Friday, July 15, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 1st Review - Burning Water

I didn't really remember much about George Bowering's novel Burning Water.  I must have read it the first time back in 1994 or so, since I picked up a small stack of Canadian novels while going to grad school at UT (back before most of the used book stores in Toronto closed down or moved outside the downtown core).

Bowering is certainly better known as a poet, and I believe Burning Water is his only novel.  (Of his various poetry collections, I think Delayed Mercy is particularly interesting.)  This is a bit of a reverse from Robert Kroetsch, who did write poetry (Field Notes and the Ledger in particular) but is generally better known as a novelist.  In addition, both of them used postmodern tropes and techniques in their novels.  If I had to sum up postmodern fiction, I would say it is a playful stance where the author makes the artifice of fiction apparent, often by having the narrator realize he or she is a fictional character and/or writing "the author" into the text (a bit like breaking the fourth wall in film or television).  It is a literature that basically emerged from boredom with conventional fiction.  At least in my opinion, it is usually more fun for the author than for the reader, since postmodern techniques deliberately undermine the cohesiveness of the plot and ultimately the traditional interest that readers invest in characters.  What's left is style and the cleverness of the author.  Postmodern fiction can occasionally "work" for me, but it is a style with drastic diminishing margins of enjoyment.  So that means that Paul Auster's New York Trilogy pretty much blew me away (when I was 18 or so), I enjoyed Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man quite a bit (mostly because the characters are so interesting they can survive being put through the pomo blender) and for most other postmodern fiction, I'm like "meh, it's all been done before."  That's only a slight exaggeration, but I am bored with this literary trend that emerged from boredom.  (Perhaps this is just a continuation of my rant against sterile art.)  While Burning Water came out in 1980 (five years before Auster's work!), it just doesn't have the same impact for me, but perhaps if I had never read any postmodern novel previously, it would have been mind-blowing.

I think my problem is that the postmodern techniques just don't add anything here.  We have several parts of the novel where the reader sees Bowering the novelist wandering around Trieste, Italy.  He comments that he found it somehow easier to write about Vancouver Island from a distance.  But all these moments don't really add up to anything, and certainly "the author" never interacts with the characters.  It's just distracting.  Then there are 3 sections where Bowering makes William Blake a character in the book, for no apparent reason, since Blake had nothing to do with Vancouver.  It is slightly more defensible when Bowering makes an elaborate joke about Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Add to that 2 First Nations observers who occasionally watch George Vancouver and his crew carrying out their map-making up and down the coast, though in this case, one of the natives sells Vancouver a "dream" about a Pacific Northwest passage into the interior.  Thus, there is a lot going on in the novel, including some bandinage amongst the crew, most of which detracts from the ostensible plot of the novel, which is Vancouver getting more cruel to his crew as the voyage comes to an end, partly because his health is declining from being outside in all the rain but also because he fell in love with Captain Quadra, who was in the Spanish navy (and being separated from his lover is making Vancouver uncommonly cranky)!

This love story is almost certainly a complete fabrication by Bowering, probably inspired by the relatively unknown fact that Vancouver Island was originally named Quadra and Vancouver Island!  Still, it seems like this could have inspired a short article on the subject, not a full blown novel.

Bowering ends up playing the unreliable narrator in several ways, but to some extent, the most insidious is that he mixes up real facts with completely made up ones, so that anyone that cares about "the truth" will actually have to do some digging, or at least go off to Wikipedia. What's quite fascinating about the real-life Captain Vancouver is that while his maps were fantastically detailed (some being used well into the 20th Century!), he somehow missed the Columbia and Fraser Rivers!  Bowering relates this, as well as the actions that Vancouver took in trying to locate some islands that the Spaniards had put on their charts (but apparently were just the Sandwich Islands put down very sloppily in the wrong place well over 100 nautical miles away from their actual position).  But then Bowering goes an invents a love life for Vancouver, and perhaps most surprisingly, comes up with a very dramatic death scene for Vancouver that is a complete falsehood.  (Vancouver did die very shortly after his mapping voyage was completed, but not at all how Bowering describes it.)  I guess there is a point to be made that there is no absolute truth, and that history is always refracted through many lens, but if you are at all interested in Captain Vancouver as a historical figure (rather than a literary invention) then you probably will not enjoy Burning Water.

Garcia Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth is a novel that has some similarities on the surface to Bowering's novel in that it is about a historical figure (Simon Bolivar) and Garcia Marquez fills in a lot of personal details around the general's historical itinerary towards the end of his life, but Garcia Marquez ultimately hews much closer to a kind of historical truth than Bowering does.  I guess it sort of seems redundant to require a sticker saying, "Warning, this is a piece of fiction and the novelist may mislead you about the life of Captain Vancouver," but we seem to be living in a shallow-era where everyone has to be warned ahead of time (but in a way that doesn't give away too many spoilers), so anyway, I have tried to do my duty.  Whether the reader is at all interested in going forward at this point is another question.  I probably wouldn't unless I was particularly interested in the Pacific Northwest as a region.  Or if I was particularly turned on by fan fiction about sea captains, which is another thing the book has going for it.  Or if I was really interested in postmodern fiction, though as I already relayed, I am basically indifferent to it at this point in my reading career.

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