The Grammar Architect

By Chris Eaton

We don’t usually think of art as being a form of mass media, but the influence of the mass media on it is obvious. Poems and paintings don’t give us the news or provide us with facts and information, but they have to communicate using the same basic grammar the modern mind has grown accustomed to receiving its sports scores, headlines, celebrity gossip and advertising (especially advertising) in. In the early twentieth century, for example, poetry and painting imitated the page layout of newspapers, with their discontinuity of impression and perspective, fragmentation, and collage. And we’ve all seen the studies showing sentences getting shorter to match our minimal attention spans.

And so, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm has observed, “it impossible to deny that the real revolution in the twentieth-century arts was achieved not by the avant-gardes of modernism, but outside the range of the area formally recognized as ‘art.’ It was achieved by the combined logic of technology and the mass market, that is to say by the democratization of aesthetic consumption. . . . Advertisements and movies, developed by hucksters, hacks and technicians, not only drenched everyday life in aesthetic experience, but converted the masses to daring innovations in visual perception, which left the revolutionaries of the easel far behind, isolated and largely irrelevant.”

That last is going a bit too far, but Hobsbawm’s general point holds. Technology and the mass market are the forces in the last century that have shaped the arts. Our stories haven’t changed, but the ways we go about telling them have been warped, at times almost beyond recognition. This has even lead some people to prophesy the death of the novel. But that might be jumping the gun.

The Grammar Architect is Toronto writer Chris Eaton’s second novel, and its subtitle tells us it’s a “cover” of Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes. Like a musical cover, Eaton’s imitation “begins with Hardy’s basics and transforms it into something entirely his own.”

In the ups and downs of literary fashion Hardy’s novels have recently been about as “out” as Jane Austen’s have been “in.” But his power as a storyteller means that he’s always had his followers, and not just among those looking for a good old-fashioned read. The Miramichi of David Adams Richards, for example, often seems like Hardy’s Wessex transplanted. And for a young, experimental writer like Eaton, Hardy’s “basics” help to provide a small nugget of narrative solidity for an otherwise totally amorphous postmodern novel.

A very, very small nugget, but at least it gives him a start.

A Pair of Blue Eyes tells the melodramatic story of a love triangle involving a young man working on a church tower, and the daughter of the vicar. This doesn’t have much to do with Eaton’s cover version. There is a fellow working on a church tower named Neil, and he does fall in love with a girl named Judith, whose mythological father (going by the name of “Tragedy” here) doesn’t approve. But most of the time Eaton is on his own.

And he’s changing a lot more than the names. Most of all what he’s changing is the way the story is told. Even if he’d kept Hardy’s novel intact it still would have been completely transformed. The Grammar Architect comes at you like a rambling, relentless rush of pure verbal energy. It seems as if it’s all done on a single breath. The story, like a typical Eaton sentence, is a soup of circularity, free association, and playing endless mental catch-up. Nothing about the narrative is linear (as you should expect in a novel that includes a sub-plot involving time machines). Instead of a love triangle there is a love polyhedron (or something like that), and Eaton wants to give us a full scorecard of who’s scoring. The same is true of the sentences, which can run on but more often shatter into numerous parenthetic asides and by-the-way subordinate clauses that hang like shirt sleeves sticking out of an overstuffed suitcase. Everything might be connected and god forbid anything gets overlooked. The book that Neil, the Grammar Architect, is writing is in fact just an inventory, a collection of facts and items, “a second Babel disguised as a novel,” a great work of “List-erature.”

In other words it’s a book you seem to surf as much as you read, mimicking the experience of channel surfing or clicking through pages on the Internet. And what’s on? Just the kind of magic realism television and the Internet specialize in. Technology and the mass media are spinning the potter’s wheel again.

But if this is all there was to The Grammar Architect it would only be a particularly hyper kind of literary curiosity. Magic realism is, at least in one reader’s opinion, getting quite played out (especially when you cue the freaks). But in addition to being so full of life and raw energy, Eaton is a very good writer with something to say. His timing is perfect, which is necessary for a comic writer, and his use of language witty, lyrical, and fresh. You have to sit back and admire someone who can end a chapter with “the clanging bells among leaps the live thunder.” That’s something that pulls you up short – it’s difficult without being at all vague, clichéd or indirect. Which is to say, it’s what good “poetic” prose should be.

Of course a book like this is going to frustrate anyone just looking for a good story. If that’s your thing, try Hardy. But The Grammar Architect may well be the best Canadian novel of the year. This is the new. It does suffer a bit from a lack of weight, those traditional literary ballast bags of psychological realism and moral depth, but it also goes places those heavier novels can’t reach. The novel isn’t dead, but continues to evolve.

Review first published October 15, 2005.


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