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Review: Books by Howard Norman

Drake Bennett

The Northern Lights
Howard Norman
Picador, $13 (paper)

The Bird Artist
Howard Norman
Picador, $13 (paper)

The Museum Guard
Howard Norman
Picador, $14 (paper)

The Haunting of L.
Howard Norman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24 (cloth)

8 Howard Norman is a quiet writer, but he knows how to get your attention. The Bird Artist, his finest novel, opens like this:

My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.

For those who have read Norman, this is familiar territory: the far north, the isolated artist, the names that are equal parts Washington Irving and Dr. Seuss, and a crime. Five short sentences in, Fabian has moved from an Ishmael-style greeting to a declaration of guilt.

Norman's novels tend to start with confession and work their way toward explanation. In The Museum Guard the crime is theft; in his newest, The Haunting of L., it is adultery, then murder. Only Norman's first, The Northern Lights, begins with a clear conscience—though nonetheless with a drowning. He writes anti-mysteries: the act follows the confession, and a good portion of each novel is spent covering the distance between the two. In a mystery, we read on because we know there will be a solution; in Howard Norman, we read on because we know there will be a crime.

At least in part. We also read on because of the dry humor, the unlikely characters, and the deft strokes with which Norman fixes them in their community and landscape. And, perhaps more than anything else, because of the nonchalant precision of the writing, the clean, flattened cadences with their palpable heft. It's an impressive package, and it has served Norman well. The Northern Lights (1987) and The Bird Artist (1994) were both nominated for the National Book Award and roundly celebrated by critics. Richard Eder, in a much reprinted phrase, called the latter "One of the most perfect and original American novels I have read in years," and the normally sober Michiko Kakutani wrote that it "glows like a night light in the mind."

With The Bird Artist, Norman began his Canadian Trilogy, which continued through The Museum Guard (1998) and now concludes with The Haunting of L.. Certainly Norman's novels have nothing in common with, say, John Dos Passos's swarming U.S.A. trilogy. There is, nonetheless, something audacious in giving a series of novels the name of a country—it is hard to argue that the name simply denotes location, since The Northern Lights (set in Manitoba and Toronto), is not included. The trilogy's title implies sweep and promises grand themes. Backed by admiring critics and the National Book Association stamp of approval, Howard Norman brings the word from our neighbors to the North.

It may therefore surprise many of his readers that Howard Norman is not from Newfoundland or Manitoba, but was born and raised in the American Midwest. "Raised," however, may not be the right word for his childhood. His father was largely absent and his mother spent much of her time working as a nanny, a job she kept secret from her four sons. When his father died, Norman had not seen him in twenty years. As he recalled in an interview in the journal Ploughshares, Norman dreamed of the North in the way other children dream of the American West or the sea: "such open, vast spaces, such a sense of mystery and severe, compelling landscapes, served to counteract the claustrophobia of an inwardly collapsing home life." The North, or what the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould called "the idea of north," was for Norman a fantasy fed by Jack London novels checked out from the local library.

He made his own way there soon enough, dropping out of high school and eventually finding work on a brush fire crew in Manitoba. The crew was made up largely of Cree Indian men, and his fascination with their culture led him back to school with the idea of becoming a translator and folklorist. He spent the next sixteen years travelling throughout Canada, collecting and translating folktales. His first collection of translations, The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems of the Swampy Cree Indians, won the American Academy of Poets Landon award for translation in 1978. (Although he is far better known for his novels, Norman continues to work as a translator from Algonquin and Cree.)

His years of transmitting oral traditions into written language have left him with a pitch-perfect ear. What's more, his fiction is itself as much translation as transcription. Like Hemingway's, Norman's characters speak in a language at once colloquial and uniquely stylized. Here is Fabian's mother Alaric upon receiving a letter from her sister:

Even though I'm hearing it for the first time, it seems like stale news. Still, her handwriting is lovely. And I know that overland mail takes an eternity. Besides, what are my sister's choices? To write about our childhood. To write about her present life. That's it. Or else, to try and predict the future, I suppose. Oh, that'd be definitely too risky for her. Definitely.

