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Sunday, March 27, 2016

I Think You Forgot Something : Barbara Gowdy

Erin and I recently found ourselves in a high-pitched conversation around our shared love of Canadian television and resultant frustration of its categorical dismissal in the American cultural colloquy, if it's considered at all. It was a conversation so animated it scared other booksellers into hiding, which is a shame because Canadian television is worth a little shouting and you guys missed some great recommendations.

Namely it was our shared love of Don McKellar that brought us to a tremulous fervor, most specifically my bark bark barking about his most recent series, Sensitive Skin. McKellar plays Al Jackson, a newspaper columnist who writes light, humorous cultural criticism and is invited to sit on a literary award's panel. In his typical fashion, Al overanalyzes his responsibilities and presents full-blown dissertations on each nominated book, only to be mortified upon realizing the other, more esteemed panel members dismiss each submission with a single repudiation of "garbage," "terrible," etc.

Adding to my already immeasurable delight that a sitcom would incorporate a literary award was the brief cameo of author Barbara Gowdy as a panel member. It was a two second appearance that sent me reeling into a two month rediscovery of a staggeringly talented and original writer.

Gowdy in Sensitive Skin


Enormously esteemed in Canada (and Germany, apparently?), Gowdy is widely read and critically hailed for her luxuriant prose that nestles against tales revolving around the darker human impulses. Our neighbors to the North celebrate her work as most American literary institutions praise Eggers, Egan, etc. So why, in almost twenty years as a bookseller, have I only encountered a total of four other readers who know who the hell she is? That boils down to one every five years and, especially after rereading the majority of her work for the blog, the obtuseness of her work and reputation became increasingly lamentable with each passing sentence.

Barbara Gowdy became known to American readers with her fifth book, The White Bone, which has remained a fairly popular book club selection since its release almost twenty years ago but it is her story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, that is the most fitting entry point to what she does best. A collection full of tales that seamlessly shift between the lyrical and the macabre, it is also her most exaggerated; each narrative carrying the haunting, ominous air of an Ennio Morricone score. An uncompromising otherness inhabits each story, a situation or description that feels abrasive and utterly foreign, almost pornographically close, yet undeniably attractive.

There is something shocking in the sheer beauty with which Gowdy translates her supremely discomfiting material: the awkward, almost grotesquely detailed physicality of a truly unlikable behaviorally disabled foster child; a necrophile's desires stripped of their brutal implications by the author's intoxicating ability to seduce the reader; the humiliating rebellion of every young person's body is taken to a narrative nightmare alley of extremes by the presence of a pair of small, extremely delicate extra legs growing out of the young protagonist's torso in "Sylvie". What makes these stories, and all of Gowdy's work, so remarkable is her very singular ability to make us question and examine just how far it is a person has to travel before repugnance gives way to attraction. And, occasionally, how terrifyingly short that trip is.


In all of her work, the beautifully undulating atmosphere and refined tone is Gowdy's greatest strength and she is working at the height of her powers when she relaxes and focuses not on our physical oddities but our emotional deformities, The Romantic being the best example. Nominated for the Man Booker, it is a coming-of-age novel whose foundation is built on an ominous, broiling darkness brightened only by the protagonist's persistent grasp on pragmatism and emotional compartmentalization, the book finding its heartbeat in that juxtaposition.

Shortly after her mother abandons Louise and her father, Louise becomes infatuated with her new neighbors, the Richters. Her initial fascination belongs to Mrs. Richter; Louise's desire to fill the empty spaces left by her mother's disappearance convincing Louise that Mrs. Richter is her first true love. But it is Abel, the adopted and only child of the family, who will take hold of Louise's affections for more than a decade. As children, he inadvertently provides Louise with a much-needed lesson in developing her inner strength and certitude while much later acquainting Louise with the rapturous nature of passion and its much less friendly cousin obsession. The tone of their relationship and it's duality between light and dark is foretold exquisitely in an early chapter where, in the wooded outskirts of their suburb, Abel exposes one of nature's small fascinations in the eyes of a frog:
I am rudely startled. That something so glamorous could be contained in something so loathsome offends both my sense of fair play and my nervous grasp of cause and effect.
As in her more unconventional work, there is also a wonderfully unexpected sense of play at work in the novel's underpinnings. The character of Aunt Verna, the sister of Louise's father, who arrives to relieve some of the familial tension brought on by the mother's fleeing infuses the novel with a little humor, broadening its emotional scope. A loud, brash, intensely demonstrative woman, Verna is a former private investigator whose crowning achievement was solving a case for the actress Sophie Tucker, "whose kidnapped Siamese cat [she] single-handedly located, bound and gagged but alive, in a hotel laundry hamper."

While willing to shine some light here and there, for Gowdy it is the devil in the details that is most enticing. She seems to have an endless wealth of eloquent but gruesome vividity at her disposal. Most often, Gowdy's touch is a finer, sneakier thing. Hints of darker things to come, a nascent sense of dread, is illustrated in the every day: after Louise's mother intentionally fails to provide enough chairs for dinner guests and enjoys the ensuing awkwardness, it feels symbolic of the growing discord in the family, a warning shot. Other times the imagery is overt, like Louise's deflowering, a sensation "like a hundred tiny bones snapping" (those same broken bones are conjured again soon after in the depiction of the resultant fetus and its "bones brewing" inside her).

Abel continually exposes tiny freedoms and unexpected beauty to Louise, making it difficult for her and the reader to decide if it is Abel himself that is so addicting to her childhood self and shackles her to a lifetime of unflagging devotion, or if she is simply looking to sustain that adolescent sense of wonder.

But conscious or not, Louise's driving force is undeniably her faith in Abel, though he seems to desire nothing but absolute self-obliteration. They both romanticize the void, the vacuum created by the oneness of their impulses and insatiable appetites for their respective objects of desire. I found myself wholly immersed and devoted to both characters, oscillating wildly in my opinion of whose addiction is costlier and, as a result, struggled to recalibrate to my physical surrounding when setting the tale aside.

And therein lies Gowdy's magnificence - her characters, no matter how familiar or difficult to translate they may seem, are woven into the reader's everyday tapestry with the most exquisite subtlety. Such effortless grace and depth are a gift to any reader and to plate darker, subversive tales and sticky morality plays on fine bone china would expose most writers as barbarians. Gowdy, though? Her murkiness is dressed in a deceptive prettiness, a loveliness that draws the reader in only to leave them abandoned on the side of a dark, unfamiliar road with no idea how such a lovely Sunday drive could end so unpleasantly.

That ability to manipulate her audience, to infiltrate their subconscious and rewire their perceptions and expectations of how a plot should unfold or what a story's hero should be makes it easy to draw comparisons to Canada's most famous literary export, Margaret Atwood. But Gowdy is Atwood's cooler but possibly emotionally unstable step-sister: full of sharp edges, intimidatingly unpredictable, occasionally cagey in morality  but ultimately an elegant, beguiling mystery.


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