Pacific Rim Review of Books

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O Rare Jack Hodgins

Linda Rogers

The Master of Happy Endings
Jack Hodgins
Thomas Allen, 2010, $32.95

The Invention of the World
Jack Hodgins
Ronsdale Press re-issue, 2010, $18.95

We often hear the common reader expressing the wish to re-visit favourite books during those armchair years when life is remembered and savoured. “I plan to read Murasaski (or Chaucer) again,” they promise themselves with the understanding that the experience will be richer when absorbed from a mature perspective. Now we have bookends to make life simpler for Jack Hodgins aficionados, a re-issue of his first novel, aptly named The Invention of the World, and the publication of The Master of Happy Endings, his modern Lear appropriately a bushed scholar.

Hodgins, who has often been compared to writers like Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner, who made memorable characters out of unique settings, was born into a parenthesis, a time when world war marked the beginning of the end of the modern age. The parenthesis is still open and he sees what is coming, a world that needs re-inventing at least from the human perspective. We did not invent the Earth, but we did create a society fraught with reminders of human fallibility.
That fallibility has been brought forward with high-seriousness in the human comedies written by Hodgins, whose societal view is tolerant, coloured by the Aristotelian understanding that we are surrounded by perfection, but often trip over the evidence as it reveals itself.

Hodgins’ fictional world is the Northwest Rainforest, a place already defined in the spirit religion and iconography of our First Nations. His characters, all “bushed” in different ways, stumble out that tradition. They are carved from trees and the spirits speak through them, even though they are imperfect channels. As we read the stories, we can identify Dzunuk’wa, Wild Woman of the Woods, who gathers children in a basket and feeds those who deserve to be fed, and Raven the trickster, his laughter bouncing from branch to branch. The wry but compassionate author has spent his lifetime defining a new post-contact forest mythology that respects what came before. The river flows through it and hopefully we might learn from the river.

The Invention of the World is an ironic title. We are an arrogant species who, in the post-Renaissance view, regard other orders as adversaries to overcome. In order to justify this, we invented the notions of good and evil. Man is good. The sea that swallows sailors is evil. The animals that attack humans to protect their young are evil. We are the higher intelligence and we will use that power to control the oceans and winds and flora and fauna that exist only as a setting for human society.

Now we hear Raven laughing. All along, he knew that was untrue.

So many settlers came to the New World expecting a Utopian outcome. Life would be better here. They’d civilize the unknown forest and, metaphor of all metaphors, turn its trees into paper to spread our message. British Columbia has attracted a number of messianic characters who led their vulnerable brethren into the woods from which they sometimes emerge to tell their stories. The notion of ideal community, the carrot that lured their ancestors to these shores, was reprised in the Sixties when young urbanites returned to the land, establishing communes that by and large failed for the same reasons their predecessors had. This is the backdrop for Hodgins’ post-hippy assessment. By the late Seventies, the great experiment had gone South, the hottest place in our collective imagination, in Wild Woman’s legendary basket.

Because we don’t seem to absorb our lessons, the lessons bear repeating. Because Hodgins delivers them with compassionate laughter, the reader opens up to a greater understanding.
Maggie, who has taken over the dilapidated remains of The Revelations Colony of Truth, a doubtful concept, is an earth mother of doubtful provenance. She has loved and gained. The residue of her careless and random affection is children who grow in a garden of neglect. Still, Maggie, never a virgin mother, has holy aspirations:

It would be exciting to drop off pounds of lard, to peel the fat off layer by layer, and get so thin eventually that they would have to wire you to the earth to keep you from ascending to the sky, floating right up out of sight because there wasn’t enough of you left for gravity to get hold of. She could see herself, going up in the air like a slow rocket, ascending perpendicular, and all encircled in light like one of those saint people, pure spirit, while flesh and bones lay heavy on the ground like discarded clothes.

Hodgins description of Maggie’s unsanctified holy ambitions is masterful. At the same time she is innocent and grotesque. The stage is set.

