No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, January 26, 2006

#7: Visible Worlds -- Marilyn Bowering

Bought this years ago in one of the Greenwich remainder shops: how I miss all those mysterious, cheap paperbacks!

Visible Worlds has two narrative threads. One (first person, present tense) is Albrecht's story. Albrecht, his twin brother Gerhard live in a small town in rural Canada, the children of German immigrants. Their father is a slaughterhouse worker who, in his spare time, promotes the science of Personal Magnetism. Their mother is staunchly supportive of Bella Bone, abandoned wife of Cree Indian Bill Bone, who trains animals for the circus; icily dismissive of the spiritualist practice of 'Madame Pince-Jones' (a.k.a. Mrs Fergusson) who lives next door. Albrecht and Gerhard spend their time hanging out with Bella's son Nate; eyeing up the Fergusson girls; wishing they were old enough to learn to fly.

The other narrator (third person, past tense) is Fika, a young woman who is skiing across the ice-cap from Russia to Canada in the spring of 1960. Fika is short for Elektrifikatsiya -- a name from the labour camp where she's spent several years -- but her real name is something quite different. Her two comrades have died, and she skis on alone, hallucinating, dreaming, remembering the stories and the family histories told to her by her friend in the labour camp, a blind man named Gerhard.

Aha! you're probably thinking. The two strands connect. Well, yes, and no. Bowering plays tricks, and I'm only noticing some of them now as I skim through, thinking about the novel.

There are elements that link the two narratives: meteor iron (Fika wears a chunk of it around her neck; Bill Bone recounts the story of a talismanic meteorite that, once removed from Cree land, plunged the nation into misfortune; Nate and Albrecht chase -- and catch -- a falling star the night Nate's sister dies), people who walk with limps, lost children, the past coming back to haunt those who think they've escaped. There are people who share the same name (so that you think you're knitting the strands of narrative together, and then find that you've been fooled), and people who change names. And the end of the book is actually the first chapter.

Bowering has another technique which can be admirable or infuriating: skimming over the actual events and writing of their consequence, of the reactions of those not directly involved. Because of the limited involvement of the two major viewpoint characters (she does introduce a third voice, very briefly, near the end: he even gets a different typeface) so much is never really known, explained, understood. Personal Magnetism, for example:

My father says that there are invisible wires, magnetic pathways, fibers of force. He used to come into our room during thunderstorms and, standing in the darkness between flashes of lightning bolts, squeeze on a broomstick to increase the nervous flow to his muscles, neutralizing imbalances by placing ice between his feet and grounding the static.

It's never clear whether it does anyone any good: but there are other esoteric elements -- mostly concerning Nate -- in the book, and Albrecht seems to accept those as blithely as he accepts the Canadian weather and the colours of the ice beneath him as he flies to Alaska.

No one here gets out scot-free: they're all flawed, and eccentric, and difficult in their own arbitrary ways. But they're fascinating, and Bowering has the knack of encapsulating extreme emotional states: Friedl, for example, in stark despair:

To want what isn't yours? What's so bad about that? The architect planned and the builder wrought, and what choice did she have when it came to her heart? She didn't invent herself, did she? It isn't her fault. She has done her best, but she is still in the deserted banquet hall alone. She hates her life. She does not want to be a good wife or mother any longer. Shame runs like molten lead right through her, burning out her insides, exposing the empty core, the nothingness from which nothing can grow.

I'll be looking out for more by this author: writing this review, I find myself as fascinated by her technique, her structure, as by the tale she tells or the language she uses to tell it.

Just checking the author's availability on Amazon: practically everything's out of print, and it's mostly poetry. Some poets can't do novels: those who can are wonderful to read.

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