I’m headed to a dinner party tonight where I will, almost certainly, have to talk about Barbara Gowdy’s Mister Sandman. S., who lent me the book, will be there, and so I’ll return it and have to say whether I liked it or not, what I thought of the writing. What do you do when a book recommended is one you just don’t like? I feel like I ought to apologize for not taking the same pleasure she did, or reexamine my own taste for its deficiencies, or pretend to have liked it more than I did.
Alas. I thought Mister Sandman was just okay. In short: It’s a book about the disparity between ‘true’ selves and what we reveal to those we love. The secrets we keep from our partners and children; the secrets we keep from ourselves. The reverberations of these secrets are detected by the changeling child of the family, Joan, who, because she is ‘brain damaged’ and assumed to be mute, absorbs (and records) the secrets she hears, only to echo them back in (magical) and transformative ways. No question the novel is inventive in form and in some language. There’s a playfulness and humour that underlines the ‘heavy’ themes of betrayal, self-awareness, sexual awakening and identity.
And yet I didn’t care much about what happened to any of the characters or if they were ‘found out’ for who they really are/want to be. This lack of care wasn’t because I didn’t appreciate their specificity, rather I found that the opacity they present to the world (and in many instances, to themselves) made it a challenge – if not an impossibility – to connect or empathize with any of them myself. Moreover the characters – while undergoing significant ‘change’ in plot and experience – do little to evolve in their temperament or approach to one another. It’s as though the significant changes happen at them and around them, rather that to them in a way that might transform, complicate or enrich them (and so the reader’s understanding of who they are and their connection to us).
The particular book aside, as I read more books recommended, or review copies, I’m beginning to think this blog – or my thoughts – ought to move past the ‘did I like it’ / ‘didn’t I like it’ binary (thus sparing me the discomfort of having to publicly declare whether I liked a book recommended, when I could, instead, just talk about images of grass and angels). It’s tiresome to write (and so I suspect tiresome to read) the reasons why I liked or didn’t like a book (maybe). What to do instead? Close reading of passages? Exploration of themes? Discuss.
The White Bone is narrated from the perspective of elephants and raises some interesting questions about the limits of authorial imagination. When male authors write female characters (or vice versa) interviewers ask how they could imagine the experiences of the other gender (see interviews with Lawrence Hill, for example). Typically the response has something to do with imagination being the work of authors and why doesn’t the interviewer ask something more relevant to the book itself?
In this case I expect Barbara Gowdy has answered one or two questions about how she imagined the perspective of elephants (I suppose this will be a reoccuring question in the non-human protagonist category?) – but the thing is, I don’t think imagined the perspective of elephants at all. The elephants are made to be people in all the ways people are thought to be unique animals: the creation of art; feelings of love, empathy and loss; laughter; mourning and burial practices. The elephants are also way better than people: ‘rumbling’ – infrasonic messaging is clearly superior to FB and TWTR, and mind talking is high up on the scale of pretty great skills.
I suppose I can’t blame Gowdy: how to imagine the perspective of an elephant except as a human might imagine it? But then I wonder whether the same doesn’t apply for men writing women, or young people writing adults, or healthy writing sick: how do you imagine the perspective of another? Isn’t it that author’s imagine how the experiences, desires, dangers of the other might lead them to think and behave in certain ways? Isn’t this the gift of the author? When then am I so dissatisfied with Gowdy’s presentation of the elephants as humans in their wants, needs and sorrows? Well, precisely because she imagines the elephants as humans as elephants. Elephant people.
P. told me I would read this book and sob. And I admit to thinking about the characters in non-reading time (a mark of an engaging narrative, I think), but I didn’t feel overly sad with the conclusion of the book (indeed, the very end is cloying and unrealistic). Instead I felt confused that such a brilliant premise – how better to evoke concern and empathy for elephants endangered by poaching and environmental disruption than to have the elephants tell the story? – failed so entirely in capturing my compassion. I ended the book feeling frustrated with all of the living elephants and (this is the truly remarkable thing, as someone obsessed with character) near-indifferent to the deaths of the elephants I’m meant to care most about.
My failing perhaps? My inability to let go of human concerns and wander with the elephants? Or the more likely case, that the elephants-as-people-as-elephants made me too frustrated to care about the elephants-as-characters.