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Flack, Brian L.

Windsor. Black Moss Press, c1985. 208pp, paper. $12.95, ISBNO-88753-130-X.

Reviewed by L. Maingon

Volume 14 Number 3
1986 May

Brian Flack's latest novel follows in the wake of the symbolic realism of his previous works. One Side Up (s.n., 1971) and In Seed Time (Highway Book Shop, 1978). As in these works, in With a Terrible and Sudden Clarity Flack likes to create an emotionally charged text, but it is the plot or situation that creates the tension, not the style or the narrative perspective, hence the one dimensional nature of his novels. These limitations are particularly clear in the somewhat overdrawn narrative structure of his latest novel, which leaves character development to a minimum. For all this, there is a kind of primitive rawness in this writing that can charm the reader. It is an ambivalent mixture of visionary desire and myopic expression, which might well reflect the reality of the Canadian dream. Unlike the pastiches and vacuous verbal intellectualism of Robertson Davies's claims to the non-correspondence between the author and national reality, we may well have here a truly mediaeval speculum of our reality, brutal as it may seem.

As a metaphor of that reality, With a Sudden and Terrible Clarity exploits the realization of the distance between the desire and its realizalion. Its story is simple, and perhaps too much so. Andrew Taylor, now a young man in his late twenties, commits suicide in the garage he built just as he did his life, literally while his wife looks on. As he does so, Andrew goes over the salient events of his life that have brought him to this situation. The matrix point that opens Andrew's tale is a discussion between his mother and father in which he learns that his mother has been having an affair. This provides the subsequent logic of his father's suicide, which twenty years later Andrew is now re-enacting. His father's death drives his mother to drink, and results in the disintegration of the family. Andrew is then put in a foster home for boys, where he grows up in a brutal and uncaring environment. The consistently exploitative nature of this institutional environment, which measures the value of the individual not through a nominative definition of the value of being, but through a negative assessment of failure to integrate and conform to the social norm, alienates Andrew from all but his childhood friend, Derek, who becomes his role model. As a product of a stable home situation, Derek seems to be all that Andrew should have been had his mother not transgressed the social pact. We are in a typical Gilgamesh and Inkidu topical situation. Found to be a brilliant student, Andrew is forced to meet the social expectations of his teachers, and is further alienated from his social class by the bourgeois expectations of university classmates, whose apathy and malleability conflict with his rebellious social awareness. He becomes increasingly aware that his life is a no exit situation, after an affair with one of his English literature teachers, which breaks down when she accepts a position on the West Coast, and leaves him with a feeling of betrayal. He then graduates in commerce, and visibly begins to integrate into society when he becomes a successful executive, marries, and attempts to form a family.

His success is, however, illusory. Andrew's wife, Heather, is depicted as frigid and self-seeking, and thus becomes a duplicate of Andrew's own mother. Andrew's disillusionment is the product of his confrontation between the structures of desire fabricated in his alienated world that revolves around infantile concept ions of ideal sexuality, and the fantasy family of the North American myth. Confrontation with their real configurations leads Andrew to retreat, and his adolescent belief in the concomitant myth of male power and success cause him to believe in his failure. That failure is nonetheless equally illusory, since we find, with Andrew, that his role model experiences the same disintegration of family.

From the beginning, to the consummation of the suicide, the reader is made to witness an individual out of touch with the Self. Andrew lives through his father, and tries to be his father, never himself. Flack homes this point with a typically Boccaciesque technique of letting the narration develop around a central symbol. In this case that symbol is that of the butterfly, a traditional symbol of the soul. Hence the interplay between Andrew's development, the construction of the garage, and the liberation of the butterfly from its cocoon. It is therefore fitting that the dream of the butterfly that haunts Andrew, and which is the product of a book given him by his father, closes the novel with the phrase, "a blue and white butterfly rose within him," For the first time the butterfly is not associated with the father, but with Andrew, who only discovers his Self at death.

The weaknesses of the novel are stylistic. It is interesting that the author betrays, through Andrew, a fascination for Celine's Voyage au bout de la nuit. What Flack lacks is the stylistic power of a Celine. His sentences fall short of the expectation created by the plot, it leaves the reader with no ambiguity. For instance, "He watched a pretty one, timid, almost afraid, he thought, to shed the artificial skin, but who in the end succumbed to the demands of her admirers'" The language is flat, too explanatory; everything in the previous sentence, from "but" onwards connects the narrator's logic excessively and destroys the reader's desire to be drawn into the text. Perhaps for this reason, his female characters, his mother and his wife, have no depth. Just as Flack has learned Boccaccio's technique successfully, his writing would be greatly improved if he listened to Don Quixote's suggestions to Sancho on how not to tell a story. This shortcoming causes the novel to read too much like a psychological treatise.

This novel, printed in very high quality paper is well worth looking at, for serious light reading. It does not, however, enter into the Atwood, Lawrence, Findley league, but it shows another side of Canadian urban realism, through extremes of flaws and merits comparable to the fabled rigours of our Canadian winter.

L. Maingon. Dept. of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. B.C.
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