Whereas Papa cut away mercilessly to the curt heart of speech, Norman has left in the rounded contours, the lift of humor. The result is a Shaker-like blend of craft and vernacular.

Traces of his translating apprenticeship remain in the structures of his novels as well. Norman's narratives are shaped by fate and a concern with origins. In an essay published in The Washington Post, he describes how writing is for him "an act of faith." Though he starts with a rough sense of direction, it is only via what he calls "the meandering line of clarifying thought"—through questions like "How will fate impose itself on each character? How will turns of events and the overall plot be determined by what characters reveal of their true natures—and when? What is the right timing of catastrophes?"—that the true shape of his novels emerge. Indeed, his ability to find the balance point between "meandering" and "clarifying" is what distinguishes Norman's best writing from the mere wedding of a good eye to a good ear. In his version of North, with its particular extremes of scale, pace, and character, he has space to wander and depths to plumb.

So it is that Fabian Vas, despite his practiced eye and steady hand, traces a very meandering line indeed in The Bird Artist. The first chapter, for example, is entitled "The Garganey," and it depicts the day in the summer of 1911 when Fabian spots a bird of that name, a legendarily rare migrating duck. The actual sighting and sketching, however, take up only the last page; the rest is a crookedly allusive chain of events leading up to it. Each landmark Fabian passes, each neighbor he talks to, opens up a series of memories: the lighthouse looming above the village with "a splendid jurisdiction"; Botho August's habitual look of "impatient curiosity and resignation all at once"; Alaric's dreamy resignation; Fabian's father, Orkney, who "tested the strength of each shoelace before tying it" and "seemed to harbor a very private system of prejudices"; the village eccentric Helen Twombly and her hoard of milk; a fatal bicycle accident; unexplained animosities between Fabian and Botho and Alaric and Fabian's lover, Margaret Handle.

Even as each digression fills out more of the collective portrait of Witless Bay, Fabian makes his way toward the cove where he will come upon the garganey. The accretion of detail picked up along the way is much more than local color. Its weight works against the forward momentum of the promised sighting in a subtle tension. As Fabian puts it, it is "as though an otherwise meandering summer day…had lured me to Shoe Cove." And Norman's deft touch assures that the reader, too, is lured along through all the twining detours.

But as he recounts the story to the reader, Fabian, despite knowing where he is headed, even what he will see when he arrives, remains at the mercy of the stubborn swells of memories that preoccupy him along the way. And that, it seems, is the great mystery at the heart of Norman's anti-mysteries. Not what will or did happen, but what role the narrator actually played in everything and why it all seems to have so little to do with him. Norman's befuddled narrator/protagonists, with their confessional introductions, imply that everything they are describing is, in fact, being made sense of in the retelling, that the reader, therefore, is witnessing their very synthesis into a story.

There is a big difference, though, between reckoning and redemption. Although critics have celebrated The Bird Artist as a tale of "redemption by art," the novel seems skeptical about the idea. For one thing, meaningful redemption requires guilt, and Fabian feels none (nor is the reader shown any reason that he should, a fact that may bother some). Fabian's "redemption" for Botho's murder is the fantastical mural of Witless Bay he is paid to paint near the end of the novel, above the pulpit of the church. The offer, from Reverend Sillet, is tendered with a mix of prurience and sanctimonious sadism—he throws in extra money for a depiction of the murder. Indeed, Fabian's show of contrition seems to be mostly for Sillet's benefit, and Margaret rightly mocks his shameless decision to paint himself into the mural, facedown in the mud in the place of Botho. But if the mural does not offer redemption, it does offer something like revelation. For the first time in the novel, Fabian steps back from the enveloping current of events, fixes them in relationships, and imposes his own organizing vision on them. What Fabian's art does offer are these moments of clarity, the knowledge that, in the end, Botho's murder is simply "an equal part of how I think of myself."

