By Russell Smith
Muriella Pent is a curious novel that could be easily mistaken as prematurely dated. It has, for example, a lot to say about fashions in the arts, about what’s in and what’s out, and it directs its satire toward subjects (like the debates over political correctness and appropriation of voice) that are now very out.
It’s unfortunate that the book leaves one with this impression, but I think it’s also an important part of what Smith is up to. Muriella Pent alienates the reader. The story – which has to do with a Caribbean poet who comes to stay in the home of a rich Toronto woman as part of a cultural exchange program, with disastrous results – is predictable, loosely structured, and without pace. Aside from Muriella none of the characters are particularly engaging, and the young couple (a male student with a whinnying laugh and an anemic girl who doesn’t know what she wants to do) are even annoying. The Philistines (rich suburbanites, aggrieved Arts Council minorities) are Philistines. Smith’s usually sharp sense of humour shoots long and wide. The pitch that all art has to shock the bourgeoisie with its Bohemian – even Dionysian – fervor seems a blast from the ’60s. And the 1860s at that.
Which is, I think, the point. Muriella Pent is a throwback because it’s about what happened to the dream of the avant-garde. And the avant-garde is always looking back to something.
Of course it’s well written. Smith is a lively storyteller and the descriptive writing is wonderful (you have to pause to admire a traffic jam likened to “a glacier of fuming cars”). But he is also a satirist, and it is what he finds annoying about bureaucratic and bourgeois art-talk that is in the foreground this time out.
A belief in an avant-garde is a belief that art is important both in itself and because it makes things happen. It is a liberating, revolutionary social force. The Caribbean poet Marcus Royston was a part of that when his native island shook off colonial rule. As his superior at the cultural office puts it, “we needed a vision at that time, we needed an artistic image”. Royston’s poetry was that vision, the voice of that movement. But now, the bureaucrat informs him, “we’re putting together a new team.” It’s time to move on.
An argument between two Canadian graduate students of literature focuses things a bit:
“You want to make up for your bourgeois heritage. You want to make reparations.”
“First of all, I’m no bourgeois, I’m from Barrie, which is hardly either a capital of power or genteel whatever, and second, no. That’s not it.”
“You want to make agitprop theatre in the streets like Brecht and, who was it, ,the painter – ”
“Rodchenko. I’d rather be Rodchenko. No, I just feel that – ”
“You want to be engagé like the Surrealists, you want literature in the service of the revolution. You’re going to write a manifesto.”
“I don’t think it’s so ridiculous,” said Brian. “Besides, I have nowhere else to . . . to do something with my stupid education.”
This silenced Jason for a second.
“I’m actually interested in writing,” said Brian, “and it always frustrated me that we never did anything local or even contemporary at school and I want to make all that feel real somehow.”
This is the real problem with the whole political correctness debate, and the reason Smith can’t let it go. Brian’s instincts are right. The idea of literature as revolution is not so ridiculous. It is, at the very least, a sustaining myth. And the desire to make it new and make it real is a genuine artistic impulse. But where is the avant-garde today? Its language of revolution co-opted by bureaucrat radicals and its vision commodified.
“Yes,” said Muriella. “They were scorned at the time. They were too avant-garde for public taste.”
“I see.” He stepped closer to the canvas and squinted. He stepped back again. “And what exactly is avant-gardist about this one?”
“Well,” she said with a little laugh. She held both palms upwards. “Well.” She looked at the painting for the first time in ten years and saw a bloody orange sunset. There was a group of walking people in the foreground. Their clothes were painted very carefully. She tried to remember everything she knew about the Group of Seven. “It’s quite valuable.”
What’s an old avant-gardist left to do in a modern market economy but fuck? Pushed to define what literature is really all about Marcus comes up with “Sex. It’s about sex. Largely.” Free love is art for art’s sake. And so Marcus Royston is a satyr, Muriella a pent-up woman ripe for sexual liberation. The young students are hormonal. When Smith makes revolution it makes him feel like making love. Guys may talk about art and literature, but they are easily distracted by a glimpse of tit. The male gaze is insistently drawn bosom-wards:
Her hair was short and wiry and her arms were rather thick, and mottled now with heat, but there was just the hint of cleavage at the neck of her top, just the shadow of a cleft, and a heft to the sway of her breasts, definite movement as she leant towards the peanuts at the bar.
Her blouse was open low but revealed only a freckled and bony chest, no cleavage.
The top was thin as film and tight across her small breasts . . .
Marcus could see her nipples, the lines of her bra as it squeezed her sides.
She had short hair and spectacles and apparently massive breasts which shifted beneath a loose green T-shirt, obviously unconstrained under there, like a heaving sea as she moved.
She stood before them with the feeling that she was completely naked, and she smiled and held out her hand to each of them. They each stared at her breasts.
Her hair was loose and her lips were red and her thin dress showed even more of her breasts, which Brian had tried not to look at before, but which he looked at closely now. He had to admit they were not bad, and her waist was slim and her nipples clear through the black dress, which was cut so low you could see the beginning of a fold under each breast.
One had a tight grey tank top and large flat breasts that absorbed him for a while, because she didn’t appear to be wearing a bra.
His eyes darted across her chest, the loose silk. She was not wearing a bra.
Well, as Philip Roth has shown, there’s no rule that says a breast man can’t be a man of letters too (especially if you agree with Roth, and Royston, that sex is what it’s about, largely). In fact I wish Smith had gone further in his explorations. What is his manifesto? Is sex always liberating? Inspiring? Or is it mostly just instinctual stimulation? Are Canadians really so repressed? Is Canadian art? Couldn’t repression be productive?
Flawed but provocative, Muriella Pent makes us consider some of the alternatives. Just don’t mistake it for a blast from the past. I have a hunch it might be ahead of its time.
Review first published online July 29, 2004.