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February 18, 2010

The Parabolist by Nicholas Ruddock

I’ve determined that the Toronto of Nicholas Ruddock’s  The Parabolist must exist in an alternative universe: one which is just compressed enough to accommodate the a walk from one end to another without remarking on the distance, and also one in which everybody is passionate about poetry. Though the time is 1975, and maybe things were different then, but I still think that most randomly assorted groups of Torontonians would always have been hard pressed to answer “Who are your Canadian poets?” with a list extending to eleven.

But of course, Ruddock’s group is not such a random assortment– they’re a group of medical students taking a required English lit course which, due to a series of odd and oddly connected events, is now being taught by a Mexican poet called Roberto Moreno. Moreno is part of a movement back home in Mexico called “parabolism”, which no one seems able to properly understand or define, but this doesn’t matter. Moreno’s passion for poetry is contagious, and soon everybody is writing it, reading it, and shoplifting it.

The novel is structured around a cadaver, dissected piece by piece as the academic term progresses. Medical student Jasper Glass is working on the body with his lab partner, Valerie Anderson, who Jasper is in love with, but loses to Roberto Moreno. Roberto is staying in Toronto with his Aunt and Uncle, who live next door to Jasper’s parents. Jasper’s father sits at home all day watching squirrels on the neighbours’ roof, paralyzed by an inability to finish his definitive book on contemporary French idioms. Jasper’s brother John has flunked out of every course except embryology. And then there’s the feminist poet who begins a literary magazine with Valerie, and the teenage prostitute, and Jasper’s married lover, and the Crisco, and an insane resident in psychiatry at 999 Queen who goes by the name of Krank.

The many strands of the story are off-putting at first, and I was particularly bothered by the novel’s lack of chapters (and quotation marks!) that made going back to sort out the pieces particularly difficult. I was confused by the novel’s hybridity as well– by its violence, its humour, its literary references, its realism, its fancy. Was it a crime novel, medical drama, sex romp– how was I to read it? (I was also deterred by what really might be too much penis, and one character who claimed that he’d be able to put his through concrete). The Parabolist has an epigraph by Roberto Bolano, and I wondered if this was another book whose meaning would elude me due to my complete ignorance of South American literature.

Eventually though, I got it. This book is a mammoth undertaking for a first novel, and though it shows some strain, it follows through on delivery. I got also that Ruddock is writing with a sense of humour at all times– though sometimes this makes his characters border on caricature (and his treatment of poets and poetics less effective than he might intend it). And I also began to see within the novel’s structure Ruddock’s roots as a short story writer– how every detail is there for a reason, how his characters are performers commanding the narrative (and taking it off on tangents too), how the universe is full of people winding in and out of one another’s lives. Which is rare in a novel, but it became quite compelling once I got used to it.

So that all reservations aside, I was hooked throughout most of the book. And not even to find out who did it, because Ruddock tells us straightaway, but I was hooked on the clever humour, and the connections. Like Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, so much of the appeal is referential– how Ruddock casts Toronto in the central role, the CanLit send-ups, and campus humour (as well as campus literary life humour, familiar to many of us).

And yes, the plot had me too– to find out how Ruddock was going to tie such disparate strands together finally. Which would inevitably be just a little too pat, like something out of a book, but we’ll forgive him for it, because what a book it is.

3 thoughts on “The Parabolist by Nicholas Ruddock”

  1. Frances says:

    Not being a Canadian, I am fascinated by the concept of “Canada Reads”.
    I thought of it when watching an episode of the UK “Hamish McBeth”. A silken voiced radio-reader inspires the men in town to read.
    A consequence: in the local Scottish pub, no one is drinking, all are reading. A hairy disshevelled man is relishing bodice rippers. A weather-beaten older man bursts into tears, and someone gently explains that he is reading “Wuthering Heights”, and Cathy has just died. There are piles of books around: the publican holds a knife to his own throat and threatens to kill himself if they won’t stop reading – but, noone notices.
    Ooops – maybe you’ve seen it.
    When watching it, I wondered if something like that happens with “Canada Reads”. I hope so!

  2. patricia says:

    Oh I LOVED that Hamish MacBeth episode! Loved that show so much I named one of my cats Hamish.

    I could perhaps threaten bodily harm on myself if my book doesn’t win, in order to make the event more exciting…

  3. Kerry says:

    Perhaps all we need is a silken voice? Oh, but it is excited that Canada Read and its imitators are inspiring as much reading as they are doing. Though I’d love it most if it would inspire those who might not be reading in the first place…

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