One of Maggie’s kids is getting married. The mayhem that intrudes on the wedding preparations foreshadows the inevitable desecration of this union. We are ready for trouble, as is Raven, the ventriloquist, who throws the voices of brides and grooms, murderers and murdered, from the upper branches of a cedar tree, beyond reach.

Raven has seen it all before. He is omniscient and has been in this wood forever, and in all the other woods in the world, even Ireland where this tale started when a young woman died giving birth to the monstrous founder of the Colony of Truth who split himself into two parts, Good and Evil, that would keep popping up, generation after generation, just like Cain and Abel in the first mythical garden. This is a game of round and round, birth, copulation and death, fall and redemption, witnessed by Wild Woman, Mad Mother Thomas in this version of the creation and recreation story.

No one is surprised when Maggie marries Wade, the new incarnation of the mythical good brother. The reader is given clues to Wade recognition. He is either one of those supernatural beings that tore off its face to endow humans with special gifts or he is a human chosen to receive it: “It’s only an ugly mask you’re wearing just to spite me, his mother said, “And someday I’ll find a way of zipping it off you.”

Maggie and Wade are no fairytale couple. They are in fact the anti-heroic, a slut and a sloth. “There were people,” Hodgins wrote, “who chose to live as if no one had invented civilization. They were people who chose to ignore everything that humanity had done to improve life over thousands of years.” This, we are beginning to realize, might be a good thing.

Wade is not charismatic, but he is kind. That is enough for Maggie, now. The wedding feast is spiced with enough sex and violence to last a lifetime, but lifetimes are short. This is a story that has no ending, because there is only one story and it keeps repeating itself. In his layering of legend, Hodgins began his career as a novelist with this branding: cast and plot are reliably predictable, but the details reinvent themselves to keep the story endlessly entertaining.

The Master of Happy Endings may be reporting the positive outcome of this marriage, even though the characters have changed. There is a time in life when every mortal begins to think of roads not taken, doors closing and the near impossibility of happy endings. “How will I go on if he/she predeceases me” is one of those intrusive thoughts. It seems as if the only end to a happy marriage is despair. Some go so far as to make suicide pacts.

For Axel Thorstad, the end game couple contract was not a possibility. His wife died suddenly and without warning. The angel of death had descended in medias res, uninvited into their golden years. Axel is one of those men who never fell out of love. His marital co-dependence had been complete and satisfactory. The rest has been limbo, an extended season of loneliness and isolation in the couple’s summer cottage.

Frank McCourt once wrote that a successful life moves from fear to freedom, but he died relatively young, before he could record the final movement in the symphony of earthly existence. It is not hard to imagine fear taking over when married people are faced with the awful reality of bereavement.

The sky scraping component of Victoria’s exemplary literary love couple has projected natural apprehension into his foundering widower. Whatever has informed Hodgins’ creation of his geriatric protagonist character, uxorious with a top note of grief, Axel is fully realized as a man living out what has become a fugue, one tune that keeps looping back to the time before the retired school teacher and amateur cellist lost his pianist wife.

Axel, who has been folding his large shadow into a smaller and smaller drawer, advertises his services as a tutor in a bid to abandon his bereft paradise and have a last crack at freedom. The widower whose worst nightmare is “shiploads of senior-seniors sent out to sea and forbidden to return” busts out of the prison grief has made of his formerly idyllic life in Estevan Island, a pitch perfect portrait of island life in British Columbia.

All our islands are Brigadoon, where inbred populations disappear into forests with vertical longings. No one captures the comedic gap between man and tree as ably as Hodgins.

Even though Axel’s aspirations are vertical, there are only horizontal moves in his board game of life. He carries his good intentions and a pocket Chaucer south to Hollywood, where “souning in moral vertu was his speech, and gladly would he learn and gladly teach” an aspiring actor who is required to finish high school by parents who wisely distrust an artistic vocation, possibly because they have been created by a writer who has a forest canopy view of that oxymoron “arts community.”

Axel, who has genetic history in Hollywood (his father a stuntman allegedly died jumping of a roof, his first stunt), is an absurdity among the lollypop people (actors with finite bodies and round photogenic heads). His gangly shape is as bad a fit in the ethically challenged gathering of movieland egos as are his values. Fortunately, salvation is foreshadowed in his charge’s philanthropic work among the homeless. Travis, the boy actor, who began volunteering in order to understand his part in a series and remained committed to the down and out, proves to be redeemable in spite of his fascination with unreality.

