Christopher Willard, the author of the much-celebrated Garbage Head, delivers his second novel from Véhicule Press. Sundre reads like a willfully sublime poem; it packs a wallop. Even so, the book’s occasional grandeur seems somehow artificial, manufactured, too self-conscious.
Maybe it’s unnatural because there’s nothing very Canadian (consensual, comical, humble) about this book. The farming theme, the no-nonsense, absolutely-in-love, spare-me-your-words couple, the conservative ideology flowing through the book make it seem very American. As if one were reading passages from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or John Updike’s Of the Farm. But then again, this is set in Alberta, known for its cultural proximity to the United-States.
Avery and Sandra are a farming couple, used to hard work, hospitality, and a cyclical relationship with the land. As the book goes along, it is clear they are eternally distanced from one another: living together, still married, but separated by a horrible family tragedy that the interchanging narrators can barely mention. It is that taboo that triggers the narrators’ need to tell this story, albeit with few words. Sometimes, these words are efficient, beautiful, smart, almost perfect. Sometimes they seem awkward, forced, unrealistic. For example:
— I built an empire of dust.
— You have done enough. There is no fault.
The novel is filled with these two-line dialogues. Sometimes, they do ring true, and pack that aforementioned wallop — but not always. Minimalism is risky business, and it’s one Willard ventured into wit, for the most part, great skill. While the effort needs to be noted and applauded, the context-less, aphoristic dialogues can be a bit too abstract.
Willard is a world-renowned visual artist, and taking a look at his visual work may help us understand the importance of his sometimes-mysterious one-liners. Some of his paintings are clean symmetrical squares and rectangles, painted with various different tones of the same color onto which a sentence, the piece’s title, is subtly imprinted. An association is made. There is intention. There is a clear sense of the horizon, of distance, of grandeur.
Through writing or painting, Willard is very able to convey a mood, an emotion, by controlling vocabulary in such a way that what is not said is as audible as what is mentioned. There’s something incredibly authoritative about his writing. Abortion is bad. Women do this. Men are like that. Period. In its minimalism, the characters’ dogmatic ideology is set and needs no argument, just strength in presentation. (While this is far from a political book, ideology is a presence throughout.)
What this book is about, mostly, is raw emotion. It chronicles parents’ love for their child, a farmer’s dependence on the land, a man’s unfailing bond with his wife. In it love is strong, loss is great, and the land turns friend or foe on a whim. If Sundre were an image, it would be a thunderous sky towering over miles of dry land. A unique read.
Joseph Elfassi is a freelancer journalist and photographer. You can visit his blog at www.elfassi.ca/wordpress.