Tag Archives: Random House Canada

Higher Ed: Bulimia isn’t the worst part

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Tessa McWatt beat me to the novel I haven’t written in Higher Ed. The novel takes up the current state of higher education in Britain (to be fair, I’d write the novel about Canadian higher ed, so perhaps there’s still a market – not). Through the interwoven narratives of five characters – the administrator, the film professor, the waiter, the law student and the civil servant – the novel explores the way we live in alienated, precarious and exhausted existences and how we might live otherwise.

Metaphors work to give contour to this exploration. Our administrator, Francine, works as a Quality Assurance officer at the University, helping programs through the absurd and demeaning process of justifying their existence by way of forms, counts, assessment checks and more forms. Francine, our character-stand-in for the university itself, has a distorted self image and bulimic practices. She wants to be ever trimmer, ever more efficient, to see herself, and more importantly to be seen by others, as successful. Yet, as any bulimic would know, in the attempt to purge, all she succeeds in doing is wasting energy on what isn’t important (and getting – ironically – bloated in the process). She sells out her ideals (and her body) to get ahead, only to discover that in the process of proving her worth to others she’s forgotten her own sense of self and priorities. Read the last paragraph again replacing “she” with “the university” and you see how the metaphor works in the novel.

Enter the civil servant who works disposing of the forgotten or “lonely dead,” those who have no one but the state on which to rely when they die. The civil servant, Ed, works with his once estranged daughter, the law student, Olivia, to bring some kind of meaning to these sanitized and bureaucratic deaths complete with mass graves and – again – forms. Their attempts at meaning take the shape we all recognize as meaning-makers: song, storytelling and poetry. As the two characters make this lone and ultimately futile (like life, the novel poses) effort, they deepen their relationship and come to trust and rely on one another. Pitted against the horror of the forgotten, lonely, death this quickening of a relationship is meant – I suspect – to offer us some hope and solace.

And there’s the crux. The novel suggests we live and function among cold and uncaring bureaucracies that are driven by profit and absent either individual or community. Yet, against these efficiency efforts the novel offers budding relationships and clumsy romance. As if to say we may have forgotten how to reach out to one another, how to use poetry to understanding our humanity and how to speak to one another in words not in text(s), but we are not so far gone that we can’t try to, maybe, hazard the attempt at, remembering and connecting.

In other words it’s not an overly optimistic or heartwarming story. Instead, as a sort-of administrator in higher ed myself, I find the call for connection, for real conversation, for extended empathy as at one and the same time entirely appealing and utterly insufficient. We live in the tragic gap, says Parker Palmer, between the reality we recognize and the reality we imagine as possible. In this novel we sit precisely in that space between what the university (what our society) is– profit driven – and what it could be – people driven. And from this gap we’re meant to both witness and imagine. If only we had a way to do that. Oh wait, we do: we can read.

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Filed under Book Club, British literature, Canadian Literature, Fiction

Nora Webster: Unflinching (Lessons in appreciating unlikeable characters)

grumpy-catThere are no cats in Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. But there is an awful lot of grumpiness. My cat, Titus, makes this sound (I call it playing her like an accordion) when properly prompted, that sounds much like the titular protagonist, like this: *harumph, grump, grump, grump *harumph, grump grump grump

Oh sure, Nora has many good reasons for being a total grump: her husband dies, she’s left to raise four difficult (and well drawn) children, she has to scramble to earn a salary after years of being comfortably supported, in making the salary she has to give up reading for fun, she’s a Catholic sorting out Irish politics. And then, what seems to pain Nora the most is having to rely on others. No, she doesn’t have to actually ask anyone for help, but perhaps just as bad (worse?) she has to accept help that’s offered to her. She’s entirely self-interested and self-obsessed, convinced always that other people are judging her appearance, her spending habits, her parenting style, her grief. For instance, when her daughter goes missing she spends as much time wondering how others will view her reaction as she does worrying about where Aine might be.A self-interest that raises challenging questions about the role of a parent. She rationalizes that her indifference or purposeful silence in response to the obvious needs of her children spares her children humiliation or more pain; the reader is left to wonder whether this silence is yet further evidence of her selfishness in that she doesn’t engage their pain because she’s too busy thinking about her own. To what extent must parents subsume their own feelings to protect/respond to/engage the feelings of their children?

Is it a pleasure to read such a grumpy-grump character? Well, it’s as much pleasure as it is to play Titus like an accordion. A kind of voyeuristic enthusiasm for seeing someone else get it all so perfectly wrong. Someone who could have more friends, greater satisfaction from her relationships, more confidence and comfort in her own skin, but who… doesn’t. Elects not to. Or does she? I suppose it’s not a conscious choice for Nora. She sees it all as put on her. The judgement of others. The circumstances of her life.

When she does make choices – to take singing lessons or to decorate her living room – these choices are couched as concessions to others. She’s not doing these things for her own pleasure or enjoyment, but rather to satisfy others (her singing teacher, her children).  No escaping the guilt.

It makes for a somewhat claustrophobic read. All the same, it’s a fascinating character study and a triumph of writing when this reader stayed with the rather wholly unpleasant Nora and continued to hope she’d do something surprising (like smile) (or care for someone else) while knowing that the book is a reminder that as readers we make unrealistic demands of authors. We expect likeable characters. We ask for a character development that will make our characters better, more heroic, more likeable. What Tobin presents instead is a rich character, who does develop over the novel, but becomes no more heroic, no more noble or likeable. She remains reproachable, unpleasant and grumpy. And instead of complaining about how frustrating and sad (and grumpy) she is, this reader was thankful for the long and deep engagement with the unlikeable.

And because I’m such a delight to be around myself, it was a chance to embody and empathize with the deeply flawed and unpleasant of the world.

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