Friday, July 11, 2008

Reading Darryl Whetter

Push and Pull

My mind synthesizes—or at least draws connections. The past few days have been a reading experience. Darryl Whetter’s The Push and the Pull, David Chariandy’s “Haunted Diasporas: The Second Generation Stories of Andre Alexis,” Richard Sennett’s The Conscience of the Eye, Marjorie Levinson’s “What is New Formalism?,” and Ann Martin’s “Visions of Canadian Modernism: The Urban Fiction of F.R. Livesay and J.G. Sime.”

Whetter’s book was fiction; the rest: academic criticism.

But they all work together. The Push and the Pull: a story of a/the contemporary (old)man-child. Not Sinclair Lewis’s mooncalf but a could-be graduate student who never—not even once—projects himself into the future. It’s present; past. Andrew—a little bright, a little insightful—is completely partitioned within the feeling of a very narrow kind of academic life. I say “feeling” because, if you’ve been courted by the academy, you understand the push-pull of Know thyself! It’s intelligence for intelligence’s sake. Andrew’s girlfriend Betty calls it vanity. But both characters withdraw from an absent Canadian society, a society that’s birthed a culture that they both know and deride. It’s the story of (over)educated Canadian twenty-somethings. What’s the practical value of philosophy? Is it too easy to just disengage? Are these characters sympathetic? Where can/will they go?

"Children get stronger." Use it as an epigraph for Whetter's seriously real examination of broken adolescence. Andrew’s father dies. This represents the generational break between old and young. Stan Day, the confident patriarch, the always-employed boomer father who, despite suffering from an incredibly rare disease of the central nervous system, doesn’t want any existential bullshit. Incredibly, what he wants is Mordecai Richler. Whetter PhD knows Richler, knows that Richler was a moralist. His Richlerian colouring of Stan is just slightly removed from Barney Panofsky. Stan’s Latin motto, drafted as an undergrad, is, for me, a little too close to Hymie Mintzbaum. Taken together they’d sound something like, “Hold on!” The push and pull of past and present. The push and pull of influence and originality. But that’s a very minor issue. Whetter’s point is that an underlying morality does, in fact, exist in Andrew’s life. As St. Urbain’s Horseman begins to thin, its pages used as acidic kindling, that morality’s refined.

Stan’s death and Betty’s flight to Europe force Andrew to the road. Whetter's course titles and absent professors provide the jargony antipodes to Stan's jail(school)house adult literacy lessons. One angle: teaching grown men how to read; another angle: Monsters in Lit, The Body in Theory. Andrew's "Interdisciplinary Bike Project" is what some people would call "finding oneself"; others might say "putting theory into practice." Embracing the physical tools of cycling culture, Andrew travels the highways of eastern Canada, riding through rural, classically Canadian settings that, at times, make him physically ill. Here is Whetter’s opinion of Canadian fiction: that old stuff--that two solitudes, dead, false-front, macadam road…stuff. It’s dead or dying. It’s something to avoid. Then Andrew wipes his ass with a map of Canada. Fuck regionalism.

So what kind of Canadian novel is The Push and the Pull? Whetter’s Canada is, for me, the most interesting part of his text. Andrew reads Richler--Richer, who wrote in A Choice of Enemies that

Whenever Norman [Richler’s protagonist and persona within the text] thought of his country he did not, as Americans were supposed to do, recall with a whack of joy the wildest rivers and fastest trains, fields of corn, skyscrapers, and the rest of it. There were all these things in his country. There were magical names in abundance. A town called Trois-Rivieres; a mountain pass named Kicking Horse; Saskatchewan—a province. But there was no equivalent of the American dream to boost or knock. The Canadian dream, if there was such a puff, was how do I get out.

But Whetter’s prose isn’t anything like Richler’s set-up-punch line style. He’s so clearly trying to write something both serious and meaningful that his reaction against writers like MacLennan, Laurence, and Wiebe is fascinating.

I didn’t get the sense that Andrew was a kind of Noah Adler. But this book is about wrestling—again, literally—with the father. Stan, his spine curved, his body literally shrinking, loses basic motor skills. His son outgrows him, wears his clothes, owns his house. Stan requires constant care. Andrew becomes his nurse-father, a simple role reversal that the reader accepts implicitly. (There’s a scene, reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Patrimony, where a semi-clothed Andrew climbs into his shivering father’s hospital bed. Stan is cold, Andrew tries to warm him. But Whetter’s examination of masculinity is one of the primary tropes in his text.)

Is The Push and the Pull a campus novel? I think it is. I think this is the destination of the Catcher in the Rye-Lucky Jim continuum. Alienated in high school, alienated in university, then out of high school, out of university, but changed. And everyone who thinks they know what they want? They’re wrong. Whetter’s opening chapter—really only a couple pages—is pumping adjectives. Then it gets quiet, isolated. Mothers are pushed aside, ignored. Women leave, but are always there. They push, then they pull away.

Whetter’s at his best when focussing on the intense dualism of cyclist--muscles rippling--versus cyclist—digesting his own experience. It’s a contemporary quest narrative that never loses its focus. Sexuality, identity, and perspective fragment. But the text maintains its focus. Readers should appreciate Whetter’s use of maps and roads. The map with which Andrew travels is dissected, burned and used as toilet paper. Andrew, following unknown roads and trails, finally arrives. It’s a simple way of saying that he’s lost his place. The end of the novel finds him back where he started.

The same will be true of Betty, Whetter’s female antagonist. Betty is Andrew’s university-age girlfriend; an inchoate idealist who thrives on high-culture bullshit. She’s the hollow reflection of Andrew; she’s a quipping Gen Z phenomenon who believes in simple decisions, inherent beauty, and lasting love. Whetter uses her to represent a kind of wasted, disengaged youth clinging to a psychology of Manichean superiority. It’s this exploration of personal freedom that really gives Whetter’s text its power. We can see the potential for tragedy. And, strangely, we hope for it.

I mentioned Chariandy. The Push and the Pull reminded me of Soucouyant. Why? The twenty-something (im)mature male protagonist caring for a dying parent; the lost, idealistic female antagonist; the movement through the local; the tone that says, “Yeah, I know we’re in Canada, but I’m going to tell it this way.”

To me, it sounds like, “This is a place? This place?” Andrew, again, destroys his map. He’s lost. A bit of Frye here, Darryl? “Where is here?” But, no, it’s not about that at all. Andrew doesn’t care where “here” is; what “here” is. He doesn’t care at all.

As I said, it’s a generational thing. If I had to talk about historicism, I’d say this is the era of growing-maturing writers who feel like there’s just too much history to write with. So let’s write against. Everything divides. And that’s what The Push and the Pull keeps repeating.

This is a very good first novel. When the characters speak, the characters speak. My only complaint is Whetter’s tendency to close his chapters with purplish prose. “What do you want now that you’re done wrestling?” an exchange starts. “We’re always wrestling something,” a character replies. It’s a tendency that Whetter’ll have to overcome. The strength of his cycling scenes tells me that he will. If Whetter can write with that kind of focus, if he can find relevant stories, then, oh, what fun we’ll have. Joining the canon he loathes, we’ll have another ex-centric Canadian writer shouting insults at the Giller door.

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