Cataract City: On liking gratuitous violence


I can’t decide whether I liked Cataract City. I admire it. I think it’s well written, with particular skill and grace in high-action descriptions. I enjoyed reading parts of it because I cared about the characters (enough) and wondered about their well being. But I don’t think I liked it.

The story follows two friends growing up in Niagara Falls: Duncan and Owen. The two follow parallel lives for their early years that split because of class and talent and then intersect again because of the ineffable bond that is childhood friendship (these are the friends that – no matter what – know you, find you and love you). Their adventures are largely of the Masculine variety: getting lost in the woods, dog racing, dog fighting, people fighting, people chasing, getting lost in the woods. There are many – likely too many – scenes of them alone in the woods pursued by men and wolves. Insofar as friendship is interesting to explore, this could have been an interesting friendship to get inside. But. With narrative voice shifting between the two and much of the novel’s emphasis on plot plot plot, I found distinguishing between the two voices – and so coming to a full sense of character development – underdeveloped. I know I’m supposed to deeply care about one particular rift and reconciliation in their friendship, but because I don’t care too much about either of them (except to know I’m supposed to care) I wasn’t overly troubled by the scenes of revelation and reunion.

Niagara Falls, too, is meant to be an important character. The novel opens with a quote from the Weakerthans (about Winnipeg) stressing the importance of city and place. And throughout the novel we’re reminded again and again of how Cataract City (Niagara Falls) will chew you up and spit you out and leave you covered in working class grit and dust and crime. But… I didn’t get enough to believe it or to counter the shiny, light-flashing, casino-waving vision I have of Niagara Falls. Something more was needed to bridge the popular perception of the city with this rendering of the ‘real’ grit place. So all the hammering about destiny-through-place, the hand wringing about ‘escaping the city,’ fell flat because I just didn’t buy it.

Finally I don’t think I liked it because I didn’t enjoy the fight scenes. And there are a lot of them. Unlike Lee Henderson’s (masterful) The Man Game (pre-dates the blog) where the scenes of physical violence evoke some kind of big-M Masculine beauty, the fights in Cataract City are bloody and pointless and about punishing the human body and human experience. They were… too much gore without purpose. And maybe that is the point, but I found it gratuitous and ugly.

So why after these complaints am I ambivalent? I suppose because as you’re reading you notice (and admire) the confident and accomplished writing. And you don’t mind the plot because a man-versus-nature, man-versus-man plot is always compelling (thanks to Gary Paulsen and Hatchet I’ll always be smitten with man-alone-in-woods). So I don’t know. Weigh in. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me I’m right. I really can’t decide. Good thing book club will meet to tell me what to think.


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Filed under Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner

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