Pico Iyer Journeys

Howard Norman

The reader does not even have to take in the swan on the cover to see what this novel is about. “Seeming calm is their best trick,” a vet says of the mute birds. When David and Margaret meet, suddenly, in a London hotel, David reminisces about being bitten by a swan as a boy, while taking photographs of his father’s infidelity (wound follows wound). On their honeymoon he and Maggie see an old woman driving a “vintage black sedan,” with a wounded swan–an image for her, they learn, of her beloved, departed husband–in the back. Swans, “hidden for years maybe in the low brush,” get caught in tangles of barbed wire, Maggie says, one page after David’s memory.

As the novel proceeds, cross-cutting deftly between the slow thawing of David and his biggest wounded charge, William, and flashbacks to the year before, when David and Maggie met and fell in love, it proceeds through image and (so to speak) wild goose chase as much as through event. William tells a story of a skywriting pilot who broadcast his unrequited love across the heavens. Maggie recalls being told about an “amorous window”–an image of erotic suggestiveness–by a Japanese man called Shizuko Tushimo (though she and her creator seem not to know that “Shizuko” is in fact only a woman’s name). Nothing goes straight in these exchanges because, we are led to believe, Norman’s characters don’t really know how to proceed in the world. All are lost in their own heads, trying to find a way back to their hearts, and most are barely even there. David, for example, is asked to be a “ghost,” and a guest, in his new life.

Yet despite this air of almost unremitting strangeness and haphazardness, almost none of the details in the book are accidental. William’s hair turns white almost overnight in the wake of his accident; later, we read of a lover of his whose hair turns suddenly white in just the same way. William gets into a car in his bedroom slippers, Maggie drives–it is stressed–without shoes, David goes out once with only one loafer on. These are the only details that are highlighted, often, and yet, beyond their oddity and recurrence, we aren’t really told what to make of them (except to admire the author’s craft–and realize how much coincidence is shaping a larger story beyond the characters’ comprehension).

The narrative pushes forward, for the most part, in short, exact sentences that have an air of being translated from an ancient tongue. And the characters, likewise, are all in the antique business, metaphorically speaking. Maggie gets married in a “Victorian-era white dress with a lace collar and hem,” David buys his Anatole France books from the Antiquarian Muse used bookshop. The Hungarian Stefania wears a skirt of “pre-war vintage.” Nearly everyone–the action is mostly set in the small Nova Scotian settlements of Upper Economy, Middle Economy, Lower Economy and Great Village–lives a long way from the present moment. Maggie (whose job it is to organize the movements of a university chamber music group) has snatches of Victor Hugo, Stendhal and Proust by heart; David’s sometimes girl-friend in Czechoslovakia (a translator) quotes Chekhov to him. Maggie’s mother Janice was in the book-binding business, stitching together broken Bibles.

These antiquarian details and unusual occupations all add to the book’s distinctive flavor, and yet sometimes it seems as if, as in certain Barbara Pym novels, everyone here is lonely or thwarted or conspicuously quirky, like specimens on a collector’s drawing-board. Each of them does odd, surprising things–there are surprises in every chapter–and yet all of them are maneuvered by an omniscient narrator who seems to have worked out everything in advance, so that the figures seem imprisoned within his secret design (shadows and ‘shadow puppets” are another trope that recurs throughout the brief narrative). One begins to think that Norman has the fortunate artist’s gift of having created his own world, and tone and voice, each of his novels seeming another chapter in an ongoing book, still lifes made to suggest that life is not so still. But this also comes to seem a trap, as if each is locked inside a very tight and well-made box, and their maker may be, too.

In The Bird Artist, the unworldly hush and fusty details of the far north felt new and unsettling, its strangeness earned. The names of the characters were almost as odd as their occupations–Fabian Vas and Botho August–even as the places that they haunted (Witless Bay, Shoe Cave) suggested allegory. And their innocence and vulnerability gave a real sting to, say, the prospect of a witnessed infidelity. But by the time of this novel, fourteen years on, the quirkiness has a slightly more self-conscious air, as in those independent movies set in remote settlements (maybe even in Nova Scotia), where all the characters are off-kilter and no less lovable for that. And it’s hard to know what we are supposed to make of the resonances back to the earlier novel–Fabian’s father, for example, was a “harvester of wild birds.”

In place of psychology, moreover, there are curious moments and scenes, in which the characters are seen as if held inside a locket. At one pivotal moment, after meeting Maggie, David sends a reasonable, decent letter to the Czech woman he’s been seeing, breaking off with her, only for her to confront him with the news that nothing is reasonable in love and decency itself can seem an affront, a negation of passion. David pays the price, then, both of his well-intended, tone-deaf attempt to be honest with her, and of his refusal to break with her more decisively. Yet it’s not entirely clear why this glamorous creature in “black jeans, buckled, ankle-length boots, black cowboy shirt with white piping” is drawn in the first place to such a recessive, almost invisible soul (whose very photographs she finds “predictable” {itals}). As William says–not coincidentally–wing-damaged swans “keep forgetting they can’t fly. The urge to fly is a million years older than their wound, so they forget.”

Norman is the rare American who has become, in many ways, a Canadian writer. He spent sixteen years in Canada’s arctic and sub-arctic regions, writing ethnographic and documentary film scripts and translating Inuit and Indian folklore and history, and this is the fifth of his six novels to be set north of the border. The vast openness of Canadian spaces, the country’s slight displacement from the world, the taciturnity of its rural areas (savored also, for example, by Annie Proulx in The Shipping News) all seem to make the setting a natural for his art, as perhaps does Canada’s curious status as the forgotten, mild-mannered giant of North America. In the frozen north he finds people and worlds that could not be less with-it.

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