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Pickle Me This

April 15, 2008

A Week of This by Nathan Whitlock

Nathan Whitlock’s first novel A Week of This: a novel in seven days opens on a Wednesday. Such a midweek start suggesting we’ll find the characters in the thick of it, “it” being the titular “this”. A week of ordinary life in an ordinary town, all of this subverting notions of “ordinary”. Subverting notions of narrative trajectory as well, beyond the Wednesday start. Before the novel even begins, its epigram indicates stasis: from Howard’s End, “Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere.”

Whitlock successfully demonstrates that “nowhere” is somewhere after all, or at least a place worth writing stories about. The atmosphere he creates for the small town of Dunbridge analogous to the effect of this novel’s beautiful cover illustration: infinitely bleak and yet striking, the sky an unending grey. If his characters ever had any will, the bleakness surrounding them only crushes it, and yet they live here all the same– by which I mean both that they reside and they exist.

Indeed these people do exist, though you mightn’t know it to read Canadian Literature. I can think of some exceptions– Alice Munro has dealt with places like this, but usually in retrospect, long after her characters have wised up and moved to Toronto and Vancouver. But what about those who are left behind? Those for whom, for various reasons, getting away just hasn’t been an option.

It’s not like Whitlock’s Manda doesn’t want to get out of Dunbridge. She’s not even from there, having arrived in town as a teenager with her father and her brother, to escape their crazy mother. Her outsider status allowing her to view the place more objectively than those around her, but somehow she’s stayed, somehow she’s now she’s lived there half her life. She’s married to Patrick, whose entire mind is occupied by keeping his sports store afloat, except for the part of it desperate to have a baby, and Manda isn’t interested. She also has to contend with her troubled brothers, the fallout from various past traumas, and her wreck of a house. Houses being, I believe, perfect metaphors for their inhabitants’ very selves, how the world surrounds them, and Manda hates hers. It had been her in-laws’, and now there’s a hole in the roof, and the rooms are of full of decades of detritus that weighs her down.

Manda is a great character, altogether realized. She’s mean, which I appreciate– I don’t find nearly enough mean and sarcastic heroines in books who we’re still meant to like. During her week of this, we get a sense of what she has to contend with and her impossible powerlessness against her fate. She is powerless for no reason except that she’s tired, this is the way she’s been going for years now, and that hole in her ceiling will never be fixed. Similarly, we see the people around her– her husband, her brothers– as passive, even willing victims of circumstance. There are no moments of illumination, and even the bad news doesn’t change much.

A Week of This is a good story, an assertive, strong and a readable novel (though at times its structure necessitated too much explaining), which, in spite of its deliberate directionlessnesss, has momentum and characters worth caring about. Where the novel faltered, I found, is when it tried to be more than that. When Whitlock’s attempt at “nowhere” became more of a statement than a story, and it was clear his approach wasn’t necessarily for the sake of story itself.

Manda gets a book from the library that is clearly Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. A book which is definitely not my favourite, I assure you. Manda trying and failing to get into it, finding it boring. Finally, she decides that the book is not only boring: “This book wasn’t simply too smart for her, it was condescending, and for that there was no forgiveness.” A fair assessment maybe, but it was out of place in the novel and not sufficiently pursued for such a strong statement. Moreover it opens A Week of This up to criticisms, comparisons that would have been irrelevant otherwise, even unfair.

All I could think of as I read this was Michael Ondaatje’s treatment of the working class– his romanticizing of these men in their terrible jobs that often killed them, and how he rendered them poetry, but this undermining the reality of their lives. Fair enough. But I’m not sure Nathan Whitlock treats his “working class” any better. Like Ondaatje he uses them to make a statement, about the kinds of people we should be writing about, reading about, the kinds of lives that are worthwhile. I say “uses”, because I don’t believe Whitlock pursues the realities of their lives altogether, their jobs and whole lives at times functioning as props.

For example, Manda works in a call centre, but we never see her actually working–conspicuous in a novel so focused on minutiae. We only find out in one paragraph what her calls entail, but there is no indication of what her work is really like. We see her get up, go to work, have a coffee, time passes, and then it’s the end of the day. Home she goes. Similarly, Patrick’s days in his failing shop are glossed over, the hours themselves. And I realize that work is not always central to one’s identity, and I can definitely empathize with having a job so crap, you leave it behind when you leave the office, but these workaday hours are still the major portion of these characters’ days, the root of a lot of their despair. The fact of these hours could have been pushed harder– perhaps they should have been.

I liked this book– otherwise I wouldn’t have spent so much time thinking about it. But Whitlock is being so provocative, I could not help but respond. In a novel with so much going on, my criticism would have been a minor point had the argument against Ondaatje not been made so strongly, making me consider the various ways it might connect to the rest of the story. I’m not even convinced it really did connect, actually, and I know the argument detracted from a novel that was clearly substantial enough without it. A novel that might say the very same things but in practice instead, which is a much more of a compelling argument.

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