Moore, Lisa (2010), February, Chatto & Windus
February is the first book off this year’s Booker longlist I finished, and I am not happy. Luckily, it was not shortlisted. Originally published by House of Anansi Press in 2009, this novel, Canadian novelist Lisa Moore’s third offering to date, is an interesting little critter though. In slightly more than 300 pages, Moore attempts to present an account of loss to her readers, the loss suffered by a family when Cal O’Mara, husband and father, suddenly dies in a terrible accident, leaving a surprisingly large family. In a flurry of short chapters, Moore shuffles her reader through different points in time, looking not just at the fateful day when the family learned of Cal’s death, but at various small events between that day and the day, 16 years later, when his son becomes a father himself. This sequence of events suggests a saccharine ‘circle of life’ kind of rhetoric and structure, but Moore tries her utmost to sidestep this danger. Most noticeably, the sequence of events does not directly correspond to the sequence of chapters in the novel as the reader jumps back and forth between various points in time until dates start to matter less and less as various events start to develop a kind of synchronicity. Moore doesn’t dwell on the details of the accident, they are important only inasmuch as they matter to Helen O’Mara, Cal’s widow, and her process of grieving. Her focus on small everyday details and emotionally fraught observations function as attempts to ground Helen’s grief in a common understanding of depression and emotional duress. We feel with Helen because we recognize parts of what she is going through. At the same time, the book scorns actual realism, unfolding, rather, like a strange, melancholic dream. All this is interesting, intriguing, even, but Moore isn’t content with letting her material work its magic on its own, and so she laces her writing with sentences that try too hard, structuring her chapters like short stories aiming for the utmost effect. This makes for many moments that are at best precious, at worst terribly, terribly annoying.
On 15th February, 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank 267 kilometers east of Newfoundland. All 84 men who had worked on it died as a Rogue wave struck the cumbersome vessel and caused a chain reaction of malfunctions, that ultimately led to the rig’s capsizing and striking the bottom of the ocean. February looks at the aftermath of the Ocean Ranger disaster, taking a fictive family to illustrate the plight of the 84 families who were devastated by the events during Valentine’s night, 1982. In her acknowledgments, Moore tells us that she has researched this incident thoroughly, and throughout the book the only obvious inventions are the O’Mara family members themselves. All the details of the oil rig sinking seem/are genuine and well-researched. Given the recent oil spill catastrophe in the gulf of Mexico, Moore’s novel might seem oddly timely and prescient, but on the other hand, ecological concerns play at best a very minor role in a book that is concerned with the impact of such catastrophes on those who are left behind, the workers’ families. In fact, Moore’s book doesn’t need the exact incident in order to work, its emotional gambits are relatively independent of this exact incident, there is nothing in it that is intrinsic to this specific catastrophe. On the other hand, once picked, Moore makes the best out of the material at hand. She -excuse the pun- floods her book with maritime images and metaphors, linking her novel to a vast and rich literary tradition that contains the Bible, Herman Melville, Anatole France and countless more recent books (think The Perfect Storm). This, though, feels added to the book. Reading the book, we get an odd feeling of incongruity: on the one hand there is the emotional, personal aspect. With occasional flashes of great emotional insight, Moore works on the particulars of everyday feelings, confronted with loss and age, with childbirth and responsibility, with love and heartbreak. Her voice is very well suited to express this kind of discourse.
