Sunday, December 30, 2007

At a Loss for Words

Toronto : HarperCollins Canada, c2007.

Before this year ends, I want to get in a few last reviews of some of the reads of 2007.

But this title pretty much describes what I'm feeling about this book. I'm not sure what to say about it! I've read most of Diane Schoemperlen's work and I admire and enjoy her erudite style. The Governor General's Award-winning short story collection Forms of Devotion is my favourite of her works, but her most recent novel, Our Lady of the Lost & Found, was also a very good read.

This novel, however, did not grab me in the same way. The premise : a writer, suffering from writer's block, rekindles a romance with her high school era boyfriend. Using crossword puzzle clues, horoscopes, and prompts from books about writing to reflect on her text-based romance (conducted primarily through email) the narrator writes her way toward a new novel, and ultimately toward revenge.

This is as clever as anything Schoemperlen has written. Her trademark dry humour and vivid intelligence shine throughout. Nonetheless, I have to very reluctantly state that the email format did not work for me. Probably close to half the story is told in email -- although not directly, rather, the narrator is giving us both sides of the story. For example:
In a lunchtime e-mail you said, I've just been out for a walk. The tulips here are so beautiful! I almost wrote "two lips". Oops......Freudian slip!
I said, Four lips are better than two! These two are going to have some lunch now...although they can think of a few other things they'd rather do!
You said, Smooch! Yes, I see what you mean......four are much better than two!
I said, Thanks...I needed that! Not nearly enough smooching going on around here (i.e., zero!) to suit me.
You said, We are in total sync on that topic! very hard today....(smiles).
I said, I'm thinking about or eight hours' worth! I've really done myself in! We've been very naughty today!
You said, Naughty...yes...I loved it! The sun shines more brilliantly now because of our shared thoughts. Gotta run...

Unfortunately, recreating the excess punctuation and banal details of an email did not engage me. My mind began to go numb in the same way that it does when I am forced to read numerous real emails at once. I appreciate what Schoemperlen is trying to do here but I just didn't find this novel up to her previous levels of excellence. Perhaps she has succeeded too admirably in making the male character completely loathsome. Reading his pat and condescending (and poorly written) communications made my skin crawl -- and made me wonder how this otherwise clever and engaging narrator could fall for his lines. And perhaps it was just my discomfort with this clearly unequal relationship and the narrator's doormat tendencies which made this a difficult read for me. Perhaps it has nothing at all to do with the novel's structure, but my own strong dislike of the storyline itself. Another reader may have a completely different reaction, so don't be put off by mine. Still, I'd recommend especially her Forms of Devotion for a first look.

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