Monday, February 08, 2010

New This Week: The Parabolist by Nicholas Ruddock

It’s impossible not to compare debut novelist Nicholas Ruddock’s The Parabolist (Doubleday Canada) to Vincent Lam’s Giller Award-winning debut from 2006, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. And not just because Lam has offered up a blurb for Parabolist’s cover: “An inventive, poetic and thoroughly wonderful novel,” Lam offers. In some ways he’s right though, certainly, The Parabolist isn’t a patch on Lam’s very wonderful book. Here’s why: both books include some really graphic and disturbing medical details as a device to move narrative forward in ways that are somewhat new and interesting. (I say “somewhat” because, with both books, there were whole passages I actually couldn’t read for fear of loss of lunch.) And both writers employ a distant, detached narrative voice. From The Parabolist:
A few days after the poetry class, Roberto Moreno called Valerie Anderson. She was in the phone book. There were lots of Andersons but not too many V’s.

Perhaps we can spend the day together, he said.

Sure, she said, okay.
But where Lam’s use of distance seemed intentional -- a creative choice, perhaps used to draw our attention from some of the horror that he showed us -- Ruddock’s storytelling style here is obtrusive. One finds it difficult to let the words just flow away because, every time they do, he jolts us back with a reminder of the distance he is creating.

The story is likewise occasionally awkward and not fully realized. There are problems with the timeline: parts of the story seem to move ahead with an almost blurring speed, while others drag on for months. And while it’s fun to run into familiar faces -- a young Gwendolyn MacEwen, for example, gets a cameo and lots of Canadian literary figures have some sort of role, even if off-camera -- their inclusion provides another off-note. Some sort of distant homage: an inside joke, never fully explained. And those are never fun.

The story takes place in Toronto in 1975. A group of medical students are befriended by a Mexican poet, assigned to add culture to their scientific lives. On a night of drunken revelry, one of the students and the poet prevent a rapist from killing his victim and, in the process of their intervention, the rapist is killed. That sounds like a spoiler, but it is not. All of this happens early enough in the book that it is part of the set-up for the events that will follow.

There are some beautiful moments in The Parabolist and readers with a passion for poetry will be especially entranced. There are some great philosophical thoughts here and, actually, some pretty remarkable original poetry. Students and fans of contemporary Canadian fiction will find much here on which to comment. But, for this reader, some of the choices Ruddock made to tell this story were impossibly off-putting. I wanted to love The Parabolist, and though there were parts that I admired, the book seemed never to really allow me to let go and forget and join in.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home