he’s fascinated with how language fits reality, and with subverting the binaries (man-woman, freedom-domesticity, cold-hot) we use to organise the world. But this isn’t an academic essay—I want to point out the big brain that ticks behind the nonsense and filth, but not get mired in eggheaded abstraction.

There’s so much to love about this novel—the joyous energy of its silliness and invention; its relish for words, stories, and jokes; the jolt of its occasional cruelties; and the way it balances the squalor of its humour with the altitude of its intellect. Like any book whose embrace you can’t shrug off, there are always depths to be plumbed, corners to be excavated, and readings to be revised. That’s why it will never get stale: its possibilities can’t be exhausted.

The closing chapter is a tour de force. The narration clicks into present tense as the narrator observes the Lang farm, noting the doings of character after character. Fortifications are breached when the male and female principals are finally united. In Tiddy’s bed, man and woman, past and present, sex and death, body and brain, language and reality finally come together, though the novel’s final sentence describes aching, poignant separation.

Magician, artist, and conductor, Kroetsch brings his story’s disparate elements together, capturing moments, memories, and themes, and weaving them into a rapt, soaring symphony of life. Anything this frank and vivid—this full of blustering overstatement, rowdy glee, and copious shitting—will necessarily repel some readers. But many readers, like me, will read What the Crow Said and see in it a miracle, a gift in prose for those with a capacity for wonder and an appetite for gorgeous bullshit.

What the Crow Said
University of Alberta Press, 1998

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/bewilderness/