* * *

This movement toward self-consciousness is, of course, familiar to anyone who has gone through adolescence, and it is therefore no surprise that Norman set his first novel in that discombobulating time of life. In each novel, Norman's narrators have grown older—in the latest, Peter Duvett is pushing thirty. But they always come across as being somewhere in their late teens. The Northern Lights is a coming-of-age tale in extremis, and for Noah Krainik, its precocious, fifteen-year-old narrator, the isolation and the hazards of a harsh landscape—and the sudden transition to a strange city—exacerbate all of the confusion and exhilaration of adolescence.

Although set fifty years after The Bird Artist, The Northern Lights has much in common with its successor. In both there is a father who disappears, a mother who would rather be elsewhere, a manipulative clergyman, a wisecracking love interest, a fatal unicycle or bicycle accident, a budding artist, and a flight to the city. One could ungenerously see The Northern Lights as a study for the later work.

This characterization, of course, is unfair. Norman is far from cannibalizing his own writing, and there is nothing wrong with recurring motifs and characters that stretch from one work to the next. (Even if there were, one would be hard pressed to think of many novelists so protean as to avoid them.) The two novels have different concerns, different feels. Nonetheless, it is hard to escape the feeling that what Norman is sketching out in the first novel he reworks more indelibly in the second. There is plenty of splendid writing in The Northern Lights: the tubes of a shortwave radio are "delicate tributaries of wirelit orange"; Job Gathers, an old Cree man who plays checkers with glacial slowness, stops to gaze at the alignment of pieces "as if he had spotted a constellation he had not seen in the sky since childhood."

But the first novel does not consistently bring one up short in the same way as The Bird Artist. There are passages of dialogue that sound like exposition corralled into quotes: "I missed your mushroom pie, Mother. When I smelled it from the bedroom, I remembered when the mail plane used to land, and the pilot would deliver food, and I'd always hope to find mushrooms, because then I'd know we'd have mushroom pie." And, occasionally, descriptions run on into prolixity: tuning the shortwave requires "a delicate touch, an ear pressed close as a safecracker's as he notches through a combination, his livelihood entirely dependent on his concentration." It's a clever simile, but feels a little cluttered. Why not just leave off at the word "combination," or better yet at "safecracker's"—the action and the concentration implicit, the image undiluted?

Most of all, however, one misses the sense of fate, the slippery dispute between inevitability and happenstance that Norman makes Fabian negotiate. We follow Noah from his home on Paduola Lake to Pelly's hometown of Quill and then back and then on to Toronto, all without much sense of direction. Many of the episodes would work wonderfully as short stories, and together they do mimic the confused, patchwork nature of Noah's itinerant life. However, without the sense of tension, the story seems to shift around rather than unfold. Norman creates The Northern Lights out of charming stuff, but he does not make it more than the sum of its parts.

* * *

If his first novel feels a little slack, however, Norman's more recent work seems to have tipped over into a more deterministic mode. For all its brilliance, Norman's particular alloy of whimsy and fatalism can be brittle stuff. What's more, there is something disingenuous in an author disavowing control of his own story as Norman does in professing his faith-based writing creed. Norman sees his writing as something like Fabian's bird art, dependent on capturing the fleeting impressions that nature provides. But in the end, as Norman himself admits, the author has to go ahead and decide what "the right timing of catastrophes" is. It is a role he seems uneasy with, though, and understandably so, since, in the quiet universe he creates, the wrong timing or the wrong catastrophe can be all the more jangling.

The Museum Guard, Norman's third novel, is set in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1938. Its narrator, DeFoe Russett, works in the three-room Glace Museum with his Uncle Edward, a slovenly, kind, and selfish man of large appetites. Defoe is in love with Imogen Linny, the caretaker of the local Jewish cemetery. Imogen, however, loses all interest in him after she becomes obsessed with a painting that has arrived in the Glace Museum. Entitled Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, it is a portrait of the wife of a Dutch artist, Joop Hejman, who has sent some of his work out to Halifax ahead of the all-but-inevitable Nazi invasion. His wife, we learn, was killed on Kristallnacht while trying to rescue relatives from Germany. Imogen's fascination with the painting grows to consume her; she begins to dress as the "Jewess" and eventually believes herself to be Hejman's actual wife and muse. In a last-ditch effort, the museum's curator, Mr. Connaught, takes Imogen to Amsterdam to see Hejman, believing that the visit will work as a sort of shock therapy. Imogen, however, remains inflexibly convinced of her new identity, even after her presence drives Hejman to suicide. The last we hear, she has decided to stay in Amsterdam to work in a synagogue while Connaught returns to Halifax.

