Thursday, October 18, 2012

6th Canadian book challenge - 5th post

So it looks that I have dawdled so much and been so distracted that Headhunter is my fifth (!) and not first book reviewed for the 6th Canadian book challenge. 

I probably read this book the first time in the summer as I was winding down my stay in Canada.  I had been going to the University of Toronto and getting a Master's in English Lit.  It was an exciting year for me, with some of the best and most frustrating times of my life.  (I often think back to those heady days with more than a smidgen of regret that I wasn't chosen to continue my studies for a PhD at Toronto, though in the big picture I'm sure I'm better off that didn't happen.  I periodically work on a novel that imagines an out-of-place American trying to stay on in Canada.  Perhaps it is finally time to share the first chapter on this blog -- but not just yet).  It is also possible that I read Headhunter back in Newark right after I came back from Toronto.  I wasn't doing much that year, temping in Manhattan and volunteering with a high school athletic team that I had worked with 2 years before while still a teacher in Newark.  I read a lot that year...

Headhunter is a dark novel, packed full of characters and odd -- and sometimes awful -- situations.  I'm tempted to say it is the darkest novel Findley ever wrote, edging out Not Wanted on the Voyage, which has dark episodes balanced by much more hopeful scenes.  And The Wars is dark indeed, though it is not as long and sustained as Headhunter.  However, I haven't read all of Findley's work, so I may be overlooking something...

Just as a friendly warning, if you know nothing about Headhunter (and don't want to read after the spoiler break), do make sure you've read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and probably watched Apocalypse Now before you tackle this novel.  You can thank me later.

I don't think there is any way to write about the book without delving into the details at the end, so


(Don't say you weren't warned.)

From pretty much all accounts I've read, Findley was a lovely man, but an awful lot of his fiction is dark and deeply angry.  Headhunter is basically all about awful fathers.  In the best of cases, they are simply neglectful, but in many cases here they are abusive: physically, mentally and sexually.  At least two fathers kill their children and several others contribute to their children's future downfall(s).  Mothers are generally ineffectual and/or neglectful, and certainly do not succeed in protecting their children.  Not Wanted on the Voyage also portrays Noah (and God) as tyrannical patriarchs, but the rage isn't quite as sustained.  I do wonder if Findley was working out some issues here, but he isn't a one-note novelist (unlike Saul Bellow, for instance) and he does work in other modes.

I think one of the biggest problems with the book is that it is simply too long and there are too many characters to get invested in.  I'll try to do a quick run-through:

Lilah Kemp -- a schizophrenic, former librarian whose spiritual powers seem to have released Kurtz from Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

other psychiatrists at the Parkin Institute:
Austin Purvis
Eleanor Farjeon
Ian Sommerville
Dr. Shelley (who researches psychotropic drugs)

two secretaries at the Parkin Institute: Oona and Bella

Emma Berry
Barbara, her daughter
Orley, her Black maid
James Gatz, her eventual lover

Fabriana Holbach, art gallery director

Three sisters (Peggy, Olivia and Amy)
with two husbands (Griffin Price and Ben Webster)
and their alcoholic mother, Eloise Wylie
(One of the sisters (Amy) ends up institutionalized and eventually placed under the care of Marlow.)

minor parts
John Dai Bowen, a disturbing (and disturbed?) artist
Eric Royhden
Julian Slade (the man with knives)
Gordon Perry
Richard Appleby
Warren Ellis
Olivia's unborn son (who talks to her)
Robert Ireland
David Lewis
Professor Nicholas Fagan
Billy Lydon, Emma's chauffeur, who drives her in a white limo nicknamed the Great White Whale (!)
Gatz's father
Sergeant Cawthra
Smith Jones, the Paranoid Civil Servant
the ghost of Susanna Moodie
Mrs. Akhami
the couple who move out of Lilah's shared house, making way for Marlow

(I can't even recall all of the characters, let alone all the names, since they all sort of pop in and out of frame.  I really think editing out two or three of the subplots would have made this a much stronger novel.  Unlike a Victorian novel, not every single one of these subplots intersects, which is more realistic but makes it much harder to recall the details.  It also puts into question how many of these threads are really necessary.  The book might have been truly excellent with 200 or so pages trimmed out...)

