Monday, November 17, 2008

Amends, Part II

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 6, Number 4

Paul Quarrington

Remember King Leary? The Ravine is by the same author, in whose personality I am becoming intensely interested.

King Leary was side-splitting. The Ravine is also very funny, but more complex. It's a novel about the writing of a novel - the narrator is shuffling the account of his life into some sort of order, for a specific purpose: searching for the truth about an incident, a moment of horror, in his childhood. His memories of this incident, memories of the details, are partial and imperfect. In his quest to at once subdue and reconstruct them, he wanders through (literal) rainy streets and (figurative) murky quagmires.

The plot, the premise, the incident itself - all of these things are secondary to the construction, the narrative technique, the character development...and these are excellent. Quarrington's methods are brilliant, subtle, effective. He varies between the mundane and the wildly improbable, keeping the reader in a state of amused bewilderment much of the time. You're not sure, really, how far to suspend your disbelief - how much trust to extend to the narrator. I'm not saying his voice is unconvincing: in fact, the opposite is true - you're so drawn in to his mental reality, and unreality, that you feel like you know him. And, knowing him, you know he's not reliable in the slightest.

The dialogue is clever and much of the significant scenes take place over the phone. There's a weird displacement here - it's so frustrating to feel as if you can't get your fist around the characters. No context, no expression, no description, just lines - and unattributed lines at that. It feels like you're reading an IM without benefit of author tags. These exchanges are brief, and sometimes it's obvious who's talking - but only sometimes.

Significantly, the book closes with a phone conversation in which one of the speakers is clearly the narrator, but the other speaker is not identified. It's very much a "Lady or the Tiger" situation for the reader, where you find yourself re-reading the last scene for clues as to her identity. It's (depending on your personality) interesting, or totally infuriating, that there are no clues. Who the author intends the speaker to be isn't as important as who you decide she is. I both love, and hate, this kind of technique.

At the beginning of this "review" (I'm using finger air-quotes when I say that) I mentioned that I'm becoming intensely interested in Paul Quarrington as a person. Here's why: there are several themes in The Ravine that reminded me of King Leary - especially as I was processing the novel once I'd finished it. Firstly, there is alcoholism. The whole novel is soaking wet. Secondly, there is the character's regret, or possibly remorse, for past actions, and his (largely unwitting) quest for absolution. Thirdly, there are comic visitations from beyond the grave, which advance the character's journey significantly. Lastly, there is the moment where the narrative comes full circle, and the character gets a chance to change something.

I should note that these similarities do not denote any kind of clumsiness on the part of the author - although a few are obvious, others are subtle. It's not like you're sitting there reading, and feeling a queer sense of deja vu. But even if (or maybe especially if?) this pattern is unintentional on the author's part, I feel like I'm learning something about him - it makes me want to buy him a drink and pry into his subconscious. Hopefully I meet him someday, and I can hand him a pint and say "Tell me about your father".

If you liked King Leary, The Ravine will be a very different experience for you. I can't say whether you'll like it or not - it's a more sober story, with fewer big laughs and a more pungent scent of regret. But it is deeper, cleverer, and more important somehow - it occupies a different space in my mind. I'm not really done thinking about it, so if this (again, use your fingers) "review" seems inchoate, forgive me....I suppose that, like the narrator, I haven't fully emerged from The Ravine yet.

HSB Highly Specialised Book Rating System
The Ravine gets:

Reread: Yes
Given to Others: Judiciously Recommended, let us say...
Bookplate: Yes



Emily said...

Amused bewilderment is one of my favorite states of mind.

Maybe I'll give this book a shot. :-)

BookShorts said...

Hey Shan,
Am very much of a mind with your review - well put indeed. ANd in case you are in the vicinity, Quarrington with his band Porkbelly Futures are in your (more or less) neck of the woods this month ... check the sked at -- go buy that guy that beer :)

kate said...

Firstly, there is alcoholism. The whole novel is soaking wet.

Love it when you let that dry humour play in your writing. Nice lines, those.