canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Dorothy L'Amour: A Novel
by Lynn Crosbie
Doubleday, 1999

Caesarea: A Novel
by Tony Burgess
ECW Press, 1999

More Die of Heartbreak: A Novel
by Saul Bellow
Viking, 1987

Review by Michael Bryson

About a third of the way into More Die of Heartbreak Saul Bellow writes:

There aren't any words for what happens to the soul in the free world. Never mind "rising entitlements", never mind the luxury "life-style." ... Full wakefulness would make us face up to the new death, the peculiar ordeal on our side of the world. The opening of a true consciousness to what is actually occurring would be a purgatory.

The "our side of the world" Bellow speaks about is "the West," the democratic states opposed the Eastern Communist tyranny. Though the Cold War victory came quickly in 1989, Bellow's exploration of the West's "peculiar ordeal" remains poignant. If it's true that "there aren't any words for what happens to the soul in the free world," Bellow begins to tell us where we might find them. Over a decade later, Tony Burgess and Lynn Crosbie are continuing that process.

For a type of "purgatory" is exactly what readers will find in Burgess's Caesarea and Crosbie's Dorothy L'Amour. Burgess's novel is the third and final installment of the Bewdley Trilogy, a cycle of novels which includes The Hellmouths of Bewdley and Pontypool Changes Everything. Each of these novels is stuffed with weird happenings of the most horrific kind, putting Burgess in league with the likes of William S. Burroughs and other writers whose surrealism is lifted to metaphor for the strangeness of our age.

Burgess's Bewdley Trilogy takes place in small town Ontario. The trilogy features flesh eating zombies, evil doctors, language-based viruses and internet terrorists. The plots largely defy summary and interpretation. Burgess presents a world devoid of stable meaning. His novels are experimental in the best sense of the term. His writing undermines the often unquestioned assumptions of our culture. To return to Bellows: "The opening of a true consciousness to what is actually occurring would be a purgatory."

It must be said, however, that Caesarea is the weakest link of the trilogy. The weirdness is all pervasive, a technique which gives it little leverage as metaphor, since the reader too quickly loses any sense of the relationship between the world of the novel and the world outside the window. It is as if Alice began her story already down the rabbit hole. The connection between the above and the below is lost.

In Dorothy L'Amour, the connection between the real world and the world of artiface is also blurred - in this case because Crosbie has written a novelization of the life of murdered Playboy Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten (1960-1980).

The primary problem with Crosbie's writing - the brilliant poetry, her audacious first novel, Paul's Case - continues here. Namely, she constructs her narratives out of cultural icons and places too much weight on what those icons signify. Crosbie is not the country's greatest storyteller, nor is she a great creator of character - however, she is hugely daring and intelligent and funny (in an odd way, perhaps, but still funny). In short, Crosbie's writing is an essential antidote to the bland lyricism which has swept Canada's literary awards year after year.

Crosbie's Stratten says of her life "it's like driving a Jaguar, all the time." The trouble is, Crosbie's prose does not whirl like a tornado - or zip page to page like a Jaguar. The prose instead illustrates Stratten from the outside, or provides interpretive glimpses of Stratten's world-eye-view (the Jaguar metaphor, for example). Readers will be left to simply trust Crosbie's judgment. Did Stratten speed through life? Most of Crosbie's prose suggests otherwise.

For example, here Crosbie's Stratten remembers advice from a high school English teacher:

Understand this: confession is codified like anything else. One confesses to sins that are narrowly circumscribed by convention and custom. To contravene these ethical laws is simply to inscribe oneself as other within a fixed system.

Does that sound like a narrator who's speeding through life? (Why would she remember that?). Surely she sounds more like a narrator full of the knowledge of her own tragic demise. The reader enters the novel with this knowledge also, and Stratten's violent death is never deep beneath the surface.

Crosbie should be applauded for resisting any temptation to simplify Stratten, as Stratten's last boyfriend (Peter Bogdanovich) did in his book The Killing of the Unicorn. In fact, Crosbie's narrative - like Burgess's - resists closure and interpretation. In this sense, Crosbie's purpose here is a literary rescue job - saving Stratten from the confines of her icon status. Crosbie has humanized the Playmate, complicated her - and by using often archaic language, shown Stratten perhaps to be unknowable.

And what about Bellow? What does it mean, "more die of heartbreak"? One character in the novel, a botanist, tells a reporter more people die from heartbreak than from radiation poisoning. The botanist is thought to be insensitive to those suffering from radiation poisoning, but Bellow's point is clearly that the conflicts of the heart are poorly understood and even more poorly included in the great media circus that passes for contemporary civic discourse.

More Die of Heartbreak isn't one of Bellow's great novels. The plot is thin, and it serves largely as a frame for Bellow to hang his intellectual musings. Like Dorothy L'Amour, Bellow's novel invites readers to return to original sources, making the novel itself little more than a catalogue of previously disseminated ideas. Its prime value is like that of the tent evangelist preaching the old time religion. It is a challenge to the present to engage in a dialogue with the past. Every generation that tries to remake the world fails. Once we admit our own failure the past can offer solace and wisdom, not simply a terror we try hard to ignore.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.