canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Moriah: A Quartet
by David George Taylor
Buschek Books, 2003

Reviewed by Adam Swimmer

Moriah: A Quartet is the type of book only an academic could write. With a doctorate from the University of Toronto and having taught at various universities, author David George Taylor clearly demonstrates a strong command of the English language in his book. However, his precision in word choice makes the collection of four stories read more like an essay than fiction. Supposedly thematically connected through ruminations on father figures, the stories offer little more than an opportunity for the writer to make speeches through the characters on the evils of such things as child molestation, religion and the Boy Scouts of America.

Taylor has a knack for skipping past the action right into the exposition. In the story, 'Moriah,' for instance, Matthias Fortescue has an argument with his clergyman father, who enlisted him in the Second World War without his knowledge. Then, the narrative abruptly jumps to Matthias lying in a hospital bed in Germany and he's suddenly missing an appendage:

'Matthias produced the stub of his left arm, which had been amputated several inches above the elbow, and had it examined.'

This was one of the many times where the author had quickly skimmed past integral plot points and I had to stop reading and utter a confused 'What?' at the pages. The book explains briefly in the next paragraph that the Lancaster bomber Matthias was flying was shot down and the crash mangled his arm.

Even the passages about Matthias' stay in the German POW camp have less to do with his survival than with the correspondence between him and his mother on why his father had sent him to war. Matthias discovers his enlistment was his father's religious sacrifice. (Moriah is where Abraham takes his son Isaac to kill him for brownie points with God.) So after a few pages in which Matthias points out the inconsistencies between the Old and New Testaments, Matthias is released from Stalag 14 and sent home. He then has another fight with his father and the story ends.

'Spy' has the most promising premise of all the stories in the book. Set in 1938, it follows Heinrich Gr'dde, a German immigrant to Canada who receives a letter to return home and be debriefed as a spy so he can infiltrate his new country. He has no intention of doing this, but his father and nephews still live in Germany and so he decides to go back in an attempt to get them to safety. But nothing remotely espionage-like happens. He simply shows up and gives them passports. The narrative doesn't follow them on their journey, Heinrich just finds out later that they're safe. And no repercussions occur whatsoever. Heinrich doesn't even get in trouble for skipping his meeting with the Ministry of the Interior.

Only 'The Other,' Taylor's final story seems appropriate for his tell-not-show writing style, It's the story of Frederick Appleton Wilberforce Courtney, a man who still lives at home after his parents' death and has nothing to do in his life other than watch his neighbours and put the garbage out. Though, the story isn't the least bit interesting. Risk and sacrifice, I suppose, are the connecting motifs of this collection: Reverend Fortescue sacrifices his son to war. Heinrich risks his livelihood to save his father and nephews in Germany, and also a young waiter he fears a Nazi jeweller will molest. Frederick has sacrificed his adult life by never moving out of his parents' house. And in 'The Swans,' hobos ride the rails' I guess that's a risk of sorts.

But the greatest sacrifice, is the time I spent reading this book. Perhaps the retired Professor Taylor should look back at the curriculum for his English courses he taught to see what makes good fictional writing as he seems to have missed a few key elements in his own work. Or perhaps he should just stick with painting. (He also provided the cover art for the book.)

But then again, Moriah: A Quartet could have been worse. It could have been more than 87 pages.







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