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fiction 15 university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 1, winter 2003/4 2 / NOREEN GOLFMAN Not surprisingly, these days so much Canadian fiction either looks back to recover, regret, and reconnect with a faded past or else looks ahead to imagine a horrific future, one where the past is summarily consumed and trashed to suit some insidious design. Serious longer fiction tends to go in either of these directions. Sometimes the past is a series of memories pointing to a line of identity; sometimes the past really is a foreign country, an occupied place from which one fled. So much of this longer fiction bears the heaviness of fate. Characters are doomed by their mere appearance on the page, destined to be finished off by the end of a work, one way or another. Novels must now bear the weight of both the recent troubled century and the uncertain new one into which they are born. Happiness, should it find its rare way to an ending, is tentative and suspect, fantasy or shallow dream. By contrast, shorter fiction tends to want to snag the ephemeral present in all its complicated ambivalence. Short fiction narrators are no more capable of seeing backwards or forwards than any of us, and for this natural handicap they must endure the sheer pressure of experience, leaving us to speculate on the lives of characters long after the page turns. For this opportunity I am often grateful, especially after a novel has trapped me in its gaze and wrung all the life out of its subjects. The most transparent evidence of this tendency to stalk the reader towards a doomed narrative is Nancy Huston=s Dolce Agonia, an audacious novel with no Being less than God Himself as the narrator. To be sure, He is manipulative and has secrets, but the various characters who assemble in these pages for Thanksgiving dinner in New England still function, as humans tend to do, as if they were actually in control of their own lives. I know omniscient narrators run the shop but I would rather not have them throw away the key. When God is your narrator no one=s inner thoughts are safe. And those who gather in this novel for a long festive meal have a lot on their minds. They think too much, as academics and writers do, masking their true feelings and harbouring their tortured secrets from one another. The host is a dying professor who likes to drink too much, say too much. His guests, who have no idea of their host=s condition, comprise a collection of former lovers, the hired help, novelists, and colleagues. They are at turns interesting and flawed, not the kind of companions one would wish to take to a desert island. Huston=s strategy is obvious and her characters a little less so, but it is annoying to have God interrupt the meal every now and then to remind us of the crushingly obvious: >They think I love them, for example. What a misunderstanding!= One might be reminded of Denys Arcand=s cinematic treatment of a similar device in Les invasions barbares. His brilliant film, following from the earlier Décline de l=empire américain, also assembles a group of intellectuals and friends xxxxxxxx 16 letters in canada 2002 university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 1, winter 2003/4 around a dying colleague, but Arcand was wise enough to leave God out of the picture and a little mystery with the viewer. The narrator of Jane Barker Wright=s The Understanding also knows it all, but s/he allows us some reason to imagine the future, albeit one fraught from the start with portent and risk. The setting, as with so many novels under review in this piece, is Vancouver, a city inhabited by so many former hippies with so little time. Isobel and Solly have been together since the days of flower power, but it is now the mid 1990s and they are surrounded by nine children, an almost continual stream of drop-ins and hangers-on, and enough emotional baggage to stock a health food farm. The novel revolves around their missing...


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