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Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Ravines and Reality

A bumbling narrator searches for the dark and telling moment in his past

Marianne Apostolides

The Ravine

Paul Quarrington

Penguin Random House

304 pages, hardcover

Paul Quarrington’s writing is all about narrative voice. Yes, he develops setting, character and thematic idea in each of his books (he has written over a dozen, including King Leary, which won the Stephen Leacock Medal in 1988 and the 2008 Canada Reads competition). But Quarrington’s unique contribution — the element that gives him that mysterious shimmer of “importance” — is narrative voice. The Ravine is no exception.

In this, his tenth novel, Quarrington tells the story of Phil McQuigge, a television producer whose life is in turmoil. His wife has kicked him out of the house, his brother won’t speak to him, his drinking starts to stink of alcoholism and his work has completely dried up after an incident involving the on-set, accidental death of his star actor Edward Milligan. And yet, as McQuigge sits in a bar, talking with his buddies and looking longingly at the pretty young waitress, he remains supremely sympathetic. He is the kind of man who is bumbling and sincere, sheepish about his dumb drives but driven by them nonetheless.

In the brief prologue — a conversation between McQuigge and the operator at a distress centre hotline — we learn that McQuigge plans to write a memoir entitled The Ravine. When asked why, McQuigge replies: “Because it seems to me … that I went down into a ravine, and never really came back out.” 

And in we go, into this fast-moving narrative. McQuigge is our charming guide, aware when he has swept his readers onto a tangent, or looped back into repetition. “All right, there are a number of ways to proceed here, at least three different areas that must be covered,” he writes after describing his childhood home — his mother who smoked while overcooking the spaghetti, his uncle who lugged the new television set up the stairs. He continues: “while a better writer might be able to continue forward in a linear manner, juggling them all, I’m just not up for it.”

Quarrington proceeds, in that fluid-handed fashion of expert jugglers, to describe the mesmeric power of television over McQuigge, his oddly arced career from arts to entertainment, the vagaries of the publishing and broadcasting industries, the lure and loneliness of sex for middle-aged men, the search for redemption and forgiveness, and — of course — the scene at the ravine.

Decades earlier, McQuigge had led the local loser, Norman Kitchen, into a ravine with his brother. There, the boys are confronted by two thugs who rape Norman. This is the word that McQuigge cannot utter. He can describe Norman’s shriek. He can create the menace of the two teenaged rapists. But he can’t allow himself to say what occurred that day. The writing of the scene is extremely well handled, subtle yet awful, never belittling or belabouring the rape. “I can’t imagine them pulling Norman’s pants down. I mean, I’m incapable of it. I’ve used my imagination to fill in all the blank spots in the narrative so far, the holes in my memory drilled by time or corroded by alcohol. But this one is as black as pitch, although sometimes, late at night, I can hear Norman softly wailing.” One additional note on the rape: while this specific circumstance, in which one boy unwittingly leads another into violence, is similar to that in The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, the similarity does not extend into the two books’ larger themes. The issues brought into play as the men move through the arc of memory and forgiveness are quite different in these two narratives.

Quarrington’s nuanced understanding of the ability of prose to explore human emotion is evidenced in McQuigge’s two core relationships: those with his wife and wth his brother. With very little exposition or explanation, he demonstrates the way a marriage can flatten into demise through the pressures of money and child rearing, of decisions taken without being made.

While juggling all these developments in McQuigge’s life, Quarrington returns — via McQuigge’s first-person narrative voice — to the character’s tribulations with writing his book, The Ravine. Quarrington, then — Quarrington, not McQuigge — makes his readers aware, at all times, that the narrator of the novel The Ravine is a writer who is writing a memoir entitled The Ravine ; he, McQuigge, is writing a book that is this book, which we hold in our hands.

Except, of course, it is not.

This book — the one that we hold — was written by Paul Quarrington, who has created a fictional character who is writing a book of the same name. And so we, the readers, are trapped inside these competing realities: the reality of the “real” author Quarrington and the “fictive-real” author McQuigge. Added to this structure is the television reality: the fact that gorgeous Milligan has shot himself on the set with a gun while improvising a scene, trying to replicate a storyline described by McQuigge, based on a movie he saw when he was a kid.

Quarrington, then, is questioning the nature of reality in a mediated age: how do we know ourselves and others in a world oversaturated with image, word and story disconnected from our physical experience? This is a necessary question.

So why, then, does this book fail? And fail so completely?

Mainly because Quarrington does not seem to know what to do with the issues he puts into play.

Quarrington creates a metaphoric house filled with mirrors and television screens; people move about inside, as do projections, reflections, reflections of projections, questions. Ours is an era in which script and action seem inseparable, where people perform their lives on YouTube and Facebook for some unknown audience of all. Quarrington understands the importance of this issue without knowing how to enter it — how to direct his reader toward any deeper investigations, toward a story within which to seek some insight. Instead, his postmodern motions are clever but severed from their disturbing sinew.

The book’s failure is most evident in the final section. Here McQuigge embarks on the journey to talk with Norman Kitchen, believing that a discovery of the facts — an explicit rendering of what actually occurred that afternoon — will allow him, finally, to climb out of the ravine and into his life. Unfortunately for McQuigge and Quarrington, the journey becomes a zany blitz with a car chase, a stolen child, a hostage taking and a shootout in a seedy motel bar. All this ends with a tender conversation between McQuigge and his wife. Things might just be okay after all.

It is, frankly, rather perplexing.

Quarrington might be suggesting that reality is a mere replication of the one-hour narrative arcs we see on television: there is drama and action and then resolution, with a bright commercial to signal completion. If this is his conclusion, then he belittles his sophisticated writing about the rape in the ravine, and about McQuigge’s core relationships to his wife and brother. If this is not his conclusion, then he has simply written a silly, plot-heavy ending that does not address the tension between our mediated and immediate lives.

Either way, The Ravine is dissatisfying. It neither locks itself inside the heady questions about our mediated world (George Saunders, Victor Pelevin and Tom McCarthy all do so with great success), nor does it concentrate on that which Quarrington does exceptionally well: tell the truth of fictive lives through characters whose voices are charming, complex and believable.

Marianne Apostolides is a writer and critic based in Toronto. Her most recent novel, The Lucky Child, was published by Mansfield Press in 2010.