In the book's early chapters, Norman has time to linger on Defoe, his relationship with Edward, the numbed sadness that the deaths of his parents left in him, and the extended family of the hotel in which both he and his uncle live. But as Imogen's obsession intensifies, it gets harder and harder not to grow tired of the way everyone caters to her with indulgent credulity. Imogen's delusions (like all literary delusions) have their symbolic resonance. But that seems to be part of the problem. As Imogen increasingly functions less as a character than as the nexus of several ideas—about art, loneliness, authenticity, the cult of personality—the novel takes on a stiflingly teleological quality. After Imogen and Connought set sail for Amsterdam, the novel's last few chapters feel like the close of a lopsided chess game: all of the moves just choreography before the inevitable.

Then there is the issue of the Holocaust. There can undoubtedly be no more effective dose of reality for Imogen to collide with, but next to such stark horror, her martyrdom feels, at best, woefully self-indulgent. Perhaps it might feel less so if she came across as something other than a small metaphor faced with an outsized historical fact. Whereas in his earlier novels Norman used the obscurity of his characters to heighten their exceptional vibrancy (as Fabian points out, "obscurity is not necessarily failure"), here, by yoking Imogen to the mid-century cataclysms of fascism and genocide, he makes her concerns about her "estranged soul" seem petty. That is not to say that in the face of the Holocaust no one is allowed to have identity problems, simply that the catastrophe Norman invokes overruns the story he lays in its path.

* * *

The Haunting of L., Norman's new novel, reflects similar concerns: what is genuine in art, the extremes to which loss drives people, and what happens when those two issues get jumbled together. It has, however, scaled things down a bit. Peter Duvett, the narrator, works for the photographer Vienna Linn and sleeps with Vienna's wife Kala Murie. Instead of Imogen's monomaniacal quest to reconcile herself with a painting, here we have Kala's somewhat skeptical faith in spirit photographs (photographs in which an 'uninvited guest' representing the spirit of a dead family member reappears). In fact, for Kala the question of whether spirit photographs are real is less important than the idea of the loneliness that might drive the dead to reappear. Similarly, in place of the distant Hitler, we have the villainous Vienna, a part-time portraitist whose real work consists of staging horrible accidents (usually involving trains) that he photographs for large sums of money from Radin Heur, his shadowy patron in London. The most fantastic of these is a doctored photograph called Esquimaux Souls Risen from Aeroplane Wreck that he takes after sabotaging an airplane that Kala is on.

This sham photograph—both the incident it dishonestly records and the chain of events it sets in motion—lies at the heart of the novel. Its narrative centrality is overlaid with a more metaphorical one. Symbols of documentation, authenticity, and objectification are everywhere. There are the spirit photographs. There is the "verificationist" that Radin Heur sends to examine the photograph, who turns out to be perfectly willing to lie. At one point, Peter reads a book about a woman with a strange form of selective amnesia that gives her a photographic memory of the year 1895. In Halifax, we meet an innkeeper's son with criminal ambitions, who designs in advance the lurid "Wanted" posters he hopes to inspire.

Even Peter's narration further develops these motifs. Throughout the novel, he is "preoccupied with captions," and not just in his work in the darkroom. He sees the events of his life as a string of snapshot compositions, described in the clipped language of photograph captions: View of my Employer's Wife; A Street, A Snow-Covered Automobile; Man Who Forgot Raincoat Standing on Street. The phrases evoke both the portentousness of a movie script and the gnomic meter of haiku. Peter's captioning, we find out, can be traced back to the fact that he learned of his mother's drowning by developing a photograph of her corpse while working in a Halifax newspaper darkroom. Captioning the world gives it a sense of order and keeps it at the distance of a reproduction rather than a reality.

