canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Grammar Architect
by Chris Eaton
Insomniac Press, 2005

Reviewed by Roger Davidson

The Grammar Architect, Chris Eaton’s second novel, touts itself, in keeping with its author’s musical alter-career, as a ‘literary cover’. That is to say, it takes its original, Thomas Hardy’s 1873 novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes (a strange choice by anyone’s standards, which might strike one as an act of revenge; was Eaton beaten with it as a schoolboy? - or worse, made to read it?), and plays what might justifiably be called ‘riffs’ over the top of a (vaguely) existent structure, and it triumphantly does so with as much logic as you’ll find in a Syd Barrett guitar solo (and I mean late Syd Barrett).

I won’t try to outline the plot for you. Suffice to say, Eaton’s book is one of shifting surfaces, plastic reality, and the kind of linguistic trickery made intellectually respectable by Jacques Derrida and his various sects. The Grammar Architect starts with Hardy’s tale of doomed provincial love, and then chops it up, rearranges, and rather whimsically adorns it, until it only very vaguely gestures at something to do with the original (not that anyone ought to care about that). There are numerous vague and wispy characters whose lives and libidos intersect and merge, giving the reader a kaleidoscopic sense of uninvolvement, and there are simultaneously myriad cultural references, both high-brow canonical and trashy pop (from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen to Boobs Magazine). There are science-fiction subplots featuring time travel and invisibility potions, as well as appearances from contemporary celebrities, such as the recently ‘sexualized’ Welsh pop commodity, Charlotte Church. The rest you can discover for yourselves, if all this stirs you.

The humor is smart and wordy enough, but not truly exalting. Eaton raises smirks and provokes begrudging allowances. He has a mind obviously fascinated by philosophy and things intellectual – aesthetics and theory – and belongs among those writers who are rather more inclined to intellectual flourishes than emotionally evolved novelistic craftsmanship. He reads like a clever schoolboy rather than an accomplished practitioner of the novelist’s art (once again, call me old-fashioned). But the novel is not really an intellectual entity in its best manifestation. Hardy himself wrote that a novel is nothing more than ‘an impression; and there the matter must rest.’ The Grammar Architect is rather more like a series of impressions in the modern comedy sense. Eaton can throw words around with clever facility, and he can conjure some striking images, but there’s never any sense of substance. That’s deliberate, of course, because he obviously inclines towards the current school of cheerfully shoulder-shrugging obscurantists and mystifiers who think of themselves as ‘postmodern’, and who aren’t really current at all (in fact, I’m tempted to call them ‘Old School’ now). The fact is, the postmodern novel is no spring chicken. Martin Amis’s Money (1985) was, for my money, the best of the British, while any of several works by Don Delillo could be considered the best of the Americans, even though White Noise (also 1985) could be seen as the last gasp of the postmodern novel, the expression of a cultural entity sick of itself, groaning into the hangover phase and nobly trying to sober up – and that was twenty-one years ago! These were some serious books, too - they had intent. Eaton’s writing, if sometimes clever and skillfully wrought, is rather breezy, over-playful, affected and flippant. On the upside, the book is reasonably amusing here and there on the subject of the surreality of the attempt to fully comprehend reality, motives, and the chains of events, in intellectual terms. But theoretical meandering, arty name-dropping (though I suppose that mentioning Charlotte Church and Richard Wagner in the same sentence qualifies as ‘postmodern’ wit), and the use of words such as ‘ontological’ does not gain any novelistic points with the reader who is looking for more than a clever-but-empty laugh, and an ironic sense of erudition. We are all familiar with novelist-cum-philosophers who find outlets for their half-baked ideas by putting them in the mouths of their characters, thereby washing their hands of any real commitment – remember DH Lawrence’s highly embarrassing insertions of pseudo-Nietzschean bullshit in Women in Love?

And now my final gripe: The Grammar Architect’s rear-cover blurb proudly advertises it as, and I quote, a ‘magical realist’ story, ‘like a pop culture Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work’ (Insomniac’s blurb-writers could perhaps do with a grammar architect of their own). Now let’s just take a deep breath! These words form part of the publisher’s own synopsis, and are not the words of a misguidedly enthusiastic reviewer. Talk about trumpet blowing! The great Garcia Marquez! Excuse me, but I have to dismiss that out of hand. Magical realism? This notion I am at least willing to discuss - and I take issue with it. If we are to work with Angel Flores’s intelligent definition of the genre – ‘an amalgamation of realism and fantasy’ – then we have to question whether Eaton’s book achieves this form. That is, does it amalgamate realism with fantasy, or does it just bunch them together for entertainment? Now I might be about to bore you, but magical realism is not about having spaced-out metaphysical fun – it is a serious, hard-won literary technique with an unusual but specific artistic end. According to Lindsay Moore, the true magical realist form requires that

The writer must have ironic distance from the magical world view for the realism not to be compromised. Simultaneously, the writer must strongly respect the magic, or else the magic dissolves into simple folk belief or complete fantasy, split from the real instead of synchronized with it.

Magical realism, then, performs a synthesis, and as such, fuses the familiar with the unfamiliar in order to round out its effects, and, through strangeness, to reveal the uncanniness of human experience, the elusive and multifarious shades of Being. Does The Grammar Architect achieve this? I would say not, firstly because there is not a sufficient sense of realism against which to offset the magical elements. That is, if we can call them ‘magical elements’ – does the sudden feature of an invisibility potion fulfill the criterion of the magical as such? Or is this just mere fantasy? In these terms, Eaton has an ironic distance from the real while simultaneously neglecting to ‘respect the magic’, allowing it to lapse into ‘complete fantasy, split from the real, instead of synchronized with it’, and as such is an aesthetic failure as magical realism. Now, forgive my toughness on this, but this book has been described (in an intelligent enough piece by someone on, if you’re interested) as possibly being ‘the best Canadian novel of [2005]’, so I don’t feel I ought to blunt my analysis here, if that’s the level we’re playing at – after all, Canadian literature is a serious business, is it not? (‘Hear hear!’ I hear you cry)

I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading The Grammar Architect for a bit of fun, but I would discourage them from taking it so seriously as to consider it a work of ‘postmodernism’, a term which has sadly too often been posed as a catchphrase for anything that succeeds in remaining non-committal and flippant while managing to seem clever. Also, let’s not get confused about magical realism, which is a serious and often profound genre worthy of respect. Eaton has unquestionable style. If I rubbish outright the Garcia Marquez reference, I’ll take my chances and say that I suppose I was reminded vaguely of Thomas Pynchon at certain points – albeit of the rather poorer parts, the sequences in the Slow Learner stories, V., and Gravity’s Rainbow, where the characters are painfully hanging around, vomiting, screwing, and jibing, and you really wish Pynchon would get his writing boots back on.

This might suggest that Eaton has it all to come as a writer, and I hope he does, because some of his sentences have a lovely glitz about them, and not everyone can do that. I’m not sure how old he is, though his picture on the back cover suggests thirty-ish, assuming there’s more hair under the baseball cap, which is a good age to get serious. Good luck to him.

Roger Davidson is a Scottish writer and journalist currently living in Québec and working on a novel about contemporary socialism. He can be contacted or contradicted at papadavidson[at]






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