This has its advantages and disadvantages. Lisa Moore opts for short sentences, writing, now and then, almost punchlines, but basically, her unsubtle and sentimental use of short sentences is yet another instance of the the stylistic miasma that Hemingway popularized in Western literature. Short, trenchant sentences that clearly aim for depth and miss far too often. It’s raining. We never slept. Fall apart. Not all sentences are like that, but Moore scatters them strategically throughout the book, and after a while, we read even hypotactic phrases with a glum low note at the end. To enforce these kinds of readings, Moore also often replaces the question mark at the end of a question with a full stop, giving her readers no choice but to strike a low note again. The same effect is produced by her constant need to repeat bits and pieces of dramatic monologue or dialogue, but in a shorter, glum voice. What’s more, from the evidence of this novel alone, Moore’s literary talent seems to be closer to the short than the long form. Almost all of the short little chapters are structured like short stories, and what’s worse, short stories tailored on O’Henry’s and Hemingway’s example. They tend to end on moody, emotional last paragraphs or even phrases, and they are weirdly closed affairs, in the sense that many of them produce puns and repetitions and allusions that point not to other places in the book, but that are restricted within the individual chapter. All of this is evidence of strong attention to craft and structure: there’s nothing accidental about these things, as they all feed into the overall mood and emotions of the book. Isolation, loneliness, fear are pervasive everywhere, and with this deft move, Moore manages to compare the surviving family emotionally with their husband and father who died hundreds of kilometers away from the coast, dying of hypothermia in the vastness of the ocean. If this sounds complex: it’s not really. In tone and depth, the book is closer to bestseller epics of the quotidian, for example Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books, Nick Hornby’s mush or any book from Sophie Kinsella’s growing repertoire.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think that February works best if you can connect to it in some way, if you recognize some of the details. I mean, despite a certain touch of the clichéd, I think many observations, while realized in cheaply sentimental writing, do hit their targets. The way the protagonist worries about aging and attractiveness, the way children can cling to their mother or become strangers to her, and small details, the smells of cooking, and everyday sounds rebounding off the walls of family homes. The plot isn’t as important as the characters are and their observations and the relationships between the characters. There is Helen, widowed by the sinking of the rig. Helen is no idealized wife, we know that there are tensions between Helen and Cal, and in the face of his death, she doesn’t behave as we would expect. She is helpless enough to allow her oldest son John to take over as head of the household. Despite being barely a teenager, he quickly assumes responsibility, starts to work early, and matures within few years. This rapid emotional and personal growth has left him scarred. His mother’s weakness didn’t leave him an opportunity to come to grips with his father’s death, and so he grew into a man who was afraid of open water, yet also a man determined to achieve anything he wanted. Highly successful professionally, we are led to assume that his personal relationships with the other sex are slightly aloof, and stop short of commitment. When an affair of his (the relationship lasted all of a week) tells him she’s pregnant, John panics and turns to his mother for advice. This is how the book starts. As a character, John is less well realized than his mother, and I think that the book, although it is about a circle of life coming together, and a deeply wounded family coming, finally, to terms with Cal’s death. See, although the small chapters are not linked by a narrator and although each chapter is related from the point of view of the specific character which that particular chapter focuses on, I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that most of this, in a way, takes place within Helen’s upset mind.
Or within her dreams and memories. Because here is another aspect of the book that fascinated me: the way that Moore weaves this tale of ordinary loss and emotional empathy into a highly literary web. Yes, observations and language are pretty down-to-earth, but within all this lurks a very literary sensibility. The moodiness and gloom, the surfeit of maritime images, allusions and metaphors, and the way that not just the chapters, but the whole book is like a mirror cabinet, references pointing to points within the novel rather than outside. This book, explicitly written with a real catastrophe in mind, based on sound research, seems, at times, almost like a fantasy. I think Moore herself realizes the strenuous and difficult relationship her book has to the real world and extra-literary facts: towards the end of the book, Helen first tells us about the incident by paraphrasing witnesses from another ship that was ready to pick up survivors. Then, after a paragraph that ends, typically, with a three-word phrase (“He is gone.”), Helen shifts gears and tells us: “But this is not a true account of what Cal faces, and Helen knows it. It’s better to keep to the true story [...].” What follows is an imaginative account of Cal’s last hours, not based on witnesses, but based on speculation and empathy. And here’s the fun part: we know that Cal, unlike his rig, is an invention, and the description of his death is anything but “the true story”. The part before was crammed with real world facts. This complete reversal of facticity in a book that uses, remember, the actual name of a real catastrophe, is endlessly fascinating. What Moore offers us is a different kind of truth, a poetic truth, and she liberally, and not without deftness and skill, employs the tools of her trade to get at this special truth. The dreaminess, the internal consistency of images and metaphors, the almost allegorical way plots unfold, all this is not in the service of being precise in a realistic way, it is in the service of being as truthful as possible, and more truthful than simple realism would allow for.
And while all this is interesting, and well realized, it clashes massively with the direct, realistic way her characters experience all this. Lisa Moore wants to have the cake and eat it too. She wants to write characters that are believable, that are realistic, that her readers can connect to instantly; and at the same time she wants to fill the gap in the known facts with poetry, with literary flourishes. She manages to do the first by sacrificing literary artifice and produces, to my ear, third rate sentimental mush that depends on emotional contact in order to work. She manages to do the second by sacrificing realism. The result is a book that is smaller than it could be, less powerful than it should be, and not a very good book overall. It’s not a bad book, by all means, but one can’t shake the impression that Moore has shrunk it on purpose to fit her goals. It’s not enough for me. It might be enough for you. It will not rattle your cage. It will not change your life. You’ll probably not reread it nor recommend it to others. It’s a small book with a huge subject. It may be enough for some readers. That’s the best I can say.
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