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Pages I Have trouble With: 1. Quicksand on the Dining Room Floor

I was reading a novel called The Rain Ascends by Joy Kogawa, a book published in 1995, some time after the publication of her novel Itsuka and the various versions of the popular Obasan.

According to the quotations printed on the cover and half-title page of the paperback edition, major Canadian publications liked The Rain Ascends, saying that it “wrestles beauty out of torment,” that the language provides “beauty and integrity,” and that it is “like a globe of spun crystal.” The author is said to be quiet and compassionate, and over and over, beauty is proclaimed.

I think that the reviewers were thinking that what they had found here is “poetic” storytelling. Maybe the author did, too. But I soon ran into trouble, trying to open myself to the persuasion of poetry, as one does, not just charitably.

So chapter two threw me into a tizzy. It presents a person referred to as “you” going downstairs to see her aged father sitting in front of a fireplace. This could have been handled nicely, offering some images for one’s imaginative eyes. I like a novel or story that offers images I can see, and when it does I drop my defenses and look. This works well with Ernest Hemingway and Margaret Atwood.

All right. Here “you” is seen first at the top of the creaky stairs,  ”in the long moment before diving.” Then, no, she is not bent on personal injury, but rather takes the stairs slowly. As she stumbles one stair at a time we see “pages torn from the heart’s walls and flung onto the debris-covered floor.” So we see that whoever is down there is untidy, and we take that as characterization, but we see too many of those blood-smeared pages.

Then all at once “you” is as if at the racetrack, and is like “a race horse at the starting line, pawing the track.” I try to erase all thought of a starting gate and see, perhaps a less formal competition. And, yes, I think I have heard people say that horses “paw” at the ground, though that seems the wrong kind of foot. Then “you” hears the “starting gun” with a “sharp retort like a dull roar.” Sharp and dull are usually taken to be opposites, so the author here is likely employing contradiction for metaphorical purposes; but I wouldn’t have thought such a one useful, because starter’s pistols do not usually roar.

In any case, “you” descends to this messy, noisy place while holding the bannister “with both hands.” Despite that, we see “your dangerous weapon of half-truths clutched tight in your shaking hand.” I gave up counting hands. But then, shock on shock, the weapon becomes an operating room “instrument,” and “you must make the incision as precisely as a surgeon.” In case the reader thinks that this will just be another case of pages ripped off a heart, “you have donned your mask, your gloves.” Then we learn that “what is required is to see the face behind the face, the hideous face of Mr. Hyde that you know is there, but that you have not once, not ever, seen.”

For a while this reader was uncertain whether it was “you’s” own face or that of another that is here referred to, and entertained the notion that this ambiguity is a strength of the fiction so far. Furthermore, having been alerted by copy on the cover of the book that this novel is about a daughter and her aged father, we remind ourselves that in Stevenson’s narrative Mr. Hyde is described as a young man and quite small.

In any case, in the next paragraph we are told that “you” now sees a dining room fireplace with flames in it, and a man sitting in front of it, and approaches him with fear and love. Soon we are told that this is her father, and that he was a god, creator of the land, and that now he is old in a house to which the mist clings. We are then provided with a great number of adjectives attached to him, sometimes four or five to the sentence. Again we find contradiction—right after we see his “body shrunken with age,” he is “larger than life.” This commonplace figure of speech is followed by others as we are indeed told that he is a contradictory personage.

Yes, there are a lot of adjectives, so many that one starts to ward them off. There is a lot of figurative language where concrete imagery would have made for guilessly persuasive narrative. Some of the metaphors are clichés or just bad choices: “I do not know how he survives the quicksand of his own paradoxical being.” Quicksands of being are best left to the highschool novelist. Quicksand does not go well with a floor littered with stuff, anyway.

Kogawa, when she trusts the language, can be much better than that, as she was most of the time in Obasan. Here in chapter two of this book, she can give us an image rather than a creaking nightmare of the father figure: “He is crouched slightly forward on the leather elephant stool, his now stooped and fragile frame wrapped in the old wine velour bathrobe Mother gave him many Christmases ago. His face is roughly shaven, the long white brows untrimmed.” One might have removed one adjective, but that is clear writing, something to reach toward.

Ah, but then, this: “Years and years ago when you first learned about the deep fissure in his life, you plastered it over with mud and wordlessness. But Eleanor’s midnight storms have washed away the patchwork and the crack in the foundation of your heart lies deeply exposed.” Please. Mud and wordlessness? Now, the crack in “you’s” heart that replaces the one in the father’s life is again probably usefully confused. But no more mud—it is messy enough in here already.

“You” says for the second time (though the narrator forgets, and says that “you” is repeating it a third time) that she could not sleep. The father does not reply, and as she was going to dive earlier, now “you can feel the pressure, a visceral force [do we require both?] within you [where viscerae properly are] as you prepare to leap.” But “you” does not leap, and in a shower of adjectives and adverbs, the old man makes his shuffling pathetic departure. After he has gone, “you” looks into the fireplace and sees that he has been burning letters. We observe “one red ribbon curled like a comma,” which the text goes on to explain is a “half-burnt punctuation mark.” It is meant, we are pretty sure, to be a symbol.

I was left at the end of this short chapter, hoping that the rest of the book would be less poeticized, and fondly remembering the clear economical descriptions of the scenes in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

.

Vancouver, September 10, 2008, 1176 words.

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George Bowering

George Bowering

George Bowering lives in Vancouver, and dreams of Trieste. Poet laureate of Canada (emeritus), and twice winner of the Governor-General's Award for literature, he's the author of many books, including, recently, "Pinboy" (Cormorant, 2012).

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