Monday, June 30, 2008

Snow, apparitions, death, birth, gambling, war and beestiality: these are but a few samples of What the Crow Said

In some regards, it was as though the book itself, our book, was at once magical and realistic. Maybe 15 years ago my old buddy Rich had found it in a house under construction in a Calgary subdivision while drunk. He carried it home and, in accordance with his perverse habit, quickly removed the dust jacket and chucked it—his bookshelves are lined with such appallingly denuded volumes. He then made a pot of coffee and read it all through the night. When he split with his girl the year following she took the book to Vancouver and he moved to the Yukon, yet months later he found it again nestled between catalogues in the washroom of a mutual friend who claimed to have no memory of its arrival.

In an act he’d later regret, Rich lent the book to me not long after their reunion. It went from this point to live in the trunk of my car for years, traveling with me all over this end of the country, unread and forgotten. The car is long gone, and I assumed I’d lost the book until finally, just last year, I found it again, taking refuge in my parents’ basement following a flood. So it was only during this last week that, with the coming of Canada Day and an accompanying desire to fulfill old promises I read the damned thing, weirdly spellbound, exactly 30 years after it’s publication. It starts like this:

“People, years later, blamed everything on the bees; it was the bees, they said, seducing Vera Lang, that started everything. How the town came to prosper, and then to decline, and how the road never got built, the highway that would have joined the town and the municipality to the world beyond, and how the sky itself, finally, took umbrage: it was all because one afternoon in April the swarming bees found Vera Lang asleep, there is a patch of wild flowers on the edge of the valley.”

Vera Lang’s impregnation by bees among the grasses of Big Knife, a particularly vulnerable settlement perched ambiguously on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, looms indeed as an omen of all that ultimately passes in Robert Kroetsch’s What the Crow Said. Summoning up the sort of only half-fathomable eroticism that is exclusive to literature, Kroetsch describes Vera’s body as “singing like a telephone wire… her belly tightening to the push and rub of her myriad unthinking lovers,” while every other inhabitant of Big Knife is suddenly seized with the sudden awareness of a catalytic event occurring in their midst, even the boys at school who collectively guess “they were confronting a mystery greater than any they were ever expected to or would ever learn.”

Kroetsch’s narrator, not unreliable but rather openly uncertain, follows Vera’s insect tryst with stories of deaths foretold, an unyielding winter, the erection of a prairie lighthouse, ghosts, countless strange killings, a child raised by wolves who becomes a meteorological prophet, a sex-crazed Frenchman convicted of murder who invents a flying machine and escapes from jail to seek out Vera’s love letter-writing little sister, still more inexplicable pregnancies, and of course the arrival and eventual departure of the cantankerous and possibly sagely talking crow of the title. Kroetsch’s characters are perpetually struggling to come to terms with the unpredictable wrath of both nature and machine, not to mention human desire. One even goes so far as to deny the existence of gravity. Their stories emerge from Kroetsch’s adoption of magic realism, an experiment, rarely fashionable among the literati, that’s likely kept What the Crow Said from being regarded with the esteem given to Kroetsch’s best-known novels, The Studhorse Man, Gone Indian and Badlands. Yet Kroetsch deserves credit for recognizing the genre’s utter suitability for conveying of tall tales told in prairie taverns and communities whose lives depend on the caprices of weather in a place where the weather makes no fucking sense at all. And Kroetsch handles the medium with ribald comic invention, making for a very entertaining, audacious and frequently poetic read.

Magical explanations seem not to be the whimsy of Big Knifeans but rather a coping mechanism for difficult lives concerned with fertility, family, land and effective negotiation with animals. These people, mostly weak, distracted men and formidable, hard-working women, suffer to hilarious extremes. For much of the novel’s mid-section the town's men become ensnared in a game of schmier from which they are unable to escape for months, like the victims of spell that would normally be dreamed up by Luis Buñuel for the bourgeoisie of France or Mexico. The game moves from locale to locale, the men rotting away in the process. “Men lay in their own vomit, gagging and crying. Husbands ignored the entreaties of their wives, fathers denied so much as a nickel or dime to the children waiting in parked cars…” The addiction represents a catastrophe built on boredom, frustration and susceptibility to games of chance that resonates with anyone whose spent any time in a some rural Chinese Canadian restaurant with a VLT machine plugged into a corner socket, occupied for hours at a time by some hypnotized old timer unable to even remove his parka.

It’s in this manner that the greater truths are found through exaggeration. Kroetsch’s use of magic realism is come by honestly because he so clearly recognizes that the fantastical elements in his story must possess an intuitive logic. Kroetsch is of course a prairie boy himself, born 81 years ago in Heisler, and by the time of What the Crow Said was well into a career that capitalized on his understanding of Albertan vastness, xenophobia, and terror. All of this was, if I recall correctly, stuff Rich was trying to tell me when he placed the book in my hands all those years ago, back when its corners were crisp and pages un-yellowed. But sometimes a book, just like the rains that end a prairie drought, just needs some extra time to get to you.

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