Monday, October 13, 2014

8th Canadian Challenge - 5th review - A Jest of God

So the trip to Chicago went pretty well, though it was rushed and a bit more stressful than it absolutely needed to be.  I'll probably write a more general post on the trip, as well as the René Magritte exhibit I saw at the Art Institute and a couple of plays I managed to see a bit later in the week.

I did manage to get through 2 Canadian books -- More Joy in Heaven and Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God.  Somewhat sadly, I still needed to carry A Jest of God back on the plane, as that was where I wrapped it up, but I can donate it to the library this week.  Reading two (short) books over a long weekend is still pretty good.  (And I should finish up The Gambler today.)

While I believe I own all of Laurence's books this is the first time reading and reviewing any of them.  The entire novel is extremely interior and we are privy to the thoughts of Rachel Cameron, a 2nd grade teacher in a small town a couple of hours or so away from Winnipeg.  That's not to say we don't get dialogue from the other characters, but then there will be a short riff on what Rachel meant to say or how she is embarrassed about what she actually did say.  And she is a mousy woman who is always feeling out of sorts.  She even second and third guesses her interactions with the children, feeling that she is praising some too much and perhaps punishing another far too much (or rather standing aside and letting the principal unfairly punish a child).  There is actually a line in there at how beastly people from the future will view corporal punishment in schools (particularly public schools) and we reached that moment in Canada and the U.S. (at least most states) roughly 35 years ago.

The cast of characters is really quite small for a teacher who would be interacting with many children and a handful of teachers.  We only get full-fledged scenes with one other teacher friend (Calla) and the principal, one student and his mother, a high school teacher from Winnipeg, a funeral home director, a doctor and Rachel's mother.  Of course, I may be forgetting something but it is a very small mental space she inhabits apparently.  And it is also quite clear from the book's opening that Rachel fears she is cracking up.  I believe there are a fair number of parallels to Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell, such as this interest in the female perspective and even the idea that because women are just expected to deal with so much (mostly silently) while men are out doing the real work their mental health suffers.  Since this Lessing novel is fairly short, I will go ahead and try to squeeze it in fairly soon, just to see if this comparison actually holds up.  A Jest of God is ultimately quite restrained, since Laurence is Canadian after all, and I doubt Lessing's character is quite so circumscribed.

I have a very old copy of the book, so I don't know if it has the same introduction by G.D. Killam, but I would strongly urge readers to read this last, as it gives too much away.  I will say that Killam focuses a bit more on the religious aspects of the book, including the incoherent speaking in tongues at the Tabernacle (where Calla drags an unwilling Rachel), whereas I found that aspect of the book not terribly compelling.  Rachel has no real interest in Christianity (which I suppose is itself somewhat surprising) but is browbeat by her mother into appearing in church each Sunday for the sake of appearances.

It is not too revealing to let you know that Rachel is burdened with a semi-invalid mother.  They live in a room above a funeral home.  Rachel's father owned and operated the home until his death, and they reached an agreement with the new owner, Hector Jonas, to stay on upstairs until Rachel's mother's death.  Rachel actually half-hopes for this day to come quite frequently, scaring herself in the process.  Nietzsche has a recurring theme about the tyranny of the weak and how they use guilt to entrap others and to generally manipulate them into doing what they want.  This is seen throughout Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier where the woman's tricky heart prevents a couple from traveling back across the Atlantic.  Another prime example might be Cold Comfort Farm where everyone has to walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting Aunt Ada Doom.  Or basically any Victorian novel where a young woman can't get married because she has to care for her mother.  (To descend to the ridiculous, Fred Sanford in Sanford and Son has cried wolf far too often on his bad heart and his relatives simply ignore him, though this tactic can be effective amongst strangers.)

Rachel spends quite a bit of time pointing out the slyness in her mother's behaviour and the way her mother attempts to manipulate her, almost always successfully.  Indeed, her mother is quite surprised when Rachel fights back, ever so politely.  And why would Rachel do this (suddenly showing a bit of backbone and carving out some time for herself)?  Because she is seeing Nick Kazlik, a local boy (with issues of his own with his aging father) who has grown up to become a high school teacher in Winnipeg.

I think I am going to wrap up the review here and just not put in any spoilers at all.  The outcome of this somewhat late-in-life romance (Rachel is 35) is expected in some ways and unexpected in other ways (and this is probably why it is a divine Jest).  I found the denouement a bit fanciful but still hopeful.  I will reveal that Rachel has avoided a big crack up by the novel's end, and it will be interesting to see how Lessing resolves Briefing for a Descent into Hell.

Edit update: it is so tempting for me to discuss the ending and how it sort of ties together with some of Robert Kroetsch's work, but I will avoid the temptation.  Given that I read Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a short while back, I was wondering if there were any parallels.  In both cases, you only get very occasional glimpses of the teachers interacting with children in the classroom.  But A Jest of God is almost a complete inversion of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  In Spark's novel, the teacher is always seen from the outside and her inner life is a mystery, and almost all we get in A Jest of God is Rachel's inner thoughts.  Rachel is aware that she will have some minor and passing influence on her students, but does not feel obligated to leave a mark on them, which Miss Brodie  obsesses over this.  Actually, there are quite a few connections between Miss Brodie and her inappropriate on-going relations with her former students and the mentally fragile teacher, Hannah Schneider, from Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I discussed earlier in the year.  In general, Rachel is much more concerned about her relations with adults, though a goodly portion of them are teachers, whereas Miss Jean Brodie is far more fixated on influencing her students and is quite unconcerned about what her fellow female teachers think of her, though she does ultimately have a fling with a male colleague, which I suppose is one more parallel between the two books, though it seems to "matter" far more to Rachel.

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