However, after a while, the reader starts to crave something more than motifs and themes. The long strings of photograph captions that mark particularly dramatic moments—"View of Mrs. Sorrel Huddling into the Corner of the Landing; View of Mrs. Sorrel Clutching Kala Murie's Legs; View of Kala Murie Leaning Over, Stroking the Top of Mrs. Sorrel's Head…" and so on—make that device, in particular, feel stale. More importantly, the story itself seems to get tripped up in a cat's cradle of thematic connections. The murderously dysfunctional relationship between the threesome flares up, then burns down to a cinder, but neither it nor the connection between Peter and Kala give life to the comings and goings and conversations of the novel. Rather than meandering and clarifying, there is simply a commerce of ideas and opinions.

The characters themselves seem stuck and unable develop. Peter is particularly pallid. Like Fabian, he spends a good portion of his time as the dupe of other characters, passive even when he is most trying to exert himself. But unlike Fabian, Peter, with his formulaic "caption" worldview, remains estranged from the reader. As a result, when he stands by while Vienna arranges a fatal plane crash and a potentially fatal trolley wreck, his passivity feels more inhuman than Fabian's act of outright murder. At the other extreme is Vienna, with his sadistic relish and orotund vernacular. He is a character, all right, but he is so over-the-top that one expects him to tie a blonde to the train tracks and trade fisticuffs with Dudley Doright.

* * *

So, in the end, the Canadian Trilogy goes one for three. Strangely, its one masterpiece doesn't even technically take place in Canada, but in a Newfoundland that, in 1911, was not yet independent from Britain. (It is interesting to note that perhaps the most critical review of The Bird Artist, published in the Toronto Star, was written by a native Newfoundlander and comprised little more than a huffy list of errata.) What does Howard Norman's work have to do with Canada? If it's a question of regional realism, not much. The particular cultural context of places like Churchill or Quill or Witless Bay circa 1911 interest Norman less than the "sense of mystery and severe, compelling landscapes" that he first found as a boy reading Jack London. It is a setting that invites exploration and demands attention, and in that Norman's writing is thoroughly attuned to it.

But perhaps the Canadian Trilogy simply refers to the fact that Norman will not always be writing novels about Canada, that he wanted to mark off one phase from the next. Perhaps he needs new landscapes to recharge the slow-burning energy that animated The Bird Artist. Perhaps, like Fabian, he needs a shot of the unusual.

Howard Norman, however, is not Fabian Vas. In his epigraph to The Haunting of L. Norman quotes Joseph Conrad: "This act of madness and despair. Still, it is a planned thing." Howard Norman is as much craftsman as draftsman, and he well knows that even a meandering line can be a planned thing. At the end of "The Garganey" chapter, Fabian finally does come upon the bird, floating asleep in Shoe Cove:

…I sat sketching the garganey for a good two hours. I drew him as he slept. I drew him as he lifted his head, preened, skitted across the surface. He mostly held to one place, though at a certain point he flew off, circled, then lit down on what I thought was the exact same spot, hard of course to determine on a sun-glinted sea. It was as though he had enacted his own dream of flying, then had returned to his body.

The sight of this "migrant here for a short stay" emphasizes Fabian's stasis, his inability to escape his obligations or supersede his limitations. The drawing he makes that morning will go to Cora Holly, his fiancée, whom he has never met and whom his parents are forcing him to marry. He will go on to murder Botho August, an act that will lead to the death of his mother and the dissapearance of his father. But finding the garganey is for Fabian "luck like no other I had ever had, or have had since." His drawing, and Norman's description of it, each enact a "dream of flying." This brief clear moment of release makes us think that everything that comes before has been leading up to it, as of course it has. <


Drake Bennett has written for The New York Times and Business Week. He lives in Paris.


Originally published in the April/May 2002 issue of Boston Review



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