Sentimental Education

A broken-hearted hero searches for a moral compass

In the prologue to Eric McCormack’s new novel, Cloud, the book’s narrator and protagonist, Harry Steen, recounts a tale that can scarcely be believed.

Steen discovers the story by accident. While attending a mining conference in the Mexican town of La Verdad—meaning “the truth”—he kills time one rainy afternoon in a used bookstore. A threadbare volume, The Obsidian Cloud: An Account of a Singular Occurrence within Living Memory over the Skies of the Town of Duncairn in the County of Ayrshire, catches his eye.

The book-within-the-book tells of a freak weather occurrence in 19th-century Duncairn, a small town in the southern Scottish highlands, when the afternoon sky suddenly turned completely black. Transformed into a polished obsidian mirror, it thus displayed the life of the terrestrial town on a celestial canvas, a perfect inversion of the Lord’s Prayer phrase, “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Nothing like it had ever been seen before in Duncairn, nor likely would be again. Yet wondrous though the event was, Steen reads that Duncairnians—after a few minutes of slack-jawed incredulity—resumed their normal activities, as if this marvel of nature were utterly routine.

By the sort of neat coincidence for which novelists often claim licence, Steen, a Scot, happens to know Duncairn well. Decades earlier, just out of university, he had accepted a teaching job at the Duncairn high school, and fallen deeply in love with Miriam Galt, a local woman caring for an invalid father. The affair did not end well. Young Harry’s heart had been almost irraparably broken, and he had left the community after only a few months, deeply hurt and deeply puzzled.

Cloud chronicles Steen’s life thereafter, his exotic travels to the South Pacific, Africa and South America, as well as his more domesticated existence in the southern Ontario city of Camberloo, a fictional amalgam of Cambridge and Waterloo, where McCormack, author of five previous novels and a nominee for a Governor General’s Award, has lived and taught English literature for many years.

But the story always manages to return to these twin puzzles: the mystery of why Steen’s hopes for love were shattered, and his subsequent quest to trace the origins of the strange book, serendipitously discovered. Together, they form the cloud that hangs over Steen’s life and provide a kind of narrative through-line for the novel, a quest for the elusive truth.

It is this perpetual tension between the real and the surreal that seems to preoccupy McCormack. The book is like a magician’s act—we cannot quite accept that the black hat has morphed into a white rabbit, although it happens before our own eyes. If, in the perverse universe we inhabit, our quotidian lives seem ordinary and banal, that—he appears to be saying—is merely an illusion. As in quantum physics, what at one moment is demonstrably a wave can behave at the next moment demonstrably like a particle, and vice versa. We are, in fact, everywhere surrounded by the phenomenal and the miraculous. At any moment, we can (or should) expect to encounter the bizarre, the grotesque or the macabre—or a sky that turns polished black.

Raised in a Glasgow tenement called Tollgate, Steen is the only son of an impoverished Scottish couple whom he lost as an adolescent. Steen’s father had told him that life is full of contradictions, and behind the facades of the most charming, reasonable, educated and innocuous among us, lurk certifiable monsters. Harry, of course, learns this for himself.

At one point, Steen recounts a number of historic events in Tollgate, where murders “were so commonplace they barely rated a mention in the newspapers.” There, too, a master carpenter had committed suicide by hanging himself on a gallows erected in his own living room. Another man, we learn, had died of exsanguination—his veins and arteries spontaneously erupting with blood, with no known cause. This Gothic undercurrent runs through McCormack’s other works as well.

Indeed, in McCormack’s world, the immense normative scaffolding that sustains polite western society is perilously unstable, a mere gust of wind away from collapse. Reading Cloud, one is constantly reminded of C.P. Snow’s adage: “Civilisation is hideously fragile … there’s not much between us and the horrors underneath. Just about a coat of varnish.”

One minute you might be strolling along the street without a care in the world; the next, you might hear—not soon enough—the warning “gardyloo,” and be drenched by a fetid pot of yesterday’s urine, tossed from an apartment overhead. Gardyloo—an old Scottish word, from the French gard de l’eau—is the name McCormack wryly gives to one of the cargo ships on which the young Steen books working passage.

That is invoking the comic trope of reversal. But the book probes the darker forms as well, in the work of one Dr. Dupont, a Canadian medic whom Steen first encounters saving lives in Africa. When they meet again, years later, Dupont has lost his ethical compass. Retained by a tenebrous corporate entity, he is conducting grisly neurological experiments on live human beings, to see if they can be returned surgically to a premoral state of nature.

In fact, the novel might well have been subtitled The Education of Harry Steen because, beyond the mere miracle of existence, McCormack is principally concerned with how we humans navigate these shoals of morality.

Harry’s innocent heart, broken and scarred early on, strives to remain ethically in the right place. He seems to intuit what the proper thing to do is in tricky situations. Yet circumstances constantly force him to compromise his idealism, in life and in love.

He tries to persuade himself that the choices he makes constitute a kind of lesser evil. That, at least, is the argument of Camberloo businessman Gordon Smith, who takes him into his business and then orchestrates Steen’s marriage to Alice, his only child. Travelling with Smith to impoverished communities in South America to sell pumping equipment, Steen is appalled to witness the tragic environmental effects that result from mining operations. But his father-in-law insists that if he did not sell equipment to operators that polluted local rivers and poisoned downstream native communities, someone else surely would. And at least Smith’s company can sell safe, efficient equipment.

The rationalization does not sit well with Steen, nor with McCormack, I would venture. It leads people to end up as blatant hypocrites, paying lip service to high-blown principles that are fundamentally at odds with their actual behaviour.

It has been twelve years since McCormack released his last novel, The Dutch Wife. But if his mature storytelling gifts—McCormack is now 76—have been blunted by the long layoff, it is not evident here. One steps into the life of Harry Steen, as easily as one slips into a warm bath. And it is a measure of McCormack’s consummate skills that you barely notice as the water level and its temperature ominously keep rising.