Wednesday, August 30, 2017

11th Canadian Challenge - 5th review - Homer in Flight

I'm not entirely sure how I ran across Homer in Flight, the debut novel by Rabindranath Maharaj, though most likely I found it while searching up literature about immigration in the Toronto Public Library system.  I still expect to get around to writing a post (or perhaps several) about novels focused on the wide variety of immigrant experiences, but that is on the back burner for now.  As I started in on the novel, I realized that it was published in 1997, and it seems to be set somewhat earlier than that.  The recession of 1990-91 still seems to be lingering, as employment opportunities seem somewhat limited, particularly for immigrants with somewhat outdated skills and with heavy accents.  Also, the issue of Toronto amalgamation (1998) does not surface at all, whereas it was a fairly hotly debated topic around the region, although perhaps the inside baseball of Provincial politics was not particularly interesting to new immigrants.  In any event, virtually all of the action in the novel takes place outside old Toronto and in the suburbs, which is appropriate, as most new immigrants ended up in these places.  (In that way, Toronto's demographic patterns are closer to Paris with the poor on the outskirts of the city and in the suburbs rather than New York or Chicago, which is largely the reverse, though these places certainly do have elite neighbourhoods near the centre.)  While I was briefly living in Toronto around the same time as the Homer character, my experience of Toronto was so completely different, as I almost never left the core, and of course I was studying and wasn't allowed to work.  Interestingly, immigration issues occasionally simmered under the surface for the international students, including a master's student who was trying to stay on in Toronto to stay with a girlfriend and then my own experience in having to leave the country by the end of August (after I wasn't accepted into the Ph.D. program).  While my experiences were certainly less traumatic (and my culture shock not as extreme as Homer's), I do have experience in dealing with immigration officers.

What is interesting about the Homer's experience is that he doesn't come to Canada due to economic pressures (as was common in the early part of the 20th Century) nor is he a refugee fleeing a war-torn country (much more common towards the end of the 20th Century through today), but he generally is just fed up with living in Trinidad.  He doesn't seem to be coming to Canada to try to make a lot of money, as many of his compatriots do but to try to get away from the crime and disorder and general corruption of Trinidad.  What is somewhat under the surface is the racial tension of being a minority (of Indian descent) in the Caribbean and wondering whether he would be better off in a better run country, such as Canada.  Given that his motives for coming to Canada are a bit unclear and he doesn't have any specific goals in mind, it isn't that surprising that he suffers from culture shock and generally seems to be in a depressive funk moreso than some of the other immigrants he encounters.

Yet Maharaj seems fairly even-handed, roughly half of the immigrants we encounter in the novel seem to be making a decent go of it in Canada (and certainly their children have adjusted) while the other half are in a funk or on welfare or both.  If accurate, this would be an interesting departure, since pre-1960s immigrant literature generally held that the second generation was the most conflicted, and it was only the third generation that was fully assimilated into the host country (and even there if there were clear racial markers, it would make complete assimilation difficult).  Why would assimilation of the children go faster in the 1990s?  Is it because North American culture is so pervasive that the children are absorbed into it right away or that all of their friends share the same shallow materialism?  The novel really doesn't speak to these issues, but they are worth considering.

There isn't a lot of plot to this novel, but I will be discussing some events that happen through the course of it, so SPOILERS ahead.


I have to admit that I wasn't really that interested in Homer as a character.  He was vaguely discontented about everything, which led him to leave his home for no particularly good reason and to cut his ties with his family (almost never writing back to his mother and missing his father's funeral).  It shouldn't be that much of a surprise that he didn't find Canada lived up to his expectations (and finding a job was much harder than he expected), and he nearly returns to Trinidad but pulls himself together at the end.

What I really didn't like about him is that he had almost no spunk or drive.  After a short time looking through the help wanted pages, he settles back and just sends out a bunch of ill-formatted resumes and, not surprisingly, doesn't get hired.  He takes the easy way out time and time again, with only occasional departures from this pattern (when he moves out of a friend's apartment to find his own place for instance).  He does bounce a bit all over the region, from Ajax to Etobicoke to Burlington and finally Hamilton.  He actually lands a factory job through his friend, but after a few months decides he is becoming a "zombie" and quits without any prospects.  I just found that really irresponsible, and that is probably when I stopped caring much about him and his ultimate fate.

Homer ends up in a desultory relationship with Vashti, another tenant in the building.  She works at a bookstore and is taking night classes and generally has a bit more purpose in life.  It seems she is trying to escape a failed love affair and settles for Homer.  They get married and move in together, and, for a while, Homer is content, even though he still hasn't found a suitable job.  As a side note, I realize immigration procedures change all the time, but it does seem odd that Homer qualified for immigration in the first place, since his skills were outdated and he shouldn't have gotten enough points to get his papers.  Also several of the West Indians he meets are milking the welfare system, and he briefly considers this.  When I got my papers, it was made very clear to me that applying for any kind of welfare would nullify my right to stay in Canada, so perhaps that has changed.  What is very odd is that Homer never once considers checking with Employment Ontario or some other employment bureau.  (When I am not all that engaged in the story, I tend to think about these tangential matters.)

To save money, they move into a basement apartment in her sister's house in Burlington.  This is where Homer really shows his true colours, since he acts as a total ingrate, saying terrible things about this sister and her husband.  Homer manages to spoil several parties and just generally acts like a bore.  While some of this is surely due to misplaced pride, i.e. feeling humiliated that he can't really care for his family, he doesn't really take any meaningful action to get a job, though I suppose to be fair he does increase his networking at the temple, which indeed does lead to a job offer, which more or less lands in his lap, since he was quite unqualified to be hired as a school librarian.  Even after he becomes respectable again (and eventually even self-publishes a book), it seems the break with his wife and her family is too profound, and he will go living on his own, as a misunderstood, under-appreciated fellow.  And that's how the novel ends.  Clearly, I wasn't moved by Homer's plight or his (economic) salvation, though other aspects of the novel interested me.  Interestingly, Maharaj came to Canada in his late 30s, though he was better credentialed and didn't struggle quite as much as Homer, though there is a bit of a parallel in that he did teach high school in Hamilton.  He has continued to write novels and won several awards with his most recent The Amazing Absorbing Boy (2010).  This also involves immigration to Canada but the immigration of a young boy coming to Canada.  I'll add it to my reading list and perhaps pair it with Bishop-Stall's Ghosted, whenever I get around to that one.

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