By André Alexis
The 1980s have never received a lot of love. Invariably written off as the “Reagan eighties” in the United States, their iconic images and voices today only recall an embarrassing historical phase of big money and bad taste. In hindsight, at least the seventies had counter-cultural cachet and a sense of style. What came after was sheer vulgarity.
A point which makes André Alexis’s new novel, his first since 1998s Childhood, seem daring indeed: wrenching us back to a time many of us would rather forget and a place that impressed John Metcalf, who moved there in 1981, as a frozenly hideous “backwater backdrop.”
Yes, the setting is Ottawa – bland, gray, administrative and grim – during the Mulroney years. Our narrator, however, has since removed to a monastery outside of Florence, and the novel’s main concern – the care of the soul – is universal. Indeed, aside from the odd bit of local colour and name-dropping, including a cameo by “Martin Brian” himself, there is little that immediately reminds us of a specific time or place.
Nor is there much of a story. Instead the book deals with “the shuttle and shunt of various lives” connected romantically, professionally, and through membership in a high-minded philosophy discussion group called the Fortnightly Club. In brief: Paul’s wife Louise has an affair with Walter, who is prevented from committing suicide by Mary, who has an office next door to Franklin, who works for the dangerously compromised member of parliament Rundstedt.
In so far as there is a centre to this web it is Franklin’s vision of building a model prison in the Gatineaus, the MacKenzie Bowell Federal Penitentiary (or, as he more romantically styles it, “Alba”). That this neo-classical white elephant ends up a compromised trunk that everyone loses interest in before construction even begins is emblematic of the novel’s dominant tone of intellectual disengagement.
Though events full of passion, brutal violence, and intrigue are described, none of it seems to affect the participants very much. They remain disinterested onlookers. There is humour, but so dry it barely registers. The tapestry structure of the various narrative sub-plots flattens everything into background, with no single event rising into importance. The framing device is both unnecessary and baffling in terms of its perspective, a superfluous bit of architecture. The writing is wordy and stiffly formal, using terms like “copulation and frottage” to describe the imagined ins-and-outs of an affair, and never missing the chance to drag in a reference to an ancient philosopher or obscure renaissance artist for ballast.
There is a straining for restraint in all of this, and a chasing after interpretation that is at times a little obvious.
Alexis’s careful dissection of the human condition recognizes the conflict between the chaotic soul of the artist and that of the government appointee. Unfortunately, this is the monk’s tale. And so perhaps Asylum really is the Great Ottawa Novel: cultivated, affluent, and terminally bureaucratic in design and effect. One comes away impressed, even overwhelmed, mystified and bored.
Review first published in the Toronto Star April 27, 2008.