Sunday, May 27, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 15th post

Alibi is one of Kroetsch's most openly postmodern novels, perhaps only topped by his follow-up novel The Puppeteer.  There is a fair bit of doubling (indeed the narrator's name is William William Dorfen, though he is almost universally addressed as Dorf).  He acts as a buying agent for a reclusive Alberta millionaire, Jack Deemer, primarily in helping him amass unusual collections.  Dorf claims to have never even set eyes on Deemer, though he runs into Deemer's runaway wife, Julie Magnuson.  Deemer sends him on a quest to find and buy the ultimate spa, and he of course checks out Baden Baden, though this isn't the chosen spa.  The chapters are short and do sort of cover the same ground from a variety of perspectives, not completely dissimilar to Last Year at Marienbad, which may have been an inspiration for Alibi.  Or not.

Dorf keeps running into people with connections to Deemer's past, particularly Fish (a man maintaining a spa near Banff).  Fish and Deemer both were vying for the hand of Julie back in the day (and before Deemer was so rich).  Dorf also tangles with Karen Strike, a documentary film maker who ends up in Deemer's employ, making a movie about spas (naturally).  Dorf keeps learning more about Deemer, little of which sits well with him.  Dorf actually has liaisons with both Julie and Karen (not at the same time), but finds himself unable or unwilling to purchase a spa for Deemer.  Despite a few interesting set pieces, particularly when Dorf and Fish are in Banff together, the novel kind of drags in spots.  Maybe Hamlet-like characters are only interesting when there really is a lot going on around them.  If the plot moved a bit quicker and the book was more linear, it might have been something like North by Northwest, but it really isn't in that tradition at all.  In a bit of a left-turn, Dorf ends up fleeing Canada and turns up at a European spa, where he and Julie end up in an extended menage a trois with a doctor, who happens to be a dwarf.  Pretty kinky.  I'd rather not spoil the ending.  I think in general, the book has its merits, but is a bit disappointing.  I don't think it really caught on with the general public.


After a roughly 10 year gap, Kroetsch published The Puppeteer, which is actually a direct sequel to Alibi.  Apparently, Kroetsch was considering writing a third novel to round out a trilogy, but wrote The Man From the Creeks instead.  Whether he completely abandoned the idea or he would have returned to it had he not died in a car accident is unclear to me.  It's so hard to say what he might have done, but I thoroughly disliked The Puppeteer and am actually a bit sorry I read it, so it is hard to imagine a third novel having reversed my feelings.  Again, my impression is that the public did not care for this book, though I don't know what its critical reception was.  Basically, Kroetsch throws all the postmodern contrivances together.  Relatively quickly we learn that Dorf is hiding out in Vancouver, working as a pizza delivery man who is masquerading as a kind of monk.  He goes by the name of Papa Vasilis.  A bit later in the book, he breaks up with his girlfriend (the pizza queen of Vancouver) and hides out in the attic of Maggie, a female novelist, who is separated from her husband, Henry, an archeologist working in Greece.  Dorf has become a fairly pathetic character who for some unknown reason starts putting on elaborate puppet shows up in the attic.  This felt like a total contrivance to me, and is one of the flaws of post-modern fiction where the artifice is so foregrounded that characters don't have or require any internal coherence.  Dorf was a relatively resourceful guy in Alibi -- why would he have fallen quite so low?  But even beyond this, there are two devices I didn't care for at all.

1) Periodically a different narrator breaks in, and it turns out this is Jack Deemer himself, still rich but almost blind (and presumably the true puppeteer).  He seems to know all kinds of things about the female novelist but nothing about Papa V. (or the goings on in the attic).  Maggie leaves Papa up in the attic and heads out to Banff with a couple of older women (they might actually be Papa's V's aunts, but I can't exactly recall).  Of course, they run into both Fish and Karen Strike.  I suppose this is inevitable in a sequel.

2) However, it isn't that much longer into the novel that we find that Dorf did not kill the dwarf after all, and beyond that, Julie Magnuson faked her own death.  So basically absolutely everything in Alibi has been upended and reversed.  I just couldn't get with that.  Some readers like these kind of games, but it was too much for me.  There was a subplot about this wedding dress (worn by both Julie and Maggie).  It basically completely stretched credibility that the whole cast would end up in Greece and Jack Deemer would put on the wedding dress and pass as a woman for a while.  I really disliked the ending, which seemed fake and unearned.  Maybe Kroetsch just wrote himself into a corner and couldn't see how he could reverse or invert the new ending (or that the marginal payoff was so low) for a third book.  About the only thing of interest (aside from some decent street scenes set in Vancouver) was the subplot about Henry trying to smuggle out Greek icons, including one with a (female) face of God.

There is no question this is my absolutely least favorite novel by Kroetsch.  I would only recommend it to a lit. major who had a real hankering for postmodern fiction.

These are reviews 15/13 and 16/13.

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