This year I have resolved to read twenty-six Canadian books that I have not read before. My intention is for most of these to be novels, but I want to leave some wiggle room for politics or biography (as I expect there will be a few good pieces of each coming out in this year, given all of the excitement of last). As a part of keeping myself on track, my plan is to write a brief comment on each on this blog to serve as a gentle reminder of failure or success.
To start the year off, I picked up Lisa Moore’s ‘Alligator’. No particularly great reasoning behind the choice of the book save that Ms. Moore is close to an exact contemporary, grew up in St. John’s and was educated across the playground from me in St. Pius X Girls School (the Boys School was happily, on windy days, just downhill). I thought to start in the east and in my hometown seemed appropriate for the occasion.
While my choice was not made on the basis of any real literary criteria I chose well.
There are really only two plots in literature – a man goes on a voyage and a stranger comes to town (which arguably are the same the story from different viewpoints) – and Alligator explores voyages and strangers in the setting of modern St. John’s. The story weaves between six loosely associated characters who each (with one exception) seem bewildered by the arrival of a stranger into their lives.
The strangers though are not new arrivals from afar, instead they are strangers from close at hand. Beverly is overwhelmed by the stranger that has come into her life in the form of Colleen, her teenage daughter. Colleen is startled by the end of childhood and the first signs of the arrival of adulthood. Frank, an ordinary man – barely more than a boy – is frightened by the arrival of Valentin, a foreign gangster demanding his hot dog stand and plotting an escape from St. John’s. Madeleine, a filmmaker is surprised by the arrival of age. The only character who is not startled by a stranger is Valentin, who is determined that the world will not act on him but that he will act on the world. In the end though, events overtake even him.
These stories are interesting not because they show physical journeys but because they show the most difficult voyage we all take is through time and through the day to day of our lives. Indeed, each of the physical journeys described in the book are a bust – an expedition to sabotage forestry equipment is futile; a past vacation in Mexico, an embarrassment; a quest to Louisiana to find an alligator preserve and a man who survived an alligator attack inconsequential and uncomfortable. The most interesting parts of the story all happen within a few miles of each other in St. John’s. The true stranger in each of the character’s lives (even the gangster’s) is the present. Each character is faced with a life that is unrecognizable to the one in they dreamed.
The main character in this story, however, is St. John’s. It is not however, the quaint or historic St. John’s of Wayne Johnston. It is the St. John’s constructed out off the usual junk that has filled all of our cities since the 1960’s. It is a city of utilitarian buildings and miserable weather. Though Moore is too good a writer to spend any (well much) time describing the weather, I felt the rain, drizzle and fog in every page and felt myself pulling my covers closer to keep out the cold (although the -30 in Kenora may have contributed to that). The St. John’s that Moore portrays rings true – it is not a quaint city but it still is not absorbed into the grey sameness of every other city. It made me think that cities are perhaps like Tolstoy’s families – happy ones are all happy in the same way; unhappy ones are each unhappy in their own way.
Moore is clearly though a writer more focused on character than plot. There is ultimately a story that weaves most – although not all -- of these characters together, although it does not result in a single story in the end. Instead there are three central stories (Colleen and Beverly, Frank and Valentin and Madeleine (and herself)) with characters from the other stories playing supporting roles. Frank, for example, is an incident in Colleen’s story and Colleen (though a major obsession for Frank) is in fact a transitory actor in Frank’s downfall. The plot though seems incidental when compared to Moore’s real goal of exploring these character’s reactions to the events around them and painting the contrasts between people at different stages of their life (Madeleine and Colleen could be the same person removed from one an other by fifty years).
Moore's writing is excellent. The characters remain sympathetic even when being cruel or ridiculous. She captures how we all feel when looking at the contradictions between how we want to be, how we are and how we see ourselves. She describes with a light touch and effectively evokes without leading us through paint by numbers depictions of scene or setting. An excellent read.