Monday, June 18, 2007

i still don't think i know what the double hook is

Back in the saddle today. Having admitted to myself that I wasn't going to finish the confed writers in time, I have again moved periods and stepped into the modernist period in Canadian literature. For a PoMo gal like myself, modernist fiction sometimes feels like eating the flavour pouch separate from the ramen, and then drinking a glass of boiling water. The elements are all present, but you know for certain it could all be so much more. Also, your throat gets scalded and your blood pressure spikes. That is to say I kinda of don't like a lot of modernist fiction -- and today's book is a good example of why -- but it's nice to be in a more forward-thinking time at least.

The Double Hook
by Sheila Watson

She lit the lamp. She shook the pot of potatoes on the stove and looked under the cloth that covered them. The woodbox was almost empty.

Dear God, she cried. Then she stopped short. Afraid that he might come.

Father of the fatherless. Judge of widows. Death. And after death she feared the judgment.

She opened the door.

Heinrich, she called. Heinrich.

All round the animals waited. The plate on the table. The knife. The fork. The kettle boiling on the stove.

Dear God, she said. The country. The wilderness. Nothing. Nothing but old women waiting.

Cheery stuff, folks! Let us all embrace our inner fearful old woman and sit down to read some Canadian Literature. It will be an uplifting experience, of course! How can it not be one -- our national literature is a freaking laugh riot! (One has to wonder, are all national literatures this much of a freaking downer? Is it kind of like how we don't ever see the Oscar going to a comedy -- to be a classic in any field you have to depress the everloving shit out of someone? Do Western societies not value humour as art? Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?)

But on to the book of the moment itself, and enough with my bellyaching. The Double Hook is a book I picked up because, honestly, it's like 120 pages and I really needed to finish a whole book today to feel like I was back on track for good. But it's also a great launch point into modernist lit. It is a story of Cariboo country, British Columbia, a place where Sheila Watson had been a teacher during the Great Depression -- a place where, like much of rural Canada, the depression of the 1930s was not so different from the economy of the 20s or the 40s... or the 80s -- and a place where options and choices are hard to come by. That is, in my opinion, the real crux of the conflict in Watson's novel. No one can get out -- and when they try, they are slingshotted back in -- except for the dead. But I'm getting ahead of myself here; a quick run down of the plot may be in order.

At that heart of the novel is James Potter, who lives with his mother and sister in a small rural community. The characters in the book are limited by the space around them, and consist of:

- James, his mother, and his sister, Greta
- James' brother William, his wife Ara
- Widow Wagner, her son Heinrich, and her daughter Lenchen (who is carrying James' child, but this is denied fiercely by Greta)
- Felix Prosper, who Lenchen seeks out for help and perhaps a husband
- Felix's estranged wife Angel and her children, who now live with Theophil
- Kip, who seems to be infatuated with Lenchen, and wants to rescue her from her situation with James and raise her child as his own

So things are a little incestuous, and in this way Watson does a really good job of evoking the closed-in sense of rural life. These are the good rural people, and they seem to find themselves contrasted with the lascivious townsfolk (who own bordellos, banks, and bars, and who swindle the honest-but-misguided country folk out of their money). Indeed, the city / country dichotomy is the only fault I have with the book that isn't down to my obtuseness -- I think the construction here is entirely too heavy-handed and obvious for an otherwise subtle and nuanced novel such as this.

Anyway, the book opens with the characters in a tizzy over whether or not old Mrs. Potter is dead -- people have seen her out and about with Coyote and they are sure she is off to her death at any moment. Greta swears up and down her mother is asleep in bed -- but it is soon revealed that her mother died that morning and she had not told anyone (there is a magic realism to the unrevealed but assumer reality that everyone who has seen Mrs. Potter with Coyote that day has seen her spirit only) (also, the appropriation of Coyote is especially interesting given that there are not aboriginal characters in the novel... I still don't know what to make of this). Once her death has been realized, James in confronted by the reality of Lenchen's pregnancy. In a rage he hits his sister and Lenchen and goes to the barn, where Kip offers to take responsibility for Lenchen -- James blinds him for his troubles, and takes off for the town.

Lenchen seeks asylum with Felix, thinking she can be his wife since his wife is gone. Greta, left alone and battered in the house with her dead mother, commits suicide by burning the house to the ground.

That basically takes you to part two, and I don't want to ruin the book by giving away any more of it than that, but I think you have a general sense of the bleakness and the desperation of the characters in this novel. They are limited for choice, and there is really no 'out' available to any of them, except Greta, who choses death. The back of the novel says that, "here, among the hills of Cariboo country, men and women are caught on the double hook of existence, unaware that the flight from danger and the search for glory are both part of the same journey." Ok, I really didn't get that from this book. Until I read that (once I was done the book, like a good English major), I thought the double hook was that the characters are limited both physically (by space and lack of physical options) and metaphorically (by their own ability to see a way out, like the way Greta's only escape was death).

Someone else needs to read this and tell me why I'm so dumb.


Andrea said...

I think there's an incestuous relationship between James and Greta as well, isn't there?

I LOVE trickster gods in all their incarnations, so if you want to talk coyote, I'll seriously re-read the book. (Why no, I'm not working on my thesis. Why do you ask?)

Brenna said...

Incest? I didn't get incest. Am I extra retarded now? If you want to read it I'll definitely lend it to you. It's really not long.

Andrea said...

I have it (unless I sold it) - I read it in JA's CanLit undergrad course. My class notes say "incest?!" so I don't know if someone else suggested it or if I was just ultra-surprised by the insinuation ...

Something to do with secrets, maybe? Of course, I could just be making all of this up.