Some writers break all the rules and yet manage to create works of literary brilliance. Their books leave the rest of us struggling writers both astounded by their unique talents and slightly resentful of their audacity. These literary non-conformists brazenly forge their own paths, ignoring the laws of writing that one hears articulated ad nauseam at every creative writing workshop. Unfortunately, Keith Oatley, author of Therefore Choose, is not one of these renegades.
In this, his third novel, Oatley breaks the rules but only succeeds in convincing the reader that her creative writing teacher knew what he was talking about after all. The rule Oatley most flagrantly breaks is the old chestnut, Show, Don’t Tell. Dialogue is traditionally an ideal opportunity to follow this advice, a chance to use the words of the characters to express their emotions, to advance the plot and to illuminate important themes. In Therefore Choose the purpose of dialogue seems to be to inform the reader how impressively well read and intellectually gifted the author is.
The three main characters – Werner, a German philosophy student; Anna, an aristocratic but deeply ethical literary editor living in Berlin; and the protagonist, George, a reluctant medical student and aspiring writer — ruminate endlessly on a variety of subjects: colonialism, slavery, racism, philosophy, politics, literary theory, and more. In case we had any doubt of Oatley’s wide range of knowledge, every conversation includes numerous allusions to and quotations from such luminaries as Shakespeare, Dante, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Freud, Wittgenstein, Hitler, and whoever wrote the Bible. The dialogue also suffers from a stiffness that reveals the writer’s presence when we should only be aware of the characters themselves. So we get Anna telling George, “That is because you are from the other side of that patch of shallow and stormy water that you call the North Sea.” A poetic image certainly, but not something one would ever say in conversation. Both the content and the quality of the dialogue fail to leave the reader with a deeper understanding of the characters’ emotional lives. Rather, they confirm that the author, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, is a really smart guy who knows how to do his research.
The novel’s protagonist, George, suffers most from this emotional void. George is a young man who is involved in a desperate, life-changing struggle over the choices he has made: the choice to leave his father on a windswept cliff-edge from which the older man falls (or jumps) to his death, the choice to enter medical school instead of following his passion for writing, the choice to go back to England instead of staying with Anna in Berlin. And yet, even with the help of a third-person limited narrator to give the reader insight into George’s innermost feelings, the young man remains emotionally distant from us.
The central theme of the novel, the fact that the choices we make at all stages of our lives have an impact on not only our personal life experiences but also on the experiences of those around us, is a fascinating one. And Oatley astutely set Therefore Choose in Germany and England from 1935- 1946, a period in history that is widely recognized as a moment when one’s choices literally had the power to make the difference between life and death. Too bad this novel chooses to defer to the world of the intellect instead of dragging us into the universe of the heart.
B.A .Markus is a writer who sometimes breaks the rules and sometimes follows them.