The other problem is that the book never entirely settles what it wants to be.  Is it just a fever-dream?  Are we supposed to literally believe that Kurtz has been summoned from the book, and furthermore, that Lilah fixes the problem by re-summoning him from the very end of the book when he is dying of some tropical disease?  An incriminating letter shows up at the very end of the book, which in a more traditional novel, would have proven to be Kurtz's undoing, but he is already sick of sturnusemia (a kind of fatal disease apparently transmitted by birds).  I kind of found this disappointing, though of course it so closely parallels Heart of Darkness, I can see how Findley couldn't resist.

The other major aspect of the book is that it is a mediation on literature and its uses.  Findley riffs on all kinds of famous novels (imagining a mash-up of Madame Bovary and The Great Gatsby for instance).  Dr. Shelley is almost certainly a reference to Mary Shelley, though this doctor does her work with drugs (that lower inhibition) and not with reanimating corpses.  There is, however, another psychiatrist who has her head ripped off.  I'm sure I am missing a few of the references.  The most sympathetic and understanding character is Prof. Fagan (as in Dickens' Fagin?), an Irish professor of literature, who helps calm Lilah's spirits.  In contrast, visual artists in Headhunter are pretty much all disturbed individuals who make vexing images.  Findley is honest enough to indicate there are positive uses of this kind of art (to battle complacency for instance) and may indeed see Headhunter in toto as a piece of disturbing art, but it does seem an odd distinction within the book itself.

Findley leaves a number of threads up in the air.  First, did Farjeon's brood actually kill her (and were they urged on to do it by Kurtz or another psychiatrist)?  But more fundamentally, how much damage is Marlow actually going to be able to undo?  Will he turn some of the Group of Men, particularly David Lewis, over to the police?  Will the truth about sturnusemia ever make its way out into the public and force the government to stop the indiscriminate spraying of trees/killing of birds?  That certainly seems like a stretch, and the nearly post-Apocalyptic Toronto landscape certainly is depressing, even if Kurtz is now absent from the scene.

As with several of Findley's other novels, Headhunter is deeply bound up with the AIDS crisis and the devastation it imposed on the gay community (and deep demoralization that accompanied it throughout the 1980s).  Headhunter was published in 1993, but was probably hatched towards the end of the 80s.  Sturnusemia is a transparent stand-in for AIDS, and it largely mirrors the state of knowledge about the disease from the early days of the AIDS crisis when it was this unknown killer that could strike anywhere and fear ran rampant (only later when it became "obvious" that it only affected homosexuals and drug addicts could it become marginalized in public consciousness).  In Headhunter, sturnusemia is supposedly spread by birds, and one official who begins doubting the official line is locked away in an asylum (by Kurtz).  Findley certainly seems to have conjured up a terrible scene where all the wrong people are in charge (aiding and abetting sex crimes and murder).  There is a semi-obscure New Wave song called "The Lunatics are Running the Asylum" that seems appropriate -- or even the thrust of the Spitting Image TV show which also had a strong undercurrent of despair.  Despair can be pretty exhausting, however, particularly at such length (500 pages).  That may be why I can find a lot of interest in this novel, but I can't really embrace it (and the further I get from the 80s, the less relevant the novel feels).  That said, it really does tap into the dark side of the 80s, which I was very keenly attuned to at the time.  Just as a comparison, Jose Rivera's Marisol was also published around 1993 and taps into this same despair/rage and also feels a bit dated.  However, Kushner's Angels in America (from 1992) is a bit more balanced between the darkness and light and probably has greater appeal (and perhaps artistic longevity) due to that.  Of course, this is how I feel on the subject now.  Maybe in another 10 years, I will have more respect for writers that don't sugar coat their bitter truths...

In some ways, I think it might have been a better move to have Kurtz exposed by his own writings than to have him come down with sturnusemia, which seems too pat and doesn't really offer the characters as much resolution.  I can't really understand why Findley would have set up both endings, but then only gone for one in the end.  Again, it's hard to know quite how to take this novel, other than as a nightmarish meditation on the state of the world in the late 80s.

This is review 5/13.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an interesting premise at least. Not sure I could handle dark and angry for that length of a book though.