While Estevan is any Island on the BC Coast, Hollywood plays itself, Sodom West. Enter the actress Oonagh, a ghost from Axel’s limited sexual history who arrives on the set in time to hear him articulate the realization that eventually comes to everyone who lives long enough to achieve loneliness, “…it always seemed important that there be those who were going before us – sometimes as teachers or coaches or self-appointed uncles, but mostly just there, running things, providing examples, and causing us to feel we’re following in their footsteps.”
“And now they’ve disappeared.” Her voice was disappointed for him.

“Taking their footsteps with them.” This seemed to have happened while he was hiding out on his island. “Of course I should have known but it has caught me by surprise,” as it always does.

Hodgins is a master of sweet irony. If the human comedy dictates happy endings, we are rewarded by Axel’s circuitous journey from innocence to experience that leaves us instructed in the meaning of life. For the aging protagonist, this means rediscovery and revelation, the realization that everything real and imagined is transitory. Ars breva, vita breva.

The reticence that his creator may have felt in projecting the gentle creature from his experience / imagination on to the page is integrated in the character of a careful man who reacts slowly, as in movie close-ups not on the bigger stage of life. Axel is no actor. He is real. Every step he takes is one slow frame in the leisurely film documentary of his journey. He has ventured off to find what he already knows.

Back on his island after his Chaucerian pilgrimage to Hollywood, where there are no endings because no one gets old, he realizes he had happiness in his suitcase all along. Axel has led an authentic life and he can look back and see the good he has done. That should be the measure of every man.

Jack Hodgins is at the retrospective stage of his career. The word stage has been chosen because his genre is theatre. The books read like films seen at drive-in movies in the forest. Just like the old days of Punch and Judy and Commedia del arte, the characters are familiar because they come from ordinary life.

Some critical commentators like to talk about Hodgins’ “magic realism” and compare him to writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez’s writing is steeped in the memory of Catholicism with its promised miracles and sacramental mysteries, a kind of baroque counter/counter reformation. Hodgins’ “magic” is not alchemy. It is more empirical than that. A tree is a tree and regarding it as anything else is the source of irony in Hodgins’ stories, whose sensibility is closer to an Indigenous point of view than the European ethno-centrism which still pervades academic thinking.

If Hodgins stretches to the baroque possibility, it is a form of neo-mannerism as his characters yearn, and therein lurks the comic potential, for the verticality of trees. Of course they fail, just as the Revelations Colony of Truth failed, because ideal society is less a creation than a social organism that finds the balance between the vertical and the horizontal.

A more seamless iconography of the woods, one that migrated from Asia and evolved over thousands of years, already exists in the Rainforest. The European model is in conflict here and Hodgins’ know this better than the commentators who create formulas for his non-formulaic writing.

Guernica Editions, whose Writer’s Series is one of the finer moments of its founder Antonio D’Alfonso, has recently published Jack Hodgins, Essays on His Works with a stunning photo of Canlit’s Wild Man of the Woods on the cover. These questions are considered within. One of the commendable features of the Writers Series is that each book has a different editor, bringing varied perspectives to the life and work of Canadian authors. In this case, the essays are mostly written by academics who reflect the current tilt back to formalism in the Canadian book industry. Their papers contribute to the diversity of opinion, but the author remains enigmatic.

The most revealing part of the book is the interview with Tim Struthers in which Hodgins, like a magician who is bound by oath to protect his tricks, lets the interviewer answer most of his own questions about how he draws supernatural narratives out of a familiar landscape. Struthers’ innocent caveat, “Possibly the most important lesson I have learned from writers…is how art resists, redefines, transcends the terms that critics apply in studying it,” transforms his worldly speculation into non sequitur. Perhaps that is why the man on the cover is laughing.

Linda Rogers is Victoria’s poet laureate. Her recent book Muscle Memory was voted Monday Magazine’s poetry book of the year.