(for an explanation of this primer to the Newfoundland novel, see my introductory post here)
The first book I thought to recommend for this primer was Lisa Moore’s debut novel Alligator. In the late 90’s and early 00’s, Lisa Moore built a reputation within Canada as an accomplished author of short stories. She earned more international (and, belatedly, national) attention with her second novel, 2009’s February, the first (and to date only) Newfoundland book to be long-listed for the Booker prize; it also won last year’s Canada Reads contest. Her third novel, a crime caper called Caught, was released to strong reviews, also last year. But, to me, Alligator is the place to start. Why? Well, it’s not just that Alligator is my personal favourite of Moore’s books (although this is true). Hopefully, by the end of this post, a sense of why I’ve chosen Alligator specifically will emerge.
Moore is a fantastic prose stylist; her writing is blunt yet oblique, full of movement and visual detail. Moore is a master of micro-pacing, varying short, staccato phrases with run-on sentences to create a palpable sense of tempo in her work, rushing ahead here, lingering there, not hesitating to issue second-person commands amidst the action, to grab us by the collar and turn our attention to where she wants it to be. She has a knack for rearranging syntax, for picking out the grotesque details that are hidden in a banal scene. There are few commas in her prose, and dialogue is not marked by quotation marks; this makes the words more liquid, more torrential. See, in the excerpt below, how she starts with a flat statement, then launches into a nearly-unpunctuated rapid-fire sequence of verbs and nouns – and see how “toothpick” is the subject, not the object, of the verb “unfolds” (and note how awful “eyetooth” feels).
“The hot-dog stand isn’t for sale, Frank said. Valentin lifted his lip then in a kind of slow snarl and a toothpick unfolded out of his mouth and he picked at his eyetooth with it and examined the pick and dropped it in the gutter. His black sunglasses were full of the coloured lanterns that were strung across the street. He turned and the lanterns ran across the black lenses, one after the other. The city had done up George Street to look like drinking was a Newfoundland tradition. But the old-fashioned street lights were brand new” (139).
But this writerly prowess, which Alligator demonstrates ably, is only one of the reasons why this novel is on this list. One of the points of this primer is to introduce Newfoundland as a society and as a place to a (friendly, interested) reader who’s unfamiliar with both. It’s no accident that the excerpt above, chosen to show Moore’s technical chops, also ends with a filmic sequence of coloured lights passing across a black lens, immediately followed by a judo flip of the stereotype of the drunken Newfie and Olde St. John’s Towne: George Street is decorated to make it “look like drinking was a Newfoundlnd tradition,” but “”the old-fashioned street lights were brand new.” Alligator is all about the construction of a new Newfoundland that positions itself as already old.
More than that, Alligator is a vibrant, fragmentary, portrait-of-a-city kind of novel, if the city in question is weirdly both old and new, the last port of call on the edge of a continent, on “a cold and ugly island that hardly existed, could not be found on many maps” – and St. John’s is precisely all of those things. Alligator is full of sex and violence; petty skeets and petty bourgeoisie; American tourists and Russian mobsters; a dying filmmaker who returns home to create a romantic paean to the spirit of Olde Newfoundland and an infestation of invasive larval worms that’s eating the city alive -not just its trees, but its spirit, its psyche – even its underwear:
“The next day Frank heard Carol out on the fire escape pulling in her laundry. She had several pairs of underwear hung on the line, pastel colours, each pair flimsy and light-pierced. The panties were full of worms. They had gathered in the cotton-lined crotches of the underwear and made them look black.”
In short, Alligator is stuffed with things; it’s a novel squirming with life. In that sometimes discomforting or even nauseating abundance of detail, it captures something about the feel and the life of St. John’s. Specifically, the feel and the life of St. John’s in the brief cluster of close, mauzy days it gets most summers, that time when everything lurid and vital about the place seems amplified. A jagged, uncomfortable exuberance, both in style and content, bursts the seams of passages like this one:
“The way you see the elm spanworms is you are almost on top of them and what you see is a blur that registers in some primitive part of the brain as danger, you focus involuntarily on the worm before your face. It comes into focus, the way it inches up the clear thread, and the other worms hanging beside it become visible. They look like twigs. You can mistake them for inanimate objects, except they move. They waver slightly as if they are uncertain of what to touch next. They look like they think.” (88).
Alligator is often praised for inaugurating a turn in Newfoundland literature, praised as the anti–Shipping News – an urban and urbane turn away from nostalgic and melancholic writing about a fading rural society increasingly out of place and out of time. But while the St. John’s of Moore’s fiction is indeed a cosmopolitan, energetic, shifting urban landscape, Alligator remains very much a detailed portrait of a specific place, and it would be a very different book if St. John’s and Newfoundland both did not provide it with such a specific and unusual cultural and historical context. Alligator, and the dying filmmaker I’ve mentioned, are both haunted by the ghost of Archbishop Fleming, the 19th century architect of Newfoundland’s romantic nationalism. The book engages specifically and repeatedly with the question of what Newfoundland is, post-Confederation, post-globalization. The ghosts of old Newfoundland have been appropriated and packaged for the tourists, but there is a deeper reality underneath that packaging, one that still has an enormous amount of imaginative and affective power in the world of this book. Here is Madeline, the filmmaker, moving heaven and earth to make her final masterpiece, a film about traditional, pre-Confederation Newfoundland, a film completely unconcerned with historical accuracy yet obsessed with the affect of an imagined never-real past:
“You get an idea in your head. She wanted Newfoundland before Confederation because what kind of people were they? She remembers her mother’s housekeeper tearing the skin off rabbits in the kitchen sink… She could not put into words about how she’d captured the history of Newfoundland in this film, new because she was inventing it, or how this film had spiritual implications….”
Perhaps, too, I started with Alligator somewhat selfishly. At the 2014 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities this May I’ll be delivering a paper on Alligator, gothic urbanism, the port versus the garrison, and Newfoundland. I’m writing it now, and my next post will be a translation of the paper’s abstract into somewhat less formal, somewhat less academic language. Hopefully, it’ll explain why I think Alligator is both very fresh, very challenging, yet still, at its heart, undeniably a novel about Newfoundland.