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Carpenter, David.

Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, c1985. 189pp, paper, $12.95, ISBN 0-7710-1908-4. (McClelland and Stewart Signature series) CIP

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Pamela Black

Volume 14 Number 3
1986 May

A story about catching a giant fish? Yet another story about middle-aged despair? That is what the book cover claims David Carpenter is writing about in his first book of fiction, Jokes for the Apocalypse. One wonders whether we need more stories like these (especially the fish one). And what does the apocalypse have to do with either of these subjects anyway?

Not much, because as usual, the jacket notes are something less than appropriate. No fish here, and not much middle-aged despair either. David Carpenter is not really writing about catching "a fish of mythic proportions" in his first novella Luce. Rather, he is obliquely addressing the myths of achievement that individuals invent to live by (starting at around age five), and the life-long man to myth relationship that ensues. The myth, that is, the huge fish, the beautiful girl, success, and acceptance, provides a recipe for living that, if followed closely, should never allow the openness of a lawless universe to seep in.

The two novellas in this book debate the issue of which side of the myth to be on; inside or outside. Drew Edmond in Luce slays a sea monster, wins, if not the girl, at least a kiss, and glimpses an abyss behind all human action and belief that permanently cures him of his fascination with the heroic narrative that has brought him this far. On the other hand, Ham Walmsley, in Jokes for the Apocalypse, never does escape his own fictionalizing tendencies in his heartless search for love and understanding. This second work is vaguely reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and, as in the case of the notorious Humbert Humbert, no self-awareness brightens the end of the tunnel, only a diseased self-consciousness. In this respect, the jacket notes are accurate in stating that Ham "never quite gets the joke."

The two stories dovetail with each other in a manner both incidental and central to the gentle dialectic of meaning and meaninglessness that they pose. Apart from translating poetry and prose from French into English, David Carpenter has hitherto written only short stories and non-fiction, but he is clearly a very skillful writer whose every piece reverberates with its own relentlessly attractive imagery. English classes can only benefit by exposure to his subtle skills that have here manifested themselves in the paradoxical form of narratives about abandoning narratives. We can easily do with more like these (especially the fish one).

Pamela Black, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, B.C.
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