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March 16, 2008

The Ravine by Paul Quarrington

‘”All cultures promote secrets,’ said Atwood. ‘But the secrets are of different kinds. There are all sorts of places, in literature, where you go to be by yourself, places where you go to make strange discoveries of the soul. There’s the frozen north, the desert, the desert island, the sea, the jungle… We’ve got ravines, that’s about it.'” –from Noah Richler’s This is My Country, What’s Yours?: A Literary Atlas of Canada

Certainly timely was Paul Quarrington’s Canada Reads victory (his King Leary triumphed) with his new novel The Ravine being released so soon after. Though it was not the hoopla that caught my attention, and I hadn’t even read anything by Quarrington before, but it was the title, the subject matter. I’d spent my childhood growing up on the edge of a ravine, and I know what goes on there. “A negative space,” as Richler puts it, the juxtaposition of suburban wilderness. For me the ravine was mythical, a site of dreams and memories and nightmares, and as a recurring theme in Canadian literature I find that ravines are absolutely fascinating.

The Ravine is very meta-meta, ostensibly a novel written by Paul Quarrington’s character Phil McQuigge, referencing other fictional works, among them a novel with a character called Paul who is based on Phil. Phil is still having the dust settle from the recent explosion that was his life– his wife having left him upon learning he’d had an affair, his job in television lost when his lead character dies under circumstances for which Phil might be responsible. Phil’s brother isn’t speaking to him, old friends think he’s pathetic, and he’s moved into a basement apartment where he writes his novel and drinks.

As in Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, the ravine acts as a netherworld for both reality and consciousness– a dumping ground for suppressed memories. The source of all his troubles, Phil decides, has been a terrifying incident from his childhood that took place down in a ravine with his brother Jay and a boy called Norman Kitchen. What happened isn’t exactly clear, and the trajectory of the novel becomes an effort to clarify this hazy memory. Eventually by way of a road trip, and then a car chase, the possibility of Phil’s redemption, and a most enjoyable read.

The Ravine reminded me of Cat’s Eye not just because of the ravines, but rather how Atwood had described her novel as “a literary home for all those vanished things from my own childhood.” The Ravine functions similarly: the big wooden televisions, suburban geography, the matinees– and where else are there people called “Norman Kitchen”? He’s like a character from my parents’ black and white memories, the fat kid in a checkered shirts in their class pictures, but almost certainly there aren’t Norman Kitchens in the present. Quarrington has authentically recreated a past that is almost palpable in its details.

Further, he has created a disgraceful character who keeps our sympathy– no easy feat. Phil McQuigge has done some awful things, but he’s been the victim of circumstance, and the intimate nature of the narrative gets us into his head so we can understand him. Or perhaps he just means his self-portrait to to charm us, but it does. Not least because the book is terribly funny, even in the darkest moments, but also due to Quarrington’s narrative control. Which is necessary to hold together a book so seemingly loose, and here is ever so subtle but steady throughout.

2 thoughts on “The Ravine by Paul Quarrington”

  1. Steven W. Beattie says:

    “…but also due to Quarrington’s narrative control.”

    I thought that the author’s control over the narrative held until that final road trip, at which point the various pieces of the story started to fly off in all different directions. The final section of the book seriously undermines the rest, for me at least.

  2. Kerry says:

    Perhaps perhaps. (And by the way did that part of the story remind you of The Line Painter at all?). Sure the ending wasn’t a triumph, but I think by then Quarrington had convinced me and so the end was just the end.

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